Because Colombia is close to the Equator, one pictures it as a country of tropical forests and lush vegetation. While that’s mostly true, Colombia also has areas of arid, rocky landscapes, which are not classic deserts of sand dunes and oases but are nevertheless termed deserts and are just as striking and picturesque.
Situated in the southwestern region and in the northernmost regions of Colombia are four desert areas that should be visited, each with its own features and attractions. I’ll take you on a tour of each, giving their location, describing the landscape, and the geological background that has resulted in their formation.
Where Are The Deserts In Colombia?
We’ll begin our desert tour in the northernmost point of Colombia, a barren peninsula 149 miles long and no wider than 31 miles, bordered by the Caribbean Ocean in the east and Venezuela in the west.
1. Desert of La Guajira
The Guajira Desert is located 680 miles north of Bogotá, at the northernmost tip of South America. It is the largest desert in South America north of the Equator and the largest of the Colombian deserts.
Why visit the Guajira Desert?
Do you want to get away from it all? Guajira Desert is remote, and parts of it are not easily accessible, but it is certainly worth a visit. Stark, rocky landscapes contrast with tranquil Caribbean beaches, and there is much to thrill the adventurous tourist.
- Cabo de la Vela is a village on the peninsula with beaches offering some of the world’s finest kitesurfing conditions.
- Punta Gallinas is the headland and the northernmost point of South America, with magnificent dunes that sweep down to the sea.
- Also, a must on your tour is the Macuira National Park, an oasis in the desert with over 140 species of birds, 17 of which are unique to the area.
The Guajira Desert is home to the Wayuu indigenous community, many of whom live in great poverty, with fishing and subsistence farming their means of survival. Water is a scarce commodity for the Wayuu people. In June 2023, the Colombian government declared a state of emergency in Guarija to assist the residents ahead of the expected drought. Tourism can help the local economy and alleviate current problems.
How Do Tourists Get To The Guajira Desert?
There are direct flights from Bogota to the capital Riohacha. From there, you can book tours and excursions lasting from one to seven days to explore all that this fascinating desert area has to offer.
2. Tatacoa Desert
More accessible than La Guarija and totally different in character, the Tatacoa Desert is the second largest desert in Colombia, with an area of just under 130 square miles.
From Bogota, it’s 177 miles to Villavieja, but expect it to take 4-5 hours by car or, alternatively, by air. It’s a one-hour flight from Bogotá to Neiva and another hour by car to the village of Villavieja and Tatacoa Desert.
The Tatacoa Desert was once a tropical forest, but millions of years ago, the climate changed. It dried up, becoming an arid area where erosion has exposed almost other-worldly landscapes of rock formations and structures that draw tourists, photographers, and scientists worldwide.
The desert is divided into two distinct areas:
El Cuzco, the Red Desert, is the more spectacular and best-known part of the Tatacoa Desert, with its red soil tinted by rich deposits of iron and manganese and eroded into spectacular shapes and formations. Along the road, viewpoints have been set up to spend time taking in the landscape, two of them being Mirador El Cuzco and Mirador Laberinto.
Los Hoyos, the Grey Desert, is about a half-hour drive from the Red Desert and is nicknamed The Valley Of Ghosts because of its surreal landscape. A short trail is the best way to view the sights, and the best time is at sunset when the colors are even more spectacular.
Why Visit The Tatacoa Desert?
Referred to as a desert, Tatacoa is more of an arid zone. Because of its past existence as a tropical forest, it is rich in plant and animal fossils. In addition to this goldmine of scientific relics, the remoteness from populated areas and the dry climate make the Tatacoa Desert one of the finest sites for stargazers, who make the most of the unpolluted atmosphere to scan the night sky.
The VyctoriaStars Astronomical Observatory is the perfect place to explore the planets. It is open to the public nightly, with telescopes and space binoculars available and informative talks designed to educate and entertain the public.
The unique natural beauty, the amazing rock formations, and the numerous hikes and trails make visiting the Tatacoa Desert a rewarding experience for photographers. The warm, dry climate makes the Tatacoa Desert a perfect destination throughout the year for those seeking a new experience off the beaten trail.
How Difficult Is It Getting To The Tatacoa Desert?
The easiest way to get to the desert is to fly from Bogota to Neiva, the closest town with an airport. It’s a one-hour flight, and you’ll need to take a bus or taxi to Villavieja, where you can book into one of a
Number of hotels or lodges.
You can do a one-day excursion to the Tatacoa Desert, but ideally, you need two days to really make the most of your visit.
3. La Candelaria Desert
The next desert on our tour, the Candelaria Desert, is unique in that it’s relatively cold, with temperatures ranging between 64⁰F and 77⁰F. Located in central Colombia, La Candelaria is also known as the Desert of Souls, as it is isolated and the home of a centuries-old monastery.
It is located in the department of Boyacá, in central Colombia. This place is also known as the “Desert of Souls” since it is far from the populated places, making it optimal for spiritual retreats.
Why Visit The Candelaria Desert?
Many travelers visit the Candelaria monastery, which is situated less than five miles from the town of
Ráquira, and was a retreat for Augustine monks since the 16th century. Beautiful buildings in a tranquil setting make this a very special place, and guided tours give visitors a glimpse into the history of the area.
In addition, the Candelaria Desert has a striking, arid landscape marked by eroded rock formations, including hoodoos, which are tall rock spires and sandstone pillars. The area is also known for its cave paintings and other archaeological remnants of past civilizations.
How Do Visitors Get To The Candelaria Desert?
There is a good road between the two towns, and one can travel by bus, which takes about 5 hours, or by taxi or car, in which case the 86-mile trip will take about 2 to2½ hours.
4. The Tatacoita Desert
The Tatacoita Desert, also known as the Nemocón Desert, is small, and one can tour it on foot in about two hours. But small can still be impressive, and this desert is just that. Situated only 30 miles from Bogota, the village of Nemocon is the closest to the desert, being 6 miles away, and where one can stay or have a meal.
What’s To See In The Tatacoita Desert?
Tatacoita gets its name due to its similarity to the Tatacoa Desert. It boasts gullies, caves, and strikingly colored rock formations, best viewed in the changing morning light.
In this small, arid desert, you’ll find many gullies, caves, sand walls up to 20 meters high, and even a canyon. Apart from this natural beauty, archaeological remnants have been discovered here, including a mammoth skeleton, and cave paintings.
Situated on a private farm, the Tatacoita Desert is well worth visiting but being private, arrangements must be made with farm management for access to this fascinating place.