Tatacoa Desert, or Desierto de la Tatacoa, is named after the Spanish word for the rattlesnakes that once called it home. It is also sometimes called the Valley of Sadnesses.
This spectacular landscape is a dried-up tropical rainforest rather than a desert. Thousands of years ago, scientists believe it was a lush environment full of colourful flowers, dense greenery and rich biodiversity.
Tatacoa Desert and its importance should be considered by travellers to Columbia. In this quirkily beautiful place, you can experience stillness, solitude and terrain unlike anywhere else in the world.
This magnificent desert is also one of the best places in the world for watching the night sky; there are several renowned observatories. In addition, many pristine fossils of ancient vertebrates have been discovered here.
If you are ready for an off-the-beaten-track destination in Colombia, visit Tatacoa Desert on a voyage of discovery. Hope this guide helps you plan your trip and explore what to do in the Tatacoa Desert.
Tatacoa Desert Travel Guide
Where is Tatacoa Desert?
Tatacoa Desert is in southwest Columbia, in the remote Huila region. At 330 km², it is the second largest arid area in the country after La Guajira and is located between the Magdalena River and the Eastern Cordillera.
The Tatacoa desert elevation is between 386 and 900 meters above sea level.
This unique location is off the main Columbian tourist trail as it takes time and dedication to get to. However, the otherworldly feel and stunning scenery make it worthwhile.
How to get to Tatacoa Desert
Bogota to Tatacoa Desert
If you’re travelling to Tatacoa from the capital Bogota, take a 30-minute flight or a five-hour bus to Nieva, the capital city of the Huila region.
Salento to Tatacoa Desert
Travellers who have been exploring the Andean mountains around Salento will need to take a bus to Armenia and another bus to Nieva.
Nieva to Villavieja
Once in Nieva, take a Colectivo Bus to the small town of Villavieja on the edge of the desert. It will take around an hour.
Villavieja to Tatacoa Desert
The moto-taxis and tuk-tuks in Villavieja will happily take you on the 15-minute journey into the desert.
My journey from Bogota to Tatacoa Desert
I was travelling to the Tatacoa Desert from Bogota. Originally, I had planned to get the bus and cross the River Magdelena on the ferry from Aipe to Villavieja. However, the bus took forever, and the ferry doesn’t operate at night. The safest way was to continue the bus journey to Nieva, and get a taxi. It takes about 45 minutes from Nieve to Villavieja, then a further 15 minutes to Tatacoa Desert
Many travellers decide to book at night in Nieva and get a moto-taxi to the Tatacoa Desert in daylight. I felt like I woke up the accommodation owners by arriving in the dark.
Take a Tatacoa Desert tour
If the thought of navigating the bus journey to Tatacoa Desert independently sends your head in a spin, there are tours to make it stress-free and come with knowledgeable guides.
- Full day tour from Nieva to Tatacoa Desert
- 2-Day Private Tour of Tatacoa Desert from Bogotá
- List of tours with local guides on Tripadvisor
Where to stay in Tatacoa Desert
The option for accommodation is Villavieja or Tatacoa Desert. I recommend the latter to avoid having to make journeys into the desert and for the stargazing experience.
If you prefer more hotel-style accommodation, it’s best to stay in the town of Villavieja. Thankfully, most are sustainable accommodations as most facilities are solar-powered.
Accommodation is limited in Tatacoa Desert so it is best to book in advance, and there is not a huge difference in the price brackets.
Tatacoa Desert Accommodation
Alojamiento Casa de Campo los Cactus (where I stayed) is managed by a lovely couple and is a great price. The accommodation has a garden, communal spaces and hammocks. Fab traditional breakfast is included and dinner is available on request. >> LATEST DEALS at Alojamiento Casa de campo los Cactus
Qji Glamping Biohotel has bungalows and rooms with an outdoor swimming pool to cool down, or a terrace and garden to relax. Accommodation includes à la carte, American or vegetarian breakfast. >> LATEST DEALS at Qji Glamping Biohotel
Cosmos Tatacoa Hotel has an outdoor swimming pool, garden, terrace, and restaurant. Rooms have private bathrooms, and balconies with a garden view >> LATEST DEALS at Cosmos Tatacoa Hotel
Solaris Hotel features a shared lounge, terrace, a restaurant and bar, a hot tub, and karaoke. >> LATEST DEALS at Solaris Hotel
Best time of year to visit the Tatacoa Desert
The average temperature in the Tatacoa Desert is a balmy 28 degrees, though, on sunny days, it can hit over 40 degrees in the middle of the day. It is of the hottest parts of Columbia. So be prepared with sun cream, long, loose layers, a hat, and plenty of water.
Even though the area is a desert, it can rain heavily, especially between April and May and October to November. This makes it slightly cooler, but if it gets too wet, guided tours won’t run, and the valleys will close due to flooding.
How many days do you need in the Tatacoa Desert
Arriving at the Tatacoa Desert Columbia requires a long, multi-stage journey. Therefore, I recommend staying for two nights. That’s just enough time to chill out after travelling and explore all the sights thoroughly.
What to do in Tatacoa Desert Colombia
Red Desert: The Cuzco Trail
The Red Desert is the most famous part of this unusual place. It is situated in the centre of the desert, has a distinctive red colour and can be explored via several waymarked trails.
