The Tatacoa Desert in the central Colombian department of Huila is a popular draw for travellers in Colombia who come for the surreal desert landscapes, incredible stargazing, and sense of isolation. Here’s a complete guide to exploring Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert, including information on where to stay, what to do, and when to go.
Getting to the Tatacoa Desert isn’t too complicated, but it does require several different stops along the way: to start with, you’ll need to get to Neiva, the capital of Huila department (buses to here are easy to get from Bogota and many other major cities, as are flights). From Neiva bus station you then catch a colectivo car to the small town of Villavieja which is known as the Gateway to the Tatacoa Desert; this trip should take around 45 minutes. Then from Villavieja you can grab a tuk-tuk or taxi into the desert, which lies only 15 minutes away from the edge of the town. It’s just that simple!
The Tatacoa Desert has grown in popularity with travellers in recent years, so there is a good infrastructure of hotels and hostels, with something to suit all budgets. For a real treat consider staying in the beautiful Bethel Bio Luxury Hotel, a unique hotel with individual eco-pod accommodation, and stunning swimming pools overlooking the surrounding desert landscapes. It’s a little pricey, but would be perfect for a romantic trip.
The best option for more budget travellers is the Hostal Noches de Saturno, a more basic backpacker hostel a stone’s throw away from the astronomical observatory. With simple, rustic accommodation but, crucially, a swimming pool, the location and cost of Noches de Saturno make it easily the best accommodation choice if you are travelling to Tatacoa with a lower budget.
There’s easily enough to see and do in the Tatacoa Desert to fill two or three days, especially if you opt – as you should – to spend one day lounging by the pool, enjoying some beers and the desert heat! Most people spend a day touring around the desert, either by tuk-tuk (most drivers will offer to escort you around on a day-trip, or you can arrange this from your hotel), or by bike (but be aware, the desert is very hot and sunny, so take plenty of sunblock and water). You can visit the stunning landscapes of the red desert, as well as the surreal, moon-like terrain of the grey desert (where there’s also a lovely little swimming pool where you can cool off).
The other key attraction of the desert is the incredible stargazing you can enjoy there: the best in Colombia and some of the best in South America. The stars are amazing from anywhere in the desert, but the best place to experience a true Tatacoa stargazing experience is from the astronomical observatory in the heart of the red desert – for a small fee you can enjoy the incredible telescopes as well as a talk on the stars and information from the observatory’s resident astronomer. Make sure to try and schedule your visit in time for a new moon in order to minimize light pollution and maximize your stargazing experience.