February 27th, 2018
Waking up in my apparently immaculate hotel room in Villa Leyva, it feels as if I have unwittingly come back to the beginning of my trip, although the town offers less of a sense of discovery than assurance of calcified safety, at an excessive price tag. Removed from the centre of town – proximity to the plaza directly proportional to the price – the hotel offers spacious, sunny and comfortable rooms with sparse furnishings at a surprisingly reasonable price.
And yet again, I seem to be the only guest. The sparseness of furnishings becomes a problem when attempting to get work done, in the form of editing photos and more importantly, trying to deal with yet another cancellation of AirBnB accommodation in Bogotá. So yet again, it looks like I will have to put my trip to Bogotá on hold, and make alternate travel plans.
The taxi driver who brings me to the bus station is the same one who brought me to the bus station almost a month ago. The bus drivers chide the taxi driver, but are very courteous, as is typical in the smaller towns in Colombia. The departure from town follows, the buseta making a few stops nearer the centre to pick up passengers, and then along the narrow road running through the broad valley that connects to the single-gauge Tunja-Chiquinquirá highway. Towards Tunja, the hillsides surge around us, the road weaving to a much higher elevation, rising, rising, until we reach a broad valley, the low hills cresting in the distance, the starker vegetation indicative of a much higher elevation.
And some distance further, we round another curve, and the broad, sweeping valley containing the city of Tunja appears before us. The bus meanders along an upper crest of the city, the road peering down into the mosaic of unfinished brick homes and occasional polished modern commercial spaces. Now down into the town, through the somewhat decayed but nonetheless evocative side roads, past several parks culminating with the Parque Santander, the alleys of Tunja now so familiar, into the swirl of traffic around the glorieta, and along the Avenida Oriental to the terminal, where, unlike previous experiences, we have the luxury of entering the bus station, rather than being deposited on the side of the road.
The comfortable buseta to Sagamoso is already waiting, but when I return from the toilet, having paid a whopping 800 pesos for the privilege, followed by a gigantic strawberry jam-filled donut, allowing me to regain some faith in Colombian baking capabilities, I return to find the buseta jam-packed. Continuing the sense of efficiency I am experiencing on this trip, we leave soon, locked into the almost unmoving traffic heading north on the Avenida Oriental, the large commercial spaces and upscale housing residences crawling by as the freeway approaches, and again we are on the modern, double-gauge highway, heading to Duitama at a brisk pace.
Sandwiched into the narrow seat, I eventually fall asleep, and awake again as we emerge into the congestion along the Avenida del Norte of Sagamoso. If the driver had taken a direct route to the station, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but we weave around the general area of the station through the most congested areas of town, the now familiar and somewhere welcoming sights inducing me to simply jump off the bus and be done with it, revisiting some of my haunts, and hopefully discovering new ones. But I have far too much baggage for that luxury at this point.
A comical interlude occurs at the bus station, where it turns out that not only the plastic bag I am carrying has ripped, but the baggie of blackberries has understandably become crushed under the weight of the heavy bottles. Black stains appear around me on the sidewalk, and even worse, on the floor of the bus. It looks as if someone was bleeding profusely. I ask a bus driver for a place I can find towels to clean the mess, and he is entirely accommodating.
He waves me off, that I shouldn’t worry about it, pulling some Kleenex from his pocket and proceeding to clean up the mess. The attitude of bus drivers here is a far cry from my experiences in other countries, which this simple event demonstrates. The driver is mortified when I throw the rest of the blackberries in the garbage, obviously not a route I would have chosen to have taken, but without a sealed container to put them in, things could get much worse.
The bus to Iza should have been an enticing proposition, but instead we become lodged amidst the triste denizens in the canal area of the centre of town, waiting belatedly for additional passengers, one desperate vendor after the other selling chips, ice cream, peaches, oranges, cookies, and so on, no one buying anything, largely because of lack of money, the exhaust fumes from passing traffic filling the bus. We finally leave this settlement of dubious provenance and even more dubious posterity, and are off along the country road rambling to the south of town toward Lago de Tota.
