Boyaca is a picturesque department of green fields, glacial lakes and charming Spanish colonial villages; popular with Colombian tourists, rarely visited by foreigners.
The region of Boyaca reminds me of the European Alps with its vast open plains, green pastures and backdrop of lofty mountains.
And while Villa de Leyva and Mongui are the most visited towns in Boyaca, there are over a dozen more beautiful mountain villages, rarely visited, but waiting to seduce travelers with their underrated charms.
Boyaca is located in central Colombia, south of Bucaramanga and San Gil in the department of Santander with the city of Bogota to the southwest. Boyaca extends across a mountain region in Colombia’s Eastern Cordillera Oriental Andean chain. The average elevation is 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) and the temperature is refreshingly cool, 18 degrees C. (64 degrees F.) during the day and dropping down to 9 degrees C. (48 degrees F.) during the night. It will require you to break out those sweaters you may have not yet used in your Colombian travels. You won’t need any heavier gear unless you plan on hiking to the snow capped peaks and high paramos of the Cocuy or Pisba National Parks.
There are adequate lodgings and restaurants to make anyone of these colonial villages in Boyaca a perfectly good place to stay. But if a base with an abundance of amenities is what you require, then the small cities of Duitama and Sogamoso fit the bill. Duitama is my preferred base. It is closer to Pueblito Boyacanese and the village of Paipa with its lake and thermal spas. It is a clean and organized town. While Sogomoso is closer to the villages of Mongui, Nobsa and the Lake Tota it is at a higher altitude and can get cold at night.
Paipa – Thermal Spas on Lake Sochagota
Paipa is on the road between Tunja and Duitama. It is famous for its hot and salty spring waters. There is a town named Paipa on the main road. The buses stop in town 4 km. from the spa. Get a taxi to Lake Sochagota just outside of town. There is a public beach on the north side of the lake. The Hotel Hacienda del Salitre and spa are located on the other side of the lake past a boat dock and boardwalk called Playa Muelle.
The spa is open to the public. It is called the ITP pool and is run by Paipa’s tourist office.
Most people come to enjoy the aquatic park where there are some nicely heated thermal pools. The biggest is Pozo Azul, there’s also a pool of green algae and a jacuzzi pool with a water slide. Changing rooms, showers and lockers are poolside.
Adjacent to the park is an enclosed more private spa called Terminal y Centro de Hidroterapia where hydrotherapy spa treatments are carried out. One has to book an appointment at the spa to use the services. Many seem to book their appointments at the Hotel Salitre next door or in town. But they will take same day bookings at the spa. It did prove hard to get much information on their services from the ITP pool side offices. But I did get an appointment 2 hours after I showed up on a weekday. While waiting, I soaked in the pool and sun-bathed on the deck.
The spa offers guided group spa sessions of hydrotherapy, with thermal water pools, mud baths, jacuzzis, dry and wet saunas. The pool treatments feature warm, salt water jacuzzis and warm pools with spigots firing jets of water to be used as a massage followed up by a dip in another pool of cold water.
After an hour soaking in the pools, they direct you to a hot sauna for 20 minutes. Come out and you’ll be given a bowl of green, volcanic algae to smear over yourself. You let the green toxin removing slime dry on your skin followed by a courtyard shower and finishing with a session in the dry sauna.
Separately, a 30 minute shatsu massage can be booked after the spa or later in the day. Go back out and enjoy the public pools where there is a bar serving food and cold drinks.
The hydrotherapy sessions cost 65,000 COP, the massage 46,000 COP and it costs 18,000 COP to get into the aquatic park pools. But one could book a spa session and after grab a book, lounge chair and enjoy the public pools at no extra charge. The spa is open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and the pools from 6 a.m. – 9:45 p.m.
There is a renown park and statue worth seeing just up a winding road from the spa. For 30,000 COP, a taxi will take you up to the Partano de Vargas, park overlooking a valley of green pastures where the army of Simon Bolivar mounted a significant attack on the Spanish in 1819. One of the final battles, it is credited with securing the independence of Colombia.
The taxi will wait while you walk to the plaza and circle the massive statue, 33 meters high, depicting a struggle where 14 lance carrying patriots charged the Spaniards on horseback turning the outcome of the confrontation in their favor.
Raquira – Pottery Capital of Colombia
This town is mind-blowingly impressive and has to be one of Colombia’s best kept secrets.
The town dates back to Muisca people who lived here long before the Spanish conquest. Raquira, whose name means ‘City of Pots’, has been famous for its ceramics and pottery since pre-Colombian times. Pottery has always been the town’s bread and butter. They make the pottery in brightly colored, 3-story buildings in town. The families live upstairs, their shops are on the main floor with their store fronts spilling out onto main street.
The main market is on Sunday when the market is in full swing. The farmers and vendors set up stalls amid the clay sculptures on the main plaza in front of the church San Antonio de Padua. The stores on main street sell everything from ceramic bowls, plates and cups to artwork and pottery hammocks, ponchos, wood carvings and jewelry . People start coming in on Friday night and there’s an abundance of accommodating hotels and restaurants in town.
To get there: take a bus from Tunja to Villa de Leyva 8,000 COP. This would also be a great day trip from Villa de Leyva. From the bus station in Leyva take a bus to Raquira – 45 minutes – 9,000 COP. The buses run every 90 minutes or so. Afternoon buses leave at 12:30 p.m. 3:00 p.m. 4:30 p.m. but that is the last one of the day. The last buses from Raquira to Leyva are also in the late afternoon.
Raquira – the Pottery Capital of Colombia – for more information.
Nobsa – a village famous for handmade wool ponchos.
Nobsa is a village famous for its production of wool ruanas, commonly referred to as ponchos. But there is a distinction between the two: Colombian ponchos are lightweight and made of cotton and used in the warm weather countryside while ruanas are heavier, cold weather garments, made of wool.
Founded in 1593, Nobsa was a settlement of the Muisca people who specialized in the production of heavy cotton garments long before the Spanish conquest. Upon arrival, the Spaniards, impressed with their weaving skills, taught the locals how to use wool in stead of cotton. They taught them how to raise sheep, spin and color the wool. The modern day ruana quickly became a must have garment with the inhabitants of the Andean mountains.
Today wool blankets, hats, gloves, sweaters, hammocks and wood furniture are also produced in town. The 15,000 people who live in Nobsa once all worked in the production and export of wool garments. But today there are 2 factories in town producing cement and steel offering the people an alternative source of income.
Only a 3 hour drive from Bogota, Nobsa gets a lot of tourists on the holidays and weekends- all looking for bargains and cold weather gear necessary for the cold climate of Bogota.
The town, sitting at an altitude of 2,510 meters (8,230 feet) has a beautiful main plaza surrounded by a mix of modern and colonial buildings. The shops line a main street heading into town. The lively plaza has plenty of shops, bars and hotels. There is a tourist office on the square along with a number of interesting iron sculptures. Local restaurants specialize in typical, hearty dishes and hot liquor laden toddies.
To get there: take a bus from the main terminal in Sogamosa to Nobsa. They run every 15 minutes or so. It’s a short trip and the bus will leave you on the main street full of shops.
For more on the arts and crafts of Raquira and Nobsa see the article: Arts and Craft Tourism in Colombia
Tibasosa – one of the most beautiful plazas in Colombia
A 30 minute bus ride south of Duitama is the village of Tibasosa. Founded in 1778, Tibasosa is known as having one of the most beautiful plazas in Colombia. The plaza is a large open space surrounded by trees and facing the church Nuestra Senora del Rosario. The streets and architecture of this town are impressive. Not a lot to do in this town but admire the plaza and explore the streets and shops.
Iza – the village famous for its desserts
On the road down to Lake Tota and Playa Blanca are a couple of villages one must stop and visit.
Iza is a small village of 750 people, founded in 1554, the town is famous for its desserts. White washed colonial buildings line the streets full of hotels, restaurants and dessert shops. Just off the main plaza there is an area called the ‘plaza of desserts’ Plazoleta de Postres. On the weekdays there might be only 2 or 3 women selling their homemade desserts here, but on the weekends all of the tables are full of sweet delights as people come from all around to indulge their sweet tooth and sample the many desserts on display.
Most of the desserts are of the sheet pan variety, cream/pudding based like tiramisu. They are made from colorful gelatins, fresh cream, chocolate, fruits, coffee, lady fingers, cookies and so much more.
The town is also known as the safest city in Colombia having gone 20 years without a single homicide.
To get there: take the bus from Sogomosa down to Lake Tota. Get off at Iza, sample some desserts, then catch another bus onto the next village.
Tota -a village by Lake Tota
Tota is an small, agricultural town, producing mostly onions, located near Lake Tota from where it gets its name. The cool climate town is high in the mountains. The plaza is paved with red brick. There are a lot of statues of working farmers and some of the buildings have artistic facades. The same buses from Sogomosa to Playa Blanca run through town every half hour.
