Planning on hiking the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller, but don’t know where to start? You’ve arrived at the right place. In 2023, I travelled to Colombia and hiked the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller. I wrote everything about how to hike the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller in this blog post, including how I planned my hike, how the experience was, how much I ended up spending and much more.
The purpose of this blog post is to help you plan your hike to the Tatacoa Desert with much more ease than I did.
Hiking the Tatacoa desert as a solo female traveller was one of the highlights of my time in Colombia. The Tatacoa Desert is a unique landscape that’s becoming more and more popular among travellers.
After hiking the Tatacoa Desert, I met a few backpackers (including solo female travellers) who asked me about my experience in the Colombian desert. So I thought I would write a blog post about how to hike the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveler, hoping that my experience will help others interested in travelling to this place in Colombia.
The Tatacoa Desert is quite peculiar because it is not a desert, but a dry tropical forest. Although it might have been a lush forest in the past, nowadays the landscape doesn’t resemble much of a forest. Yet, this is what makes this place an interesting tourist attraction.
Where is the Tatacoa Desert located?
The Tatacoa Desert is located in the southern part of Colombia, between Bogota and Cali. The closest village to the desert is Villavieja and the nearest big city is Neiva. You can consider both locations to be your base if you plan to hike the desert. Note that Villavieja is much closer to the desert than Neiva is. The map I provided below will show you the exact location of the desert and where Villavieja and Neiva are located compared to the desert.
How to get to the Tatacoa Desert on public transport?
Despite being a remote place, you can easily reach the Tatacoa Desert by bus. If you will travel from any major Colombian city that’s nearby including Cali and Bogota, there are buses which will take you to Neiva first.
I travelled from Cali to Neiva by bus. If you stay in Neiva, your journey will finish there. If you will stay like me in Villavieja, you will need to catch a second bus to the village. Make sure you don’t arrive too late in Neiva, otherwise, you might not have any buses available until the next day to take you to Villavieja.
You will have the option to travel by taxi, but it will cost more. Unfortunately, my bus from Cali to Neiva was late, so I also had to pay for a taxi to take me to Villavieja. The 1h ride costed me 150,000 Colombian pesos. I did manage to negotiate the price and bring it down from its initial value of 200,000 Colombian pesos.
Bus journeys in Colombia can take significantly longer than what’s stated online. Many factors can cause the delay. I wrote an entire blog post about my experience travelling by bus around Colombia. Do check out this blog post if this is something you want to know more about:
Where to stay in the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller?
As I mentioned earlier, the Tatacoa Desert is located near Villavieja and a bit further from Neiva. These locations are your best options when it comes to finding accommodation near the desert.
As I already mentioned, Villavieja is much closer to the desert than Neiva is. Therefore, consider a longer travel time when booking your desert hiking tour if you stay in Neiva. Saying that though, you will have more options if you stay in Neiva. Villavieja is quite limited when it comes to restaurants, banks, accommodation options and other facilities one might need.
There is also a third option when it comes to where to stay and that includes camping or booking accommodation in the desert itself. I met a few people doing this.
Finding accommodation in the desert is quite easy. Most of those who stayed in the desert booked their accommodation on Booking.com or via Google. If you have a look at the map provided above, you will find most of the accommodation options there. While some of them will include staying in a hotel or hostel of some sort you can also choose to stay in a tent. I saw the tents myself while on the tour.
If you’ve never stayed in a tent before, consider the limitations that might come with it such as dealing with high and low temperatures as well as mosquitos and noise. If you are a budget traveller, sleeping in a tent can be a good choice.
CHECK OUT THE MAP I PROVIDED AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS BLOG POST. SOME OF THE ACCOMMODATION OPTIONS AVAILABLE IN THE DESERT HAVE BEEN MARKED WITH A LIGHT BLUE BED ICON. AS YOU WILL ZOOM IN, YOU WILL FIND MORE OPTIONS.
Personally, I stayed in Villavieja. Since I only stayed in Villavieja for a few days, I did not feel I missed many things. It was nice not to travel too much to reach the desert, especially after the long trip I had from Cali.
How to book your accommodation for the Tatacoa Desert?
I used Booking.com to book my accommodation in Villavieja. Andrea, my host from La Luna del Desierto Tatacoa was incredibly kind and made my stay as pleasant as possible. She even went the extra mile and saw my backpack. There wasn’t anything this woman could not do.
