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Guide to explore Tatacoa desert in Colombia with a community based tourism project

Tatacoa desert - red area

After the discovery of Bogotà, our experience in Tatacoa desert was absolutely incredible: a mix of different landscapes never seen before, many species of cactus with a height up to 5 metres, wild animals, fossils, thousands of stars and strong emotions.

Tatacoa is actually not a desert but a tropical dry forest, the second largest dried area in the country after La Guajira desert. It has an extension of 330 km² and an incredible variety of landscapes within the same area. The name ''Tatacoa” is a Spanish word in reference to rattlesnakes which are inoffensive black snakes that can be found in Tatacoa desert.

Scientific studies showed that the area dates back to the Tertiary Period, when Tatacoa desert was actually a garden covered by trees and flowers, hard to imagine now, right?! The various fossils founded in the area are the proof of the huge variety of flora and fauna once occupying Tatacoa. Temperatures can easily reach 40° C, and because of the low humidity there are only a few species that can survive here: snakes, spiders, goats, lizards and eagle are some examples.

Here's a guide to explore this natural paradise unique in the world!

How to reach Tatacoa desert

The main entrance points to explore the area are Neiva and Villavieja. Villavieja is the closest to the desert, whereas Neiva is a smaller and cheaper village with a distance of 45 minutes from Villavieja. Here the various way to reach Tatacoa desert:

  • By air from Neiva airport: a flight from Bogotà only takes 30 minutes

  • By car: the journey from Bogotà to Villavieja takes 6 hours

  • By bus: the trip from Bogotà to Neiva takes about 6 hours, add about 45 minutes to reach Villavieja

Best options to visit Tatacoa desert

In order to explore Tatacoa desert, you have two options:

  • Staying in Neiva

From Neiva you can decide to have an organised tour that will provide the transport, the guide and the lunch for the day. Otherwise, if you prefer to visit it by yourself, there are daily buses from Neiva bus station to Villavieja and once in the city you can either take a tour from there or a motorbike taxi that will bring you to the desert and let you explore it by yourself helped by a GPS.

  • Staying in Villavieja

If you're staying in Villavieja, you can opt for a local agency to organise the daily tour (the entrance to the desert is at about 15 minutes from the city) or explore it by yourself by walk, by motorbike or by car - if you have one. The option to rent a car is also possible (about 70 000 COP for the day) and will allow you to do the tour by yourself with a GPS.

Discover Tatacoa with a community based tourism project

We decided to stay in Neiva at Backpackers and travellers hostel, a cosy and familiar hostel where I left a piece of my heart. They organises the tour to Tatacoa desert with a community based tourism approach, sharing the same vision of tourism as our project in the region of Los Montes de Maria, Escucha Colombia. The idea of community based tourism is to use tourism as a vector of peace and cultural exchange in order to benefit the local community concerning the social, economical and environmental dimensions.

The tour company created by Fabian and his wife, the owners of the hostel, has the aim of helping the development of the most fragile communities in the area, they also support a foundation focused on children care.

Our tour started at 9AM in the morning and finished at 10PM for a cost of 150 000 COP (around 30euro) for at least 5 people. The tour is more expensive if there are less than 5 people. Our guide, Nathan, was a Colombian guy with an excellent level of English and a good sense of humour. We had an excellent day with him and the driver José!

After the journey from Neiva to the desert, we stopped at various viewpoints to admire the landscape and we started with the exploration of the grey area by walk. The area is characterised by dry canyons and mazes developed during the rainy seasons.

Enjoying a typical lunch hosted by a local family, the Gonzales, was really special. It was really impressive to see how they live in the desert and to understand better their lifestyle.

After the optional swimming pool break (8 000 COP/person), we ended up with the walk in the red rea lightened by the warm sunset colours. This was definitely my favourite part: looking at the sun rays passing through the cactus and the natural creations of this characteristic brilliant orange colour. What an incredible moment, I've never seen this kind of landscapes before!

We ended the day with the optional star observatory activity (5 000 COP/person) helped by powerful telescopes that allowed us to see the Moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter and the constellation of Andromeda. We even saw various meteors! Tatacoa is the perfect spot to observe the stars, in fact it has the perfect geographical and atmospheric conditions for the observation of the sky and its beauties, it has no visual nor auditory pollution.

If you wish so, there's the possibility to sleep in the desert. I suggest you to ask directly to the guide to show you some places according to the level of comfort you're looking for. We decided to sleep in hammocks and it was a first time to me. I totally loved it, apart from the mosquitos that literally killed me! It was amazing to wake up in the desert and enjoy the fresh air before the temperature warms up here.

What to bring to explore Tatacoa desert

Here's a list of things you should make sure to have in your rucksack for this trip:

  • Sun cream

  • Hat

  • Enough water for the day

  • Mosquito repellent

  • Comfortable cloths and shoes for the walks

  • If you're sleeping in the desert: clean cloths, long pants against mosquitos, towels, shower gel and shampoo

Tatacoa desert exploration


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