February 23, 2018
The days of grueling hikes are over! As painful as the hikes in the mountains of the Cocuy at high elevation were, I completed them, and am already clear that this period of my trip through Colombia will be the absolute highlight. Now I am in the other part of the visit to the Cocuy, which involves visiting the charming small towns that flank the remote enclave in the mountainous northeastern region of the country. I have already seen the towns of El Cocuy and Güicán. On this last – or possibly second-last day in the region – I will attempt to visit the towns of Guacamayas and Panqueba that looked so charming on the way into the area.
As is always the case on trips, the challenges of onward travel are a constant preoccupation. Now it looks like I am reverting to my original exit strategy for Boyacá, that is, to see some more towns in the highlands before returning to the historical city of Tunja, then ending in Bogotá – before continuing on to some other part of the country. Complicating matters is the ubiquitous lack of internet availability, hence the difficulty in booking ahead, and the fact that I need to organize my onward journey in a manner that leads me to Popayán at the begin of the Semana Santa. I may travel from Bogotá to some towns in the north of the Tolima departamento, continue to the coffee country before continuing further to the south, rather than heading north towards Medellín. Or possible skip Medellín altogether. Of course, these plans may change dramatically within a few days …
Returning to today’s adventure …. happily, the Cootradil bus service provides regular service to Soatá (en route to Duitama to the south), meaning that it is possible to journey easily back and forth through the villages in the Sierra Nevada de Cocuy. The bus I plan on taking at 9 am looks old from the exterior but inside the seats are modern. A handful of people gather for the journey as well as a few others for the purpose of delivering packages. The driver is exceedingly friendly and welcoming, as is typical for people in the region.
The countryside leading from town is vibrant, green and bucolic, the road weaving along the narrow and heavily-treed pastures, a few more affluent houses located on the outskirts of town, and even an errant hospedaje that could hardly serve as a motel, given that there is no parking space. The tall mountains soar high above on either side of the narrow, winding valley. The area below Güicán is certainly characterized by a very blissful feeling.
The bus descends slowly along the winding valley, then at the crossroads, rises again on the steep serpentine road leading towards El Cocuy. The sight of the charming town I began my journey here is familiar, but strangely, even though the town has more of a sense of coherent architectural heritage and character than Güicán, the latter somehow feels warmer and more welcoming. In El Cocuy, most businesses seem permanently shuttered, there aren’t a lot of people around, and the plaza and town in general feels more desolate.
Descending back to the crossroads and then winding along towards Panqueba, the valley opens up, the terrain feels warmer, and the vegetation increasingly includes subtropical trees and palms. And yet the landscape is also drier and less pretty, although it may be more of a function of the time of day, and the fact that already by mid-morning, the sun tends to bleach the landscape. And as everywhere in the highlands, much of the land has been deforested. There is virtually no traffic on the largely single-lane dirt road as it weaves around the sides of the mountains, whose peaks soar high overhead, crowned with brilliant white clouds.
The arrival in Guacamayas is somewhat anticlimactic. I expected a town replete with charm, and while it is in fact vaguely charming, the expansive plaza evokes a degree of sleepiness not seen even in comparatively vibrant Güicán. There is one small cafe near the church in which the owner rouses herself from her torpor to make me a coffee. The town is known for its fique artisans (a fibre made from the leaves of the agave-like fique plant), but there is no evidence of any activity involving fique or anything else here. It’s not even close to noon, although locals would probably use any excuse to shutter whatever modest operation they have and go back to sleep.
The buildings around the vast plaza are vaguely atmospheric, but what makes the greatest impression are the huge green mountains that loom overhead, not to forget the immense and dramatic cloud formations in the cerulean sky. Murals abound in the town, along select walls and benches around the plaza, and more liberally on the walls leading out of town. Consistent with other towns in the country, the plaza is laden with blooming flowers which add even more colour.
The town features a reasonable amount of adobe-style architecture, but not overwhelmingly so.
Astonishingly, there is a park featuring painted decor made of recycled material, largely tires as flower pots, stripped open and shaped into the form of parrots. Plastic canisters have been made into small pigs, and painted empty bottles used to create a fence. What an unusual and utterly endearing concept – right here in Guacamayas!
There is no evidence that Guacamayas is dedicated to making artisanal products using fique until I arrive at the far end of town, and spot a small hut at the top of a staircase with the ubiquitous towering green mountain behind it. The ‘Artesanias’ sign above its open door provides enough of an invitation to climb up the steps and coax the younger woman eating in the adjoining kitchen to show me some of the mats, baskets and bags displayed, almost exclusively made with a thick rope woven from a combination of fique and hay, layered into the appropriate shapes.
The basketry made here is typically extremely colourful to the point of garish, but in the context of more complex designs and some degree of colour harmony, potentially very attractive. Many of the baskets are tightly woven, in the colour scheme of the Colombian flag, including the colours yellow, blue and red. The fique bags, on the other hand, are composed mostly of a loose weave with a rough texture.
I had previously had no intention of buying any arts and crafts on the trip, largely because of not wanting to spend the bulk of my trip traveling with a ridiculous amount of baggage. However, given that this environment is probably about as traditional as it will get, that I have reached the 1/3 mark of the trip, and that I am of the belief that I can fit certain basket shapes into my backpack without consuming an excess of space, I diligently peruse the colourful baskets and bags, and finally make my selection. In any case, support local arts and crafts!
The next issue come to the fore, namely that I will be tight for cash until I leave the Cocuy region. There is only one place I can retrieve cash – and that is the cajero in El Cocuy – and yet I have no intention of returning to El Cocuy. Perhaps I could convince the bus driver to wait for me while I run to the cajero before continuing to Güicán?
