In the Colombian heartland, one of the first regions settled by the Spanish, the departments of Boyacá and Santander stretch out north from Bogotá in dramatic fashion. Lush green hills dotted with farmland suddenly turn into soaring snowcapped mountains, whose glacial melt feed whitewater rivers that have carved their way deep into the earth. The jagged terrain attracts countless adventure sport enthusiasts, who come here by the busload to raft, climb, and paraglide. When it is time to relax, cutesy colonial villages with their cobblestone streets and clay-tile roofs make for a nice break from the sweltering heat of the coast. Colombia’s northern Andes were the birthplace of Colombian independence, as Simón Bolívar’s ragtag army won decisive victories against the Spanish. You won’t find beaches or ruins or jungles here, nor is there one main attraction to speak of. Yet, this is where Colombians come to get away from the big cities, to breath in the fresh country air and yes, even drink the local wine.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, this region was home to the Muisca and Guane, cultures whose gold collections inspired the myth of El Dorado, leading to a continent-wide conquest that would change the Americas forever. Later on, nationalists in the town of Socorro first stood up to Spanish rule, starting a movement for independence that lasted until the great liberator Simón Bolívar’s army won the battles at Pantano de Vargas and Puente de Boyacá.
This region is paradise for the adrenaline seeker; many pro athletes come from around the region, not to mention the entire world, to experience the rush. In San Gil, you can start your own X Games, taking part in almost every extreme sport imaginable. You can race downhill on mountain bikes, raft Class V rapids, and rappel down a gorge all in one day, then go horseback riding and bungee jumping the next. After you’ve ridden the teleférico down to the base and to the opposite rim at the remarkable Chicamocha Canyon, you can then paraglide over it, for one of the most breathtaking views you could ever imagine. With some of Colombia’s highest mountains and greatest shifts in altitude, the Northern Andes offer highly sought after hikes, like the 7-day circuit in Parque Nacional Natural Cocuy (if it ever reopens).
Colonial villages in this region seem like time capsules. Whitewashed houses with clay tile roofs line cobblestone streets where 500-year-old cathedrals and convents hover in the background. Towns like Villa de Leyva and Barichara have their colonial core almost entirely intact, yet unlike cities like Cartagena and Popayán, few foreign visitors know they exist.
Traditional Colombian cuisine is alive and well in this region. Ingredients like goat, guava, pork, beef, corn, and potatoes find their way into many dishes. Every town seems to specialize in a specific recipe. In Sutamarchán, it’s the skinny chorizos called longaniza. In Barichara it is carne oreada, a sun-dried cut of beef. In Bucaramanga, it is mute, a hearty stew made from pork cheek and ribs, beef, corn, and potatoes. The big-bottomed hormigas culonas ants are a delicacy throughout the region, a tradition introduced by the Guane. They are usually roasted or fried and have a smoky, almost nutty flavor. You’ll see them in markets around the region.