February 3rd, 2018
I wake up at dawn, well-rested, the stay in Sogamoso ironically a blessing, the drab town offering all the required services, but without too many distractions. The night is quiet on the street the hotel is located on, relatively bereft of traffic, the hotel almost bereft of guests other than myself.
A heavy fog blankets the town in the morning, which slowly burns off as the morning progresses. Some writing in my journal, followed by a handful of tropical fruit from the Fruitimax next door. The exceedingly friendly woman downstairs is of no help with respect to where I could get an inexpensive breakfast, but does give me some tips for taking local transport.
Given the low wages people earn, I am surprised that local transport is so expensive, ie. 1,500 pesos for a ride in town. Not that I don’t think the quality of public transportation in Colombia isn’t excellent. I have not waited long for a bus to anywhere, and other than having cramped legs in the cases that the seat pitch was too tight, the experience was almost always very good.
The minimum wage is COP $850,000 monthly, but then there is a transport allowance of some 88,000 pesos monthly, as well as a family allowance of some 26,000 per child. The transport allowance is great, but the child allowance seems very paltry. All the same, with such low wages, every peso counts.
As an aside, in a country with so much poverty, so many working poor, it seems essential to spread money as widely as possible and further down the economic ladder in order to make one’s presence as a tourist as ethical as possible.
It seems that while the buses to Lake Tota leave from the canal area, it may be easier to simply go to the terminal and then find out more about the service where the bus company providing the service has an office. There could well be a variety of routes servicing Lake Tota, hence I would have a better choice at the terminal. And all I have to do is arrive at Carrera 12 and Calle 12, and a buseta is already present, manned by a jovial English-speaking driver who is only too happy to take me to the terminal.
Just outside of the triste urban landscape that comprises Sagamoso, a sudden shift occurs, in evidence new cottages, luxurious fincas, gated communities of modernist cubes in tranquil garden settings, and colonial-style mansions. We rise above the town’s suburban decadence, then revert to a landscape similar to the rest of Boyacá, the undulating green hillsides dotted with small houses and irregular farm plots.
The dramatic hillscape continues as the road climbs – and the van breaks down. On a single-gauge road, we wait for the driver lying underneath the vehicle to resolve his vehicle’s challenges. Salvation comes in the form of an alternate vehicle, which takes us on the continuously rising highway, and then there it is below us, dramatic and beautiful, Lake Tota, its contours shrouded in grey-green, its undulating coastline erupting in occasional promontories.
The landscape around the eastern side of the lake is stunning, particularly as the cloud cover lightens somewhat, accentuating the shading of the undulating green and brown hillsides. The shoreline remains close by, the road sometimes hugging the shoreline, or weaving far away. The water recedes into the distance, farm plots appear in its place; the road rises above the promontories, locals clustering along the roadside, with irregular farm plots, bursts of red and yellow flowers, copses of eucalyptus trees, and erect ceramic cumulus clouds crowning the landscape that unfolds before us.
In the initial stage of the journey to Lake Tota, the sky is still very overcast, but the landscape becomes more luminous as the afternoon progresses. There are innumerable opportunities I would have loved to take great shots of the landscape, but it would not be possible from the moving bus.
Despite what I was told, it is possible to get off anywhere en route despite the narrow road, and get on again, just that it would not represent a very efficient use of time. Walking or cycling around the like would be the best way of capturing photographic images, as there are new vistas that warrant capturing every few metres.
Sold on the notion that the towns in the Lago de Tota area are redolent in a sense of historical romance if not outright mysticism, the arrival in the evocatively-named Aquitania is somewhat of a counterpoint, drab, depressing, and dilapidated. Consistent with the populace of the scattering of shacks we have passed by en route to the town, the men are almost universally clad in ragged, worn clothing, covered in dirt, and with a rugged working stiff quality. There is no trace of history or character, other than the charming cathedral. The few shops and restaurants on and adjacent to the plaza cater to the tourist trade, although I see no tourists around, nor could I possibly conceive of why tourists would spend time here.
Much of the population around the lake seems to be native, but that assessment is based on looking at peoples’ faces. I am not sure if people speak any language other than Spanish, and no traditional costumes of any sort are worn, other than as much clothing as possible, topped by the ruana, a coarse sheepwool poncho to ward off the cold. The ruanas are sold in tourist shops throughout the region, but are vastly inferior to the work produced by the Qechua and Aymara people in Peru in terms of aesthetics and material. The wool used here doesn’t even begin to compare with the alpaca wool used in Peru.
In a small store with cafeteria next to the cathedral, the owner tells me the onion crops I see everywhere represent the backbone of the area’s agriculture. They grow potatoes as well, but despite the quality and the hard work required to grow the potatoes, the often low prices hardly warrant the effort.
The onions grown here are sought after in the whole country. But while onions assure four harvests a year, there are years which offer nothing but low prices. Carrots are ideal in this climate as well, but generate even lower prices. Diversification would seem to be an obvious answer, but who am I to say.
There appears to be little tourism other than a few modest ecoresorts scattered around the lakeside, the area otherwise devoted to agriculture. There is nothing elegant or romantic in the run-down tenements and weather-worn character of the workers I see from the bus weaving its way along the serpentine road that runs along the lakeside. The only real tourist attraction seems to be the Playa Blanca, a natural white sand beach that occurs somewhere along the western lakeside, and that requires getting on a bus leaving from another area of Aquitania to Sagamoso via the western side of the lake.
