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Spanning almost 15,000 acres, Lake Tota is the largest lake in Colombia. Located in the Andes Highlands, Lake Tota lies at nearly 10,000 feet elevation on the eastern slope of the mountain range. For many years, the lake was considered sacred to the Muisca culture. Muisca tradition believes the lake was created by one of their mythical heroes, and this tradition appears to have contributed to another bit of folklore about the massive lake. It is said that the mythical hero battled and killed a monstrous black snake, the death of which created Lake Tota and the three islands it holds. By the time the monster was described to conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, the 'pitch-black snake with a head like a bull and bigger than a whale' was considered an active and feared inhabitant of the lake. Since the early 1600s, the 'monster of Lake Tota' has been an oft-repeated tale, gaining local respect similar to the Loch Ness monster, Nessie.
Lake Tota holds a spectacular white-sand beach on its east shore called the Playa Blanca. The beach is popular with both locals and visitors. Sun bathing is a favorite activity, and some people swim although the water is quite cold at this altitude. Here, tourists can rent a boat for boat cruises, hire a guide for fishing excursions, or hire a boat to tow them for kite-skiing, water skiing, and wake-boarding. Kayaks are available for rent, and sailing is popular although there is no actual marina. Horses may be rented for riding the nearby countryside, and many walking paths allow for scenic vistas and bird watching. The lake's wetlands support myriad bird species, with 116 species reported here. Some of the endangered birds include the least bittern, Apolinar's wren, Colombian ruddy duck, and the Bogota rail. Now considered extinct, the last Colombian grebe sighted was at Lake Tota. The average 53-degree temperature of the water makes the lake an excellent trout fishery. One mounted specimen displayed in a restaurant in nearby Aquitania weighed in at over 15 pounds.
Despite its attractions, Lake Tota is not a highly developed tourism destination. There are no organized resorts here, although a camping area can be found near the lakeside village of Aquitania. Occasionally, one finds villas for rent for a few weeks or longer. A few small bed-and-breakfasts and small hotels do business in Aquitania, along with restaurants serving excellent trout dishes. Guides may also be found here for local excursions. But the plains surrounding Lake Tota are primarily farmland. The fields are dedicated to the production of onions; the area produces 90% of the onions consumed in Colombia. The lake itself is used for fish farming, with trout raised in cages. Bus service runs to Aquitania regularly, and the bus in Aquitania runs the short distance to Lake Tota.
The few small villages near the lake are picturesque and appreciate visitors. Iza, a few miles west of Lake Tota, boasts several hot springs that visitors can enjoy for a fee. Wooden handicrafts can be obtained here. Most visitors make the larger town of Sogamoso their base for traveling to the lake. Sogamoso has many hotels, inns and bed-and-breakfasts, a full complement of restaurants and most services. Sogamoso is the ideal spot to become steeped in the colorful history of the entire Boyaca District and to learn about the Muisca culture. The Archaeological Museum of Sogamoso preserves the remnants of the Muisca culture, with artifacts, ethnographic replicas of houses, and the most important temple ever constructed by the members of the Muisca culture to honor the Sun, the monument to the aboriginal leader or "Cacique" Sugamuxi. Here the visitor will learn the cultural significance of Lake Tota to the Muisca and the fact that the name of the lake itself is derived from the Muisca term for 'astronomy observatory'.
Many hiking trails begin in Sogamoso that lead active hikers several miles to the 300-year-old town of Mongui. Taxis are also available. Often called the most beautiful town in Boyaca, the town showcases a monastery built in the 18th century, the Basilica, old town square, and the storied Calicanto bridge. The main product of the town is balls of all kinds, and these can be purchased as souvenirs. Or, one can head north along a country road to Nobsa. Nobsa is known as the handicraft center of Boyaca; wood carvings, textiles and leatherwork are specialties, along with dried fruit. The best wine in the region from the local vineyards can be procured here.
Although the ancient myths credit native heroes for the lake's creation, geologists have a very different interpretation of its origins. Lake Tota is what remains of a vast prehistoric sea which left fertile sediments in the surrounding areas, excellent for farming. Other small lakes dot the plains and originate from the same ancient sea. The lake is the origin of the Upia River which flows into the Orinoco River basin. Because the lake maintains a temperature averaging 53 degrees Fahrenheit, rainbow trout introduced into the lake created an excellent trout fishery. The trout unfortunately proved too much competition to the native pez graso or 'grease fish' which are now extinct in the lake.
Use of the lake for fish farming, irrigation, and fertilizer run-off have degraded the lake's former purity to the point that the worldwide community is expressing concern for its future. The wetlands are designated a Ramsar site, and the World Wetland Network assigned Lake Tota the Grey Globe Award to call attention to the endangered status of the lake. Because the lake is vital to the livelihoods of a huge number of people in the region, protecting the lake is a sensitive economic and political dilemma. The Colombian government is committed to protect the lake from further degradation, and local science teams are working on ways to better detect pesticides in the water and protect the lake from further harm.
Lake Tota is a bit over three hours north of Bolivia and can be reached by car. Because accommodations can sometimes be questionable, it may be best to make arrangements through a knowledgeable travel agent who knows the area. Because Lake Tota isn't hugely popular yet, visitors shouldn't face crowds. That is likely to change once the wider world becomes aware of the charming destinations, glorious mountain scenery, and beautiful blue Lake Tota.
*Statistics listed may not be completely accurate as sources differ on some figures.
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