Sogamoso, the valley of the Sun
Sogamoso was our home for nearly a month in Colombia. It was the beginning to a completely new world; a world of uncertainty with no guidance or expectations. At first glance, many tourists questioned our rationale for accepting a volunteer position off the beaten trail, away from the main attractions that Colombia has to offer. They could not see the value in exploring the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of Colombia. Sogamoso does not sell itself in a way that appeals to most tourists. Without the recognition and infrastructure to support heavy tourism, it does not provide a very good first impression. There are no world-renowned museums, famous restaurants, or charming establishments. For these reasons, Donna and I stood out as foreigners.
On the contrary, Sogamoso has much to offer for tourists looking for an escape. The surrounding 13 towns that consist within the province of Sugamuxi is a region rich in historical value. According to early cosmogony, Sogamoso is the valley where the indigenous people of Colombia believed the Sun was born. Although tourism has not blossomed to its full potential, Sogamoso remains unscathed by the negative impacts of tourism which gave me direct exposure to raw cultural experiences and perspectives. It presented itself subtly and with authenticity, allowing me to create my own appreciation and sentiment toward these isolated towns. As my travels progressed, I recollected my time in Sogamoso where my journey began. I longed for an authentic experience that was not shrouded and tainted by the tourism industry. Sogamoso slowed me down and allowed me to enjoy just being. It did not boast about its magnificent landscapes and history. Without Sogamoso, my ambitions today would be greatly changed.
It was the real Colombian experience.
During my last semester as a UW-Stevens Point student, I contacted Felipe Velasco through workaway.info, a volunteer website where travelers offer a service in exchange for housing accommodations. As the director of a small environmental NGO that focuses primarily on Andean ecosystems, Felipe created a volunteer program in which photographers capture the life of the towns and landscapes of Sugamuxi. Lake Tota was our main subject. It is the highest and largest natural lake in Colombia at 9,892 ft (3,015 m) above sea level. The volunteers assist him in spreading awareness of the detrimental impacts of climate change and help preserve Lake Tota and its surrounding ecosystems.
After spending a few nights in Bogota at our friend’s apartment, it was time for us to venture onward without the generosity of friends. A bus took us 3.5 hours north-east of the capital city, with occasional vendors entering and leaving the bus to try to sell their products. As we neared our destination, I had no idea which stop was ours. Two ladies behind us would shake their finger and laugh at me whenever I stood up, because it was not our stop. When we arrived, we grabbed a taxi to Finca San Pedro, a family-run guesthouse just outside the city. Over the past 3 weeks, Donna and I stayed at this cozy hostel which is run by Felipe’s brother and mother. As we became more accustomed to our environment, we were joined with other travelers of all ages who came and went as soon as they arrived. Some even joined us on our photography expeditions.
Donna and I had to catch a bus every day to a different town around Sogamoso. Each city was a new adventure and had a different feel to it. Our job took us on wild bus rides through winding, narrow roads, both paved and unpaved, through the mountains. I’ll never forget the anticipation to seeing something new and looking out the window down on the valleys of such a beautiful countryside.
You can check out Felipe’s eco-tourism business though his environmental NGO Fundacion Montecito at here.
Simply put, the weather in Sogamoso is completely unpredictable and an absolute nightmare for unprepared travelers. Donna and I would be so frustrated getting ready for the day. Layers, layers, layers. Imagine a full year’s worth of climates blended into one day. In the early hours until noon, the climate most exemplifies a cool spring day with occasional scattered showers. From noon until around 5:00 p.m., the sun is beating on you like a mid-summer day. However, there are moment when the clouds cover the sun and we immediately throw on our sweaters. My favorite part of the day is late afternoon until maybe 10:00 p.m. when the sun subsides and feels like a refreshing autumn day. As the night sets in, it is absolutely freezing with temperatures as low as 32°F until early morning.
Every day is different from the next, and I remember asking my friend Juan Andrés whom we met on one of our adventures how sogamoseños predict the weather. They simply don’t. Where weather in the United States is a common topic of discussion and constantly monitored for any changes, it is not common to plan according to the weather because of its unique tropical location and elevation. On average, the temperature is around 68°F or 20°C. Imagine trying to pack for climate like that.
Sogamoso was a religious capital for the pre-Colombian Muisca indigenous. Every year, thousands from the central Colombian highlands would migrate to this once sacred city in order to worship the Sun deity. The Temple of the Sun was their necropolis. Although the original temple was burned down by Spanish soldiers in 1537, we were fortunate enough to view the reconstructed replica today that stands in its place. Traces of Muisca culture are found in the archaeological museum which contains everything from mummified bodies to shrunken heads. The Muisca did not construct stone temples, but rather used clay and wood as building materials for their cone-shaped buildings. Each dwelling was distinct according to one’s rank in society.
While writing this journal entry, I spent many hours trying to investigate the mythology of Sogamoso and its significance with the Sun. I found a few texts that suggest that the Muiscas believed at one point in time, the world and its inhabitants lived in eternal darkness. In order to stop the mourning of his people, the chieftain of Sogamoso sent his nephew Ramiriquí to heaven in order to illuminate the world. The light shone by day, but because there was not enough light to illuminate the nights sky, Ramiriquí became the moon in correspondence to the lunar phases. Take this segment very lightly, because their history was not transcribed and was based solely on the collective minds of their people. If anything else, the Muiscas were highly developed and were excellent astronomers. The Sun in Sogamoso has a significantly higher level of luminosity than many other places, so it is no wonder that the indigenous people chose Sogamoso as its place of worship.
As Catholicism spread through the Sugamuxi province, the inhabitants had no choice but to accept the religion imposed upon by the invaders. The Spanish built magnificent churches that remain the dominant symbol for many of these cities today. The Muiscas left their memory and knowledge through their interactions and depictions on rock formations. However, their world was nearly erased upon Spanish arrival. When the Muisca structure disappeared under the Spaniard Conquest, the beautiful social, environmental, and linguistic values their ancestors had were lost.
With such a compelling history, Sogamoso is slowly losing its cultural roots as the city becomes more modern. There is a great lack of public and private universities which has forced many younger generations to emigrate to the capital city for opportunities. Many of sogamoseños do not know about their own culture and ancestry. However, there are numerous organizations that are recording and preserving the Muisca legacy. The group known as Cabildo Muisca de Suamox consisting of ordinary sogamoseños continue to gather knowledge and traditions of the Muiscans. By recording the language and way of living, Sogamoso is participating in recovering and protecting the identity and territory of its native people.
Before Sogamoso was discovered by the Spanish conquest, the land was considered to be the most fertile region in “New Kingdom of Granada” which included present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and parts of Peru. Today, Sogamoso is an agricultural and industrial trade center of Colombia in which its economy relies on heavily. With just over 100,000 residents, Sogamoso sits at 8,428 ft (2,569 m) above sea level. Surrounded by yields of potatoes and onions, the landscape of rural Colombia is a palate of green patchwork fields dotted by small farmhouses and rolling hills.
This journal entry is the first part of a series.