Since most of my travel plans in the precious few days here and there involve the ubiquitous journeys up to Mompos from Bogotá to check up on the chuzo, I am finding fewer opportunities to involve myself in an activity so close to my heart…exploring my adopted homeland, so with no plans to head up to the coast during this past Semana Santa, I leapt at the opportunity to take the family on a Boyacá road trip.
In fact, this is something I had been craneando or mulling over in my head for some time. So close to the capital and outside of the weekend destinations of Villa de Leyva and Raquira, this is a region almost wholly unknown to me. So, that was it, a Boyacá road trip was loosely planned and we set off on the most Colombian of holidays with a rough outline of where to go and what to do.
My reference as to this being the most Colombian of holidays can be justified in that we were doing as a Colombian family would do (although I hasten to add that we left our Weimaraner in a kennel and neither brought the mother in law nor extended family members), hitting the road, direction unknown, to explore Boyacá, as if following in the footsteps of Simon Bolivar’s British Legion, we would explore colonial towns and stop at each and every byway and highway and main plaza to enjoy some of the culinary delicacies of the region.
And Boyacá did not disappoint.
And while I have claimed that this was a Colombian holiday, I will have to admit to you all that on one thing I did not cede and my Britishness won out. I did advance book a room in a centrally located and beautifully sprawling colonial hacienda called the Hostería San Luis de Ucuengá in Punta Larga on the road between Sogamoso and Duitama.
I am reliably informed by a friends from Boyacá that the best merengon (a sort of Eton Mess!) in Boyacá, created by “pioneers” of the dessert, is found on a Y junction between the towns of Nobsa and Tibasosa. But, I have to say that my favourite was eaten in the plaza of Nobsa. Tibasosa is worth a shout out in that after a short conversation with a vendor in the plaza there we were invited to some traditional chicha and to try out some genovés locally made sausage too. Overall the food was of an excellent quality and very reasonably priced.
Our exploratory loops included the aforementioned towns of Nobsa, Tibasosa but we also spent time in Paipa, Aquitania, Tota, Cuitiva, Firavitoba and Mongui. Yes, the Laguna de Tota is spectacular and well worth visiting, although during Semana Santa – like everywhere else in the country – it was very crowded. I still cannot believe people would bathe in that water at 3.115 meters above sea level. And, as is the custom, a nearby asadero put on their music at full and distorted levels so as to be sure we knew that they were open for business. So Playa Blanca in all of it’s pristine and natural glory as the second highest navigable lake in South America behind Boliva and Peru’s Lake Titicaca, was less spiritual than one would have liked.
The penetrating smell of spring onions in the air could become overwhelming in between Tota and Aquitania, but the scenes of the hardworking folk performing the backbreaking task of hauling them from the fertile soil almost seemed worthy of a National Geographic photo expose.
Talking about hardworking though, chatting idly to a salesperson in a shop selling, predictably, balls in Mongui (the town produces balls of all shapes and sizes), I was informed that the town had been contracted by Heineken to produce 50,000 footballs for a campaign soon to be released. These balls need to be handed over in the space of just two months, so, everyone is working hammer and tongs to comply with the contract. Mongui also made the football for the Brazil World Cup, the Brazuca.
But what really caught my imagination was the historic nature of the region, not only for the strong and omnipotent pre-Columbian roots but also for the importance of the region to the independence of Colombia (or New Granada as it was then) from their Spanish colonial masters.
The Commander-in-Chief of Bolivar’s British Legion was an Irishman named James Rooke, who is celebrated in various parts of Colombia, but no more so than in Boyacá. Rooke passed away a few days after the battle from his injuries and subsequent amputation from wounds acquired during the Batalla del Pantano de Vargas on July 25 1819 in the town called Belencito. He is also honoured with a splendid bust in the main plaza, named in his memory as well, in the town of Paipa.
Heading to the Pantano de Vargas to see the hulking sculpture of the Lanceros by Rodrigo Arias Betancur erected 1969 is well worthwhile if only to hear the experts talking about the developments of this pivotal battle and learning about some of the principal actors. I had no idea about the story behind the Guahibo indian from Arauca, Inocencio Chincá, who rose to the rank of Sergeant in the army for independence and dying in Tibasosa from wounds sustained in the same battle. Is his rank and acceptance a display of emancipation in 19th Century Colombia or more of a case of all hands to the good fight?
Also visited was the Puente de Boyacá on the way back to Bogotá to check out the memorials to the battle of Boyacá which took place on August 7, 1819. At the base of the hill, represented by a bumpy mound there is another monument to James Rooke and his men and once again offering me a chance to feel closer to my adopted homeland through a shared notion of history.