January 30th, 2018
Vania had been complaining bitterly about having to get up early, and now in her new-found domicile about the fact that the sun shines so brightly through the windows in the morning. Considering that we came from such a perennially dark climate … Today she is inexplicably awake at 6 am, which is almost incomprehensible. I had begun my own morning valiantly writing, but will have to interrupt my work soon after, given that she wants us to eat breakfast and get to the bus station, as soon as possible.
We had several options as to what we could do today, including visiting Gachantivá, Arcobuco, the tourist attractions between Santa Sofia and Villa de Leyva, and Ráquira and the adjacent convent, which I don’t want to return to. Lago de Tota is out altogether as a day trip, and will be postponed for a subsequent dedicated visit.
Vania engages in continuous digressions through our generic breakfast the tipico restaurant downstairs, as well as en route to the bus station. Even to the last minute, it is not clear what she wants to do, as she continues changing her mind. The bus conductors in their smart outfits, dress slacks, pressed white shirts and red ties look at the tourists expectantly, but we don’t really conform to the convention, certainly not with Vania’s mangled Portuguese and Spanish, not to mention her relentless digressions.
She won’t stop talking about Ráquira, and so I commandeer the two to board the camioneta to Chiquinquirá leaving immediately (from which they can easily get to Ráquira), and I now have my peace.
I return to the bakery I had visited yesterday next to the bus terminal for a coffee, inspired by the espresso machine that is the target of my eagle eyes. The tinto may be excellent, but the Argentine woman leafing through her Lonely Planet seems somewhat skeptical by my offer for assistance. She is trying to figure out what the best options for the day may be, but clearly doesn’t like losing her independence one iota. I am nonplussed, as I have my own journey of the day to pursue, and that begins with the camioneta to Gachantivá that leaves at 9:30 am.
Squeezed in between the driver and a younger aloof woman holding several flats of eggs on her lap, we amble out of Villa de Leyva propped full with passengers, and are soon rambling along the country roads, rising up through the verdant copses of trees, the green peaks serving as backdrop.
The landscape is intimate, the relatively straight road passing by a limited number of character houses and country hotels. The views are breathtaking as are the shades of green and blue that unfold as we navigate over the crumbling asphalt and gravel. We proceed slowly, eventually arriving at a junction that provides access to a waterfall.
Many of the locals have already disembarked, and the remaining foreigners also disembark. I am told the waterfall is beautiful, but I am intent on continuing, particularly given that there is apparently a further set of waterfalls and a lagoon beyond Gachantivá. I could walk back here from town, but as the camioneta continues further into the fecund depths of this hilly paradise, it seems increasingly unlikely.
Passing pasturing horses, breaks in trees revealing drops into deep valleys below, the road winding in an ascending serpentine past bucolic fincas, and then finally, almost anticlimactically, Gachantivá appears. We park on the town square of this small, remote and inconsequential town. It takes little effort to see that the town has little in the line of aesthetic merits, although the lagoon and waterfall above town seem to be promising.
A few brief glances through the screen of trees on the plaza tell me that this town is nothing but an afterthought in the scheme of local architectural potential. More interesting are the verdant hills that beckon in the distance, beyond the paved road descending from the plaza into the narrow valley, in which I will apparently be able to locate the nature destinations that are the goal of my day’s outing.
What seems to be an obligatory stop for another tinto and some baked goods to sustain me for my journey, reverting to my perennial fear of potential starvation as I forge my way into the wilderness. The older woman managing the counter in the bakery is somewhat indifferent, as befits the populace of this area.
The older and younger man – presumably father and son – seated on one side look at me with a slightly perplexed mien, probably wondering what I could be wanting here. They are blackberry farmers, their crops yielding 1,000 pesos a kilo wholesale, which I suppose could be good, depending on the amount of land you have. The blackberries I have tried here are elongated in comparison to the ones back home, with a duller skin tone and finer texture. The flavour also seems to lack in brightness. The growers, on the other hand, have year-round crops, as the climate here is consistent all year, unlike our limited season back home.
Although what turns out to be a relatively short journey in the growing heat hardly does much to burn calories and hence diminish the size of my growing stomach. I trod down the almost empty highway, the occasional pedestrian or horseback rider vaguely acknowledging me, highlighting either the mistrust locals have for foreigners, or simply the degree of their aloofness. The hills rise above me on either side, the play of light and dark against the thick forests magical, and inviting numerous photos that in the end will probably all look the same.
The forest closes in on the dirt road that climbs steeply from the paved main road to the laguna colorada. The road disappears behind me and I am now in a foreign world of green, with no humans in evidence as the heat builds and sweat pours off my body. And suddenly, two pretty young women on horseback giggling and looking back at me as they pass by, then nothing but the thick vegetation, exotic tree ferns, and finally, much higher, a huge primitive wooden cross, marking an intersection with no signs. Which way should I turn?
