I’m a self-confessed gringa. I carried a Lonely Planet for the entirety of my travels through Colombia, and consulted it for recommended locations, hostels and restaurants. Of course, I liked to randomly wander and find my own places to enjoy, but I always had the trusty guidebook in my bag just in case. A group of men yelled gringa at me for the first time in Sogamoso, Colombia. Not out of spite or anger, but pure surprise. Locals are so unused to seeing foreigners, let alone young foreign women, that every person openly stared at me on the street. I turned heads just walking into the supermarket to buy ingredients to make pasta, and old Colombian women kept warning me to put my phone away on the street so that I wouldn’t be robbed.
While I believe that popular places are popular for a reason, I also like to make the effort to venture off the beaten path and explore rural locations. I found delight in the small villages that I discovered in the areas surrounding Sogamoso in the state of Boyacá. Boyacá is a small state in central Colombia, with the capital city of Tunja. However, I passed through Tunja and went straight to Sogamoso, with plans to explore the Laguna de Tota region. It ended up being the highlight of my entire trip to Colombia, and these are the reasons why you should be adding it to your itinerary.
- It will force you to practise your Spanish.
Sogamoso and the surrounding villages have limited tourist infrastructure. I booked one of the two hostels available on Hostelworld and the owner spoke very little English. Forcing yourself to speak more Spanish and feeling accomplished when you understand is one of the purest joys of travel in South America.
Visiting this region of Colombia will constantly test your vocabulary with directions, numbers, and basic greetings as you encounter locals in the countryside. Every farmer that I ran into was bemused by my appearance and eager to ask me why I was walking along the road. I alternated between hiking and catching buses between villages. The buses had the destination printed on the front, but I often had to double-check that it was driving the route that I wanted and finding out the cost of each small trip. While very basic Spanish would be sufficient, the ease of understanding the clear Colombian accent in this region is incredibly helpful for improving your language skills.
- The charming colonial architecture of Mongui and Cuitiva.
Mongui recently won the title of ‘the most beautiful village in Colombia’ and with that in mind, I ventured there with measured expectations. I know how some places are so over-hyped that when you get there, it all falls a bit flat, and so I always try to keep expectations low. Mongui was an absolute delight. Cobblestone paths, piercing white buildings fringed by green and red trimming, and all set against the backdrop of verdant green pastures and rolling hills. The village looks like someone plucked it straight out of a postcard, and yet I saw only two other tourists in the time that I was there. There isn’t too much in the way of attractions in Mongui, with wandering along paths and trekking back along country roads the order of the day.
Cuitiva is a village that I visited en-route to the lake. I hopped off the bus because I saw this giant imposing fountain with statues of Greek gods in it, set against the dramatic backdrop of an orange and white church. This is in a tiny Colombian village of less than 2,000 people. To me it’s just one of those bizarre things that you encounter when you leave the beaten path behind and explore a little. I used Cuitiva as a brief stopping point and kept hiking along the route to the lake, where I flagged down a bus after an hour or so of walking.
- Making unexpected friends on country roads.
For me, the true beauty of exploring the countryside is the isolation. And the dogs. Unlike in Southeast Asia, where farm dogs will chase you down the road and force you to perfect your ‘mean face’, dogs in Colombia are nothing but friendly. Farm dogs followed me for several kilometres at a time, sometimes stopping for pats, but mostly trotting ahead and stopping to make sure that I was following.
I also encountered several farmers in their pastures, who were all extremely curious as to why I was walking the isolated rural roads alone. For them, living out in the countryside is just a way of life, a way to make a living for their families. For me, I find extreme peace and the ability to process my emotions when I am alone in nature and pushing my body to its limits.
- Unique culinary experiences in Iza and Laguna de Tota.
The tiny colonial village of Iza is renowned in the region for its array of incredibly colourful and delicious desserts. If I had had more time in the region, I would have happily visited every day to satiate my sweet tooth. I visited Iza en-route to the lake, and I suggest visiting it and then walking off some of the sugar on the hike up towards Cuitiva.
The highlight of a visit to the region is undoubtedly the lake, the Laguna de Tota. It looks like something out of a dream: shimmering blue waters fringed by fine white sand, and a heavy layer of mist settled on the far horizon, obscuring villages from view. There were some locals swimming and taking boat rides on the lake, but due to the cold weather, I preferred to hike around the edges of the lake and further on towards Aquatania. There is also a single restaurant down by the waterfront, which serves a variety of fish, fresh from the lake. The specialty is ‘trucha’, the Spanish word for trout, but there are several varieties of fish on offer.
- You will have it all to yourself.
Undoubtedly, the best part of exploring this region in Colombia is that it is so un-touristed. Buses around the villages are used by locals getting to and from their farmhouses, and any tourists in the area are from different parts of Colombia. The country roads are completely empty of people, save the farmers working their land, and the entire region has an aura of both peace and adventure. I truly felt like I was exploring while travelling around the barely trodden paths between villages, and enjoying Spanish conversation with local people. If you are looking for quiet serenity away from the crowds, then this region is absolutely perfect.