Amazing hike to Laguna de Iguaque

Last week’s post about my stint in Boyacá made me feel a little nostalgic. I have so many amazing memories from living in a small town and teaching my first classes there. Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to visit my former students since then because my work has taken me to other parts of the country. When I was going through my photos from that time, I decided that I should write a post about a magical place that made a great impression on me.

Villa de Leyva is a major tourist destination, which receives lots of visitors from Bogotá every weekend. You can get a direct bus from the terminal, but it doesn’t run that frequently, so it’s easier to travel to Tunja and then catch a local bus to Villa de Leyva instead. There are many things to do in and around the town, and you can find numerous blog posts with good advice. If you like hiking, you shouldn’t miss Mirador El Santo Sagrado Corazón, which offers a nice view of the town. I also enjoyed a hike to Cárcavas de Ritoque, an amazing location full of strange natural formations. Villa de Leyva is usually pretty busy, so it was nice to go to a place that isn’t visited by many people.

Laguna de Iguaque, Colombia

The ultimate hiking trip in the whole area leads to Laguna de Iguaque. Getting there isn’t that easy, though. The national park is called a flora and fauna sanctuary and there are restrictions in terms of number of visitors. You have to make a reservation by e-mail in advance, and apparently you also need to get an insurance policy in advance from one of three companies. You can find more information here. Fortunately, I was taken there by a group of my students who happened to be the park’s employees, so I didn’t have to worry about that stuff.

If you are travelling by car, everything is easy because you can drive right to the entrance. However, there are no direct buses to the park. You need to get up early in the morning, catch a bus from Villa de Leyva to Arcabuco and ask the driver to leave you at casa de piedra (see this helpful map). Then you have to walk around 3 kilometres uphill to the park entrance. This budget option is a bit inconvenient, but it’s perfectly doable. Just don’t forget to plan your return journey in advance! Villa de Leyva is 12 kilometres away from casa de piedra, and you’ll be in no mood to walk that extra distance after an exhausting hike.

Laguna de Iguaque, Colombia

The trail starts in a forest, where you can see various birds and maybe even some other animals if you get lucky. When you climb above the tree line, you will enter an ecosystem called páramo characterised by plants from the Espeletia family. The hike up to the lake and back usually takes around 6 hours and it will provide you with some really impressive views. The whole area is considered to be sacred by the Muisca people, so please treat it with respect if you go there. There are signs describing the legend of Laguna de Iguaque along the trail.

The path is clearly marked and divided into 10 stages, so you always have an idea how far you’ve walked. I really enjoyed the hike, but I have to admit that it wasn’t easy. Páramos are known for unstable weather, so you have to wear proper hiking boots and a warm jacket. It was rainy and foggy during our trip, which explains why I don’t have any good photos of the actual lake! The weather made our descent tricky because of low visibility and uneven slippery ground. If you feel that you are running out of time to reach the lake, you should turn back because getting stuck on the trail when it gets dark can’t be a pleasant experience. It’s crucial to start the hike early so that you can enjoy it in its full beauty.

Laguna de Iguaque, Colombia

It seems visiting Laguna de Iguaque has become a little more complicated since my trip back in 2017. The facilities at the park entrance can’t be used anymore and you have to enter the hiking trail before 10am. There is no possibility of hiring a guide. As you can see, going to the lake requires quite a lot of effort from your side and the trip is challenging for various reasons, so it probably isn’t for everybody. However, If don’t mind a bit of discomfort and decide to go to Laguna de Iguaque, you will be rewarded with an amazing hike in a beautiful location.

My experience working as a volunteer teacher in Colombia

When I arrived to Colombia in 2017, I noticed several opportunities to teach English as a volunteer. There were positions offered by organisations that help you get a volunteer visa and also informal arrangements with individuals or businesses through Workaway, and I’m sure they’ll appear again in the post-pandemic world. If you are interested in this kind of teaching roles, don’t forget to do your research. It’s better to be careful and make sure that you are dealing with a legitimate place whose offer is right for you. For example, I certainly wouldn’t recommend considering unpaid internships in public schools because you should be able to find something better without being exploited.

