From Alabama to Colombia: A Turn in the Country

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From Alabama to Colombia: A Turn in the Country

As I see

more and more of Colombia, I grow more and more to love one special place. Mountainous, moody, and green, Boyacá lies north and east of Bogotá. I’ve visited the historic Colombian state a half-dozen times now, and each trip reveals deeper wonders.

A traveler from Bogotá enters Boyacá about 85 kilometers (50-odd miles) and several centuries from the complicated, shoulder-to-shoulder pressures of the capital city. Boyacá feels distinct. Every trip, I recall my fourth-grade geography textbook, with off-register color photos over a mysterious two-word caption: The Andes.

From the Boyacá state line, green peaks lurch skyward, range after range of massive mountain waves rolling to the horizon. Flotsam of farm houses and little fields of potatoes and forest bob here and there, and, far away, human settlements float atop the greenness like isolated marinas, the mast-like spires of churches pointing to heaven.

Those little settlements hold the secret pleasures of Boyacá.

One waits at Suescún Hacienda Hotel, a rambling country estate just outside Sogamoso. The house-turned-hotel has stood under gigantic eucalyptus trees for a couple of centuries now, and its literature claims that Simon Bolivar, the George Washington of four or five South American nations, slept here in 1819. The most famous of all Latin Americans no doubt rested in comfort.

A visitor approaches Suescún Hotel under tall trees that shade green fields and black bulls. (The impressive toros make their way into bullfighting rings, the sharp-horned villains in a blood sport still legal in Colombia.) The dirt drive passes under an arch onto a cobbled path, then swings in front of the long, low hacienda. Broad wooden porches stretch the length of the house, where guests room in back and in a few flanking stucco cottages. Purple and red bougainvillea blossoms fight for light through thick masses of Spanish moss and hosts of bromeliads that drop randomly from the trees—pling!—onto metal tables and chairs in a front formal garden.

The Suescún makes a great base camp for exploring Boyacá. After a three-hour drive from Bogotá, its peace feels profound. Out back, grassy fields stretch a hundred meters up to enormous andesite boulders and prehistoric trees. Kids and dogs gallivant. Some brave soul climbed high into the eucalyptus giants and secured ropes to make impossibly high swings like those you see in English landscape paintings, with flush-cheeked girls in blue velvet dresses arcing halfway to the sky, their tresses flying.

The hotel has a library, mostly Spanish-language. My novia, Adela Castro, an ophthalmologist, loves cracking open the handsome leather-bound medical texts from the 1800s. Beside a crackling fire in the big friendly drawing room, Dr. Castro thumbs through pages. Her expression wordlessly says, “Medicine certainly has changed since the days of leeches and blood-letting.”

A special collection of children’s books waits behind glass at the hotel reception desk. Olga, the hotel manager, makes these available by request.

The Suescún is mostly a place for rest and reflection. The picturesque rooms with their glowing fireplaces feel impossibly romantic after a twilight walk about the hacienda grounds, where bulls bugle from the shadows and fireflies flash the semaphore of love. The moon appears bigger here, spilling light down over distant mountains, silvering limbs and draped mosses. When the urge to see more of Boyacá kicks in, a turn in the countryside brings pleasant discoveries.

One recent

trip, we spent a day driving 25 kilometers (15 miles) south to Laguna de Tota, set like a blue jewel in high mountains. Impressive? Tota iglistens in heights accessed only by a twisting two-lane that offers panoramic views of a rustic world as green as Ireland. Unusual? Stateside, I can’t think of any lake where agriculture, not resorts or vacation homes, crowds the lapping shoreline. The Colombians around Tota grow onions, fields of them, eye-watering with fragrance at harvest time, and the onion fields end where the water begins. (Does the lake taste like vichyssoise?) Houses and restaurants along the road display countless signs for trucha, trout, cooked different ways, each kitchen with its own secrets.

The Tota road veers from stony heights down to an actual, honest-to-goodness beach, with natural white sand and even a few umbrellas. Crowds collect on la playa blanca, and so do odd events. My first visit, a beachside poster announced the “World Beach Volleyball Championship” would soon take place. Workers loudly constructed a temporary stage for musicians and award presentations. One or two intrepid swimmers waded in the chilly lake waters.

Not far from the Suescún lies another surprise—Tibasosa.

The main street of this pueblo holds a median done to death with lovingly tended flowers and palms. The town plaza bustles with locals on a fiesta day like one we saw, this to celebrate feijoa, a fig-like fruit of great versatility. Feijoa can be canned, spread, pickled, eaten sweet, blended with other fruits … and it makes a very delicious popsicle, to judge by the avid attention Ana Maria, our little 8-year-old, gave to hers. Fiesta musicians in native costumes as colorful as the plumage of tropical birds reminded me of more pictures in my Latin American geography textbook. The performers sang in Spanish and clapped in rhythm to guitars, harps, and violins.

Tibasosa carries a distinction in a machista land. A wall mural across the front of a government building illustrates how the culture of this little town has been uniquely shaped and developed by … women. One willful-looking painted female figure after another adorns the white-washed wall, under official titles (alcaldesa, mayor), dates of service, and many proud accomplishments.

Don’t miss a traditional dessert of Tibasosa … and elsewhere in Colombia, but of special quality here. Merengón has layers of crisp, crunchy meringue, sweetened with thick yellow custard then tarted by fresh fruit – strawberries, peaches, guanabana, feijoa, and whatever else a creative cook adds. I wanted more before the last bite disappeared.

Finally, east of Sogamoso down a picturesque whitewater stream, past a sprawling rust-colored steel mill that employs many locals, and then up a winding road lie scenes that unexpectedly bring to mind forested mountain backroads south of Sedona, in Arizona. When you reach Monguí, you feel possibly at the end of the known world.

The mountain town appears to support itself selling balls—all kinds of balls, for all sports, displayed in big nets like a fishing catch in front of stores around the town square. A historic church boasts some famous native gold ornamentation. A big surprise here is a little off-square restaurant, La Casona, that serves inventive dishes showcasing local vegetables and goods. I ordered trout tangerine. Chicken breasts arrived stuffed with a local ham. An unknown mountain root like a turnip, garnished with a yellow cheese-and-herb sauce, made a hit.

The view from a small table on the open back porch of La Casona looks like … guess what? Yes, another photo from the pages of a geography text. You’ll savor the feel of the high Andes from this vantage point. You’ll probably take your very own photographs to remember it all.

Photo: Ráquira, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.