Colombia is famed for its beaches, interesting cities, and rainforest. But many people don’t know that central Colombia is home to a small desert known as Tatacoa, too. Honestly, there’s a piece of me that doesn’t want to tell you all about this place. It’s lack of popularity is part of its peaceful charm.
The Tatacoa Desert is centrally located in the heart of Colombia. Most visitors to the country, have no idea this place exists. For me, a few tranquil nights in the desert is always a much-needed adventure. This desert has several guesthouses, tours and activities for a great getaway; but it still feels private and untampered with. So, when you are in Colombia, add Tatacoa to your list! But shhhh!! Don’t tell too many people about it.
A Little Background
Although it is known as the Tatacoa Desert, locals insist that it is technically not a “desert”. Instead, those-in-the-know prefer to call Tatacoa a “dry forest”. Evidence exists expressing that Tatacoa was once entirely underwater, later a tropical rainforest, later still it was grasslands. At one point the “desert” even housed a large freshwater lake. Despite its unique ecological properties, to the un-expert eyes it seems a lot like a desert.
The region has a long and fascinating pre-history. Littered by millennia of clues for geologists and paleontologists to examine, the area is an important geological site. In this relatively small desert, fossils have been found that date back to numerous epochs of life on Earth. Equally, human artifacts dating as far back as 10,000 years make Tatacoa exciting for historians as well. Much of the story of life on Earth can be uncovered from the layers of clues found there, in the Tatacoa desert.
What Is There To Do?
Today, a visit to Tatacoa is an escape from the hustle and bustle where you can find peace in your natural surroundings. Get away from the cities and highly-tourist ridden parts of Colombia for a few days. Nature-lusters will be in heaven amidst the unusual apricot land formations and vast sun-splashed expanses of dry earth.
Tatacoa has distinct zones. The Ochre Zone is characterized by intense red, orange and peach landscapes. Mother nature had used up her paint by the time she reached The Gray Zone. This is where she created magical landscapes devoid of intense colors but filled with soft horizons equal in beauty. Both sections are beautiful and worth exploring.
There are enough activities to keep you occupied for a weekend get-away.
- Guided Tour – At your guesthouse, you can arrange for a guided tour by way of converted motorcycle which has been built up to feel like a small car (If you have been to South East Asia, it’s a cousin of the tuk-tuk). Your guide will take you to a number of places around the 330 sq. km (205 sq. mi) region. You will stop at several unusual land formations and vistas. There are points throughout Tatacoa where you can follow trails on foot that lead you between curious peaks of Seuss-like slopes. If you have your own motorbike, you may choose to visit these sites on your own as well. These places are all open to the public and unguarded (Be respectful of the land, please).
- Natural Swimming Pool – Weather you choose a (let’s just call it “tuk-tuk”) tour or not, you should not leave here without visiting the spring-water swimming pool. Masterfully woven into the gray desert hills, the pool augments the scenery without impeding upon it. Depending on where you stay within the Tatacoa landscape, you may be able to walk to this swimming oasis. If not, you can go by taxi or during your tour. If you arrive by way of motor you have 2 options.
- You can be driven directly above the pool. Voila! You are there.
- Request to be driven to a drop off point at the start of a desert trail where you can leisurely hike to the swimming pool through unusually shaped earth formations in the gray zone. Your driver can meet you above the swimming pool later. It’s a beautiful walking trail and makes the refreshing cool swimming pool a sweet reward.
- Horse-back riding – If you enjoy playing cowboy, your homestay can help you arrange a horse-back excursion through the desert. Determine how much time you want to spend galloping through the Tatacoa horizon and pay by the hour. Arrange to explore these changing colors, rolling hills and wild desert expanses at sunset for a little extra magic.
- Observe the Stars – Tatacoa is home to The Astronomical Observatory Tatacoa (OATA). Far from the cities and removed from light pollution, the dry forest is the best place in Colombia for observing the night sky. The Observatory acts as an outdoor nighttime classroom where are all welcome. OATA offers nightly talks which include video presentations, question and answer time with an astronomer, and a chance to observe celestial objects through impressive telescopes. All are welcome for a small fee of (approximately) $1.50 with a discounted rate for children. Talks begin at 6:30 pm and typically end around 9:00.
We ended up in Tatacoa based on the suggestion of local Colombians we met farther South. But there is surprisingly little information online about Tatacoa. Of course, this meant that we learned the right way to visit this desert gem by doing it the wrong way. For those of you interested in going, I say, “your welcome”. We did the leg work for you. If you read this, it should be easy to plan!
- Getting There – You will first have to get yourself to the Neiva, the nearest city that runs along major bus routes. From the bus terminal in Neiva you can either hire a taxi or join a collectivo heading to Villavieja. Taxi’s are significantly pricier than a collectivo; however if you have a guesthouse in the desert already booked they will guarantee to take you to your final destination. Collectivo drivers may take you to your final destination. It is not a given, but may be worth a shot. If not, from Villavieja you can hire a taxi for relatively little money to take you to your desert destination.
- Where To Stay – Villavieja is basically a one street town situated on a riverbank a few km outside of the desert drylands. There are a couple of hostel/hotels in Villavieja. This is not where you want to stay. When I did a search on booking.com for places to stay in Tatacoa I found several options. Don’t bother with Booking.com or Hostelworld to reserve your stay in Tatacoa! I chose an affordable place with a pool that had decent reviews. It wasn’t until we arrived and checked in that it became clear. To experience the desert, this town is not where we wanted to be. Instead, there are a number of ranches and guesthouses outside of town actually in the desert landscape. Luckily, the hotel owner was able to provide us with enough information to plan a lovely desert excursion. He also had a space for luggage storage So after one night, we packed small overnight bags and left our main luggage in town. It was a nice convenience, however an unnecessary step and extra night of time.
- Ultimately, we ended up staying at Posadero Sol De Verano (which roughly translates to Landlord of the Summer Sun). It was a rustic but lovely desert ranch. The location was great, being only an 8 minute walk from the astronomical observatory. Included in our stay were lovely home-cooked meals. They were more than happy to accommodate a vegetarian diet. On site, Sol De Verano sells snacks, water, beer and soft drinks if you want anything extra throughout the day.
- If you are interested in reserving your desert excursion before confusedly arriving in Villavieja, the following link takes you to information about the ranch we stayed at: Sol De Verano. You can Also call them directly if you speak a bit of Spanish at +57 3118467555.
- Once you arrive, weather you stay at Sol De Verano or another desert ranch, your hosts will have all the information you need about where to go and what to do. They can arrange tours for you and point you in the direction you want to go. Little to no advanced planning is necessary.
I kept it short and sweet this time. For a little 2.5 min review of my dry forest wanderings: