At the beginning of June, my friend Brighid’s host family offered to take a few of us along for the ride to spend a Sunday in Ráquira, a town a few hours outside of Bogotá. Ráquira is in the department (sort of the Colombian equivalent of a state) of Boyacá, which is generally supposed to be one of the most “traditional” departments of Colombia. This doesn’t mean that everyone walks around dressed like it’s their version of Colonial Williamsburg, but that most of the towns have a similar, typical look to them: a large plaza with a church, small storefronts ringing the plaza, lots of yellow bricks and cobblestones.
Boyacá alone is a lovely place to spend time — as well as being home to the Bridge of Boyacá, which is the symbolic site of Colombia’s independence (so I suppose I could say it’s sort of like the Massachusetts of Colombia, except with less chowder, nicer people and definitely more Yankees hats). Ráquira is a special place, though — it’s nationally known as a ceramics-producing town, and if you go through the kitchen of most Colombians in the Andean region, you’ll find something from Ráquira. We’d been talking about trying to visit for a while, but it’s not easily accessible by public transportation, so we all jumped at the opportunity for a guided field trip, complete with driving service.
What we didn’t know is that this was not going to be a simple field trip. Our caravan of three cars holding almost the entire family, plus three gringas, left Brighid’s house in Tabio (a town just outside of Bogotá) at 6:30 a.m. — too early for me to be functional, but an understandable hour to leave for a place that was a 3-hour drive away. Instead of heading straight to Ráquira, though, we made a pit stop in Chiquinquirá, a town along the way that’s home to a church that, for some reason that is probably clear to Catholics, is a major site for religious pilgrims in this part of Colombia. This was the first sign that we weren’t just hopping out for a quick day trip, but we didn’t know enough to realize it at the time. Heathens that we are, Brighid, Kate and I stayed outside the church, drinking coffee and playing with puppies while Brighid’s family attended Mass. Devotions done, we hopped back in the car and an hour later, arrived in Ráquira.
This place deserves to be famous, not just in Colombia, but around the world. It not only lived up to, but actually surpassed my kiln-fired expectations. I’ve never seen so many beautiful glazed pieces of pottery in my life: everything from coffee cups to ajiaco bowls to planters to mysterious chicken-shaped cookie jars — and that isn’t even mentioning all the other kinds of artisan work and handcrafts sold there. It’s like if Williams Sonoma approved of things being colorful, and nothing cost more than $10. Oh, did I mention how cheap all of this beautiful handmade pottery was? Just one example: I got three gorgeous soup bowls for about $7. Sorry, mall-dwellers of America, but the real bargains are way south of the border.
After entertaining fantasies of decorating our own nonexistent apartments for about two hours, it was back into the car — to go home, right? Not so fast. We kept heading northeast, away from the city, and toward the desert. After a hilariously entertaining stop at an asadero (basically a roadside place with benches, a big open fire and a whole farm’s worth of meat), in which Kate and I tried to explain that we’re not vegetarians because we don’t like meat but rather for logical reasons (and then gave up and just ate a lot of potatoes and yuca), we were back on the road again. Still going northwest.
Maybe an hour later, we pulled into a beautiful hilltop parking lot outside a yellow building — the Museo El Fosil, a small one-room museum that contains one of the most complete dinosaur skeletons in this hemisphere. Those of you who know anything about me understand that this was pretty much a religious site for me — who needs cathedrals when there are DINOSAURS to look at? We realized at this point that we were pretty close to Villa de Leyva: one of the most popular weekend vacation spots in central Colombia, one of the most beautiful towns in the entire country — and a place we were already planning to visit two weeks later. Much as it went against everything I hold sacred, we decided to save the dinosaur itself for our return trip.
After the museum, our self-appointed tour guides insisted we naturally had to go on to Villa de Leyva, even though we were going to be coming back within the month. By now, it was late afternoon, so we stopped in the central square, Plaza Mayor, just long enough to realize (and document) that it was one of the most beautiful places we’d seen so far in Colombia, and then everyone piled back in the cars to begin the long journey home, at last.
Four hours and a pit stop for dessert later, we were back in Bogotá: exhausted, a little sunburned, and with an unwieldy quantity of pottery and other crafts. Lesson learned: If Colombians tell you they’re going to take you to conocer (get to know) a place, you’d better be prepared to conocer the hell out of it.