Lake Tota – the biggest lake in Colombia
Lake Tota, the largest lake in Colombia, sits in the mountains at an altitude of 3,015 meters (9,892 feet). It is 55 km. long (7 miles), 6 km. (4 miles) wide and 58 meters (190 feet deep). It is the source of the Upia River which flows into the Orinoco River basin. The lake was once a religious center for the Muisca culture who believed a mythical monster with shining eyes, called the diablo ballena or devil whale, inhabited the lake. People come to the lake today hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary beast.
The lake, surrounded by weeping willow trees, is a large habitat for birds and famous for its rainbow trout. People come to the lake to visit Playa Blanca – a large, cold climate beach with natural white sands. They picnic on the beach, party, play music, hike trails around the lake, fish and camp.
The lake’s water is 13 degrees C. (55 degrees F.) but a lot of people, mostly children, still jump in for a swim. The locals have motor boats for hire to take people on cruises around the lake and its 3 islands. There are also horses for lease to explore the lakeside trails.
To get there: take the bus in Sogomoso for Playa Blanca. The bus takes a winding mountain road and will leave you on the road by a cluster of roadside stands. Take the path from here down to the beach called Playa Blanca. Nearby there’s Cabana Hotel Refugio Pozo Azul, a hotel and restaurant perched on the side of a hill overlooking the lake. Another path from the main road leads down to another eatery called Cabana Arco Iris del Lago; it’s an old house that’s been turned into a restaurant. The modestly priced eatery specializes in lake trout – smoked, grilled, fried or sauteed in a variety of sauces. A lot of people just come for lunch and enjoy the view of the lake through the restaurant’s large picture windows while enjoying a plate of trout and a bottle of white wine.
Sogamosa & Duitama – Hub cities to use as a base
Sogamosa (meaning ‘city of the sun’) is close to the towns of Nobsa, Iza, Tota and Playa Blanca. A city of 200,000 people, Sogamosa is a commercial and manufacturing center for the surrounding agricultural and pasture lands. Here they also produce flour, textiles and shoes. Plaza de la Villa is the main square with the Cathedral San Martin de Tours and a statue dedicated to temple of the sun. Cra 13, a street lined with palm trees and filled with stores featuring luxury goods, begins at the plaza. A lot of shops on the street sell cowboy hats, snap button shirts and leather goods.
A 15 minute walk from main square is the Virgen de Maria Sanctuary – an archaeological museum of the Temple of the Sun. This was a place where the Muisca people made traditional pilgrimages adoring their sun God – ‘Sue’. In 1537 the temple was accidentally burned down by Spanish soldiers and later rebuilt by missionaries as a chapel that was one of the first Catholic churches in Colombia.
Duitama and the Pueblito Boyacanese
Duitama or Sogomosa? The people of Boyaca told me Duitama was a better base from which to explore the surrounding villages. Better than Sogomosa because it was safer, quieter and had more to see. The next trip I will have to try Sogomosa.
Duitama is a small city with a population of 113,000. The main square is Parque de los Liberadores in front of the Cathedral de Duitama. The city is a manufacturing center for flour milling and cigar making.
Hands down the best thing to do in town is go see the Pueblo Boyacanese. A 15 minute taxi ride from the center of Duitama, the pueblito is a tiny village of seven blocks and over 100 houses replicating the traditional architecture and colors of the most famous villages of Boyaca: Villa de Leyva, Tibasosa, Mongui, El Cocuy, Raquira and more.
Pueblito Boyacanese was an eccentric project created by the Colombian entrepreneur Ricardo Pamplona with the backing of Duitama’s Institute of Culture and Art. It was built in 1996.
The colorful village combines the beauty, architecture and soul of the pueblos of Boyaca. It is inhabited by a number of Colombian artists. There are numerous restaurants serving the traditional dishes of Boyaca. Bars, hotels and shops sell locally made arts, crafts and clothes. It only costs 1,000 COP to enter and a couple hours to stroll the whole town but should not be missed. Quiet on the weekdays, the pueblo is busy on the weekends.
Tunja and Chiquinquira
There are two other cities in the area: Tunja and Chiquinquira.
Not much to see in Tunja. It has impressive colonial churches dating back to the 16th century, elegant mansions and an imposing main square, Plaza de Bolivar. You will have to pass through Tunja to get to Villa de Leyva and Paipa.
Chiquinquira is a major city with over one million people. It is famous for its immense main square, Plaza Bolivar, and it’s church the Basilica de Chiquinquira built in 1812. One of the religious capitals of Colombia, it attracts flocks of devoted Catholic pilgrims who come to worship a 16th century miracle involving a painting of the Virgin Mary. One of the oldest paintings in Colombia, it is displayed in the Basilica. Booths selling religious souvenirs circle the plaza.