For those on a quick trip through Colombia, the itinerary is often the same: Bogotá; Salento; Medellín; Cartagena and a few more Caribbean hotspots. These places are beautiful, interesting and easy tourist destinations.
However, sometimes hopping from hostel to hostel, running into the same travellers at every stop and taking in the sites through the local walking tour can become a bit dry. Every now and then it’s fun to try something a little less comfortable.
Over the weekend I decided to visit the Desierto de la Tatacoa. A small desert region in the South of Colombia nestled somewhere in between San Agustín and Bogotá. I first heard of Tatacoa through a small write up in the Lonely Planet. It was described as a hot, rustic, yet beautiful part of Colombia with the most incredible stargazing in the country. Perfect for the kind of off track adventure I was looking for.
I had done a little bit of research on getting out to the desert. I found stories about travellers who arrived in Villavieja and were coaxed into a moto desert tour by local legend “Chopo” for around 40,000 COP. While I was prepared to struggle to get out there and determined to avoid the tour, it turned out to be quite easy for us.
We arrived in Neiva, the closest bus destination town, at around 5:30 in the morning on an overnight bus from Cali. From Neiva, I had read that you take colectivo buses to Villavieja, from which you can organise a ride to the desert. When we discovered the colectivos in the Neiva bus terminal, we realised they would just take us directly to the desert. This is a new service that has just been introduced by Coomotor and made our lives much easier.
We paid 20,000 COP per person for a colectivo that would take us directly to where we wanted to stay in the desert. The trip from Neiva into Tatacoa takes around an hour.
The Lonely Planet also had a couple of suggestions about places to stay in the desert. Once you get out there there are a number of spots nearby the desert observatory from which you can rent rooms, campsites, tents, or hammocks. The colectivo stops in front of the second observatory and from here you can easily jump out and find whatever you’re looking for.
I had read an impressive description about El Peñon de Constantino, a desert oasis two kilometres past the observatory that rents out cute mud brick cabins, fancy tents, hammocks or campsites. We asked the colectivo driver to take us straight there. We had no reservation but organised to rent a couple of hammocks for 20,000 COP each.
It was only about 8am by the time we arrived, so we chilled out for a while and splashed around in the pool that they have there at El Peñon de Constantino. For people who aren’t staying on the site, you can still come and pay a few pesitos to use the pool. After a few hours walking through the desert, you’ll definitely feel like a swim!
After our swim, we were starving so decided to walk back toward the observatory to find something to eat in one of the local restaurants. The walk was hot but incredibly beautiful. We were surrounded by huge cacti, herds of wild goat and even saw the occasional wild horse!
We walked into a restaurant and ordered the local lunch specialty. Grilled goat and rice. The food was definitely an ‘off the beaten track’ experience. After our goat soup (which I loved), we got our grilled goat, which was fairly past done, and a serving of a kind of fried rice mixed through with vegetables and chopped up goat kidney. While the food was ordinary, it was a pretty fun experience.
We bought a 5 litre bottle of water and went out into the deadly sun to explore some more of the desert. We walked to El Cuzco, the most famous site in the desert, an incredible maze of red rock formations. We wandered through here for a while until the heat got too much for us and we decided to start the walk back to our campsite.
We sat near our hammocks and watched the sun go down before heading down to the little restaurant at our site for a few hands of cards and some dinner. When it started to get really dark we headed further back up the hill to gaze at the stars Tatacoa was famous for.
It did not disappoint, and it was easy to lie there on the hill for a few hours and watch the shooting stars fly by.
We climbed into our hammocks later for a fairly comfortable nights sleep. The temperature turned pretty cold in the early hours of the morning, so make sure you have something warm if you are planning to sleep outside.
The next morning we stayed close to our campsite and spent a bit more time in the pool. We organised the colectivo to come and pick us up after lunch and headed back to Neiva to catch the night bus home.
Tatacoa is a unique part of Colombia, the scenery is incredible, the stars are breathtaking and the food is super weird. It was fun to get away from the hostels and the tour guides and spend a night swinging under the desert stars. For those who are beginning to feel a little too comfortable along the tourist trail, a trip to the desert might be just what you need.