MONGUI, Colombia- All Christmas colors — red, green, gold — Mongui is truly an idyllic pueblo at the end of the road in the highlands of Colombia. The place that you think of when visualizing a little town in the Andean highlands that is topped by ochre terracotta roofs, bottomed by grey cobble stone streets, peopled by indigenous in woolen ponchos and felt hats, sitting on top of a mountain completely removed from the dust of the world — well, that’s Mongui. There is no need to dream about far away lands when in this pueblo, looking out the window keenly suffices. Mongui is truly one of those pots of gold at the end of the traveler’s rainbow, a place so slightly blemished by the oft heavy hands of tourism that it is challenging to even find a place to eat.
“I couldn’t find any information on Mongui,” the iconic traveler, Robin Reifel, told me at the bus station in Tunja. “I think that’s why we’re going there,” I joked. Though I had to admit that I got the idea to visit Mongui — a pueblo a touch off the beaten trail in Colombia — from Jasmine Stephenson, who called the place the pueblo of her dreams. I am not one to take the recommendations of long term travelers lightly, and If a place stands out as being exceptional to a person who has been engaged in the sole occupation of visiting places for many years on end, then it is a place that I want to go and check out for myself.
Like most pueblos in South America, the blood that runs through the veins of Mongui is pumped out from the aorta of the central plaza, called “La Plaza del Toros.” Mongoi’s is sea of cobblestones which splash up at intervals into stone benches and fountains before beaching at the ornately domed basilica. To put it basely, though honestly, the tides of this plaza are magnificent.
“I have a hard time believing that anybody would make something so masterful here at any point in history,” I spoke to my wife as I looked upon the invincible church that commands Mongui’s central plaza. Those Spaniards carted hundreds of tons of brick and supplies up the mountain side to build this masterpiece for who? Like a weasel occupying a vacant bear’s den I could not match Mongui’s occupants with its builders — though the same can be said for nearly all lasting edifices of antiquity.
But to answer my own questions, it was the Franciscans who build the basilica in the 17th century. More than likely, they built if for the Franciscans. Down Carrera 3, the Spaniards also build the Calycanto Bridge from rock cemented together with clay, lime, and, yes, bull’s blood. This work was done to allow for the large loads of stone to be carted into town to build the basilica.
Sitting 12 km up a lone mountain road out of Sogamoso, Mongui is just a four or five hour drive away from Bogota. Last year, it was voted ‘the most beautiful village’ in the state of Boyacá.’ The word is getting out about this place, and I don’t give it long before the hoards come pouring in, and this quiet little enclave in the mountains is turned into a Boyaca’s left hand compliment to Villa de Leyva. But for now, Mongui is still real, raw — the mobs of local drunks in Wellingtons, wool ponchos, and felt hats have not even been gentrified out of the town’s center. Mongui is sitting on the cusp of tourism — a place that seems to be just one tick away from the wholesale pillage of its natural ambiance. It is a place that has gone through the assembly line, has been checked by quality control, and is ready to be packaged and sold.
But is not there yet. Peace.
Looking for a hotel in Mongui
But when I arrived on a weekday in 2011, the village was empty — devoid of all tourists but myself, wife, and daughter. I checked out every hotel in town, and found them all to be 100% without paying residents — some were even shut down, waiting for the weekend to reopen. A couple even seemed unenthusiastic to see my family standing in their doorways — perhaps because this would mean that they would need to provide services during the week, rather than just on the weekend. I was, perhaps, greeted with less hospitality from the hotels in Mongui than I’ve ever been in my travels. The managers and owners seemed completely ambivalent about renting me a room, as though I were more nuisance than client. One even tried to charge an adult rate for my two year old daughter. This was not because they were full and did not want to give us a space, but because they were empty.
There are around three hotels in the center of Mongui, and a bunch more on the outskirts. I visited the ones within walking distance to the same results: all but one wanted a cazy amount of money to stay there. I offered weekly rates — some said no way, and others agreed with unenthusiastic ambivalence.
“If the hotel is empty all week long and someone is wanting to fill one of their rooms, why wouldn’t they take a lower price?”
I presented my hotel logic to my wife.
“These peple don’t think like you,” she responded. She was correct.
I spent well over an hour scouring the streets of Mongui for a hotel in the rain. My wife and kid sat in a warm cafe eating pastries and drinking coffee. I asked numerous town’s people where the hotels were, as, or so I would find, some are not marked with signs. But I found it impossible to follow their directions.
“So it’s the big building that is painted white, green, and red?”
All the buildings of Mongui are painted white, green, and red.
I visited all the hotels, finagled for weekly rates, but settled for paying 30,000 pesos night by night at a hospedaje.
We would only stay in Mongui for two nights.
Food in Mongui, or lack there of
One fast food joint, one fried chicken place, and a single, expensive Rolo tourist restaurant was all that I could find for prepared food in Mongui. Not the options you want when arranging your food strategy in a new location. We did not have rights to the kitchen in our hotel, and I very much doubted that the management would appreciate me lighting up the wild flame of my tuna can alcohol stove within their establishment. So it was multiple daily doses of hamburgers and friend chicken for us.
Colombians are proving to be the least restaurant reliant people I have ever traveled among. The habit of recreational dining in restaurants seems to be a new intrigue of the middle class, and most of the people seem satisfied eating each meal at home on a level that goes far beyond any Latino country I’ve traveled in. This is so much so that dining options almost everywhere in Colombia seem more limited that what you imagine they should be — and this is never more so than in the pueblos.
Climate of Mongui
“It is cold here,” my wife spoke.
“How can you say it’s cold here, you’re from Maine?”
But it is cold in Mongui. It is highland cold, which seems to have its own brand of sharpness that can cut through a person with added zest. You don’t leave your hotel room in this village without your jacket. Like a refrigerator, this cold weather may serve to preserve this village from the camera clicking cow pack for a little longer.
Páramo de Ocetá, a highly desert boasting frailejones and giant wild lupins is only a three hour walk from Mongui. I asked directions on how to get there, and the town people just pointed up the mountain. “Over there.” There directions soon made sense as all the village’s streets tapered down to single path on the other side of the ridge. Peaks shot out of the ground, green ag fields rolled over the hills, and a rippled quilt of mountains blanketed the distance — it was geological mastery out there. We walked for around two hours towards the Paramo, but did not make it. The hike that we did partake in proved satiating enough — we did not feel in want of any more from the natural scenry of this area.
Mongui was an excellent place to travel through, but its “keep ya there” power was disappointingly lacking. Without cooking facilities, each day in this pueblo is a day without good food; the hotel we stayed at was really just a section of a family’s home, and was intended more for middle class Colombians than a family of backpackers; and the nightlife of Mongui consisted of running a gauntlet of drunks — young and old — listlessly gawking at you through glassy eyes in large groups lining the streets. We balked at finding a furnished apartment to rent, which would provision us for a stay in this pueblo, but decided to move on — perhaps we will return to Mongui more prepared to live there, rather than just pass through.
Ironically, the attributes that draw visitors to Mongui are the same ones that push them away. With only the slightest tourist infrastructure, Mongui is a pueblo of dreams. But without this infrastructure it becomes difficult for a traveler to obtain what they want to make life comfortable. In this way, tourism is a global catch-22, an industry founded in mutually exclusive attributes.
I’m not just looking for beautiful places in travel, but the good life. Mongui was a truly beautiful place to visit, but the good life there proved elusive.