The urban sprawl of Bogota quickly gives way to the green world on any major highway out of the city. To the northeast, the rounded shoulders of the Andes channel travelers through noisy small towns … then suddenly into the breathtaking vistas of Boyacá.
We traveled there—me and Adela, my fiancé, translator and tour guide—the day after Christmas. We badly needed time alone after a holiday season spent wrangling a big happy Colombian family through novenas and tamale dinners and shopping for presents and making preparations for Baby Jesus (not Santa) to deliver gifts.
I chattered about this and that with my beautiful companion until we reached Boyacá, one of Colombia’s 32 departments (roughly equal to states in the U.S.). The talk faded fast then, except for exclamations—Oh, look at that! Wow! Looks like pictures of the Andes in my fourth-grade geography book!—as we rolled through a landscape drenched with green after December rains.
The Andes in this part of South America, barely north of the equator, made me think of a hybrid range. A traveler sees the cragged profiles of the Rocky Mountains but without the bare rock, the limestone faces grassed over instead or planted in potatoes around little houses or shadowed by eucalyptus trees. Human settlements felt like intrusions, little strange spots on a vast verdant canvas that stretched forever into the distances.
It’s so beautiful, I told Adela.
Just wait, she answered.
We left the Troncal Central del Norte (Highway 55) just past one of the most historic sites in Colombia, Puente de Boyacá. There stands a picturesque little bridge where South American revolutionary forces led by General Simon Bolivar decisively defeated the Spanish in 1819, leading to Colombian independence. On a previous trip, we spent an hour almost alone in the park and listened, spellbound, to an old attendant describe the battle so vividly and with such emotion that tears filled his eyes. You could almost believe he personally fought the battle for the bridge that day and lost friends.
After the turn to the west, the road twisted like a gray dragon through true Colombia, an agrarian country of planters and campesinos for 400 years before the urban age bred megacities like Bogota and bustling population centers like Cartagena, Cali, Medellin and Baranquilla. Farms in the mountains remain small in scale, and just as well. Many young rural Colombians today seek opportunity and prosperity in towns with bright lights and reliable Internet connections and convenient luxuries. A man leading a burro along the roadside will have silver hair. A woman bringing wood across a field will stare out from a mask of wrinkles.
We arrived about dark in Villa de Leyva, a “touristic village,” as Adela described it. After checking in at Hotel La Posada de San Antonio, we walked a short street under Christmas lights to the town’s wide cobbled plaza. A first star showed, and Adela made a wish. The Colombians wish on their stars too.
We simply walked and discovered. Life in Colombia exists behind doorways. A simple framed entrance opened like a labyrinth to shops, restaurants with candlelit tables, grills blazing under black morcillas, blood sausages. A guitarist in an open space sang in Portuguese. Another doorway took us into an art gallery with carved wood sculptures and mixed-media works and tourist prices.
We chose from several live-music options playing their hearts out under an arcade on one side of the plaza. The musician played vallenatos, the Colombian version of country music, as universally known there as Hank Williams in the states. Adela and I danced, and so did couples from a half-dozen other tables. The servers looked at their watches desperately as 1 a.m. approached, the kitchen out of food, the staff worn out by days of holiday revelry.
So much fun, I told Adela.
Just wait, she answered.
We visited a pearl strand of little towns in the next two days.
Ráquira, for example, is a town of pottery artisans. A traveler must really try, must really want, to reach it, off the beaten path as it is. The village commissioned a collection of Bunyanesque flower-pot-orange sculptures for the town plaza. It feels as if someone turned Botero loose around the pottery kilns, and the Colombian sculptor made his enormous, oversized folk the main attraction in a town of sharp traders.
Those aggressive merchants had kindred spirits in nearby Sutamarchán. Young men with red flags danced in the middle of the two-lane highway like toreadors, dodging cars and waving travelers toward their parillas, or grills. Sutamarchan’s fame rests on the sausages created there, morcillas and longanizas, long slender pork creations like chorizo. Adela and I stopped at one of the grills and enjoyed these treats with boiled potatoes and Coca-Cola.
We made our way down the road to a famous basilica in Chiquinquira. The Archbishop of Colombia led a service as we entered. Around the congregation stared down the familiar saints in their familiar tableaux … but these faces looked porcelain, lifelike, beseeching. I have seen none more beautiful anywhere in Europe or the U.S.
We made our way at day’s end to Cucunubá, a small town of maybe 500 people at the end of a long road, parts of its surface washed away in a recent flood. White dust in the bare places bleached trees, houses, even cows along the route.
Adela built a fire in our room at the Posada de Don Pedro, a charming villa-turned-hotel. We sat up very late feeding the flames and telling stories. Outside, the town square seemed utterly deserted, so still and so strange to my own eyes that I thought of Salvador Dali’s paintings again and again. I’m not sure anything feels lonelier than the streets of a little town in a foreign country where not a living thing can be seen.
But heard? That’s different.
At midnight, Adela and I caught the songs. Gorgeous. Hauntingly harmonized.
Like the songs of sirens, the music lured us out of the hotel, through the Hitchcockian darkness and weirdness of an empty hotel at witching hour. We followed sound across the town square to discover five beautiful young girls singing on the steps of a house. We listened with our hearts breaking to this miracle in the night. We danced again, floating atop the songs.
Above the town rose a steep hill, festooned at night with electrically lit holiday deer and magi. A path led vertiginously to the summit, passing along the way 14 small Stations of the Cross with nice bas-relief sculptures and brief texts in Spanish explaining the misfortunes of Christ.
The derelict church on top of the mountain had seen its own misfortunes. Doors wore heavy chains. Windows gaped, rocked out by vandals.
But travelers could see forever over the picturesque town and the beautiful fields. The mountains wore green. The sky burned so blue. Adela and I were completely alone.
At the edge of the mountain, looking down over my new home, Colombia, and the rest of our lives together, I drew her near, pulled her down on the soft grass under a tender young pine.
Make love with me, I whispered. Right here.
Don’t wait, she answered.
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.