January 28th, 2018
Following a deep and restful sleep, I wake up to the first rays of the dawn broaching the crest of the hills visible in the distance. The night was quiet at the hotel, despite it being a weekend, which I am very thankful for, never mind that there is no barking of feral dogs in the immediate vicinity. My mind begins racing, which means it is time to sit down and begin writing, ironic for a person who at home would rather emerge from his stupor in the morning at 11 am or later. Attribute that to the stresses of life and the terrible winter climate at home!
Since my friend Vania arrived in Villa de Levya late at yesterday night, we decided to postpone getting together until this morning, which also means I have to complete the journal entry for the preceding day prior to meeting. The pressure is on!
We opt to meet at my friends’ rental apartment. As her husband Roger did not know I am in town, he is absolutely floored to see me! The big surprise of the day! I inspect their room as well as common quarters, but am not as taken by their quarters as they are. They could well find a more charming place to stay in town …
Following a mediocre breakfast at a tipico eatery in the Los Olivos area of town where they are staying, we proceed on a walk into town to give them an initial taste of Villa de Leyva, exhilarated with each others’ newfound company. I embark on my usual philosophical banter and random musings pertaining to the experience of traveling, how we experience things differently over the years of traveling, how the world is a shifting landscape, and yet our perception of the world around us is also changing, based on how our own lives have evolved.
Colombia is somewhat more expensive than the cheaper Asian countries, but then probably offers some of the best value in Latin America. Even for relatively little money very comfortable hotels can be found with modern appointments, the streets are clean, well-organized and safe, and good food can be had for relatively little. There are none of the shocks that present the traveler in far less developed countries, such as intense social and economic distress, urban decay, lack of infrastructure, terrible transport options, or a constant threat of violence. I am sure many Colombians would disagree …
We have known each other some 25 years, and only traveled together relatively locally, in British Columbia and San Francisco. We intended on meeting each other on the road once in Cambodia, but it never happened.
Exploring the Spanish colonial aesthetics of town, camera in hand, we are both fascinated by the beauty and character of Villa de Leyva. But the negative comparisons with Barichara to the north are rife, which the predictable domain of the traveler. I have not visited Barichara yet, and at the moment it doesn’t really matter as to whether Villa de Leyva is better or worse than some other town.
What matters in a town as expensive as Villa de Leyva is managing costs, which primarily involve accommodation and restaurants. The further away from the centre, hotels are cheaper, and the same applies to restaurants. I am not enthralled by the fact that my hotel is located on the main road on the southern edge of town, but the room I have been assigned reflects a value I could not experience closer to the centre.
The adobe buildings are fascinating, with the small naturally stained wooden balconies with heavy balusters splayed at even intervals across the facade. Wrought iron and terracotta compete for attention, as does the rich tapestry of mauve and orange flowers that gush over the walls. Walls covered in broken glass or barbed wire are intended to deter potential intruders, while the intimate retail spaces attempt to do the opposite, beckoning to visitors with displays of woolen ponchos, mobiles, ceramics and beaded armbands and necklaces.
The verdant hills soar above town, the green richer in the muted light of the late morning. Public spaces remain relatively idle at this time of day, although providing endless photographic opportunities, what with the busts to obscure heroes and abstract sculptures in the Parque Antonio Nariño. On the roadside is an elderly local woman with long silver braid of hair and small sombrero, selling sprigs of fresh pepper, small pomegranates, and bottles of a honey that leaves Roger in rapture at its flavour.
In a few moments of hilarity, my friends pose for a few good portrait shots, which degenerates into long conversations about subjects completely unrelated to our current excursion. I am told to curtail my enthusiasm, and then we are back en route to the northeast side of town where the Parque Antonio Ricaurte is located.
The Museo del Chocolate is a must-see in any trip to Villa de Leyva, and we are certainly as in awe of this place as all the other visitors. The modest terrace is no preparation for the Belle Epoque interior, with its elaborate furniture and copious flower pots arrayed through the establishment.
The Baroque interior morphs into a rear terrace that may have been modest if it weren’t for the vast amounts of cut and potted flowers arranged across the terrace surface as well as walls in varying designs.
Flower pots are arranged at regular intervals on one wall, and on another a huge mirror, bordered with a continuous wreath of flowers. The adjacent cathedral does little to undermine the character of the Museo del Chocolate.
Another smaller rectangular park across from the Museo del Chocolate is raised above the cobblestone street. A small gate at one end provides access to the English garden focusing on a stone fountain, around which is arrayed an exhibition of paintings, from a distance of mediocre artistic merit, although such detail is of little importance, given that Villa de Leyva’s appeal is its ambience, not the artistic forte of its citizens.
