Colombian towns run the gammut of the alphabet. Start with Anapoima or end with Zapatoca, there’s plenty of choice when deciding where to spend a weekend. There are well-covered destinations in most travel guides and whose names are synonymous with puentes – long weekends – such as the colonial Villa de Leyva, full of grace and charm, or Girardot nestled along the Magdalena River with its private clubs and retro hotels.
As Bogotá becomes more congested due to the thousands of cars circulating, the pollution and noise, the hardest part of getting away is leaving this capital of 8 million. Once you’ve made the decision to escape, plan accordingly: make sure your vehicle is road-worthy and your obligatory papers are in order. There are certain windows of opportunity when heading north on the Autopista Norte, west along the Calle 80 or southwest to the resort hotspots of La Mesa, Anapoima and Apulo, along the Calle 13.
When everyone settles down for lunch, I tend to hit the road. This gives me a small advantage when it comes to leaving the industrial belt of Bogotá. Give yourself an hour to reach the city’s limits, and remember that if you are cruising along highway concessions your toll ticket entitles you to free tow service should your clutch cable or fan belt suddenly tear. Technical obstacles aside, many of the popular getaways are scattered within a radius of 100 kms of greater Bogotá. If you decide to head towards other departments, such as Tolima, Boyacá or Santander, prepare for a more hours on the road and more cash spent on gas and tolls. There are wonderful weekend escapes on all the cardinal points of Colombia. This month, we highlight two worth getting to know
Once you’ve circumnavigated the capital of Boyacá, Tunja, and found the exit on the last roundabout to which points you towards Paipa, you enter a region of Colombia known for its cottage cheese and hot thermal springs. In the green vale which extends from Duitama to Sogamoso, every village holds on to a particular tradition. Puntalarga is dedicated to rustic wood carving, furniture making and casting bells in bronze.
By the side of the road you’ll see trunks, beds and chairs made in a colonial style. Given warm days and cold nights (bring a sweater), the hills nearby are ideal for growing grapes. Several wineries sell a Boyacá-grown Zinfandel and Chardonnay. Far from Sonoma, sleepy colonial towns such as the very picturesque Tibasosa contrast with a Tolkienesque landscape of smoldering calcite mills and the iron ore furnaces of Paz del Río.
Gateway to the highland lake of Tota, the onion fields of Aquitania, Sogamoso is an obligatory stop. There’s not much to do except tank up, buy some freshly-baked bread and chose one of the many chickens roasting in fire pits. From here, it’s all up hill. If you enjoy the poems of Dylan Thomas, you’ll feel at home as you ascend towards the coal-mining town of Tópaga.
Not much has changed during the centuries. The village church is a shrine to light and the illusion of wealth during the Spanish conquest. Thousands of small mirrors placed within the oak panel walls of the church to entice the local indigenous peoples to step in, still sparkle. The miniature mirrors have been preserved for five centuries, and during weekends the church is open for viewing.
After visiting Topaga you should end your journey in Monguí. This beautiful town with one of the largest squares in the Americas, is the closest you’ll get to high Andes travel in Colombia. There are plenty of small hotels which organize horse riding trips and hiking, so it’s worth spending the day. As you sit down by a roaring fire, covered from neck to toe in wool, you’ll be in your right to: “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”
Once you’ve endured the three hours it takes from Bogotá to Villavicencio along the steep and busy highway, you arrive in the capital of Meta. From here, the sky’s the limit. The eastern plains, or Llanos orientales, extend across the northern continent to Venezuela, the Guyanas and Brazil. A few kilometers north of ‘Villao’ you enter ranch country and the Colombian equivalent of Route 66. Don’t expect roadside attractions or the chance to freshen up at the Bates Motel.
Between one petrol station and the next, you cross the Guayabero River and start seeing neatly-stacked pineapples by the side of the road. Large plantations of African palm extend towards the horizon and the landscape dries up, with watering holes and flowering acacia trees providing much needed relief and shade for the grazing horses and cattle. Restrepo – some thirty minutes northeast from Villao was an enclave of Liberal thought during the political violence of the 1940s.
Many of the houses are still painted in red and although tensions have subsided, few in the village dare challenge the current color scheme. Find a place with a pool to relax when the midday sun heats up. For those with a steady 4×4, it’s an easy drive to the heart of pineapple country, Barranca de Upía. With more horses than cars, and a cowboy on every corner, you are an extra in a Clint Eastwood flick. When the dust settles and you need something stronger than pineapple juice, head to Cumaral. This town has plenty of accommodation for travelers exploring the foothills of the cordillera and guarantees a magnificent view of the best Los Llanos has to offer: the setting sun.