Away from Bogotá, the smog and busy streets give way to the bucolic countryside of Colombia’s central Andean departments Boyacá, Cundimarca and Santander, which mark the geographical heart of the country. First inhabited centuries ago by the gold-worshipping Muisca Indians, these mountainous highlands played a pivotal role in forging Colombia’s national identity. Tunja, one of Colombia’s oldest cities, is famous for its architecture, while an hour further northwest is one of Colombia’s best-preserved colonial towns, Villa de Leyva, its surrounding countryside studded with archeological treasures.
Tiny Barichara, just a steep 22km from the burgeoning adventure centre of San Gil, is a compact colonial beauty. Further north again, the modern city of Bucaramanga or the colonial town of Girón are both decent midway points if you’re heading to Venezuela or the coast. Follow a different road from Bogotá, and eight hours later you arrive at the high-altitude splendours of Parque Nacional El Cocuy, with its glacial lakes and snowcapped peaks.
Founded in 1622, BUCARAMANGA has shed much of its colonial heritage and evolved into one of Colombia’s largest, most modern cities. The centre might be low on attractions, but it makes a great jumping-off point for visits to nearby Girón, the mountains surrounding the city make for superb paragliding, and it makes a convenient stopover for anyone travelling to the coast or Venezuela.
Across the street from the Casa del Bolívar another colonial mansion houses the Casa de la Cultura, which holds displays of regional art. Also of interest to art lovers is the Museo de Arte Moderno, featuring temporary exhibitions of contemporary painting and sculpture.
Simón Bolívar (El Libertadór) spent a grand total of seventy days living in Bucaramanga in 1828, enough for the locals to rename the beautiful house where he stayed, at C 37 No. 12–15, Casa de Bolívar. It now contains a small historical museum, the highlight of which is the Guane mummies and artefacts.
With its whitewashed colonial buildings, leafy main square, stone bridges and elegant churches, pretty GIRÓN makes for a great day-trip from nearby Bucaramanga, and is particularly worthwhile for those who don’t have time to visit other colonial gems like Villa de Leyva and Barichara. The pace of life here is extremely relaxed, and the narrow cobbled
streets are perfect for a wander. Keep an eye out for the main Catedral del Señor de los Milagros and the attractive eighteenth-century capilla de las Nieves on the tiny namesake square.
Rising to a high point of 5330m above sea level, and taking in 32 glacial lakes and 22 snowcapped peaks on the way, PARQUE NACIONAL EL COCUY is a hiker’s dream come true. Tourism is increasing but, for now at least, you can hike for a week surrounded by natural splendours with little contact with other people. Be prepared for any climatic conditions and be aware that at night it gets bitterly cold, so pack plenty of warm gear and a four-season sleeping bag (you can rent sleeping bags from tour companies, but they may not be as warm as you need). Pack reasonably light, as you’ll be carrying your own gear for much of the trek. By far the best weather is from December to February, when the park is at its busiest.
The starting points for any trip to the park are the towns of El Cocuy and Güicán.
Güicán is the starting point for the six- to seven-day circuit. On day one, you hike for five hours or so to the cabañas; it’s possible to continue on the same day to the top of Ritacuba Blanco (5hr), but better to stay for a night to acclimatize and then hike up early in the morning of day two. From Ritacuba Blanco it’s then a couple of hours’ walk to the Río Cardenillo creek and a two-hour ascent to the Boquerón del Carmen pass (4300m), from which you descend to the Laguna Grande de los Verdes (4100m), where you camp.
On day three it takes around seven hours to hike between Laguna Grande de los Verdes and Laguna del Avellanal – a spectacular climb up to the Boquerón de los Frailles pass (4200m), then past a couple of lakes and up again to the Boquerón de la Sierra pass (4650m). The descent brings you down to the lake, where you camp for the night either on the shore or in a cave nearby. From here it takes around seven hours on day four to reach Laguna del Pañuelo. You pass through the Valle de los Cojines, and past several waterfalls before climbing to the Laguna del Rincón (4350m), from where it’s another hour’s ascent to the Boquerón del Castillo pass (4530m), offering spectacular views of the valley below. If the pass is foggy, wait until the fog clears before descending to the Laguna del Pañuelo. Day five’s section to Laguna de la Plaza is around six or seven hours’ hike, made more difficult by the lack of trail, so having a guide is imperative. There are no major descents or ascents; you keep roughly level until you reach Laguna Hoja Larga in around five hours, with your destination – the splendid Laguna de la Plaza – roughly an hour later. On day six you follow the trail from here up to the Boquerón de Cusiri (4410m), the last pass you’ll have climb, then descend for an hour to the chain of attractive small lakes – lagunillas – where you’ll find the park’s busiest campsite. You can either camp here or press on to the Alto de la Cueva – a straightforward four-hour walk to the main road. If hiking as part of a tour, then you may have pre-arranged transport waiting; otherwise, it’s another four hours’ walk to El Cocuy.