The bizarre Tatacoa Desert makes for a worthwhile detour en route from Bogotá to San Agustín or Tierradentro. Measuring just 300 square kilometres, tiny Tatacoa’s arid topography – complete with cracked earth, giant cacti, orange-and-grey soil and towering red rock sculptures – is all the more astonishing because it lies only 37km northeast of Neiva, a city encircled by fertile coffee plantations. Scorpions, spiders, snakes, lizards, weasels and eagles have all found a home here, while fossils indicate that the area was an ancient stomping ground for monkeys, turtles, armadillos and giant sloths.
Some of the fossils are on display at the paleontology museum, on the main plaza in the village of Villavieja, 4km from the desert. Villavieja has a few basic hotels and restaurants, but since one of Tatacoa’s chief attractions is the amazing night sky, it pays to stump up for one of the basic four-walls-and-a-corrugated-iron-roof deals in the desert itself; accommodation is scattered along the road just past the observatory, the desert’s focal point. In the evenings, don’t miss local astronomer Javier Fernando Rua Restrepo’s star show, where you get to observe the night sky from his three powerful telescopes (weekends 7–9.30pm; by appointment on weekdays; COP$10,000; t 310 465 6765). Across the road from the observatory, there’s a lookout point over the Laberintos de Cusco – the maze of otherworldly red rock formations. A 45-minute trail runs down from the red-roofed bar through this labyrinth to the main road; a number of locals also offer guided desert tours by car, mototaxi or horseback. The best time to explore the desert is early morning before the heat becomes intolerable (temperatures frequently reach 43°C).