In our search for something new, we found our way to the Tatacoa Desert in central Colombia. This 330 square km region is technically a “dry tropical forest” (a desert generally gets less then 250mm of rain per year while Tatacoa gets just over 300mm on average each year) but since El Niño has limited this years rainfall drastically we’re considering it our first desert adventure!
We got to the Tatacoa Desert on Valentine’s Day. Usually we aren’t huge celebrators of this made-up “holiday” but there is something extremely romantic about the desert. It’s quiet, calm and peaceful.
Our first day, we did a little bit of hiking around the area known as Cuzco which has a rusty orange-red colour of earth. Walking out into the seemingly never-ending sea of eroded canyons was liberating. We made an inukshuk and had a lot of fun capturing this new landscape through our camera lens. Once we turned around to find our way back we were a little intimidated as everything looked the same. Luckily we found our way out, albeit with a better understanding of why a guide is highly recommended.
The Tatacoa Desert is the main hub of astronomical research in Colombia due to it’s elaborate observatory and lack of light pollution. We went here on our first night to do some stargazing and got so much more! Each night there is a 2 hour demonstration that maps out the night sky and offers a closer view of specific constellations through a variety of telescopes. The entire demonstration is done in Spanish so we only picked up bits and pieces, but laying out under the stars in the desert was an unbelievable treat. There were a lot of different highlights to that night. First was seeing the constellation Pleiades (or seven sisters) which thousands of years ago was used to judge a warrior’s eyesight. If you have really good vision legend says you should be able to see 7 stars clustered together.
Through a telescope you can see that there are actually more than 20 stars gathered to make the entire constellation – Super cool! The next best thing was the moon. Through the telescope the half moon was nearly blinding but we were able to see all of it’s craters and terrain with distinct clarity; what an unbelievable sight. The grand finale was the largest planet, Jupiter, which came up over the horizon right near the end of the demonstration. Looking through their high powered telescopes, we could see the different lines of gases that make up this massive planet as well as several of it’s moons in orbit. We both took a look at Jupiter a couple of times as we just couldn’t get enough of it! Don’t miss out on this experience if you’re in the desert; every night the sky clears perfectly and for $5/person it is well worth it!
Our next (and final) day in the desert we had arranged a motorcycle tour so we could see as much of the varying landscapes as possible. Fernando Augusto, our main guide (who only spoke Spanish), was extremely knowledgeable about the desert while our other driver, Carlos, mostly tagged along. The tour started at the entrance to the desert where Augusto explained each of the highlights we would be visiting and pointed them out on a map. We then continued to Cuzco which we had explored a little the previous day. Having a guide was much better as he was able to point out specific rock formations (or hoodoos) and surprisingly a cactus berry that is edible. After the 45-minute guided hike around Cuzco we hopped back on the motos and drove through the desert until we arrived at the best viewpoint in Tatacoa Desert. From here, there is a 360° view of the vast and arid land. Augusto pointed out a couple more rock formations that have been named, one of which is clearly a crocodile.
It was around the view point that the terrain began to change from orange and red to grey and white. Los Hoyos was our next stop on the desert tour. If possible, it seemed even drier here, but that is likely because of the chalky colour of everything. We were treated to another short hike along dried up streams (when the rains do come). By this point it was midday and the heat was really starting to wear us out but Augusto continued to educate us on the history of the desert. Just when we thought we couldn’t move much further, an oasis appeared. In the middle of this dry forest there is water. A man-made pool has been built which collects the mineral water from an underground reservoir that is left over from when this whole area was a sea millions of years ago. We wasted no time getting into the cool and refreshing water. It was absolutely the best way to end the tour. Our guides napped while we swam around then dried off in no time at all under the hot hot sun.
The ride to our hostel took us back down the same road we had already driven. It was a lovely treat to see everything again and soak in all of the scenery once last time.
Tatacoa Desert Traveller Information
Getting To and From: If you aren’t already in the region, it could take a couple of days to reach the desert but it is well worth the trip. We came from Tierradentro and our travel day looked like this: collectivo truck from San Andrés to La Plata, bus to Neiva, collectivo truck to Villavieja, moto-taxi to the desert (if that’s where you choose to stay). Neiva is a main transport hub which you can access from Bogota or Popoyan depending on where you come from. Leaving the desert, catch a collectivo truck back to Neiva and continue on to your next destination from there.
Accommodation: There are a number of hostels, hotels and homestays in town with a variety of prices but no high-end options. The hostels or homestays in the desert are even simpler and can have limited electricity. You may end up “roughing it” if you’re used to boutique-type accommodation, but we found the simplicity of rooms to complete the experience. Our accommodation in the desert was basic and typical for that area, the rooms don’t vary much so choose based on what you’d like to explore most; there is accommodation all the way from Cuzco to Los Hoyos. In the small town Villavieja we stayed at a homestay with the most amazing hostess, Floralba (and family). Her Hospedaje is located on Calle 5 (turn right from Carrera 4 and it’s about halfway down).
Food and Drink: Villavieja and Tatacoa Desert don’t receive nearly as many tourists as other parts of Colombia so restaurants can be limited and most are only open for breakfast and lunch or dinner (finding a meal in the middle of the afternoon can be tough). However, there are options available, you just can’t be super picky. There were almost twice as many places open on the weekend that stayed open longer and later. Keep in mind it’s a quiet town so don’t expect much nightlife. A few beers on the main square is as crazy as it gets.
Desert Tour Info: Augusto gave us the lowdown on the co-op that he and his “brothers” have formed to help build up the tourism industry in the desert over the last 10 years. They helped to build the roads that exist as well as work with the guesthouses and restaurants to keep their prices down in order for everyone to afford to see what the desert has to offer. 10 years ago, there were essentially no roads, the price of a meal was easily 20,000 or 30,000 COP (which is high for typical Colombian meals) and a day-long moto-tour was as low as 30,000 COP for two people (which would be relatively cheap at the equivalent of about $10 and likely only include one moto). This co-op has worked to balance the prices with accommodation now generally around $40,000 COP/night; a typical meal is now closer to 10,000 COP (or less) and the moto-tour we did was 40,000 COP each and lasted almost 5 hours. These prices make much more sense, especially considering anyone with a vehicle can drive around the desert on their own with the new infrastructure of decent roads and signs explaining each main site or viewpoint. Motorcycle tours can be booked from either Villavieja or your desert accommodation. If no one approaches you offering a tour, ask at your hostel or homestay.
BONUS – Don’t Miss: The paleontology museum in Villavieja. You can either take a look between modes of transport on your way to the desert or check it out if you stay in town. It’s not a huge museum but has a lot of interesting information about the dinosaurs that lived in the region before the sea dried up. There are skeletons of huge turtles that lived there as well as bones and fossils of many dinosaurs dating back to over 20 million years ago. We found visiting this before the desert tour really helped with our understanding and also gave us a better idea of the regions history.