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The Tatacoa desert is one of Colombia’s most unique natural landscapes and located in the central department of Huila, near the town Villavieja. With an area of 330 km², it is the second largest desert in the country.
Actually, Tatacoa is not a desert but a super dry tropical forest ecosystem. It used to be a prehistoric green landscape that gradually dried up. You won’t see sand dunes, but gray and ochre canyon-like rock shapes interspersed by green plants. The cacti in Tatacoa can reach a height of 4 to 5 meters! Imagine yourself walking around a super hot and dry landscape that was once populated by many animals and plants!
“Tatacoa” refers to the rattlesnakes in the region. However, the name might also have its origins in an indigenous ancient name for a huge snake. Apart from snakes, animals like scorpions, tortoises, spiders, lizards, and eagles adapted perfectly to the harsh environment.
Valle de losfantasmas in Los Hoyos
The Tatacoa Desert is characterized by two zones with different colors. In the Red Desert in Cusco, you will find beautifully ochre colored landscapes. Los Hoyos is the Grey Desert with magical grey toned stones and soil.
In this vast surreal landscape with its ashy colored stones interrupted by some green specks of vegetation, you will feel as if you were on the moon. In Los Hoyos, you can find the isolation you might have sought. One unreal geological formation is the “Valle de los fantasmas” or valley of ghosts. According to its name, the stones there have a strange similarity to supernatural entities that are about to raise from the soil.
Another visit in the area of Los Hoyos are the pools (“Piscinas”). Actually, this strange oasis was constructed artificially, however, the water is natural and stems from the desert. The location of this pool in the middle of the desert is one-of-a-kind. The entry to the pool area is 8.000 COP for adults, there are changing rooms, showers, and bathrooms. On the way to the pools, there is a viewpoint over the grey desert where you can see differently shaped mountains: a turtle, a crocodile, and a shoe! In the "Valley of Wishes," you can build a tower with five rocks and make a wish. If the tower stands for more than a year without falling, your wish will come true!
From the observatory (where most of the hostels are located) to Los Hoyos you can take a little Tuk-Tuk transport, which costs around 25.000 COP one way for two people. We recommend taking a transport, walking the 8 km (~5 miles) through the burning sun can be very challenging.
The red color of the landscape indicates the rock’s richness in iron. In the “labirintos” water and erosion have carved beautiful shapes. In this maze, you can enjoy some loneliness. In the sector of Cusco, you can also visit “el árbol de los deseos”: This tree is dubbed tree of wishes. The regional natives tell the legend, that the person who finds a heart-shaped folded leaf and unfolds it without damaging it, will be allowed to ask for a wish. The hike through the red desert can be easily done by yourself, there is a marked pathway with stations and signs which explain the surrounding landscapes. It takes about 1 hour to complete it, but we recommend planning more time, as there is a lot to see and photograph!
Labirintos in Cusco
Observatory and stargazing
When you are in the Tatacoa you should definitely visit the observatory. A guide there will explain tourists the different star constellations that can be seen from the desert. They charge 10.000 COP per person. The proximity to the equator gives the observatory a unique ubication to learn about astronomy. Most of the year the sky is free of clouds, so by night, travelers will have the best conditions for stargazing. We recommend scheduling the visit to the desert around new moon in order to have the least light pollution possible and really enjoy the stars to the fullest. You should also take the opportunity to walk a little bit further out in the desert, away from the hostels, with a mat to lie down and observe the night sky in loneliness.
This small town is the entrance to the Tatacoa desert. It is also called the Colombian center of Paleontology. Many fossils dating back millions of years are collected at the Paleontology Museum at the main square. There you can marvel at fauna and flora deposits found in the desert.
Tatacoa is - not surprisingly - very hot. Usually, it is around 30 °C but on sunny days it can get up to 40 °C! For your trip and on the daily excursions you should bring sun cream and a hat or cap to shield yourself from the sun. If you are very sensitive to the sun, it might be a good idea to even bring a sun umbrella. Regarding clothes, you should wear thin and breathable materials and also bring sturdy shoes for hikes through the desert. A thermos bottle is a great way to keep your water cold throughout the day. For the night, you should bring a flashlight.
Depends on your budget. Take into account that domestic flights in Colombia can be expensive. By air, it is a 30-minutes flight from Bogotá to Neiva e.g. with Avianca or Easyfly. It is also a safe area to travel by land and takes 5 hours from Bogotá to Neiva for around 45.000 COP e.g. with the bus companies Coomotor or Bolivariano. The trip from Neiva to Villavieja in a colectivo (small public bus) takes about 45 minutes by land and from there to the desert with a taxi or a tuk-tuk an additional 15 minutes. You can also ask the driver of the colectivo if he drives directly to the desert. The trip from Neiva to the desert costs around 15.000 COP per person.
Close to the observatory are a lot of modest hostels, which offer small rooms, hammocks and also camping e.g. "Noches de Saturnos" or "Estadero Sol de Verano Doña Lilia". The latter is very close to the observatory and the red desert (5 min walk). Both hostels have breakfast, lunch, and dinner for guests and a little kiosk where you can buy drinks and snacks. For those who want to stay in more high-end hostels, we recommend looking in Villavieja.
A very typical meal in the Tatacoa is goat meat. At "El Rincon del Cabrito" they serve a decent lunch including soup, meat, rice, and yuka. They also have goat milk products like cheese, milk, and sweets.
Labirintos in Cusco: https://img.elcomercio.pe/files/ec_article_multimedia_gallery/uploads/2017/03/29/58dc680d7d620.jpeg