Our meandering initial journey through Villa de Levya has a purpose, and that is to see what budget accommodation options we can find in the vicinity of the plaza, motivated by the places I found yesterday on the Carrera 11. Descending the atmospheric cobblestoned street, businesses appear largely shuttered, a sense of sleepiness more evident as we come closer to the main road. At the first hostal I had eagerly visited yesterday, no one answers the door, and the second seems to have vanished altogether! Not a good start …
The Hospederia Villa de los Sáenz where I am staying could only offer a small but proper room to my friends, for some twice the price. The cost of hotels in Colombia is by person, which provides a rare benefit to individual travelers. In their case, they are obliged to pay far higher tariffs, for the same space. As impeccable and clean as the room may be, to pay COP $160,000 a night for a smallish room here just seems absurd.
And yet next door, the even more charming Hotel Las Orquídeas de la Villa, also located up a flight of stairs on the second floor, offers better prices, has an entire floor of rooms to choose from, and is even brighter and more spacious. Huge picture windows look out over the character terracotta tiles and the mountains in the distance, some rooms complimented by small balconies.
Each room has at least two beds, one typically a double and the second a single, and some rooms with more space than others. Irrespective of the position of the room, the feeling is warm, welcoming and somehow replete with a sense of beauty, given the impeccable natural wood furnishings, finishing, and the high beamed ceilings.
We wander along Carrera 9 from the Plaza Mayor past the innumerable craft shops selling ponchos, local designer clothing, ceramic mugs, dream catchers, Balinese masks, pashmina shawls, colourful Colombian bags, toques, necklaces and assorted jewelry, and in general the assorted claptrap of the tourist trade. This is the street the tourists come to shop, and while the small shops provide less of the warehouse setting than Ráquira, the lack on intrinsic cultural or artistic value in the overpriced merchandise is a consistent theme.
Store owners or employees call to pedestrians passing by to enter the store, which is somewhat necessary, given how small the entrances are and limited the views inside. Two lone street artists are also present, from the display of their work in the business of making mediocre charcoal portraits.
Vania is now urging us to hurry, as it is approaching 3 pm, and the tipico restaurant that offers inexpensive fare next to my hotel will close at 4 pm. But we have to see the sights en route too, and there are of course always digressions.
For some reason, I am compelled to have some of the paletas for sale in the shops. They may be overpriced at 2,000 pesos, but the quality is extraordinary. The feijoa one is incredible, in terms of the vibrancy and authenticity of the fruit’s flavour, and the subsequent passion fruit one isn’t much worse.
The Parque Ricaurte is situated in one of the most atmospheric corners of Villa de Leyva. I can only imagine how sought after the houses the houses here are. On the flank of the park, the Casa y Museo Antonio Ricaurte, a Colombian hero who lived in the late 18th century and gained fame in this valiant battle for the country’s independence. The rooms that comprise his house contain personal effects, furniture, and are amplified with records of the Colombian army’s history.
At the back of the plaza, a convent that has been converted to a minor display of stuffed local animals, displays on ecology, a collection of books, and other materials supporting the work of the Humboldt Institute. Few were present in the Museo Antonio Ricaurte, and no other visitor is present in the Humboldt Institute. But the heavy cloud cover has broken and now the brilliant equatorial sun is beaming down on us ….
We weave back towards the Plaza Mayor on the Carrera 10, this street beholden to a quiet elegance, particularly with the Carmelite convent looming over the north side, with the adjacent Museo del Carmen. Across the street, a small and elegant pasteleria, but not much else, other than the whitewashed adobe house fronts leading to the Plaza Mayor.
And then north on Calle 13 to the main road and the tipico restaurant that provides us with a solid meal prior to closing at 4 pm. Vania is hardly that impressed with the food, always prone to comparing with some other place where the food was better. But then she is also very picky with food, unlike her husband, who will eat pretty much everything, and can’t cook at all. The soup is always brilliant, but the carne asada is leathery and the accompaniments could be somewhat better. But no matter, I am content, if not utterly stuffed, as is the dog at the entrance begging for food with its forlorn eyes.
Equipped with a map of Villa de Leyva’s historic houses, we forge our way back into town, with the intention of navigating the entire grid of streets that wrap around the Plaza Mayor. Crossing the street and the groups of horseback riders, the most rewarding moments come from the walled city block just above the main road, a mysterious compound enclosed and secretive, sprays of colourful flowers erupted over the electrical fence lining the crest of the wall.
A sign is visible by the entrance on the south side of the lot indicating that camping is available, and further along the street, another sign, indicating that ownership of the property is being legally contested. This property must be worth a fortune, what with its rambling adobe bungalows, virtual forest setting, which includes a small lake on the gigantic lot. Vania, already taken by the idea of living in the country in the long term, is in absolute rapture at the idea of being able to acquire this lot. A romantic notion, to be certain!