Mirador Laberinto and El Cuzco’s spectacular viewpoints can be reached from the nearby road. However, you need to hike to immerse yourself in the landscape fully. The loop will take around 90 minutes, and the path weaves through ochre and copper towers. The soft soil formations are etched with curves and waves and could be mistaken for modern art.
I recommend any early morning wander if you don’t enjoy walking in the heat. It’s relatively flat, so people of all fitness levels should be ok. Watch your step though, snakes can lurk beneath the spiky cacti.
When your feet begin to ache and the sun rises in the sky, head to the restaurant for a refreshing drink and restorative lunch.
So why is the Tatacoa Desert red? In this Colombian desert, the copper hues that glow in the sunlight come from soil rich with mineral iron.
Grey Desert: The Los Hoyos Trail
Wandering in the grey part of the Tatacoa desert is like being on the moon. In the Valle de las Fantasmas (Valley of Ghost), the silver, charcoal and taupe earth has been crafted by nature into surreal figures of animals and people.
There’s a short way-marked trail to follow through the ‘statues’ and, while the grey desert may be less impactful than the red desert and the waves here aren’t as neat, look closely, and you’ll see intricate shapes and patterns that will spark your imagination.
The trail passes through three narrow and twisting canyons carved out by rain over millions of years. These fascinating pathways are called La Senorita, La Culebra and El Tiempo.
Take a dip in Piscina Mineral
You’ll also see several artificial bright blue swimming pools (Piscina Mineral) at the end of the Grey Desert trails in Tatacoa. They look a little incongruous in this supernatural landscape, but the mineral-rich waters can be soothing, and a dip is hard to resist. There is a cafe by Piscina Mineral if you fancy rehydrating after a hike on a hot day.
Go biking in the desert
If you’ve not brought your hiking boots or have a limited time in Desierto de la Tatacoa, there are a few places to hire a bike in Villavieja. Unfortunately, the heat was sweltering when I visited, and I decided it was too hot.
While I was happy to explore under my own steam, I did see a bike tour whizz by, and it looked like they were having fun with a local guide. Tours take around three hours, and drinks, snacks and insurance are included.
Star-gazing at the observatory
Stargazing is one of the best things to do in the Tatacoa Desert. It has a privileged geographical location not far from the equator, at latitude 3º13′ north and longitude 75º10′ west. As a result, the Tatacoa Desert at night will often boast cloud-free skies, minimal light pollution, and dry air, all perfect conditions for star gazing.
The Tatacoa Astronomia is the most famous of the observatories in the Tatacoa Desert, and it has a loyal following of amateur and professional astronomers. It was opened in 2015 by Javier Fernando Rua Restrepo, a Columbian man who fell in love with the stars.
The observatory is small and sits behind a dilapidated tarpaulin fence. Yet inside, there are dozens of high-tech telescopes being used by enthusiasts who have been enticed by the fact that it is sometimes possible to see all 88 constellations from this magical place.
If stars are your reason for making the journey to Tatacoa Desert Columbia, plan your trip to coincide with the Tatacoa Astronomia’s legendary star party, a weekend of camping, music and food.
Also, it’s a good idea to arrive in the desert when the moon is waning; a full moon will make the stars less bright.
Villavieja is known as ‘The Gateway to the Tatacoa Desert,’ It is considered one of the oldest settlements in Columbia. The town is an excellent base for day trips into the desert, and if you’re camping, it is the only source of supplies in the area.
The Chapel of Santa Barbara is worth a visit when you’re in Villavieja; the ivory building is an impressive example of Spanish colonialism.
A trip to the Paleontology Museum (Museo Paleontológico) is also a good way to while away an hour. It’s basic and only has three rooms, but it houses some interesting examples of ancient vertebrate fossils found in the area.
Wandering the flower-bedecked streets is an excellent way to relax after a long journey to the Tatacoa Desert. The people are very friendly, and it feels tranquil.
FAQs: Visiting Tatacoa Desert
How to get around the Tatacoa Desert?
ON FOOT: The simplest and cheapest way, although you may wish for an alternative when the temperature rises.
TUK-TUK: I got the number of a tuk-tuk driver when I was in Villavieja. This was an invaluable lifeline, especially when I finished the trail in the grey desert and felt hot and tired. I just sent the driver a WhatsApp, and he came and picked me up. The fares are all standard.
BY BIKE: If you want to cover lots of the desert quickly but independently, hire a bike from Villavieja.
Is Tatacoa Desert worth it?
Tatacoa Desert is remote, which is part of its charm; there are no crowds. I loved getting off the standard Columbian tourist trail and seeing the otherworldly landscapes.
That said, if you have limited time in Columbia, you may think twice, as it takes a lot of time and effort to get to the Tatacoa Desert. This is a place that is best for slow travellers.
Is it safe in the Tatacoa Desert?
Yes, I felt very safe in the Tatacoa Desert. The trails are waymarked; I had the number of a local tuk-tuk driver and felt well prepared for the hot, dry weather and uneven terrain.
The main dangers would be getting lost after going off-path and running out of water and daylight. Just in case, take more water than you think you’ll need and a torch and spare batteries.
That being said, travel insurance is still a must to cover all eventualities.
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