Ponchos but no vegetables in Boyaca, Colombia

Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva

Ponchos. You just can’t get away from them in the Andes. I’d always associated them with the higher Andean countries further south, like Ecuador and Peru, but it turns out they’re all the rage here in Colombia. At least in the mountains north of Bogotá in the district of Boyaca. In the beautiful and relaxed colonial town of Villa de Leyva, just a few hours by bus from Bogotá, people are wearing them, and shops are selling them. But try to get a vegetable on your plate and you’ll really struggle. Keeping warm seems a higher priority than maintaining a balanced diet.

Ponchos for sale in Villa de Leyva

The Andes split in two in Colombia as they descend to the Caribbean coast and I’m following the Eastern Range. The mountains may not be as spectacular as further south, but there’s plenty to see, travelling is easy, the people are friendly and the climate is milder. Villa de Leyva is an attractive colonial town with one of the biggest squares in the Americas. I spent several days here just wandering the cobbled streets soaking up the atmosphere and looking in vain for a vegetable. 

Spot the poncho

There are lots of sights around town too and I took a local bus out to the Convento del Santo Ecce Homo, a Dominican monastery founded 400 years ago. By chance it happened to be the day of the monastery’s festival and so on the walk up I joined the procession. On the way back I stopped off at the Fossil Museum, which is famous for a 120 million year old 7 metre long kronosaurus fossil, along with hundreds of other smaller ones too. 

Festival at the Convento del Santo Ecce Homo

My next stop heading north was Sogamoso. Here I spent a day at Lago de Tota which has a beach, Playa Blanca, one of the highest in the world at 3015m. It’s a nice place to relax, but the water was not exactly tropical. I had a nice lunch in the restaurant right on the beach, steak and all kinds of carbohydrates. I also struck lucky with half a slice of tomato and a limp lettuce leaf.

Playa Blanca

The next day I had a demanding trek through the Páramo de Oceta. A Páramo is a geographical area over 3000m with lakes and grassy plains and, as I discovered, often very wet. I took a bus to the village of Mongui where I met my guide, Juan, who’s descended from the local Muisca people. It was a hard climb, gaining 1000m in 3 hours and the wind and rain were strong. There is a viewpoint where you can see a lake, but the clouds were rolling in obscuring everything that day. We did see the unique plants, though, the so called frailejones. 

Páramo de Oceta

I’ll be heading north soon on my way to the coast and the altitude will drop, so ponchos will become rarer no doubt. I’m just hoping that vegetables will become more abundant. In fact, you see them in markets, it’s just that restaurants seem to think it would offend your carnivorous sensibilities to serve them up. The big question, though, is if will I be able to avoid the temptation of buying a poncho later in my trip. And would I actually wear it?

Frailejones
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Cutting through the cliches – five days in Bogotá

Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

Tell your friends and family you’re going to Colombia and you’ll probably get two reactions. The first will usually be a look of shock – “Isn’t it really dangerous?” The second might be a knowing wink and a finger tapping of the nose. Drug cartels, mules, paramilitaries and death squads are all synonymous with this country, but things have changed recently, especially after the signing of last month’s peace treaty with the rebel group FARC. Colombia has been back on the tourist trail for a few years now and it’s time to see beyond the cliches. 

Death mask at the Gold Museum

When I first came to Colombia in 1999 there was a real sense of danger. It was impossible to travel by bus for fear of being kidnapped. Within a few paces of my hotel in Bogotá I passed a man wielding an enormous knife. Passers by froze in their tracks. Arriving by cab at my hotel in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, a dealer stuck his head through the window while I was paying the driver and offered me drugs. I hadn’t even set foot on the street! And just before I arrived in Cali, an entire church congregation had been taken hostage.

The Gold Museum

In the five days I’ve spent here in Bogotá I’ve felt completely safe, although the usual safety precautions apply like in any big city. La Candelaria is the downtown area with historic buildings and colonial churches. This is also where the new backpacker scene is located with several hostels and bars.

Graffiti tour in downtown Bogotá

The two museum highlights are the Museu del Oro (Gold Museum) and the Museu Botero which has paintings and sculptures by the Colombian artist Fernando Montero who likes to paint big, huge people. It’s also huge fun. But the best thing I did was a street art tour, which takes you through the neighbourhood and also gives you history not only of local graffiti artistes but also the city and country itself. It’s illuminating and intriguing. 

Shop with graffiti in La Candelaria

I’ve enjoyed the rest of my time simply wandering the streets, discovering simple food in local eateries, dancing to raggaeton music (still not sure about that, maybe it’ll grow on me) and practising my Spanish. 
Street art in La Candelaria

What impressed me most on my first visit 17 years ago was the extraordinary friendliness of the people and the huge diversity of the country. It has everything from beaches, to mountains, to the Amazon. I saw almost no other foreign tourists on that trip. Now I’m at the beginning of a six month journey through South America and I’m keen to see the changes that have occurred and be able to explore areas that were once off limits.

Street art in La Candelaria