Tip: If you stay with Andrea from La Luna del Desierto Tatacoa, make sure you book a room with AC. The temperatures are high in the village and regular fans don’t keep up with it. Anyhow, whichever accommodation option you go for, make sure there is AC available to avoid having a hard time while inside.
How to book your tour of the Tatacoa Desert?
You can book your tour in advance (online reservation) through specialised platforms such as Viator Vektor, Getyourguide etc. It is advisable to book your tour in advance if you travel to Tatacoa during the high season and do not have much flexibility with the dates you can do the tour.
You can also book your tour once you are there. Tours can be available via your hostel/hotel. Alternatively, you can approach local travel agencies and ask for a quote. I remember walking around the village and being approached by local agents asking me if I needed a tour of the desert. They are mostly based in the main square in Villavieja.
I booked my tour to the Tatacoa Desert through the hostel I stayed at and was very happy with the package. The day was packed with activities as we visited both deserts (the red desert and the grey desert). It was a 1-day activity which included long walks in both deserts and a star gazing activity in the night.
Halfway through the day, we also stopped for a swimming session. It is refreshing swimming in the pool after a 2h hike in the desert. Make sure you bring your swimming suit with you. The swimming pool has changing facilities as well as toilets.
Be aware that the walks in the desert can be cut short if it rains (especially in the red desert) because the mud gets on your shoes and you cannot walk anymore.
Also, the star gazing activity is weather-dependent. If it is cloudy, you might not see much. Yet, if you are lucky enough to get clear skies, you will be able to see quite a lot. On top of that, we did some bird and local animal watching activities and we stopped at the end of the day to see the sunset.
I have to say that the 1-day tour of the Tatacoa Desert can be physically demanding so prepare for a good workout on the day. Nevertheless, the landscape is unique, especially the red desert which seems to be everyone’s favourite.
My tour included lunch and a free drink in the afternoon.
If you want to stay more days in the desert you can do so. Simply pick a tour that includes several days of activities. Again, the main travel platforms such as Viator Vektor and GetYourGuide provide multiple-day tours in the Tatacoa Desert. I cannot have an opinion on these types of tours as I opted for the 1-day one. Yet, I know that some of the travellers I met considered them over the 1-day tour I booked.
How to prepare for the day hike?
Depending on your fitness level, you might need more or less preparation the day before the hike.
Make sure you are in good condition and that you feel physically well to do the hike.
Intend to have a good night’s sleep and perhaps don’t exaggerate having a heavy dinner. Also, you might want to get some nutritious breakfast the next morning because the tour usually only stops for lunch. That is at the end of the first big hike of the day which takes around 2h to complete.
A few more tips on how to prepare for the day. I gathered these tips after I completed the tour of the Tatacoa Desert:
*Wear appropriate clothing. The sun can be brutal. It is recommended to expose your skin as little as possible.
*To avoid a nasty sunburn make sure you apply sunblock several times throughout the day.
*Wear sturdy hiking shoes as you might walk up to 4 hours a day depending on the tour you’ve chosen.
*Lunch is usually provided, but if you are a snacker make sure you have plenty of food with you as you will walk for quite some time.
*Bring enough water. Yet, you can buy some more during the hike. Make sure you have enough cash on you to buy everything you need though.
*Be ready to get rained on. The weather is unpredictable and sometimes it can rain for a good few minutes. Experiencing rain in the desert is a unique experience though.
What to wear on the day hike?
Make no mistake and treat the Tatacoa Desert like a real desert. The group I travelled with had so many people wearing shorts and t-shirts on the day which resulted in many people in my group getting severely sunburnt.
I recommend wearing sturdy hiking shoes, long trousers, long-sleeved shirts, a hat and sunglasses. Wear breathable fabrics like cotton or sportswear items. Make yourself as comfortable as you can for the long hike and the many hours you will spend in the sun.
Make sure you bring with you a decent-sized day bag so you can carry all your items easily and perhaps clothes to change if you know you will need some. You will perhaps need it if you book one of those tours which includes a stop at a pool halfway through the day.
