5 Reasons to Leave the Gringo Trail in Boyacá, Colombia

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.

Map of villages in the region.

  1. 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.

  1. The charming colonial architecture of Mongui and Cuitiva.

 

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Beautiful bridge in Mongui

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Architecture in Mongui

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Mongui architecture

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.

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The dramatic fountain of Cuitiva

  1. 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.

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This dog walked with me for half an hour

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.

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  1. 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.

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A delightful meringue and mango creation in Iza.

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.

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An entire fried fish enjoyed next to the lake.

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  1. 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.

Getting to and from Sogamoso: I travelled to Sogamoso from San Gil, which is a five hour trip to Tunja, then switching to a 1 hour trip on a minibus to Sogamoso. There are direct Sogamoso buses to and from Bogotá; the trip takes around 3 hours depending on the traffic in the capital.
Getting to and from Mongui: There are direct minibuses from the bus depot in Sogamoso. The terminal can be found on Carrera 17, #1-23. All taxi drivers know it if you ask for the terminal, or it was a 20 minute walk from my accommodation. The buses to Mongui leave every half hour from Sogamoso and take 45 minutes. To get back, buses leave directly from the main square of Mongui every half hour, but you can also start walking down the road and hail the bus down along the way.
The circuit (Iza, Cuitiva, Laguna de Tota, Aquitania): All of  these villages are along the same bus route. The bus to Iza leaves from opposite the petrol station at the intersection of Calle 9 and Carrera 10. The bus leaves every 20 minutes or so and takes just under an hour. From here, you can start walking the road to Cuitiva and a bus drives past every half hour on this road if you wish. The final destination of most of these buses is the lake, but the destinations are written on the front of the bus or you can ask the driver. Getting home from the lake, start walking the road to Aquitania. Buses drive past every half hour to an hour, and they will take you to Aquitania and then return to Sogamoso. You can complete this circuit with a mixture of hailing buses along the road and hiking, depending on what you feel like. Each leg of the bus ride costs less than $3.

 

By | 2017-08-22T15:50:19+00:00 June 9th, 2017|travel inspiration|15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Medha Verma July 22, 2017 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    The pictures of Mongui, its old village charm and Laguna de Tota’s beautiful green waters are absolutely wonderful ! Looks like such a lovely laid back place where you can go to spend some time with yourself.

    • Her Travel Therapy July 22, 2017 at 8:26 pm - Reply

      Thanks, it truly is a gorgeous part of the world.

  2. wraekelb August 11, 2017 at 2:04 am - Reply

    Really interesting read! I’m about to go to Colombia next month, definitely didn’t plan on Sogamoso and Mongui but i might try to squeeze it in, it looks lovely!

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:21 pm - Reply

      I seriously recommend, it’s well worth it!

  3. beccajtalbot August 11, 2017 at 6:19 am - Reply

    You know my feelings about Colombia Kate, so no need for me to harp on and on 😉 but it’s so funny what you said about the old women warning you about your phone – my friend’s mum warned me about too all the time when we were in Bogota haha! x

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:20 pm - Reply

      Yeah it’s always the old women looking out for the young, dumb tourists!

  4. forever roaming the world August 11, 2017 at 9:40 am - Reply

    Ahhh, I had head about Sogamoso when I was in Colombia, a few long-term travelers I had met had told me about it when I was in San Gil but I didn’t get to get out there. Reading this post has made me regret that now. And I’m right there with you about being forced to talk more Spanish than you know and having that sense of accomplishment when you can understand them and in return give the right answer back. Ahh I’m missing Colombia now 😀

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:19 pm - Reply

      Hopefully you can make it back to Colombia one day! I miss it so much too and I’ve only been home for 5 months…

  5. Wendy August 11, 2017 at 6:20 pm - Reply

    The architecture, the food, the desolated beaches,… It all looks great.

  6. Suman doogar August 11, 2017 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this article too as I did the last one. Even i used to carry Lonely Planet in my bag all the time but then I started traveling light and ditched the book..

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      Thanks! I find it more useful for trip inspiration than while actually on the road.

  7. Miranda Knudtson August 11, 2017 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    Looks like you had a lovely experience away from the city! I don’t think I could personally, but mostly because my Spanish is extremely limited ha! Just the basics, and a few random words.

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:17 pm - Reply

      At least you have some basics! I met some travellers with zero Spanish.

  8. Marina Asplund August 12, 2017 at 6:22 pm - Reply

    Colombia is for sure a beautiful country! I’ve heard lots of bad and good things, but this makes me wanna put Colombia higher up on my bucketlist 🙂

    • Her Travel Therapy August 12, 2017 at 6:41 pm - Reply

      Definitely give it a chance! It’s well worth it.

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