Thursday, 2 August 2012


We decided to spend a few days in Boyacá, the neighboring department to the south of Santander. The drive from Bucaramanga is interesting, but takes some time due to the winding mountain roads. We split our time between historic points of interest and trying to see more of the nature. Boyacá has many towns higher in the mountains with a cool climate and it has some stunning scenery which looks a little different to Santander.

We stayed in Paipa, a small, pleasant town with many hotels offering thermal baths from the natural hot springs and it has a nice lake. At 2500m altitude it was a little chilly at night. It was good to walk around the lake and see the odd waterbird like Pied-billed Grebe and American Coot which I´ve not seen in Santander. The cooler climate and better roads of Boyacá mean that road cycling and running are popular. Paipa looks like a good base for some training, though I think the lake maybe too cold for comfortable open-water swimming.

Just outside the town is the stunningly restored Casona del Salitre, a national monument and also a hotel. It was very quiet when we visited and is a superb place to relax with a glass of wine. I'd highly recommend this place.

A few km from Paipa is the Pantano de Vargas (Vargas Swamp). This was famous for one of the last battles, in 1819, of the war of independence from Spain. It was led by Simon Bolivar and other famous leaders such as General Santander. There is a very large monument to the 14 lancers whose heroic actions helped win the battle. Several hundred men of the so-called British Legions; Brits and Irish fighting for Bolivar, also fought bravely in this battle. They were led by Col James Rooke, their half British and half Irish commander, and they too played a crucial role in the victory. They went on a bayonet charge up a hill against the Spanish positions. Rooke was seriously wounded, losing his arm, and he later died and was buried nearby. There is a statue to Rooke in the main square in Paipa which is named Jaime Rook park in his honour. There is also a battalion of the Colombian army named after him, and a plaque at Boyacá bridge memorial so the British & Irish role is not forgotten. We visited on the anniversary of the battle, and there was a ceremony going on with flags, mounted troops and marching bands on this huge monument.

We popped into Tunja, the main city of Boyacá. It has an enormous main square with, of course, the statue of Bolivar.

Not far outside of Tunja, on the main road to Bogotá is the Puente de Boyacá (Boyacá bridge). This was the site of the key 1819 battle which consolidated independence for Gran Colombia, and is the location of an important national monument. The current (more recent) bridge is tiny as the river is not wide, but the location was strategic as it formed the route from the eastern plains to the capital, Santa Fé de Bogotá. There is, of course, a large statue of Simon Bolivar on the hill. He´s surrounding by 5 women who represent the five nations of S America which he helped to liberate. (Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia). There are several other monuments on the site too. It is very well maintained and being surrounded by green hills, it has a pleasant feel about it.

The nearby colonial town of Villa de Leyva  is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colombia. It was home to important figures such as Antonio Nariño, who on reading the declaration of the rights of man and the citizen in books imported from France, thought it would be good idea to publish them in Spanish and disseminate them in Colombia. He also was a key leader in the struggle for independence, and he was imprisoned by the Spanish four times. The main square is large and feels a little empty, but there are many other pleasant places in the surrounding cobbled streets.

Near to Villa de Leyva is Iguaque, a national park. We briefly visited the Iguaque Wildlife Sanctuary which was very good and I saw a few new species like the striking Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and Rufous Wren. Within the reserve, you can hike to a number of mountain lakes, but you must start before 10 am and we were too late. There are also some large and decent looking cabins to stay in lower down in the forest.

Despite on-and-off drizzle, we drove around Lago de Tota,  the largest lake in Colombia which being about 3000 m above sea level, was cold. The road around the lake is mostly in good condition and is being improved to form a tourist circuit. There were a few wilder areas around the shore, but much was inaccessible apart from the beach on the western side. Many of the flatter areas are being cultivated for spring onions, but there are still a few marshy areas for the birds like that below. With the poor weather, the only new bird I saw was a Large-billed Tern.

After the lake, we continued driving up higher to the Paramo de Siscunsí (Paramo refers to a high mountain moorland above the treeline) which looked interesting, but there was sadly no chance to see it properly in the rain. There is a watchpoint for Andean Condors here (at 33km from Sogamosa on the road to Aguazul) though you have to walk about 4km from the road. With the thick clouds and heavy rain, we didn't even think about trying this, but as a number of these rare birds were re-introduced from captivity in this area some years ago, it maybe worth a look in clear conditions.

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