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[For an audio version of this blog story click here.]

A thermal waterfall runs gently into a fast-flowing, shallow river. Close to the bank, where the hot and cool waters fuse, a natural spa presents itself. It’s of sufficient size to bathe in, fully outstretched. You’re alone, surrounded by nothing but forest and its feathered inhabitants. The only sounds are those provided by nature; birds chirping, flowing water and the light rain falling all around.

Chasing Zetaquirá's waterfalls — from hot to cold

Thermal waters that could have been terminal for Wrong Way!

Rebel river
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? And for a time, I had that very experience at what is reputedly Colombia’s tallest thermal waterfall (for the record, it’s 16 metres high), a 30-minute downhill walk from the Boyacá town of Zetaquirá.

Nothing, though, is perfect in this world. While the mystical waters put me in a sort of tranquil trance, it was nature itself that gave me the not-so-gentle nudge to get moving.

My natural spa started to get colder, quickly. The what-had-been rather easily crossed-on-foot river was becoming wilder as the rain intensified. With my boots left on the other bank and with no bridge in sight, I wasn’t in the best position to search for an alternative, safer route back.

Slightly panicking, I noticed a cable spanning the water. I figured this thin piece of intertwined wire was there for such a circumstance, to aid people across the river when it’s in a more boisterous state.

‘It could be said it all adds to the adventure but after struggling to find Miralindo until meeting Moisés Castélblanco — yes, it was “Moses” who led me to the promised waterfall — I didn’t want to find myself miles from my hotel with dusk not far off.’

From a river that had been no more than knee-deep, it was now around my waist, thankfully just beyond the reach of my small knapsack, in which my mobile phone and wallet were tucked away. With the loosely fixed cable as my somewhat questionable support, I undertook the roughly 10-metre crossing.

Doubts about the cable’s credentials for this task notwithstanding, I’m fairly sure that without it, I wouldn’t have made it. Perhaps it was more in the mind, but I do think it helped me keep my balance on more than one occasion.

Later that day, safely back in the town and recounting my experience to a Zetaquirá councillor in a local tienda, he told me that the cable is used to zip wire water across the river. It isn’t there as a support for crossing. Be that as it may, I’m certainly glad that it stood up to the task that I gave it.

Zetaquirá, Boyacá, Colombia

As small Andean towns go, Zetaquirá it’s a match for any in terms of a getaway destination.

Supercable aside, the thermal waterfall is one of the most interesting sights I’ve seen of late. That my visit to Zetaquirá coincided with dull, rainy weather, probably made this natural wonder all the better. I imagine it would be less refreshing with the sun beating down — at an altitude of just under 1,700 metres, it gets hot in these parts on a sunny day.

A sign failure
Of all the Boyacá towns I’ve visited — and there have been many — Zetaquirá, at least superficially, is more tourist-ready than most.

Outside of calling itself the ‘tourist capital of the Lengupá valley‘, its main square has prominent signs, in both Spanish and surprisingly not badly translated English, with information about the main attractions in the area (it also has a tourist office, but on the only occasion I wandered in, there was no one at home).

The snag with these signs is that — in a bid to be helpful, no doubt — the distances and estimated trekking times to the various sights are off by quite a bit. It appears they were made to be displayed in places other than the main square. The only one that’s close to correct is for the hike up to the Virgin Mary overlooking the town, simply because the “official” start point is actually near the town centre.

The distance mentioned to the nice-but-not-amazing Miralindo waterfall, for example, is a mere 1.5 km with a projected walking time of 30 minutes — its altitude is over 300 metres higher than the town. In reality, it must be at least a 10-kilometre trek from the town.

This misleading information meant that, due to my limited time there, I missed out on the supposedly more impressive Las Tinajas (‘The Tanks’) waterfalls. Considering the sign in the town said they’re 3.5 km away, a 90-minute walk, using the Miralindo experience as a guide they’re probably at least a 20-kilometre wander.

One could say it all adds to the adventure but after struggling to find Miralindo until meeting Moisés Castélblanco — yes, it was “Moses” who led me to the promised waterfall — I didn’t want to find myself miles from my hotel with dusk not far off.

Santuario Virgen del Coro, Zetaquirá, Boyacá, Colombia

Virgin territory: Just don’t always believe what the signs tell you!

What’s more, after the entrancing and, what was for me, novel thermal waterfall, seeing just another “normal” one wasn’t a big priority.

A case for the return
This point in the story would be an apt moment to say ‘next time’. The thing is, I rarely if ever return to these getaway towns.

I could make an exception for Zetaquirá, seeing as it does at least inform visitors, misleadingly albeit, of its various attractions (there are also a couple of lakes in the vicinity that are photogenic — they may not be quite as pretty seeing them for real, as is the case with many things in life!). A visit to the neighbouring town of Miraflores, about 20 km to the south, could also be included in any return trip.

One minor drawback is that it’s another one of those awkward enough places to reach (similar to La Palma and Pauna). While its distance from Bogotá’s Terminal Norte is only 181 km, it’s a five-hour bus spin. This is to be expected when navigating the Andes and its stretches of unpaved roads.

That aside, another pull factor is Hotel Chibchacum (no, it’s not one of “those” hotels; in Spanish, the name doesn’t have the same eyebrow-raising, um, ring to it as it may have in English for some of you).

At 25,000 COP per night for a well-kept, cosy en suite room with a nice view, hot water (often a rarity in such towns and far from essential for me), good WiFi and a friendly, helpful owner, it would be hard to find something better for the price and quality.

Heck, if the town sorted out the tourist information signs, one would be left with few significant grievances. (It even scores well on the coffee front, although it’s far from being a culinary capital.)

Just don’t get too lost in the moment when bathing in those thermal waters.
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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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