Tatacoa: An Unusual Desert

While traveling in Southwest Colombia, you hardly expect to find a desert. Mixed in among the lush green mountainous landscape is a 330 square kilometer region packed with interesting formations, canyons, and incredible scenery. Desierto de la Tatacoa is an unusual place that in fact is not even a true desert. It’s a dry tropical forest.

Named the “Valley of Sorrows” in 1538, Desierto de la Tatacoa is much more than just a dead zone. It’s rich in plant and animal life and is also a phenomenal place for stargazing.

Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

El Cusco

 

Tours of Tatacoa

It’s quite simple to visit the desert alone, but we decided to take a tour from Neiva. Our hotel recommended Green Vacation, which offered a tour for COP$120,000 per person. It included transportation, water and snacks, guides, and admission to the museum in Villavieja. The tour is in Spanish only. We felt it was a good deal because the transportation cost seems to be an issue for independent travelers. As far as time, it allowed us to see everything without having to stay overnight in the desert and lose time heading home the next morning.

 

Our Tour

We were picked up at 1pm from our hotel in Neiva along with two other travelers on the tour. On the way to Villavieja, we made a quick stop at a farm to try some local cookies that happen to be a local specialty. I hated them. I don’t even remember what they’re called.

We continued to Villavieja, which took about an hour and a bit more because the car got a flat tire on the way. The other traveler helped change to the spare and we arrived in Villavieja at around 2:15pm.

 

Villavieja

Villavieja is supposed to be nice but it was quite a mess. The main plaza was under construction and the roads were drowned in puddles of mud from a very rare rainstorm the night before.

 

Paleontology Museum

We visited the colonial church and were then given a few minutes to check out the local Paleontology Museum. The small museum contained fossils from several animals found nearby, including giant land sloths. Admission is COP$2,000.

Villavieja Museum Colombia Huila

Villavieja Museum

 

Church

Next, we popped into the main church, and that was the extent of our tour in Villavieja.

Villavieja Church Colombia Huila

Church in Villavieja

Villavieja Church Colombia Huila

Church in Villavieja

 

El Cardón

We were then driven to the desert. Our first stop was a lookout point called El Cardón where we were given a quick overview of the history of the area and its geography.

Desierto de la Tatacoa in Colombia

El Cardón

 

El Cuzco

We took a nice hike into El Cuzco, the most scenic part of Desierto de la Tatacoa. It was extremely muddy from the previous night’s rainstorm, which happened to be the first rain in over a year. The mud made things more interesting.

El Cusco at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Overlook at El Cuzco

El Cusco at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Walking through El Cuzco

El Cuzco was an amazing place to walk. It was only about an hour of walking into a small canyon but the landscape was like something out of Star Wars. The only thing I didn’t understand was the name. The guide said it’s because the landscape resembles Cuzco in Peru. Not even close.

El Cusco at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

El Cuzco

El Cusco at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

El Cuzco

We were able to sample a cactus fruit right off of the cactus, which was delicious. The guide pointed out a few small cacti that were growing under the protection of some other trees. He said that locals search for the fruits and make candy out of them.

Cactus flower at El Cusco at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Cactus flower at El Cusco

 

La Ventana

La Ventana was the next stop. It’s a lookout point where we were able to see out over a vast gray landscape, hence the name “the window”.

Las Ventanas Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

La Ventana

 

Los Hoyos

Our second hike didn’t start out very well but got better the further we went. It was in the area called Los Hoyos (The Holes), and was quite drab and gray but ended up having some nice formations.

Los Hoyos at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Los Hoyos

Los Hoyos at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Los Hoyos

Los Hoyos at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Overlook at Los Hoyos

The saving grace of Los Hoyos was climbing up to a small mesa and getting a breathtaking view of what looked like a mini Grand Canyon. The colors and formations were similar to the Arizona or Utah desert without the Colorado River down below. It was also deceiving to the eye. The canyons in Desierto de la Tatacoa aren’t very deep but from the top of the mesa they looked intimidating.

Los Hoyos at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Los Hoyos

Los Hoyos at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Los Hoyos

 

Swimming Pool

On the way out of Los Hoyos, there’s a swimming pool built right into the canyon. It looks like a fun place to hang out for a day. Admission prices weren’t bad, either. I remember it being COP$6,000 for adults.

Los Hoyos swimming pool at Desierto de la Tatacoa Colombia Huila

Swimming pool at Los Hoyos

 

Astronomy Center

We stopped at a couple of places to buy candy made from the cactus fruit and then were driven to an observatory for an astronomy talk. It cost COP$10,000 to get in and there were at least 80 people attending. The clouds were out in full force but just as the talk began at 7pm, the skies opened up and we could see thousands of brilliant stars sparkling above.

Desierto de la Tatacoa astronomy center in Colombia Huila

Astronomy Center

The talk lasted until about 9:15pm and was simply incredible. For the first hour of the talk, we were able to peer into four different high powered telescopes to get a closer look at stars and star clusters. The next hour was spent looking at different constellations and learning about the individual stars that make them up. The astronomer knew the names of absolutely every star he pointed to with his laser pointer, their distance from earth, and was able to answer every question thoroughly. We highly recommend attending the talk and believe it was just as enjoyable as the desert itself. Just bring insect repellant. I was eaten alive once the sun went down!

 

Negatives About the Tour

When the talk was finished, we were driven back to our hotel in Neiva. The only negative is that we weren’t given a chance to eat a proper meal during the tour. There was a good hour between the last hike and the observatory. We thought a chance to eat at one of the restaurants in the desert would’ve been nice.

 

Getting There

It’s easy to travel to the desert alone. A colectivo from the Neiva bus station leaves frequently in the mornings, usually when it’s full. If you want to stay for the astronomy talk, you’ll have to stay overnight, and there are also several inexpensive places to stay both in Villavieja and in the desert. The only drawback is that transportation from town to the desert can be much more expensive than it should be..

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