Be aware of weather conditions
The weather can be unpredictable. Expect anything from brutal sun, and strong wind to unexpected heavy rain. That’s because the Tatacoa Desert is located in a unique climate environment which favours all these types of weather conditions.
On the day of my tour, it rained quite heavily which prevented us from continuing the hike in the red desert. Nevertheless, we were still able to see the red desert.
Should you attempt to hike the Tatacoa Desert by yourself?
My honest opinion would be no, do not attempt to hike the Tatacoa Desert by yourself. Although I did see small groups of 2 people in the desert, I am not sure whether they were locals or international tourists.
From what I could gather, the desert does not have trail signs. I did not pay much attention as I was simply following the group I was with, but for me, it would be quite difficult to follow the hiking trail without proper signs.
Moreover, there will be portions of the hiking trail when you will not have a mobile signal. Imagine you end up lost because you cannot track where you are anymore.
If you don’t like hiking in large groups, you can always opt for private groups. But do not attempt to hike the desert by yourself, especially as a solo female traveller. Of course, this is just my opinion and you can always do what you think it’s best for you.
Can you buy stuff during the hike?
It might come as a surprise, but during the hike, there will be several places you can buy water from. The tour guide will even advise against buying too many bottles of water at the beginning of the hike because they will get warm during the day.
Remember to bring enough cash with you for the day as nobody will take card payments in this remote area. I have to say that the prices for the drinks were not that high.
Also, depending on the tour you booked, lunch will be supplied or you might need to pay for it. My tour included lunch, so I did not have to worry about finding food in the middle of the desert or bringing a packed lunch with me.
What you will get to see during the tour?
In case it wasn’t clear to you up to this point, during the hike of the Tatacoa Desert you get to see two types of deserts: the grey desert and the red desert.
The star of the show is definitely the red desert, although the grey desert is beautiful too. You will get to see some of the local flora and fauna too. Our tour included some bird-watching activities and we were lucky to see some other local animals and plants too.
Another popular activity has been witnessing the sunset. Towards the end of the day, we were served a free drink and were given time to enjoy the sunset. The view was quite amazing.
Other activities included star-gazing and swimming in the pool. The entrance fee at the pool had to be paid separately.
The package that I booked included one meal (lunch) and one free drink. The lunch was quite big and included one starter and one main dish as well as drinks. You will be served traditional Colombian food which consists mainly of some sort of meat, rice and salad. The starter is usually a soup.
How much does it cost to hike the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller?
Below is the breakdown for pretty much everything I paid in 2023 to visit the Tatacoa Desert. I also included the bus tickets I paid to get to Neiva and leave Neiva as well as the cost for my accommodation in Villavieja.
The prices are in Colombian pesos. At the time of writing this blog post, the exchange rate for 1£ was 5,099 Colombian pesos.
The budget allocated for hiking the Tatacoa Desert
The Desert tour: 170,000. This amount does not include the 10,000 I paid for the pool entry fee and does not include the drinks I bought on the day
Accommodation in Villavieja: 108,000 for a private room (2 nights for 1 adult)
Intercity bus to the Tatacoa Desert (Cali-Neiva) 101,085
Night taxi from Nieva to Villavieja 150,000
Day shuttle from Viellavieja to Neiva 50,000
Intercity bus out of the Tatacoa Desert (Neiva to Bogota) 50,000
Grand Total: ~640,000 (£126/$159). *Note that I have not included the meals I had in Villavieja and other miscellaneous costs I spent money on while in the village.
Is September a good month to hike the Tatacoa desert?
September is a good month to visit the Tatacoa Desert. The village was not too crowded with tourists, and the availability of the tour to the desert was confirmed almost immediately.
Weather-wise, September will be hot with occasional rain, so make sure you can handle high temperatures.
How safe is Villavieja for a solo female traveller?
Villavieja is a small village, and despite being remote, it felt totally safe while I was there. I stayed very close to the village’s main square, where I often went for meals after dark. The locals, including children, were still outside long after dark every day.
In conclusion, I found Villavieja safe for solo female travellers, even after dark, which is not the case with many other places in Colombia.
Conclusion on how to hike the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller
Hiking the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller is doable and can be one of the most rewarding experiences you will have during your time in Colombia. As long as you plan how to hike the Tatacoa Desert as a solo female traveller in advance, I can guarantee you will have the best time of your life in this remote part of the country.