The vendor tells me that while some 200 families in town are dedicated to weaving fique, the fique actually originates from other regions (which I knew already). She shows me photos of far more artistically-inspired and grandiose works prepared by her father, who apparently is a master of the tradition, known also for his innovative work.
Near the sports field marking the centre of town, I come upon the ‘Sport Life – Helado’ establishment, dedicated to the sale of various sweets and homemade ice cream. The owner describes the flavours of ice cream she has ‘limon, chiclet, arequipe, ron-con-papa, etc.’, clearly following conventional commercial flavours rather than the typical natural fruit flavours favored with the homemade sort. She breezily points to the exercise machines to the side of the room, indicating that one side of the room is intended to load up on calories, while the other side is there to burn them …
Continuing on the gastronomic tour of the town, northwest of the plaza on Calle 5 is a combination sweet shop, fast food joint, general almacen and café, brought together by a ramshackle incongruity that makes small stores in some developing countries so fascinating, if not reminiscent of some post-Duchamps installation artist’s work. A hobby horse leans in the corner. As much as it may come as a shock in 2018, children here use them and enjoy them to the fullest. Children thrive with simple, rustic implements, which probably are no worse at provoking their imagination than the sophisticated consumer junk that abounds back home.
The beaming owner of the shop tells me you can actually see snow-capped peaks to the south, but none are visible to me, given that the peaks to the south are shrouded in fog. I tell him about the glories of my own country, naturally reverting to the typical extremes of weather that make the country so entertaining to the outsider – as long as you don’t have to be there …
My journey continues as I rush to the road lining the sports field to wait for the next buseta returning to El Cocuy. The idea is to stop off in Panqueba, do a quick tour, then return to Güicán, hopefully not missing the last bus! And then we are off again on the scenic road, winding along the floor and the ridge of the steep valleys of the Cocuy mountains.
It turns out that both Guacamayas’ and Panqueba’s otherwise drab walls are covered with large-sized murals illustrating local and indigenous cultural memes, aesthetically appealing as well as educational. Never mind making rich photographic subject matter!
Panqueba is hardly a hub of activity, but some individuals are roaming or loitering near the main plaza, with an odd collection of cars, old and new, parked at odd angles in and around the cathedral. Whimsical signs offer the local honey candies, besitos de miel.
The fenced plaza seems to act primarily as sports field, although it is empty at the moment, other than the same young men I saw earlier on playing soccer with a ragged specimen of a ball. At the far end, a few men are gathered in front of the municipal hall, blocked by heavy construction equipment. Greenery concentrates in front of the main church in the form of large trees set in circular planters, the errant gardening complimenting the artfully placed murals.
A block further towards the soaring green titans looming behind the town, a small restaurant from which emit the wails of a young child, and across the lane, an errant small motel that would look shuttered anywhere else, as well as spectacular views of the mountains peaks to the north. Further towards the southern exit of town, walls are covered with brilliant murals, verging upon the verdant green of the narrow valley through which a bucolic creek threads.
I rush to take just the right shots, realizing that the little time have allotted to this colourful town is quickly running out. However, by the time the bus to Güicán does arrive, I am very satisfied with my digital acquisitions.
Arriving again in Güicán, I have to stop for a coffee at the atmospheric shop on the plaza again. The owner provides the town’s version of esoteric funky establishment, although I am not really sure what the locals think of the somewhat unusual older woman or the establishment she runs, with its incongruous ornaments drawn from local culture, interesting beverages, solid wooden furnishings, and thick magazines discussing all manner of contemporary and historical perspectives and issues concerning departamentos of Colombia, with a degree of detail far beyond anything available to the typical English-speaking tourist.
She prepares a tasty Cafe Colombiano with cinnamon and panela, standing outside and watching the group of local youth prancing on the courtyard to canned percussive music while I sip my coffee and peruse the journals. She tells me she has been in the business for some five years, but the place was started by her grandparents some fifty years ago.
Considering the unique prettiness of the towns in the area, the stunning natural environment, and the generally pristine feeling of the high sierra in the north of the departamento of Boyacá, it is too bad that there isn’t more foreign tourism in the region. Travelers do come in some numbers to hike the peaks of the PNN Cocuy, but that is really just part of the region’s appeal.
Back at the Colibri, I flip open the laptop, but now what! The mouse doesn’t work! Not this … I will have to head back to the plaza to look for batteries, the only worry being that the batteries might not be too new, given how old the stock in stores can be here. I don’t have that feeling at the almacen I visit, but the resultant conversation with the worker in the store is quite hilarious. I leave with a pack of two AA batteries, with the vague hope they will work.
And they do … life without my laptop would be unthinkable! The photos I took today turned out very nicely, probably because I was shooting at very high speeds and hence not overexposing the photos as I have done in the past. Of course, all the prior photos can easily be enhanced to look darker and richer …
The Hotel Colibri is excellent but they could drop the hysterical lapdog, that plague of Colombia. There aren’t earplugs good enough to block the sound of its howling out!
I struggle for hours trying to just find an appropriate place to stay in Bogotá on AirBnB. I don’t want to consider a hotel, and also want the comfort of an apartment, as there is quite an availability. However, these apartments are typically quite uniform in appearance, and it is mandatory to step through the photos provided repeatedly to get a sense of the shortcomings the owners may not want potential clients to see. Moreover, the maps the listing initially appear on are not granular enough to be able to easily determine where they are located relative to Avenida Caracas. East of Avenida Caracas, fine, east of Avenida 7, great, around or west of Caracas, probably disgusting. And most listings turn out to be around or west of Caracas.
Some of the telecommunications infrastructure outside of the major cities in Colombia is hopeless … Most people here would be using cellular service, which is probably adequate. But the wifi service is awful …