Colombia has many beautiful natural sites: from the beach on the coast, the largest lake and world’s highest beach in Laguna Tota, to the nation’s tallest waterfall La Chorrera in San Agustin; but the extraordinary Tatacoa desert, the second largest desert in Colombia, is a majestic place that many travelers to Colombia are not aware of.
I don’t see the desert as barren at all; I see it as full and ripe. It doesn’t need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty.” – Joy Harjo
Overview of The Tatacoa Desert
The Tatacoa Desert is in the northern part of the Huila department and 38 kilometers from Neiva, the department capital. To most travelers, Neiva is a boring town and there is not too much to visit. However, the town is a getaway to Tatacoa, where its exclusive beauty has stayed with many tourists for a lifetime.
The Tatacoa Desert has been called by conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada as the valley of sorrow for good reasons. The area that covers the desert was wet and had trees and flowers. However, over the years, it has experienced heavy erosion and has been drying up. There is no water in the desert and the weather is dry and hot. As a result, the Tatacoa Desert is not a usual desert by definition, as it lacks sand dunes and sand deposits, but has eroded rocky terrain surrounded by dry canyons.
How to visit the Tatacoa Desert
There are two options for visiting this second largest desert in Colombia. The budget option is to take the Collectivo to Villavieja from Neiva terminial. The Collectivo drops passengers at the town of Villavieja for $5,000 pesos. From Villavieja, take a motortaxi to the desert. You are free to navigate the area on your own, trek the desert, and sleep at one of the hostels there.
Another way to reach Tatacoa is to take a guided tour from Neiva. This is an eight-hour excursion that takes you into the red and gray desert and the observatory at night for stargazing. I stayed at Neiva and found a guide through the hotel. Transportation was included and the tour guide allowed me to explore parts of the desert at my own pace. The only gripe was that if there no other persons to join the tour, one may pay $250,000 and $300,000 COP for a private guide. I discussed this with the hotel workers and the guide and they agreed to take me to the desert for $150,000 COP.
Things to do at the Tatacoa Desert
Trek the desert
Two best-known deserts in Tatacoa are El Cuzco (the red desert) and Los Hoyos (the gray desert). I have walked into both deserts and found that the red desert is my favorite. It is next to a restaurant and a local shop but when I went down to the desert it felt silent and isolated. If you shout, there are probably echoes but no one will respond. It is more of a walk in the labyrinth surround by the tall red formations. The site was interesting with many ways to go down to the desert and see different parts, and the scenery. It was simply a beautiful way to pretend to be in an Indiana Jones movie.
Then my guide took me deeper into the desert and packed up in front of a hostel next to Los Hojos. I looked at the gray desert as if it was someone’s gigantic garden with trees and plants. Compared to the red desert, the landscape and terrain were not exciting to walk in for long. Plus, three German travelers walked far away and ended up lost in the gray desert (they found their way back). I walked down for 10 minutes and decided to return to the El Cuzco to wait for the sunset.
Watch the sunset over the El Cuzco
The sunset in the Tatacoa Desert is one of the most spectacular vistas I have seen in Colombia. Around 6 pm to 6:30 pm, it was sunset time in the desert when the sky turned pink and purple, reflecting on Tatacoa’s unique terrain and bringing with it kaleidoscopic colors, with intensified red and the purple light. The traffic, noise, pollution and bustling civilization gave way to the power of silence. My tour guide and I sat at the edge of the desert and talked with other travelers, and appreciated the beauty of the vastness.
Stargazing at night
The Tatacoa has zero light pollution and that makes it a perfect place for stargazing. The observatory has a telescope where you can see Jupiter and Saturn. Instead of watching the documentaries in the planetarium in the museum, I sat in the real planetarium and watched thousands of stars and the Milky Way overhead, and the shooting stars following the direction of airplanes.
There is a workshop available at the observatory providing you with knowledge and insight into astronomy and the area. During the middle of the workshop, the moon started rising into the sky, which gave the stars another twinkle. Whether you are a nature lover, landscape photographer, or astronomer, the starry night sky in the Tatacoa will appeal to you and keep you mesmerized.
Thoughts on visiting the Tatacoa Desert
In my experience, an eight-hour tour or a night spent in the Tatacoa Desert is sufficient time to get to know the area. And despite Neiva being a boring city to visit, other travelers and I all agreed that anyone who passes by the region should pay a visit to the Tatacoa. It is a magical place to spend your afternoon and night, to admire the remote and vast landscape, and to learn about the astronomy and the unique terrain of the Tatacoa Desert.
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