What is so bewildering about taking a road trip anywhere in Colombia is the absence of maps. Even the most up-to-date GPS software does not really give you a complete picture of a country where often the road not taken is the one with the best view.
Recently, I was asked to accompany Charles, a relative who had overcome a difficult illness, on a pilgrimage to one of Colombia’s most holiest places and sanctuary to the Virgin of Colombia – Chiquinquira. Even though we piously agreed that we each needed a year’s supply of holy water from the Chiquinquira’s miracle spring, our weekend foray to Fuquene Lake and beyond is an excuse to leave Bogotá and try the “best of” in empanadas, yucca bread and blue cheese from Colfrance’s roadside diner.
Leaving the satellite communities of Chia and Cajicá behind and skirting Zipaquira with its legendary Salt Cathedral, our road trip begins as we enter the green valley of Ubaté, where one can appreciate old savannah-style farms, hidden behind stone entranceways and which provide much of the fresh milk consumed in the capital. At times the topography is unforgiving, the road bending through black shale and cutting through the coal mining communities of Tausa and Sutatasua. One then enters wide verdant fields, where Holsteins graze and eucalyptus trees form natural walls.
A few kilometers beyond Ubaté is the Colfrance dairy. It’s an obligatory stop on the Bogotá to Chiquinquira road for brunch in a setting like that of a Pyrenean lodge. Adjacent to Colfrance is the small town of Capellania, where another road branches off and circum- navigates Fuquene Lake, offering an alternate route, shortening the distance to Raquira, a small town of artisans in the same valley as colonial Villa de Leyva. Not wanting to reach Chiquinquira too quickly with the hoards of pilgrims lining up for ATMs, fried chicken, holy water and confession, we skirt around the Fuquene marshes and brave 30 kilometers of unpaved road to Raquira.
The pine wood forests of the Cundinamarca highlands give in to erosion, and the lunar landscape of the Boyacá valley emerges. Raquira appears at the end of the slope. It’s market day. Black ruana-clad campesinos shuffle to the local mercado carrying wicker baskets filled with onions. The town is a mix and match of bright colors and shadows. The metal spire of the town church scrapes the blue sky.
After checking in at every craft shop and examining the black earthenware pots that are molded and fired in rustic kilns Raquira is one of Colombia’s clay and pottery centers – we drive to the edge of town, where one of the area’s delicacies is measured by the meter, not the pound: Longaniza sausage.
Chewing on some cholesterol tubes and washing them down with cold beer makes us feel as if we are in heaven. Well…almost. We are still 40 kilometers away from the sacred well and feel as though our wheels still need to spin.
We pull into Chiquinquira as one mass is ending and another roaring in. The silver dome of the nation’s most venerated Basilica glows under a grey-cloud sky. Inside, the faithful are filling the nave, vestibule and arched spaces behind the altar. As beams of white light sear clouds of billowing incense, an Ave Maria rises to meet “Our Lady of the Rosary of Chiquinquira.”
It is difficult not to be stirred by the deep religious sentiment. So after a prayer for the safekeeping of our loved ones, Charles and I march off to the diocese for our holy water. For a mere $2,000 pesos for a bendy flask, we decide not to hold back and purchase dozens, for there could come a time when intense paranormal activity requires more than a few cloves of garlic and a 750 milliliter bottle.
We drive out of Chinquiquira into the hedged valley of Samacá, a picture postcard of rural Colombia. With the blue waters of Fuquene Lake now on our left and the afternoon sun glaring down at us, we are on course for the capital. Between Samacá and Ubaté, we stop one last time to examine locally woven dried reed baskets sold by the side of the road. Not an easy find in Bogotá and perfect for storage, these baskets are paid for and stuffed into the backseat.
Although we have been on the road all day, we do not really cover great distances, nor do we need a Garmin. We are the embodiment of that bumper sticker. Cheerful and confident that everything works out because “God is my copilot.”