Green erupts around us, trees, and not just the ubiquitous reedy eucalyptus, grazing cattle on fenced lots, crumbling haciendas, somewhat posh eateries with sprawling terraces, quaint hotels, copious amounts of terracotta tiling, whitewashed adobe, the urban nature transforming into a genteel country demeanour, albeit ramshackle. And then further on, nothing but country, trees, cows and pasture.
The overcast sky begins drizzling as we amble along the country lane, nothing I take too seriously. But as I descend in the pristine plaza of the town of Iza, the rain begins in earnest, and for once I am not only overdressed but having to carry all my things for blocks on end to the apparent location of the Hotel Casona Nuñez where I am supposed to be staying. The streets of town are utterly deserted, which is hardly a rarity in the smaller towns of Boyacá, but the dark, brooding sky adds an entirely unfamiliar element to the ambience.
The owner of the hotel and his companion are almost surprised to see me, the short conversation rich in digressions turning to the town of Güicán, which he came from some five years ago to open a hotel here. He owned the largest building in town, which was intended to be an attractive hotel, an intact, historical residence sprawling over the larger part of one of the upper blocks of town – one that I actually had not walked by – before abandoning the project due to a festering conflict with his sister.
In his prior life, he worked as an electrical engineer, and actually had the whole town of Iza wired, hence his earlier connection to the place. So he moved to Iza following the dispute with his sister, which is probably one of the most romantic locales in the highlands, set close to Playa Blanca on the scenic Lago de Tota, but at a lower and ostensibly more welcoming altitude.
He shows me room upon room, all charming, but as we progress towards the back, the appeal increases, rooms set to the back of almost hidden passages or alcoves, the one I finally choose looking out over a narrow terrace and the almost abandoned parking area, the darkened slopes rising to the lake at the back, and immediately outside the room, my own private terrace. The room holds a twin and queen-sized bed, a bathroom, and best of all, a small writing niche perfect for my evening writing sessions.
Immaculate whitewashed houses crowned with terracotta roofs, the mandatory look of Boyacá’s architectural gentry, block upon block of low-slung houses, culminating upon the intimate plaza, from which the adjoining roads emit at odd angles, lending the fecund space charm, not to mention the small shops and kiosks that largely cater to visitors, but in a far more authentic and local manner than would be found in Villa de Leyva.
The road running along the south side of the plaza is dedicated to establishments selling tray upon tray of postre, brightly coloured gelatins with cut fruit topping trays of puddings, somewhat sloppy in appearance, and probably excessively sugared and flavourless. But before sitting down and indulging the waistline, I wish to circuit the small town on foot, not I am expecting enormous discoveries, other than the appearance of copious amounts of hospedajes, and none of which appear shabby. In fact, some are positively elegant, from the outside clad in full Spanish colonial ostentation, and set on spacious lots.
Do I have enough incentive to leave the Hotel Casona Nuñez? I doubt it … But I am motivated to try some of the postres at one of the restaurants, and am almost shocked at how good they are. Rich in a fresh cheese foundation that is well executed, delicate and not too sweet, and laden with all manner of fresh chopped fruit, the blackberry glaze primarily juice. The long wait for the spiced coffee compels me to have another portion of postre, truly excessive but also excellent. The coffee is aromatic and delicate, although the beaming young woman refuses to tell me exactly how she prepared it.
A return in the dark, rain-swept streets to the Hotel Casona Nuñez, but all doors are shuttered and no one appears home. That would be fine with me in principal, as I already have my room, but yet no towel, and even more importantly, no wifi password. The neighbors point me to a house at the end of the block where the administrator lives, but no one answers. Some of the Germans I met at the hotel earlier appear and share the password, and soon I am ready for a dinner of pork chops in sweet-sour sauce at the La Casona Parrilla Bar, on the narrow rambling terrace with uneven green wooden banisters facing the darkness of the parque principal, the last traces of the sunset glowing in the distance.
Today I took no photos. The subject of Via de Leyva, Tunja, and Sagamoso having been exhausted, only Iza remained – except that the overcast, dark weather was prohibitive for photos of any quality. Perhaps tomorrow will offer better opportunities.
February 27th, 2018