I decide on the branch to the right, which winds slowly downhill past large tree ferns, the dense forest offering very limited glimpses into the valley far below. Continuing further downhill, I realize that I may be simply pushing myself further into an unknown I will have to return from without having achieved my goal. At least I should eventually be able to get views of the countryside below.
Instead, the forest opens up to reveal a small lake, with placid tufts of white clouds hanging over the ridge at the far end. A leashed dog barks furiously while a small retriever comes bounding towards me from a bungalow, is tail wagging energetically. I am the only visitor to this homely country setting.
It is possible to rent a small boat and paddle around or swim, although I feel like doing neither, given that this is only the first of a number of attractions I want to have enumerated today.
The young woman cleaning the house tells me the waterfalls may be closed today, although I can contact the warden to let me in. Then there is a COP $5,000 admission to pay. And I should walk another 5 kilometres on the main road for that? No, I will return to the branch in the dirt road and continue to the other side, where she tells me I will find a mirador looking out over Gachantivá.
The forest recedes, and views of the surrounding trails open up, but there are no views to be had of the town. Another curve, descending further down, around a pasture with cows sedately chewing on the grass, remaining virtually immobile, along a fence, the blue sky dotted with white tufts of cotton, but still no mirador.
I make out another dirt road below and the outlines of the hilltop station with the town’s name lettered above me, but the path I am on seems to provide no means of accessing the site. Instead, it degenerates in quality, dropping steeply downhill, then reconnecting with the main road near town.
I had been worried about not making it back to town in time for the last bus out, but given that I did not visit the cascadas, I am back in Gachantivá well before 1 pm. Looking around the plaza, there is evidently very little to keep a person occupied in town, beyond chatting with the uniformed schoolchildren that have gathered on the square.
A camioneta is leaving immediately for Arcobuco, and so I leap on the opportunity to be able to explore another town somewhat further afield. Being immobilized and barely able to breath during the sweltering journey is far from pleasurable, and once we reach Arcobuco, I am happy the journey is over.
Another small and inconsequential town, Arcobuco is only marginally larger than Gachantivá, sloping downhill from the central plaza, the rear ringed by steep verdant hills, and a heavy cloud cover above. Despite the continual traffic of camionetas to Barbosa and Moniquirá, while at the intersection the camionetas intended to pass to Villa de Leyva, no one seems to know as to their departure time. 2 pm? That gives me enough time to wander around the square and descend to the gate of the colegio where they are intended to depart from. I wait, wait, and wait even longer, but no camioneta for Villa de Leyva arrives.
Across the street, the young woman in the tienda tells me the next scheduled departure time is 3:30 pm. Is she sure? Yes, she confirms, looking at the schedule again. I could always take a taxi back to Villa de Leyva …
With almost an hour and a half left to enjoy the delights of this sultry working class town set high in the hills of Boyacá, I wander through the side streets, always sure of being able to witness minor memorable events or capture interesting images. Patches of green intersperse the houses that ring the inner few blocks.
Off the main road, a charming and weathered graveyard, and not much farther, a market and talleres, the ostensible hub of commercial activity in Arcobuco. The thick clouds rolling over the steep hills behind the town provide a constant visual drama.
After gazing at the activities of what I presume to be a funeral party and other stragglers on the pretty main plaza, it is time to return to the cruzero and attempt again to leave for Villa de Leyva.
Loitering aimlessly at the intersection, I am dreading that the camioneta gets delayed even more, or doesn’t show up at all. I am conceding that at this point, there will be no further adventures leading out of Villa de Leyva, as the attractions that remain to be visited between Villa de Leyva and Santa Sofia will be shuttered in the next few hours. Never mind that there is a good possibility of it raining.
The young college student standing on the same corner indicates that if the 3:30 camioneta does not appear, the 4 pm one certainly will. That is encouraging, as I peer at the camionetas passing by us, signed with Barbosa and Moniquirá. In any case, the road to Villa de Leyva is clearly signed as being to the right, not running below us. At least there seem to be several other parties waiting also, an elderly man and younger couple on the opposite side of the street that haven’t boarded any of the frequent camionetas stopping en route to the other destinations in the area.
The young man that was seated across the street is on a honeymoon with his newlywed wife, he from El Salvador and she from the area of Tunja. He is a programmer working on bitcoin-related applications, while she is a mining engineer. They are both extremely friendly, although I subject him to a number of ridiculous comments about El Salvador and its wild people. They have been traveling for four days in the area, and are based in Tunja, although they would love to come to Canada and visit. I tell them all manner of tall tales about the dangers of traveling in the wilds of my country. There is certainly some basis in the truth, but it also provides good fodder for stories.
The landscape that passes us by is at once melancholy, with the heavy dark clouds brushing over the crests of the green hills surging above us, but also fantastic, dramatic and beautiful. The bus grinds up the curving, narrow gravel road, the pale rust colour of the bed contrasting with the thick green and the traces of blue sky above as we weave amongst the thick copses of trees, past pastureland swooping up into the clouds.
