The good thing about Bogotá is that it is surrounded by Colombia, so you don’t have to go far to find somewhere scenic. The closest rural area to the capital is the department of Cundinamarca which rings the mega-city and has an amazing variety of terrain from high peaks, páramo moorland, rolling farmland and jungle running down to the steamy Magdalena River to the west and the Llanos plains to the east.
Weather plays a big part of enjoying this generally rainy part of the world and the most dramatic Andean scenery soon looks likes a wet weekend in Wales once the mist comes down. Connected to this is the ancient Andean Curse of the Sun Cream, whereby shortly after applying Factor 50 it starts to rain. This leads to intense family discussions about when is actually a “right moment” to apply sun cream, or whether wearing hats instead might appease the Weather Gods. As a back-up plan, it is always good to head somewhere with thermal springs, so even if it does rain, you can sit as smug as a snow monkey in hot volcanic water.
At the Guavio Reservoir, you get hot springs and sunny weather and spectacular scenery. The reservoir, known as Embalse del Guavio, is the lake formed by a hydro dam built in 1989 and sits in spectacular canyons on the eastern slopes of the Andes about 130 kms from Bogotá. As usual, internet information on the area is sketchy. But we set off anyway with a tank full of petrol and the kids chanting from the back seat – even before we leave Bogotá – “how long before we get there?”
We exit the city along the fastest route, through La Calera to the town of Guasca, which announces itself as “Paradise on Earth.” A claim which on a sunny day one might buy into: ascending to the long broad green valley framed by high rock-combed ridges is something of a spiritual experience, and I find myself doing mental maths on the cost-benefits of owning a small finca there, until the voice of common sense shouts “come back on a rainy day.”
Even if I can’t properly explain how the scenery got here to the kids, at least I can enjoy it. And there’s plenty to enjoy. Dropping down to the towns of Sueva and Gachetá has brought us over the range with the highest peaks now behind us. It is thrilling to think that the clear mountain streams will flow thousands of kilometres through the muddy Llanos to the ancient sands of the Orinoco, all across Venezuela and out into the Atlantic.
The valley closes into the gorge of the Río Sueva, and some farmhouses nestle below massive rock overhangs. After Gachetá, we turn south towards the village of Gama. It looks close on the map but the dirt road makes a seemingly endless series of twists and turns over the steep hills. But by Gama there is still no view of the Guavio Reservoir so we head on towards Gachalá, a town further on. The kids have long since stopped asking “when will we get there,” and are now focused on their stomachs.
Then we see the lake, a turquoise ribbon of water snaking through the gorge. More surprising is a large cement bridge that spans the gorge and which abruptly ends in a sheer wooded cliff-side. Only when we get down there do we realise that the bridge leads straight into a dark tunnel. This is both exciting and scary, as it also appears endless and the lights are not working. The tunnel is curved and the walls and ceiling are damp and dripping and carved out to give a scalloped effect. All in all like the inside of an intestine. I can’t help feeling we are giving Mother Earth an endoscope.
In the middle of the tunnel, which turns out to be over a kilometre long, I stop the car and turn out the headlights so we can experience pitch dark. After a short silence comes howls of protest from the back seat, and food is suddenly back on the agenda: we head off at full speed to Gachalá, the largest town on the lake and our final destination.
In Gachalá, speed boats carry villagers across the lake to the villages and farms cut off by the dam water. The town is picturesque but very quiet. We head back the way we came, through the tunnel and over the bridge to Gama, and stop for ice-cream in the plaza. It is also as empty as a graveyard. I ask the woman at the ice cream shop where everyone is.
We backtrack to Gachetá then up the steep valley towards Sueva. A few minutes drive along the valley are thermal pools and small hotels and cabins, we stay at one – the Campo Alegre – with a thermal pool right by the boulder-strewn Rio Gachetá. The owner seems quite surprised to see us. “How did you know there was a hotel here?” he asks, sweeping dust and leaves out of the small apartment rooms. “We saw your hotel sign as we drove past,” I explain. The hotel is shabby but the hot pool is delicious, fed by near-to- boiling water piped from a natural spring on the opposite hillside.
Next morning we are back in the hot pool, steaming in the morning chill, before back over the páramo to Guasca where we stop to fish for trout at a ‘sport fishing’ lake. I use the term lightly since the hungry fish seem to jump onto the hook and the real skill seems to be how not to catch anything bearing in mind you are charged by weight of fish caught (and no returns, to the water that is).
After 30 minutes fishing we have hauled out six large trout, our budget gone and our freezer space full. So back down to Bogotá, refreshed, relaxed and revitalised, though the car smelling a bit fishy.
If you enjoy reading Steve Hide’s articles visit his website for more stories and adventures in the Colombian countryside: www.travelswithmitzi.blogspot.com