Destination Run: Exploring Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert
Known for its stunning mountains and lush green landscapes, Colombia is not the country you would expect to find a desert. Many travelers are surprised to find that Colombia is home to not one, but two deserts, each with their own unique geography. The Tatacoa desert, located in the Huila region, is technically a semi-arid dry tropical forest that consists of a red “desert” and a gray “desert”. These areas of crumbling rock and the plethora of cacti explain how the area has earned its desert title. And, “Semi-arid dry tropical forest” does not roll of the tongue any better in Spanish than it does in English.
Colombia’s popularity has been growing rapidly since it has become much safer and word about the breathtaking landscapes and vibrant cities has gotten out. It is becoming more and more difficult for travelers to find destinations off the beaten path. Due to the remote location of the Tatacoa desert, it remains a rustic landscape with few tourists, limited electricity, and no WiFi. It is a wonderful getaway for those looking to spend a day or two off the grid. You can easily see the desert through a guided tour or renting bikes, but what better way to see things at your own pace than taking it on at a run?
Getting to the Tatacoa desert requires a bit of work. Although it may seem a bit far from other popular destinations, the remote location helps preserve its charm. Unless you have a car or arrange a tour from another big city, there is no direct bus to the desert. You will need to make your way to the town of Neiva and from there you can arrange transportation to the desert.
If you are staying at one of the few hotels in Tatacoa you may be able to arrange transport from Neiva’s bus station through your hotel. Other travelers will need to take a jeep from Neiva to the town of Villavieja. You have the option of staying in town where you can enjoy nicer rooms and WiFi. Or, you can catch a tuk tuk from the town square and head into the desert for more rustic accommodations.
Throughout the desert, you have the option of staying in posadas which are basically bed and breakfasts run by locals. At the posadas, you have options to stay in private rooms, dorm rooms, or sleep outside in a rented tent or hammock. Even in the private rooms, accommodations are very bare bones and you will still be roughing it without WiFi.
The trails are not well labeled and many people will try to convince you to go with a guide. If you stick to the road and keep your excursions into the red and gray deserts short, you should be fine doing it on your own and will have more freedom to enjoy each area at your own leisure. The main road from Villavieja to La Piscina Mineral is about 9 miles, this distance can be shortened by beginning your run in the desert or lengthened through little excursions into each area.
Villavieja to the Observatory
Villavieja is very small, so regardless of where you are staying, you should be able to find your way to Carrera 2. You may need to fend off the friendly, but determined, tuk tuk drivers and tour guides as you make your way out of town on foot. Follow Carrera 2 and stick to the paved road on the right as you leave town. This is not the most beautiful part of the desert but you can spot many cows and goats from the side of the road and watch as the terrain dries and the green grass and trees are replaced with dirt and cacti. At around 4 miles you will see the red desert on your right and the white observatory on your left. Continue down a little ways and you will find a restaurant on the right.
From the small restaurant parking area, you can make your way down a set of tire stairs to jog among the red mounds of rock in an area known as el Cusco. Wind your way through these rocks but be careful to avoid climbing on the fragile formations. Yellow posts will lead you on a short jaunt and take you back up to the main road at another restaurant just down the road. Rejoin the road and continue to enjoy the red desert views as you make your way to the gray desert.
Grey Desert & Mineral Pool
Follow the road and watch as your surroundings lose their red hue and you enter the gray desert. You will pass an area referred to as La Ventana (the window) where you can take in views of the blanched gray landscape on either side of the road. To the left, you may be able to pick out some animal-shaped formations that appear like a turtle, dragon or lion. Continue a short distance to the parking lot of Los Hoyos (the holes). If you go to the left of the parking area you can make your way down into the gray desert where you can run among the gray rock. At first the gray will not seem as exciting as the otherworldliness of el Cusco. As you continue on the formations do become more interesting and take on the look of ghosts. Follow the path short ways then loop back up until you reach La Piscina Minera (Mineral Pool) nestled in the gray desert. You can pay a small fee to cool off in the pool and enjoy some local Aguila beer.
When to Go
The sun is intense and temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees during the day. It is recommended to begin early in the morning so you can reach the pool as temperatures begin to peak. Alternatively, you could go out for a run around dusk. As things begin to cool off, enjoy a stunning desert sunset, grab a bite to eat, if you are feeling adventurous try out goat or goats milk products, and then head to the observatory to enjoy an unobstructed view of the stars.