The bus crests a ridge and then stops: we are at the entrance to Playa Blanca, the stretch of white sand beach I saw below us moments before. Having forfeited every opportunity to take photos of the lake area earlier on, I would like to wander up the road to see if I can take any meaningful shots from the lake from above. Even Aquitania was of no value in that sense, as the town is surrounded by farmland, and far from the lake.
I slowly clamber along a steep and sandy trail, the speed of my progress less related to the difficulty of the trail and more to my desire to capture just the right shots of the area around the lake. And tripping and falling would not be a great idea with this expensive camera. In fact, I count the days that the camera is operational, and that I haven’t destroyed it in some foolish manner.
As appealing as the beach may be, the air and water temperature are hardly big motivators to partake in typical beach activities. It is cold, and yet there are people swimming in the water. But then if you are from this region, you may be used to the temperatures.
It is possible to rent jet skis or go out on a boat trip, hardly very expensive at 10,000 pesos, but I am far from motivated. I would like to wrap this visit up quickly and try and move on to the scenic villages the area is known for. There are not many visitors here, certainly not enough to taint the sense of beauty of the locale, with the forest rising steeply behind us and the vistas of the hilly shores across the lake, with the white cotton tufts of clouds rising above.
When I return to the far end of the lake, the young men in wet suits have disappeared, and a lone woman is present on the shoreline in their place. They are a swim club that has come all the way from Medellin, the appeal of Lago de Tota being that it offers a large tract of open fresh water to practice in. The swimmers wear wet suits to protect against the cold, and buoys so that the boats can track and guide them. There are currents and also whirlpools in the water that could promise to be dangerous to swimmers.
On the subject of the quality of water, she indicates that the encroachment of agricultural development over the years closer to the shoreline has had an increased runoff effect on the water. The onions grown in the lake area require a particularly intensive use of pesticides, which negatively impacts the water quality.
In earlier times, the agriculture was further away from the lake, in the hills, but now it runs directly along the lakeside. The small farmers are vulnerable to perennial price fluctuations as well as the machinations of the 20-odd families that control the marketplace for the onions grown here.
Eating rainbow trout is apparently the thing to do at the lake, but only one real restaurant seems to be in operation by the lakeside, and the smell of grease is enough to chase me away at the entrance. It is probably far busier here on the weekend, but in any case, I hardly see how much better the fried rainbow trout will be on the lakeside as opposed to the many other places in the region it is offered, particularly since it is farmed on land.
The return trip is as dramatic as the initial leg to Aquitania, the road weaving along the lakeside, then further away from the west side of the lake until it is nothing more than a memory, small houses and farmsteads dotting the hillsides undulating below us in the late afternoon light.
The road suddenly descends in steep serpentines towards Cuítiva, through the desolate alleys to the simple plaza, then out of town again and further downhill to Tota, not far beyond on the valley floor, again passing downwards through the desolate streets to the plaza and then out again, the road now straight through the valley, trees and farmland on either side, finally arriving in the historic town of Iza at dusk.
Back in Sogamoso, I may be deceiving myself in thinking that the area we are in is familiar, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask the driver as the buseta empties as to whether the main plaza is near. Just a few blocks over? Fantastic! I descend and walk briskly in what I take to be the direction of the plaza, take several turns, then find myself both in vaguely familiar territory … but am actually quite lost.
I stop at an arepa stand, which is not in and of itself a shocking concept in this country, given the universality of the arepa in Colombia. And yet I am not sure I have tried the arepa de mazorca, which I take to be rough corn flour, the arepa much larger in profile, with the masa poured into a form. And the arepa turns out to be exquisite, both slightly oily and crunchy, topped with some ham and white cheese.
I am tired and want to lie down. Not really sure why I am so tired – perhaps it is my newfound habit of being wide awake before the crack of dawn, which represents a shocking turn of events for me.
The lights suddenly go out. A power outage! I lie in bed, thinking that the most constructive thing to do in the event of a power outage while I am lying in bed is … to continue lying in bed. The lights come on again … and then are out again. Handily, I packed a pocket headlamp, which I retrieve from my pack.
The dinnertime walk around the centre confirms the worst of the country’s public culinary tendencies: pizza, empanadas, hamburgers, a few greasy spoons, and some street vendors. None of which qualify for anything more than a severe gut ache.
At the end of my walkabout through the centre, I discover the modest El Corralito, which offers every possible dinner option with all the trappings in a simple establishment. Fried rainbow trout with moulded white rice, pureed butternut squash, preceded by a hefty home-cooked legume soup, all for 10,000 pesos. So what time do you open for breakfast?
I walk back to the hotel from the Restaurante El Corralito, and the streets seem both somewhat deserted and with a bit of an edge, as if the few people loitering around would not necessarily have the best of intentions. I also notice that there is no police presence in the centre in the evening, also very unusual. When that cat’s away …
The young woman at the hotel reception tells me that people go out to the disco, but there are no discos here, they are a handful of blocks further to the north. So Sagamoso still has some hope on a Saturday night. There are several billiards joints and casinos in the central area whose generic Latin vibes wash into the street …