The Tatacoa Desert

Deserts are not what comes to mind for most people when they think about Colombia. Jungles – yes. Great coast-lines – check. Mountains – definitely. But what deserts are in Colombia? In fact there are two true deserts, the desert Colombia shares with Venezuela (La Guajira) and the more centrally-located Tatacoa Desert. This majestic place should not be missed if you’re in that part of the country, and it’s a desert with two different faces. The gently-undulating rocky plateau of the Grey Desert could easily double up as the Lunar surface in certain areas, whereas the more barren areas of the Red Desert bares more than a passing resemblance to Mars. How do I get to the Tatacoa Desert? Read on!

Getting To Tatacoa Desert

Not as difficult as you might expect. First task is to get to the county capital, Neiva. There are inexpensive buses running from Bogota and other major cities (takes about 6 hours), and even cheap flights landing at Neiva Airport. From the local bus station you can catch a “colectivo” (a shared small bus or van which collects enough passengers before going to the destination) to the town of Villavieja, which will take you around 45 minutes. From there it’s only a 15 minutes taxi ride to the desert. Not a problem. Alternatively you can avoid the airport queues and multiple buses by taking a private car from Bogota to Neiva via the Tatacoa Desert.

Things To Do In The Tatacoa Desert

The stunning landscapes of the desert will take up much of your time. The winding canyons of and tall pillars of rock in the Red Desert are a delight to explore, and before digital cameras many people would have run out of film. With the sparse vegetation limited to some hard trees, succulents, and cacti (up to 5m/16ft high!) it looks like the setting of an American Wild West movie. Moving on to the Grey you gain the surreal feeling of being on the Moon, with it’s barren Luna landscape providing a disquieting beauty. Bizarrely enough there’s a small swimming pool here to cool off in.

Away from the daytime the Tatacoa Desert is known for its stargazing opportunities. Not only is there no major settlements anywhere near the desert but it even has its own observatory! The Tatacoa Observatory offers the chance to use it’s telescopes to view distant astronomical objects, and perhaps even discuss the stars and solar bodies with it’s resident astronomer. If you time your visit for the arrival of a new moon then you’re in for a real treat.

Bike tours of the area, which is a great way to explore for a couple of hours, can be arranged from local companies such as Tatacoa BiciTour. There are plenty of walking guides out there too who will take you through the winding canyons. Both of these options will need to be arranged in advance.

How To Stay Safe In Tatacoa Desert

Firstly, it’s a desert. It can reach 40°C (104°F) and there is little to no shade. You need to avoid sunstroke at all costs so you’ll need a hat, light clothing, and plenty of drinking water (carry a litre per hour as a minimum). Also best if you can schedule your visit outside of the hottest hours, especially if you’re going to be there for more than an hour.

There’s also a good number of insects that may bother you out there, mostly harmless but they will include mosquitos. Take a bottle of good insect repellent if you’re intolerant of them, or if mosquitoes tend to find you particularly tasty. There are also a number of poisonous spiders and scorpions native to the area but these are much more likely to stay out of your way.

Lastly, if you’re visiting late in the day you’d be best off taking a torch with you. There’s little in the way of electricity or lighting so you will need an independent light source of some kind.

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