Boyaca – ‘land of freedom’; land of panela!

The department of Boyaca is known as ‘land of freedom’ as it was the scene of famous battles in Colombia’s quest for independence from Spain – the freedom fighters led by Simon Bolivar. To us, peddling through, it felt like ‘land of panela’!

Panela is unrefined cane sugar obtained by boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. The plant is pressed to extract the juice and the final product is a hard, brown, grainy block. In Colombia panela seems to be a national addiction. Agua de panela is a very sweet drink served with most set lunches and the stuff crops up in most sweets and cakes, etc.

Colombia is the number one producer of panela in the world – 1.4million tonnes annually for home consumption and for export to satisfy the Latino sweet tooth. The industry employs 350,000 people from small scale family businesses to big factories.

Ned and I are forming our own addiction to panela – consuming our fair share of agua de panela and locally made sweets. Apparently as well as sugar it is loaded with protein, iron and calcium (so does that mean it’s simultaneously good AND bad for the teeth?). We were also told recently that former professional Colombian cyclists swore by the energy-giving properties of panela. If it’s good enough to have got them up these damn hills, it’s definitely good enough for us!

A small panela processing plant on the way to Barbosa, department of Boyaca. We could smell the sicky, sweet aroma of boiling sugarcane a long way before reaching these facilities dotted all along the road. Sugarcane was planted on every available patch of land - a real monocrop in this area.

The finished product, for sale in a store in Villa de Leyva. The blocks are so hard that many people keep a special stone in their houses especially for smashing the panela apart!

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