We are less than an hour out of Bogotá and already the pace of life has notched down a gear. I am on my way to Sogamoso, a city four hours north-east of the capital in the department of Boyacá. The scenery is that of rural Colombia – green rolling hills covered in small farmhouses, a few strategically placed dairy cows and some dark pines lining colourful patchwork fields.
After pulling up in the main bus terminal, Sogamoso doesn’t seem to have immediate appeal. Lime kilns, cement factories and steel smelters loom among potato and onion fields: industrial productivity part and parcel of the landscape. But with its vast unending highland plains, it’s easy to escape the industry in Boyacá. In the páramos, those haunting wetlands found above 4,000 mts, frailejones still grow tall and incongruous as cacti in a desert.
Wines and Sabajón. A short cabride and I arrive at the Finca San Pedro, a pretty, family-run guesthouse on the edge of town and home to yoga teacher Juan. In time for one of Juan’s regular weekend programmes of yoga, meditation and relaxation, I am joined by a young Bogotano couple also looking to escape the daily grind. The relaxation starts with a wine tasting in the nearby vineyards of Punta Larga. Planting vines in a region better known for its staples of spuds and maize is a bold move but founder and Boyacá “Marqués” Marco Antonio Rico is doing something right. His Reisling scooped silver in an international wine tasting competition – a Colombian first – and 70 local farmers have since joined him, ditching their vegetables for vines. Established in 1982, the vinoteca is set in the middle of a vineyard atop a hill with gorgeous views of the Tibasosa valley.
Another quirky gem is the Salvaje Amistoso – Boyaca’s answer to Chia’s famed Andrés Carne de Res. In the white-washed town of Tibasosa, famous for its feijoa fruit, the restaurant is tucked away down cobbled lanes behind the handsome main square. Its name roughly translates as ‘Wild Friendship’ and the busy interior decor is festooned with campesino memorabilia, black and white photos, kitchen implements and farmer clothing. It’s quietly civilised when we arrive but I’m assured that raucous parties are the norm. Juan laughs and points up to an empty bird cage hanging just above our heads. “There’s usually a live chicken squawking about in there.” It’s a great place to sample the local specialty liquor, Sabajón, a creamy pale green concoction flavored with feijoa.
Next morning starts early with a visit to the hot sulphur springs in the rural village of Iza. First to arrive, we lower ourselves into the warm waters and gaze at the mist-clad mountain view before dawn breaks.
This Sun City. No visit to Sogamoso is complete without seeing the mighty Sun Temple. Its historic name, Sugamuxi, means ‘The City of the Sun’ in the chibcha language of the Pre-Columbian Muisca. Here, in their religious capital, they constructed a huge temple to worship their Sun deity. There’s nothing left of the original temple: it was burnt down by a pair of Spanish soldiers in 1537, but today a faithful reconstruction stands on the same site based on archaeological research. The adjoining museum of Muisca relics is ample evidence that these native peoples were some of the most developed on the continent, crafting detailed gold jewellery and ceramics, weaving patterned textiles and growing a wide range of crops to barter.
We marvel at the temple’s size and imagine the Muiscas inside, celebrating the summer solstice. Yet, we clearly don’t worship at the temple enough and our visit to the Laguna de Tota, Colombia’s highest and largest natural lake, is a wash-out, thanks to dark clouds and rain. Despite the gloom and expanse of onion fields, there are plenty of small eateries nestled on the sandy banks of the Tota lake and we try the local specialty, trucha (trout) served in thick garlic sauce.
As the night sets in, we ward-off the evening chill with a rustic herb sauna in one of the finca’s outhouses. Handfuls of dried herbs, including calendula and eucalyptus are added to huge cooking pots of water sitting on a gas stove. As the water boils, this fragrant steam goes through tubes into two hanging tents that touch the floor and sitting inside, it is bliss. Aromatherapy at high altitude.
With one day left, I go ‘pueblito’ hopping. Rattly buses full of cheerful locals run regularly from Sogamoso through the blue-skied countryside to nearby villages with names straight out of a children’s storybook. My first stop is Monguí. Nobody seems to be able to mention Monguí without talking it up as a world centre of hand-stitched footballs. But the town’s gorgeously laid-back, small village vibe is the real draw.
Steep cobbled streets are lined with houses painted in smart racing green, red and white, their window boxes dripping with vibrant geraniums and there’s a handsome village square that’s home to an imposing Cathedral.
After a ceremonial 400th anniversary in which it was voted the “most beautiful town of Boyacá” I watch a couple of ruana-clad locals ambling through the colonial square, one dragging branches for firewood, the other swinging a tin bucket of still warm goat’s milk, you have to wonder how much has changed throughout the centuries.
After strolling to the village’s picturesque bridge, constructed some 270 years ago, we head back to the main square and join a couple of elderly men sitting outside a typical tienda. Locals here still cock their hats in traditional Boyacense greeting. Carefully preserved, the village is surrounded by rolling hills that lead to the páramo of Oceta. The sunlight at this altitude takes on a magical quality, burnishing everything a mythical green/gold and November to January is the best time for trekking.
Contentedly supping a late morning beer in the sunny main plaza of the teeny artisan pueblo of Nobsa, I gaze up appreciatively at the mountain vista. With an “Ah, this is the life!” feeling, I decide I could easily while away a pleasant day or two more in the tranquil pueblos of Boyacá.
Instead, it’s onto a bus back to Bogotá. Yet I think I might have managed to take a bit of that small-town tranquility with me. Next time I have to ride the TransMilenio, at peak hour, I won’t lose my cool. Mission accomplished.