Visiting the Tatacoa Desert and its Fascinating Landscape

Visiting the Desierto de la Tatacoa

Located in southwestern Colombia, the Tatacoa Desert is one of Colombia’s most unique and interesting landscapes. Millions of years of erosion have created unique and mysterious looking rock formations, and they draw visitors from around the world. Learn all about Colombia’s Desierto de la Tatacoa here.

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Photo of people walking in the Tatacoa Desert
The fascinating landscape you’ll encounter on a visit to the Tatacoa Desert.

A Desert in Colombia?

Many associate Colombia with the rows of plants and backdrop of majestic mountains of the coffee region, the colonial charm of Cartagena, the beautiful beaches of the Caribbean coast, or perhaps the jungle of the Amazon. A desert probably doesn’t come to mind. However, there are actually two deserts in Colombia!

One is the isolated Guajira Peninsula, located in the most northern reaches of South America and difficult to reach. Another is the much more easily reached Tatacoa Desert or Desierto de la Tatacoa. It is located outside the town of Villavieja to the southwest of Bogotá and not far from the major city of Neiva.

Of course, those more well-known areas are well worth a visit too! You might like this 5-day coffee region experience, an 8-day tour of the Caribbean, or an 11-day nature adventure that visits the Amazon and the unspoiled Pacific where you can go whale watching.

Technically, the area is not a desert but a semi-arid dried-up tropical forest. Millions of years ago it was a thriving forest. In fact, many fossils of plant and animal life have been found here, evidence of a very different ancient ecosystem. Long ago, the area began to dry up, and erosion from wind and the occasional rain slowly carved out some of the most unique and beautiful landscapes you will see anywhere.

When the Spanish discovered it, they referred to it as Tatacoa for the rattlesnakes they found. They also called it a “valley of sorrow.” However, today, it welcomes visitors from around the world who are captivated by its natural beauty.

Below you can learn what you can see on a visit to the Tatacoa Desert.

The Red Desert

The Tatacoa Desert actually has two distinct areas and landscapes. One is the “red” desert, called that because, well, it’s red. Iron deposits in the soil give it the rusty, dusty appearance that distinguishes it. If you look closely, you can see different shades, a testament to the millions of years the soil has seen.

The main area of the red desert, known as Cuzco is a labyrinth of pathways through a canyon that was carved out over millions of years. The walls look like sculpted clay with ripples caused by years and years of erosion.  Walking through it is a fascinating experience.

Photo of the Tatacoa Desert
The red desert of Tatacoa

If you would like to see the Tatacoa Desert for yourself, everything mentioned here is included in our 5-day Southern Colombia package as well as our 12-day Historical Colombia package.

The Gray Desert

On the other side of the Desierto de la Tatacoa, you’ll find the “gray” desert, called that for, you guessed it, its gray color. This is actually the larger of the two zones of the desert and is equally fascinating.  It really proves that nature is the best artist.

The main trail here goes through the “Valley of Ghosts”, named as such for the formations in the gray, dried soil. Some see animals and even human figures in the eery-looking landscape. Nearby, there are several swimming pools if you would like to cool off after exploring the gray desert.

Photo of the Desierto de la Tatacoa
The “ghosts” of the gray desert.

Some of the Best Stargazing in the Western Hemisphere

A large, open space with little light pollution, the Tatacoa Desert is an excellent place to contemplate the stars. Since it lies so close to the equator, nearly all major constellations are visible year round. There are several observatories that open their doors to visitors in the evening for presentations and viewing the stars. You won’t want to miss visiting one while here.

Photo of stars
The night sky is seen from the Tatacoa Desert

Tips for Enjoying the Tatacoa Desert

It is a desert, so expect a hot and dry climate. You’ll want to bring along sunscreen as well as light, comfortable clothes for hiking through the desert. The terrain is mostly flat and the hikes are easy, but it’s still a good idea to have comfortable shoes you don’t mind getting a bit dusty. A light jacket or sweater in case it is cool and breezy in the evening is also good to bring along.

Whether staying in the desert itself or in the nearby town of Villavieja, accommodations in this area are modest. They are comfortable and clean, just don’t expect 5 star resorts. However, they allow you to enjoy the nature of the desert and have a more authentic experience.

The Tatacoa Desert is also located in a good spot to start an exploration of southwest Colombia, and the fact you can see the entire desert in one day makes it a perfect stop on a larger tour of this part of Colombia.

Here at Bnb Colombia, we offer a 5-day tour that includes a day in Tatacoa doing all of the above plus visits to the lush landscapes and archeological sites of San Agustín, the historic city of Popayán, and Colombia’s salsa capital Cali. True nature buffs will love our 12-day Historical Colombia tour that visits historic sites in Bogotá and the beautiful nature of the Amazon in the Guaviare in addition to Tatacoa, Popayán, and Cali. Both make for some of the most unique experiences in these lesser-visited parts of Colombia!  You can always contact us to design a custom package tailored just for you as well.

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