Iza’s provenance is disputed. The Spanish built in Boyacá – their most notable foundation its capital Tunja – as the countryside reminded them of Castile. With its pale green and yellows, expansive cactused mesetas and whispering pine forests the region does bear a resemblance to the old House of Trastámura, although the luxuriant tropical vegetation gives it away as Colombian. The official founder of Iza is Rodrigo Egas de Guzman, a conquistador-lite of the late 16th century. But locals attest to the existence of an indigenous town long beforehand.
This contention seemed justified when in 1895 the name of the town was changed to Santa Isabel. Iza, derived from the word “night” in the Chibcha language, meant prostitute in 19th colloquial Spanish and a priggish local committee deemed it insufficiently pious. Fortunately, for philological diversity at least, the change was short lived.
Iza stands in the shadows of its more recognised neighbours, Monguí (where many of the world’s footballs are made) and the celebrated Villa de Leyva. At least this leaves the place free of tourists, which makes strolling through the bona fide colonial streets a tranquil affair. The plaza mayor is a chaotic masterpiece of 16th century Spanish and 19th century Italianesque architecture, dominated by enormous pines and brightened by hydrangea. On Sundays it is filled with locals selling an enormous range of obleas, Colombian sweet pastries and snacks.
For many weekenders, a trip to Iza is synonymous with trout and wild fruit terrines. Competition is fierce among the fishmongers and eateries of Iza, just don’t expect too much variation on the trout theme as it is either grilled a la plancha or coated in butter garlic. And fish is a family moment. Restaurants have expanded to include their own private theme parks, while SUVs jostle for parking among the Eucalyptus.
Magic in the water
The town is currently best known for its hot thermal springs, which, as all hot thermal springs are wont to do, impart healing properties. They are undoubtedly pleasurable to splash around in, which is possible at a number of privately owned baths and hotels.
Perhaps there is a little magic in the water, since it must have ultimately filtered down through the mountains from the Laguna de Tota, a few kilometres to the southeast. According to legend the lake (hardly a lagoon), was formed when a pre-Hispanic family were bequeathed by the gods a precious vessel of water. With the vessel they were to create a lake in a suitable spot. Unfortunately the precocious children spilt the water, immediately drowning the surrounding area and turning the family into local landmarks. This, at least, is what the large tourist information sign by the side of the water says. Locals are more sceptical.
The lake is still a bewitching place, by virtue of its beauty if not its mythology. Set in a mountainous amphitheatre, its shores are divided into a patchwork of greens, browns and yellows. These are onion fields, and indigenous campesinos have cultivated the vegetable there since time immemorial. The history is not only living, but breathing. For thousands of years the place must have smelt of onions.
The onion fields are a classic example of the damaging environmental impact of intensive cultivation and monoculture. Modern fertilisers leaching into the lake are creating a plateau of algae. This aside, Laguna de Tota is a spectacular location for a picnic, or simply a stroll next to the waters. On rather blustery days the lake is a popular destination of windsurfers and other outdoor sports. In keeping with another Boyacá tradition, there is beer and plenty of it. Head into Aquitania, and you’ll see a town that works from tiendas stacked high with bright beer crates.
Three hours drive from Bogotá, this corner of Boyacá is a world away from the traffic-choked metropolis. It is also an ideal escape for those who enjoy the cottage atmosphere and warmth of a woolly jumper.