For most travelers, Tunja is the chilly place where you switch buses between Bogotá and Villa de Leyva. Yet for history lovers, reli- gious art enthusiasts, and curious visitors this small city offers a window into both traditional Andean culture and a rich history stretching back over two thousand years.
Situated at 2,782 metres above sea level in the department of Boyacá, Tunja boasts 10 universities, abundant colonial architecture, and unique gastronomic fare. This city is also home to the Aguinaldo Boyacense, seven nights of live music and debauchery as ruana-clad locals count down to Christmas, and an extravagant December light display in nearby Puente de Boyacá that can probably be seen from outer space.
Some of the first inhabitants of this icy mountaintop were the Muiscas, who ruled the towns of Boyacá from a city they called Hunza. Spanish chronicles depict Hunza as a place of breathtaking beauty and describe the chief’s house as a golden dwelling, decorated with eagle statues and giant shells, which chimed musically when the wind blew.
As was their custom, the Spanish conquistadors desecrated indigenous structures upon their arrival in 1539 and built their churches over the rubble of Muisca temples. Little remains of the Muiscas today apart from the ruins of the Cojines del Zaque, a sun worship site, and a few artifacts housed in the sparsely decorated Museo Arqueológico de Tunja.
When it comes to Spanish colonial history, on the other hand, Tunja offers a plethora of 16th century churches that range from excessively adorned to nearly blinding. The Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, founded in 1560, falls into the latter category and is covered from floor to ceiling with gold-flecked paint. Visitors can admire a dizzying assortment of Moorish mudéjar designs, indigenous symbols and baroque figures as well as fresco paintings depicting a Biblical apocalypse. Any inch of space not covered in gold is decorated with life-sized wooden statues and ghostly paintings of martyred Dominican priests. If you find yourself overwhelmed, friendly tourism police offer free tours.
The Templo de Santo Domingo is connected to other colonial churches worth visiting, including Santa Clara la Real and the Basílica Metropolitana de Santiago el Mayor, via a system of now defunct tunnels. Built to safely transport worshippers during the colonial period and later in ‘La Violencia,’ the tunnels were designed in the form of a labyrinth so that only authorized visitors could find their way. Rumor has it that priests and nuns who had broken their vows also used the tunnels for clandestine meetings.
On the main plaza, the Casa del Fundador, home to Tunja’s first Spanish leader, serves as a museum showcasing 16th century furniture, tapestries, and artwork. Fresco paintings of frowning rhinoceroses grazing near South American deer offer a glimpse into the active imaginations of the mansion’s inhabitants. These paintings were covered with whitewash during a smallpox outbreak in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease, but have since been partially restored.
The Biblioteca Alfonso Patiño Rosselli also bears scars from Tunja’s history. This building has served as a convent, a university, a hospital and a prison. Locals say the ghosts of prisoners, killed by means of Chinese water torture, still haunt the library, which today forms part of the Banco de la República network.
Tunja also has its share of gastronomic curiosities. On Thursdays locals go to the Runta neighborhood to eat picada: A heaping plate of sausages served with lime, potatoes, and chicharónes. If you happen to be in Tunja on a Thursday, Restaurante Doña Rosalba offers a popular picada as well as, cuchuco con espinazo, a hearty soup made from pork backbone. Any other day of the week, Villa Real in the city center serves a fixed lunch menu of typical Boyacense fare. The best arepas boyacenses, filled with sweet cheese, can be found at Delicias Boyacenses.
For nighttime entertainment try your hand at tejo, Colombia’s national game and big in small town Boyacá whose objective is to launch an iron disk so that it hits a pocket of gunpowder imbedded in a mound of clay. Instead of charging for tejo courts, propri- etors insist that each group buys a case of beer. Imagine metal disks whizzing through the air, gunpowder exploding, and tipsy teams arguing over points and you’ll get the idea. This game is not for the faint of heart.
If you plan on spending the night in Tunja, Hotel Hunza offers luxury accommodations and Hostería San Carlos provides more economical rooms near the Plaza de Bolívar. Of course, you could always forgo sleep to join the droves of Tunjanos nursing bottles of aguardiente in the bars north of town, then breakfast at the Caldo Parado, a local institution that offers beef broth any time of the day or night to the hungry and hung over.