We pass by the entrance to the Paramo de Iguaque, the national park of the region I would love to visit on some theoretical subsequent occasion that may never happen. But then at least I made it this far, and this final journey through the highlands of Boyacá has to be the most spectacular of my stay so far.
Again in Villa de Levya, we descend from the bus, continuing to chat as we enter the main road. And who do I see immediately but Roger, with his wife not far behind. The delight at seeing them dissipates quickly when I find out he lost his iPhone, suspecting that it fell out of his pocket on the colectivo to Ráquira, and that the other passenger in the vehicle took it. He muses that the phone wouldn’t be of much use, given that it is password-protected and that the battery is almost dead, but then people skilled in recuperating the phone will be able to make the best of it. In any case, he is attached to his phone, it is very useful, and resolving its disappearance will be problematic and time-consuming.
I suggest to my newfound friends that they take a room in the hotel Vania and Roger are staying at, but then they will have to walk all the way there. Then again, most of the walk is through Villa de Leyva’s cobblestone streets, and we are engrossed in chatter most of the walk anyway. Vania reverts to her typical flamboyant, effusive behavior, particularly upon finding out that the young woman is familiar with the Lago de Tota area, and would love to show us around there.
At the hotel, the young couple looks at the other back corner room, and immediately decides to take it. We know that is unlikely they will find anything better elsewhere. Hopefully they don’t feel we were just trying to railroad them.
It turns out they are very grateful for having found the beautiful room, but it is now time to let them enjoy the last evening of their honeymoon together, without our interference.
Vania wants to leave immediately for the Plaza Mayor, but I need some time out. Check my messages, take a shower, perhaps lie down for a while, then considering going out again. And if my hotel room is so beautiful, what’s the point of even having it if I am never there?
I am so tired, I just want to lie down for a while, and again am somewhat surprised i am so tired. Looking at my red face in the mirror and peeling skin, it occurs to me that perhaps I have been out in the sun just too much.
I wander up Calle 12 in the approaching darkness, but not of the lower restaurants seems to be particularly inspiring in terms of price. It is just difficult to justify spending the kind of money being asked when one is very certain the food won’t be much better than by the market place, where the same is available for a fraction of the price.
I return to Roger and Vania’s hotel. She ready to leave, he diligently hunched over his laptop, trying to resolve the impact of having lost his iPhone. I feel very bad for him, as it is such a problem to have lost a smart phone, given that so much of our contemporary activities revolve around using the phone, as well as the value of the personal data we store on the phone. Despite the enormous compromise in convenience, I am somewhere so grateful for not having replaced my phone six years ago.
We decide to wander towards the Plaza Mayor, avoiding the general area where Jay and his friends may be hanging out. We chat as we approach the Plaza Mayor along Calle 13, but even from a distance, I am fearing the worst. The plaza is utterly quiet, and the establishments on the southeast side are even more quiet than they were yesterday, which is hard to believe.
No, it is definitely not worth wasting any time here. And clearly, no locals will be wasting their money on overpriced establishments, so we may as well head southwest on Carrera 10 to the area of the bus station to see what we can find. At the narrow bridge, the world changes, crowds of locals and backpackers crowding around the small shops and restaurants that represent a return to the real world.
I peruse the menus of some of the less expensive pizza and pasta places, but Vania admonishes me to not eat pizza or pasta, as it is junk food. Ironically, I know that all-too well, and otherwise would not touch particularly pizza. And yet I am not particularly motivated to eat generic and low quality local food either.
I unwittingly descend into the Kiosko de los Caciques that Roger had been complaining bitterly about in the last few hours. At all costs, don’t eat here, he intones. Vania moderates his commentary, indicating that the food was really not so bad, it was actually interesting, full of vegetables, which Roger doesn’t like, and prepared in an imaginative manner. Upon the encouragement of an elderly dapper dressed man at the entrance, I decide to give it a try – and am almost amazed by the quality of what I experience. The soup is made with tripe, but also contains squash, potatoes, large legumes that have the taste and texture of flat beans.
Amended with the hot and slightly sweet chili the soup takes on an entirely different taste.
The main course includes a plate of flavourful white rice, a small salad, pieces of chicken braised in caramelized onion, and stewed chayote in egg, onion, tomato and a spice along the lines of saffron, along with a big glass of fresh peach juice. The amount of food is far too much for me, considering that I wasn’t that hungry when I arrived, but the quality is impeccable and far beyond anything I would have expected. And to top things off, the tiki sensibility involving the bamboo fencing and thatch covering of the individual booths gives the respective eating areas a special feeling.
We return to the plaza, and it is still dead. We again avoid crossing the plaza so as to avoid potentially running into our friends, although we did see the young Bolivian woman on the street earlier with her friend.
One last time along the darkened cobblestone streets of town towards the hotel, our friends from the bus from the earlier bus ride nowhere in evidence. I am ready to return to my room and begin writing for the evening! It’s our last night in Villa de Leyva together, and a bit underwhelming. We are already looking forward to seeing the Lago de Tota area in the next few days, although I will be spending two days in Tunja beforehand.