My first teaching position in Colombia was with Heart for Change, a prominent provider of volunteer opportunities. I had been offered a job in Medellín by a language institute, but the employer was taking ages to produce the necessary documents for my work visa, so I responded to a post on Facebook offering short-term work in Villa de Leyva. A Heart for Change representative immediately scheduled an interview, after which I was offered the position and promised a plane ticket to Bogotá. Even though I was called a volunteer, I would receive a salary of 1.5 million pesos. It’s not that much, but it would allow me to cover my living costs. I realised that it would be a better option than haemorrhaging money in Medellín, so I decided to accept the offer.

Villa de Leyva, main square

The Colombian government has ambitious plans to improve English proficiency in the country. Various providers have been tasked with finding foreigners to teach English in different contexts in Colombia. I joined a programme in which Heart for Change cooperated with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism to provide classes to professionals involved in tourism. Villa de Leyva is a major tourist destination, so I was really happy with the location. When I arrived to Bogotá for the induction, I met another teacher who signed up for the same programme. He was placed to Mocoa, the site of a deadly landslide a few months prior to that.

The programme had already started, so we were the only two teachers still in Bogotá getting ready for the assignment. And to their credit, Heart for Change took good care of us. They paid for our hostel for a week or so while our visas were being processed, which gave us an opportunity to explore the city a little bit. Their employees helped us open a bank account with just a passport, went to the visa office with us to get our permits, and showed us how to apply for a cédula de extranjería. It was really nice to get assistance with the paperwork.

My Spanish was very limited at the time, so I was happy to find out that I wouldn’t be alone in Villa de Leyva. My teaching colleague was fluent in Spanish and he showed me the ropes. Our workload wasn’t that bad: one class in the morning and another one at night from Tuesday to Friday. At first we taught at the local community centre Punto Vive Digital and hostel Posada Santa Catalina. For the last month or so, we were asked to give classes at Hotel Duruelo, which was a really nice experience. We had to wake up very early for lessons starting at 6am, but the hotel provided us with delicious breakfast, so it was worth it.

Ráquira, Boyacá

Since we had no classes on Mondays, Heart for Change arranged for us to teach 4-hour lessons in Paipa, a town 80 kilometres away from Villa de Leyva. It meant waking up at 5am and returning exhausted in the afternoon, but it was nice to explore another part of Boyacá. All of our classes involved teaching mixed-ability groups, which was a bit challenging. We were provided with a textbook Oxford English for Careers: Tourism, but it was too difficult for most of the students. I decided to use only the recordings from the book and design my lessons from scratch, and that was really helpful for my development as a teacher. Those classes made me feel confident about my abilities and I believe I managed to build good rapport with the learners. I made a few mistakes along the way, but the students didn’t pay anything for the course, so I didn’t feel under pressure at all.

The whole experience proved to be very eventful because my students kept inviting me to various activities. Villa de Leyva is a nice place to visit for a couple of days, but there are also other interesting locations in Boyacá. Our students took us on a hike to Laguna de Iguaque, cycling trip around Paipa, guided excursion to Pantano de Vargas (Boyacá played a crucial role in Colombia’s fight for independence) and several other places. I always had something to do thanks to the locals’ friendliness and hospitality, which helped me improve my Spanish in the process.

I was grateful for getting a chance to get some valuable post-CELTA experience under my belt in such a nice environment. That said, I wasn’t completely convinced of the programme’s effectiveness. There was very little interest from the mayor’s office in promoting the classes; I even met the director of a local museum who hadn’t heard about the opportunity. Quite a few students weren’t involved in tourism at all, and we actually taught a few teenagers who just needed help with their homework.

Cárcavas de Ritoque, Boyacá

Basically, the government decided to pay twice the minimum salary to foreigners whose only necessary qualification is to be a competent English speaker with a Bachelor’s degree. Damien Le Gal provides valid criticism of the strategy in his article English Language Teaching in Colombia: A Necessary Paradigm Shift. In fact, I believe that if all that money were invested in supporting and training Colombian teachers, it would be much more beneficial in the long term.

Anyway, when the programme finished at the end of the year, Heart for Change stopped offering those positions because of some behind the scenes issues. I wasn’t really worried about my future because I had updated my CV and applied for a job with dozens of potential employers. I decided to accept a full-time teaching position in Manizales, so everything worked out really well in the end.

Volunteer opportunities in Colombia are offered by a few providers, including the resurrected Heart for Change, and you’ll be able to find many interesting offers on social media once the pandemic is over. I probably wouldn’t recommend this option to an experienced teacher, but if you are new to the profession, a short-term position like that can provide you with very useful teaching experience.