Use this informational hiking guide complete with maps, tips, and advice to have a successful Tatacoa Desert trip while in Colombia. Perfect for those looking to get off the path a bit and self-explore the vast red and gray deserts of the area.
The Two Deserts – Rojo and Los Hoyos
The incredible feature of Tatacoa is the fact that there are two distinct deserts that border each other. One, known as Desierto Rojo or Red Desert and the other, Los Hoyos – Desierto Gris or Gray Desert.
True to their names, they match the color and both have fantastic sand and rock formations.
The Red Desert is what you will arrive to first when coming from the town of Villavieja and the Gray Desert is approximately five kilometers further down the road.
Whereas it is possible to walk along the road, the walk is between an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours! This can become dangerous during the mid-day sun so ordering a tuk-tuk, moto taxi, or grabbing bicycles from your hostel are all preferred.
There are hiking routes in both deserts, however, the Red Desert is more popular, has a more defined route, and is thought of as to be the more beautiful of the two.
Red Desert Hike
This is the best hiking that Tatacoa has to offer and is located across the road from the observatory at the Mirador El Cuzco.
The hike descends a set of stairs and places you right between the red mounds on a path that meanders through. The trail is marked with wooden posts with yellow paint however it is notoriously easy to lose the path.
I was hiking this route as the sun was setting and ended up turning back before completing the full loop and found myself making my own routes or following the routes of others through muddy stream beds.
I found this to be a cool way of exploring and the desert was empty of patrons at this time so was able to take time photographing incredible formations.
Gray Desert Hike
Los Hoyos or the Gray Desert receives much less traffic in terms of people who are there to hike. There are a couple pieces of information online about hiking routes in this desert but from my experience there isn’t anything official with markers and such.
In the maps section below you’ll see a recording of the route I used hiking through this desert. The trail enters the desert on a defined path but before you know it, you’ll keep coming across divides in the path.
What this turned out to be was animal herd paths and following the most prevalent led to a flowing stream – yes, it does actually rain and it definitely creates some muddy stream beds that you’ll come across so proper footwear is necessary.
I ended up making a loop back towards where I started and found some great rock and sand formations to photograph.
There was a footpath in that area of good formations that I could follow back to the road but hiking in Los Hoyos is definitely more of an adventure than a set trail to follow.
La Piscina Hike
This is probably the best marked of the three hikes in Tatacoa and uses a short under 1 mile loop trail to arrive at La Piscina, a man-made natural spring water pool.
Although the hike is well-marked, it’s still easy to follow other people’s footsteps down the wrong way of a muddy streambed and end up off trail.
The trail itself is beautiful and winds through narrow sections surrounded by the Gray Desert formations and you get to cool off after at the pool.
Red Desert Hiking Route
Los Hoyos (Blue) and La Piscina (Dotted) Hiking Routes
Getting to the Deserts
Getting to the desert is simple, mostly because there isn’t much in terms of road options so people typically use the same roads in and out.
The first step to getting to Tatacoa is to get yourself to the city of Neiva. Neiva is a populated city with a large bus transportation terminal and an airport.
It’s about a six-hour bus ride from Bogotà but you should be able to find buses from wherever you are in Colombia via Redbus.co.
The next step is getting transportation to Villavieja, and in turn, Tatacoa. Coopetran uses pickup truck style vehicles which run throughout the day whenever there are 8 passengers ready to depart from the Neiva bus terminal.
The cost of this is 10,000 COP and you have the option to pay an additional 10,000 COP direct to the driver to drive you directly to your accommodations in Tatacoa.
A nice bonus is you can stop to pick up snacks and supplies when you get to Villavieja before heading to the desert which won’t have any convenient stores.
Tatacoa has a wide variety of places to stay ranging from bring your own camping to luxurious glamping, but the main thing to know is almost all accommodations are some style of camping.
If you want to be more secluded, I would recommend looking for places closer to Los Hoyos, the Gray Desert however stay clear of La Piscina which is a hotspot for tourist throughout the day.
If you’re not looking for something luxurious then I would recommend the place I stayed which was recommended through others and had plenty of great reviews on Google.
The place is called Estadero La Tatacoa and is located a half-mile from the Red Desert Hike and Observatory. It’s family run and very friendly, the hammocks were great and we felt safe the entire time.
Cost of Hammock: 15,000 COP
As an added bonus the beer was only 4,000 COP which we drank by the case and the food phenomenal. They also had a plethora of bicycles to borrow!
Sun / Heat Exhaustion / Dehydration – These all go hand in hand but are important to remember and plan for before you’re stuck out in the desert in the mid-day sun. You can count on the sun always being strong and being exposed for long periods of time while out during the day. Carry extra water in a backpack wherever you go.
GPS Maps – It is incredibly easy to lose the path while hiking in the desert. I’m a believer in you’re not really lost if you know where you are on the map and having downloaded GPS maps are a major key. AllTrails and GaiaGPS are my maps of choice.
Weak Cell Service – I had little to no cell service on Claro while out in Tatacoa. Hotels and hostels have little in terms of wi-fi so try and take care of anything important before you travel to the desert.
Animals and Reptiles – Some creatures you might encounter are snakes, wildcats, scorpions, spiders, etc. Hike with a high awareness level.
Cacti – Be careful where you are walking, falling into one of these would not be fun.
What to Bring
Quality Footwear – Something sturdy, comfortable, and okay with getting wet and muddy!
Travel Sunscreen – I find sunscreen from most countries to be pretty terrible and these tubes are the perfect size for travelling with and keeping weight low.
Travel Bug Spray – Sure it's a desert but when the sun goes down pesky insects come out. Bug spray can be hard to find, I prefer getting ahead and always having on me. These bottles are small but they go a long way!
You can also see my full list of gear I use for backpacking here which is what I used to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Tatacoa Desert is an incredible place to see when in Colombia and shows the true diversity of what Colombian landscapes have to offer. The hiking trails aren’t the best but getting lost in the landscape is almost better in a way.
Other than hiking there aren’t many activities in Tatacoa. Some guides will say things like going to the observatory or star watching but my favorite was just hanging out with a mix of travelers domestic and foreign at the hostel.
La Piscina is a bit touristy but if you go early, you’ll have it all to yourself and for 8,000 COP it actually was a relaxing swim looking out at Los Hoyos.
Keep in mind it may be impossible to hail tuk-tuks or taxis from the main road so it’s advised to have your hostel call for transportation before you set off.
Some people opt to stay a night in Villavieja but it’s definitely not necessary. There isn’t much there and a simple walk-through on your way back to Neiva is plenty.
I hope you enjoyed this guide and can use it to have an awesome time visiting Tatacoa Desert!
This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate affiliate if you use these links to buy something we may earn a commission at no cost to you. Thanks!
©Copyright 2020-2022 Secret Hike
Photography exclusively by Dan Oliver unless otherwise stated and cited. Embedded maps are provided by Embed Google Map (embedgooglemap.net) and map images shown are provided as stated and cited.
This website is provided for entertainment purposes only, and is not meant to serve as an instructional guide, or present itself as an authority for any of the locations written about. The locations mentioned, written, and photographed herein are nothing more than my personal adventure archive. If you are interested in visiting any locations you should not depend on the information in this website to plan any excursions. You should research a wide variety of informational sources, websites, hiking guide books and maps found elsewhere. Many locations are dangerous and potentially illegal to access which can lead to fines, injury or death even when prepared. I do not encourage anyone to trespass or put themselves or others in way of harm. This website, and therefore its’ owner/author, cannot assume any responsibility for anything you may incur while hiking or exploring any of these locations or anywhere on planet earth. Thank you for viewing!