5 Things to do in Tatacoa Desert
The Tatacoa Desert consists of two parts, the red and grey desert, which can both be explored within a day. It is also one of the warmest places in Colombia, with a 35-degree average temperature. However, there is heavy rainfall in the area throughout April and May, resulting in a greener desert. For this reason, it is technically not a desert.
1. Red Desert in Tatacoa
The Red Desert of Tatacoa is the most famous part (also known as Cuzco), with several viewpoints along the road overlooking the unreal scenery. The red colors come from iron giving the soil its ocher, rust, and copper colors. Some great viewpoints are Mirador El Cuzco and Mirador Laberinto.
After enjoying the viewpoints, walk down into the valley and follow the trail through the spectacular labyrinth of wavey soil formations. It’s like pure art created by mother nature. The trail is a well-marked loop (starting here) where you will see many cactus plants (with fruits!), colorful birds, scorpions, curious goats, and sometimes even snakes. After all, ‘Tatacoa’ is Spanish for ‘rattlesnake’. The trail takes about 1.5 hours to complete and is mostly flat.
We recommend visiting the trail before noon or sunset when temperatures are more pleasant. Also, most animals are only active in the mornings, so if you like to spot some interesting birds, mornings are best.
At the entrance and exit of the trail, there is a restaurant selling fresh sugarcane juice. This is a perfect refreshment for cooling off after walking through the heat of the Tatacoa Desert. Here, you’ll also find the perfect viewpoint to see the entire Red Desert.
Tip: Please note that climbing the formations is forbidden because it’s extremely easy for the formations to break or be damaged. Remember, it’s not rock but soft soil.
2. Grey Desert
The Grey Desert of Tatacoa is about a 30-minute drive from the Red Desert. The landscape in this part of the desert feels even more surreal; it is nicknamed ‘The Valley of Ghosts’ because of its unique shapes. You can also follow a short trail with amazing, moon-like scenery. To us, this place felt like stunning Cappadocia in Turkey.
Both the grey and red desert of Tatacoa are a must-visit. We recommend visiting the Grey Desert at sunset as the colors are absolutely spectacular at this time.
3. The Xilópalos Trail (Valle De Los Xilópalos)
Less picturesque but just as impressive is the Xilópalos Trail. Here you can see some unique views of the desert before passing through three narrow canyons named El Tiempo, La Señorita, and La Culebra. Worm your way among the canyons that were carved out by rain drainage over millions of years. The canyons are no deeper than three meters.
Below is a pink chili-shaped fruit that comes from the cactus and is very tasty!
Halfway through the trail, we visited a local goat farm where we had a refreshment (much needed during the heat of the day!).
The Xilópalos Trail is still very unknown, so you might hike the entire way without seeing any other tourists. The trail is also the furthest away from the Red Desert (40 minutes).
4. Piscina Mineral (Tatacoa Swimming pool)
Piscina Mineral is an artificial swimming pool in the middle of the desert where locals and travelers come to cool down. The pool takes water from one of the only water reserves of the Tatacoa Desert, which is seen as a bad thing by many local people.
In our opinion, the pool didn’t look inviting; it was dirty, so we don’t recommend visiting the pool, particularly as it’s not good for the desert itself.
5. Stargazing in Tatacoa Desert
Because of its remote location and undiscovered nature, there is barely any light pollution in the Tatacoa Desert. This makes it one of the best places in South America to go stargazing. Visit the observation tower (here) for an explanation and a look through one of six enormous telescopes. When the conditions are perfect, you should be able to see the galaxy with the naked eye. Full moon and clouds can all make it extremely difficult to see the stars.
Where to Stay in the Tatacoa Desert
There are two areas where you can spend the night: the Tatacoa Desert or Villavieja (a small town close to the desert). We recommend spending at least one night, ideally two, in Tatacoa because it’s a time-consuming destination to reach.
Accommodation in Tatacoa
In the Tatacoa Desert, there are lodge-style hotels as well as fancy glamping experiences. We’ve also seen travelers wild camp in a tent in the desert, but we can’t provide any information about this.
Villavieja has more accommodation options. These are generally cheaper, and some have a small pool for you to cool down (we stayed at Star Eco Hotel). It is a sleepy but lovely town with a few restaurants and supermarkets where you can get water for an affordable price. The only downside is that it is about 10 minutes driving with a tuk-tuk or a 1h+ walk to the Red Desert. (Click here to see all accommodations in Villavieja)
How to Get Around the Tatacoa Desert
Explore the Tatacoa Desert by tuk-tuk, bicycle, or walking. If you spend a night inside the Tatacoa Desert, you can opt to walk. However, we recommend renting a bike or tuk-tuk + guide to move around much faster. You can rent bikes in Villavieja or book a biking tour online.
Guided tuk-tuk trips can be booked from the main square in Villavieja, where drivers will be waiting. We booked our trip with Joe; he’s a fantastic English-speaking guide, and you can WhatsApp him to make a reservation in advance (recommended). Expect to pay about 85 – 110 USD for a two-day tuk-tuk guided tour, which can be split among three people.
If you plan on walking or cycling, download Google Maps or Maps.me offline to not get lost in the desert. Also bring a lot of water, a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses because it can get extremely hot and bright.
How many days do you need?
We recommend spending at least one night in the Tatacoa Desert. You need one full day from morning to evening to enjoy all the things to do in Tatacoa. Two nights would be ideal since you can split your journey over two days and also relax a little bit.
Can you do a day trip to the Tatacoa Desert?
Yes, it is possible to visit the Tatacoa Desert from the city of Neiva on a day trip. You can fly from Bogota to Neiva Airport and directly hop in a car to visit the desert, which is about 1 hour away from Neiva. (Book your hotel in Neiva)
Getting to the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia
The Tatacoa Desert is an off-the-beaten-path destination and is quite time-consuming to reach. To get to the desert, you first have to travel to Neiva, a larger city with a bus station and domestic airport. Travel by bus in about 6-9 hours (book bus tickets here) or 1 hour by plane from Bogota (book a flight here).
Once you’ve arrived in Neiva, you will need to take a taxi or bus (Colectivo) for about 1/1.5 hour to get to your hotel in Villavieja or the Tatacoa Desert. We felt very safe and welcomed during our entire journey by the Colombian people.
Best Cafes and Restaurants
There are a few good places to eat in Villavieja and within the Tatacoa Desert. However, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, we recommend staying in Villavieja as it will be easier there. One place that surprised us was the artistic brewpub named La Planta.
- La Planta Brew pub – International food (Villavieja)
- Salsipuedes – Local and international food (Villavieja)
- Sol del Desierto – Local food in a lovely garden (Villavieja)
- Café Mael – Coffees & Wi Fi (Villavieja)
- Estadero y Restaurante Los Hoyos (Tatacoa)
- El Rincon del Cabrito (Tatacoa)
Best time to visit
The Tatacoa Desert is one of the hottest places in Colombia: temperatures can reach 40 degrees during the day. April – May, and October – November are the months when it rains quite a lot in the ‘desert’. You can still visit during these months, but if there’s too much rain, there won’t be any tours, and the valleys are closed.