One last time through the Parque Antonio Nariño as dusk is approaching, the cloud cover dissipating in the late afternoon and the sun washing the town in a brilliant golden light, the fecund vegetation and palm trees, whitewashed adobe and terracotta magical against the deep green of the hills surging above us.
In one last attempt to find a great deal on accommodation, we stop the young couple emerging from the doors of the hostel on the north side of the park, but alas, they are paying the same for dorm beds as we are for hotel rooms, and the individual rooms would be far too expensive. Our subsequent conversation veers off into the realm of traveling, far away from Villa de Leyva to Germany, where she is from, to various parts of the U.S. where he has lived, and then finally Malaysia, where his mother is from. My friends are patient, but not that patient, finally dragging me away now that night has fallen and everyone is roundly sick of my longwinded digressions …
Roger wants to return to his hotel to freshen up, while Vania and I want to find some place with live music in the vicinity of the Plaza Mayor. We intended on reconnecting later, although unfortunately, due to the vagaries of technology, the attempt becomes utterly frustrated. And in any case, just past the cathedral, in front of the Cafetera El Rincon de Marquez, who do we run into at the but Jay and his cohorts, Juan, who I met at the market yesterday, a perennially beaming man who allegedly sells real estate and is willing to help Vania with her every real estate need, as well as a pretty young Bolivian woman who is happy to garner attention from the older male crowd.
Jay is a fount of local knowledge, which he imparts exuberantly to his circle of friends. Apparently, the town was founded by a few families, and the ownership of the town has been maintained consistently in the hands of those families. The town has remained stable and secure due to the will of the citizens to not allow the crime that had beset so much of the country to affect their town. Once a criminal came from Bogota, was caught, tied up and publicly flogged in the Plaza Mayor as a lesson to anyone else thinking they could come from the capital and try the same.
Jay is effusive, theatrical, funny, playful in his conversation, referring continually to his Colombian heritage, but so much of his character is actually very American, and in a good way.
Juan is effusive and sincere, although the conversation involving the collage of divergent personas undermines the deep underlying ethics of his argumentation. Nonetheless, I focus on his soliloquy of the human experience, that we need to be driven by love, a commitment to the perseverance of the human species into the future, without being lost in blind devotion to profit and power. This desire may be utopian, but we must forge ahead with the most idealistic commitments, irrespective. Without our commitment to the survival of the human race and the planetary ecology, we are lost, nothing remains for our descendants.
The analysis is stark, profound, Manichaean, although in the end reality is more chromatic, more nuanced, more complex. As apocalyptic as the world may appear, we can’t get lost in crass generalizations or espouse absolutes, since we end up nowhere. In our deeply flawed world, there are innumerable moments of brilliance, catharsis, resurgence and redemption that weave into the morass of compromises, shortcomings, and failure.
His painter friend looks vaguely askance in the course of Juan’s diatribe, acknowledged by his cohorts to be an alcoholic, although the expression in his eyes alone convey that he probably has more of a sense of the misguidedness of this conversation than anyone else present.
Jay berates to me to speak Spanish, joking that he will charge me a dollar for every word he translates for me. Beyond the hilarity of the moment is a well-intentioned push to get me to practise and hence improve my Spanish. Vania’s Spanish easily disintegrates into Portuguese, which in theory is very similar to Spanish and yet seems to be characterized by such a different sensibility.
‘Who wants to buy her a beer?’ Jay intones, pointing to his friend in the loose macramé wrap. She smiles knowingly as he gathers money for her beer. It seems we are a gathering point for the disenfranchised alcoholics of Villa de Levya.
One beer follows the other, the self-appointed real estate agent fascinated by my height buying an initial round, but then I am called to buy others successive rounds, and not just beer, but whatever liquor of their choice. The gathering of drunks in a fecund setting represents an old and oft-repeated saga, and not one I find interesting anymore, particularly when it comes to conversational material that isn’t particularly interesting, and becomes more repetitive and regrettable as the alcohol consumption increases.
The painter makes a move to leave, but can hardly stand. The macramé-wrapped crone takes on his cause, insisting he leave his drawing materials at the cafe, as he will otherwise lose them. He stands, wobbling uncertainly, looking at some fixed point in the distance, while she berates him. Jay tells her ‘He has been getting drunk for 30 years, and every night he makes it home with his supplies without a hitch. Tonight will be no different!’
We politely extricate ourselves, with the pretext that it is late and I still have to write in my journal, and yet that is nothing but the truth. A few paces into the plaza, and I am already glad to have escaped the clutches of our newfound friends, although a few blocks later am fearful that we may be heading in the wrong direction, as everything looks unfamiliar. But no, we are simply taking a different road to my friends’ apartment rental, and following a few inquiries with people on the street and hotel workers, we arrive in Los Olivos area and ultimately the apartment rental.
And then I walk all the way across town to my own hotel …