On our way to the heritage town of Monguí, we found ourselves once again on an unpaved road.
It turns out Waze really doesn’t know the back roads of Colombia very well. Who knew??
We headed out early from the small town of Guadalupe on a paved rural route through the rolling landscape of Boyaca, with field after field of potatoes, peas, beans, and onions (lots of onions!) against a distant Andes backdrop. Upon reaching the highway, we had a choice: keep going south, or take a shortcut recommended by Waze. Of course we took the shortcut, even though we lost the pavement pretty soon after leaving the highway. The road added two hours to our trip, but the day was far easier than our journey to Barichara more than a week earlier. And the scenery was INCREDIBLE!
Monguí: A Historic, High-Country Retreat
At almost 3,000 meters, Monguí has a much cooler and rainier climate than any other place we experienced on our 30-day road trip. Founded in 1601, Monguí is one of Colombia’s designated Pueblos Patrimonios – and for good reason. The cobblestone streets and centuries-old colonial houses transported us back to another era. The entire town has adopted a Christmas-y color motif with green as the primary accent hue, set off by red and gold.
We loved this quaint and beautiful pueblo! Here are our most interesting Monguí factoids.
- The Puente Real de Calicanto, Monguí’s signature bridge across the Morro River, was begun in the mid-1600s as a means for enslaved indigenous workers to transport the huge stone blocks used to build the imposing main church. Despite this sad history, the bridge is a beautiful and highly photographed landmark.
- The color scheme has meaning. According to our páramo guide, red is for the blood of Colombian independence (we would also add the blood of the poor indigenous slaves). Gold is for the wealth of the area’s natural resources, and green is for the stunning beauty of the sheltering Andes.
- Mongui is in the heart of Colombia’s coal country. On the drive up, we passed numerous coal mines carved into the nearby hills and encountered too many fully loaded coal trucks to count. We were surprised to learn that this highly polluting fossil fuel is Colombia’s second largest export. Nontheless, coal mining is a big part of the area’s culture dating back well over a century.
- Monguí is the football capital of Colombia! Who would have thought that this tiny and isolated Andean town would turn out to be one of South America’s major manufacturers of balones (footballs)? At one point, a large percentage of the townspeople worked in more than 20 small factories, and some of the surviving factories have been cranking out balones since the 1930s.
Check out this interesting video on Monguí’s football heritage.
A Monguí Must-Visit: The Páramo de Ocetá
A páramo is a type of alpine moorland found only in the South American Andes. Colombia is one of only three countries in the world playing host to these unique and spectacular ecosystems, and one of the most beautiful overlooks Monguí: the Páramo de Ocetá.
The Páramo is not easy to get to; in fact, our day-long trek to the upper reaches ranks as one of the more difficult hikes we’ve done. As we huffed and puffed up to almost 4,000 meters, we kept flashing back to the hardest day of our trek on the Inca Trail, in which we conquered the dreaded “Dead Woman’s Pass.” But the hike was so vale de pena (worth it). We were blown away by the panoramic views and otherworldly flora, dominated by the centuries-old “frailejones.”
How to visit the Páramo de Ocetá
A guide is required to hike to the páramo and numerous tour companies in Monguí offer guided treks. We did the full monty, leaving with our group from the Parque Principal for a hike that spanned over 12 miles and 7 hours. Plenty of water and snacks, rain gear, and sturdy hiking shoes are a must, and hiking poles are a good idea. We did notice numerous rugged 4WD vehicles headed far up the road to deposit visitors at the park entrance, so apparently that’s an option with some tour companies. Note: Be sure your tour outfit is a certified provider; apparently there are lots of unauthorized freelancers who may or may not be following the rules for visiting this incredibly fragile and endangered landscape.
Where to Stay
We loved our stay at Hotel Otti Colonial, conveniently located between the Parque Principal and the Puente Real Calicanto. Hosts Daniel and Eliana were fantastic, and once again we were treated like family. Otti Colonial is a very small boutique hotel in a 200-plus-year-old house, with eight small but comfortable rooms and hot water (not always a given in rural Colombia!). Daniel helped us secure our car in a nearby garage, and he also arranged our trek to the páramo with an English-speaking guide. His father-in-law Don Bernardo is a lovely man who took us on an impromptu tour of town just as we arrived. TIP: Ask for the upstairs room in the back, which is very quiet with a garden view.
Where to Eat and Drink
- DiPisa. We loved this Italian bistro/pizzeria so much that we had dinner there twice. It’s scenically situated right next the Puente Real Calicanto overlooking the river.
- Cafe Amore. Daniel and Eliana own and operate this popular little cafe just a few doors up from the Hotel Otti Colonial. Excellent sandwiches, crepes, and burgers and any espresso drink you desire.
- Cafe de las Letras. Just before the entrance to the Puente, this artsy and cozy little spot is a great place to unwind with a beer or aromatica (herbal tea) at the end of the day.
- Getting there. Despite its status as a Pueblo Patrimonio, Monguí is pretty far off the tourist radar (although it does get a fair amount of Colombian visitors from Bogotá and Bucaramanga on the weekend). One reason is that it’s not terribly easy to get to unless you’re driving yourself, as we were. But Monguí is well worth the effort. If traveling by bus, the gritty mining town of Sogamoso is your main connection point for a 40-minute bus ride up to Monguí. There are direct bus routes to Sogamoso from both Bogotá (approaching from the south) and Bucaramanga (from the north).
- It’s on the cool side. In Monguí, it was finally time to break out our fleece jackets, scarves, and rain slickers since the temperatures at night hovered in the single digits (C). It’s no wonder that traditional heavy wool ruanas (ponchos) are standard gear for the locals and are also for sale in numerous shops.
- Money. Make sure you bring plenty of Colombian pesos to Monguí; we didn’t spot an ATM while we were there. Also, just as with many other places we visited on this trip, there aren’t many restaurants and hotels that will accept credit cards.
A Word About Covid-19
Concerned people have asked us what it’s like to travel during a pandemic and whether we felt it was unsafe. When we left on this trip at the end of July, Colombia’s terrible third wave was finally on a strong downward trend. Even so, Colombia still has a nationwide mask-wearing mandate. That meant it was rare to see anyone, anywhere – even the tiniest back-of-beyond towns – who wasn’t wearing a mask. Even people standing by the roadside waiting on a bus, or going by on motorcycles or driving tractors. Even people in other closed cars (that one made us chuckle a bit). Although we’re both fully vaccinated, we also stayed masked around other people and kept our distance. And each of our lodgings had strict Covid protocols (one hotel even sprayed our feet every time we entered). It was reassuring to see so many people taking care to protect themselves and their neighbors.