Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.


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Top Five Travel Clothes

Unless (maybe even if) you’re a ridiculously intense back-to-basics backpacker, there are special things that go with you when you travel. It could be a simple charm, a lucky water bottle, even a special pair of socks. Whatever it is, you can be sure never to board a plane without it.

Clothes and/or accessories are a special point of interest when traveling, mostly because of the space issue. We have a limited amount of real estate in which to stuff everything we need for a given amount of time, so we have to be as efficient as possible about maximizing the potential use of everything we bring. I’m notoriously not a heels girl to begin with, and they almost never make an appearance in any of my pieces of luggage, because I recognize that the odds I’ll wear them more than once on any given trip is just south of zero. At this point, I’ve done enough gallivanting around the world for various lengths of time that I have a pretty strong sense of which things I’ll need (jeans, sneakers, scarves) and which things I’ll almost immediately regret bringing along (more than one swimsuit, necklaces, sweaters).

Still, I have a few things that have made it through years and countless TSA searches with me — things that I refuse to throw away or leave behind, regardless of how many holes they spring. We’ve been through so much together, it would be like a breakup to get rid of them at this point. I’m sure that even when they’ve deteriorated to the point that wearing them would cause my friends to be embarrassed to be seen in public with me, I’ll find a nice cozy box or corner of my closet in which to stash them, so I can keep them for the memories, even after they’ve long outlived their initial use.

The top five things that almost never leave my side (or my suitcase), barring serious climate-related factors:

1. This disgusting ratty grey jacket. I bought this jacket for $10 at the Urban Outfitters basement in Harvard Square, back when it was cheap and actually worth a visit, sometime around my sophomore or junior year of high school. Yes, high school. I’ve had this jacket for going on eight years now, and it shows: there is about a 1:1 ratio of holes to fabric at this point. I still wear it almost every day. This jacket has lived with me through the dramatic end of high school, survived all of my college escapades, protected me through six months in Buenos Aires, visited many of the cities on the Eastern Seaboard, climbed a volcano in Ecuador and is still going strong here with me in Colombia. I’ve known this jacket longer than I’ve known some of my friends, and I refuse to get rid of it because I love it more than almost any other article of clothing I own. Plus it makes me look really poor, so nobody wants to rob me, which is always an advantage when strolling around major cities with an upsettingly expensive camera stashed in my bag.

sorry, mom and dad. but I was 21!

The jacket, keeping college me warm whilst downing a beer on an unseasonably chilly Wrigley Field rooftop. Chicago, May 2010.

2. This soft, reversible printed scarf. I’ll admit to being a bit of a scarf magpie. Scarves, along with earrings, are one of my great travel weaknesses — they’re so pretty, so light, so cheap, so easy to pack, and always useful when living in temperate climates (aka my entire life). I stumbled across this lovely creation in a market in Tel Aviv/Jaffa — not exactly ideal scarf weather there, but I was headed back to chilly Boston just a few days later, and I couldn’t imagine a comfier way to arrive than snuggled up in this soft piece of fabric. As the best scarves do, it unrolls to practically the size of a blanket, or at least a very functional shawl, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve curled up in it to get through a flight, road trip or class in a particularly cold lecture hall. Since accompanying me back from Israel, my scarf has visited four separate continents, making appearances in France, Argentina, New Zealand, Canada, Ecuador, most of the northeast U.S. (plus Chicago), and is in fairly heavy rotation here in scarf-friendly Bogotá. In a robbery, I’d probably fight harder to protect this scarf than my wallet. Wallets can be replaced — four continents of memories can’t.

man, my forehead looks huge now

My scarf (and the rest of me, pre-bangs) reveling in the view from the deck of the Eiffel Tower. France, January 2009.

3. This pair of grey H&M Sqin skinny jeans. Wayyyyy back at the beginning of college, when skinny jeans were still a trend as opposed to a reality of daily life, I was pretty anti-skinnies. I’m not exactly model-thin, and the idea of wearing something that highlighted that aspect of my figure wasn’t my favorite idea. Still, I was wearing a lot of boots and long sweaters through the Chicago falls and winters, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to buy one pair of pants that I didn’t have to violently stuff into my boots. Hence a pilgrimage to H&M, that great source of cheap, trendy and occasionally baffling articles of clothing, and a spontaneous decision to invest in a pair of comfy light grey skinny jeans — just to have something in another color, I told myself at the time.

this brings back some really uncomfortable memories

Getting the patdown from correctional officers in an old prison in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. I’m not even safe from the long arm of the law at the end of the world. Argentina, May 2009.

By now, these pants have survived two transatlantic trips (France and Israel), made it through several different corners of Argentina, stuck it out through one Boston and three Chicago winters (and a spot of Canada snow in May) and, though they’re a bit faded by now, they still cover all the necessary parts of me. They’re sturdy, comfortable, go with everything and I don’t give a damn about getting them dirty because I paid about $30 for them almost five years ago. I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth out of them.

4. This basic black Target peacoat. Oh, Target. Questionable business ethics and political affiliations, dependably cheap wares. What ever are we to do with you?

One thing we can do is wear out your merchandise until it is at the point of disintegration — which is exactly what I’ve done with this coat. I acquired it sometime around the first year of college, undoubtedly while on a quest for something completely different, because that’s how Target runs work. Since then, it’s been my near-constant companion when I just don’t feel like rocking my normal green peacoat, or when going out — the rationale being that it’s far too average and unappealing for anyone to steal. It’s not like this is a North Face, people.

Despite its simple appearance, it’s still a warm coat that matches with everything and is small enough to travel fairly light, to such far-ranging places as Argentina, New Zealand, Israel, Colombia and a fair percentage of the bars in Chicago and Boston. Almost six years later, we’re still together — a bit frayed at the edges, for sure, but it’s nothing a little needle and thread can’t repair.

it survived the helicopter ride up here, too

Atop a mountain in Fiordland National Park on the South Island of New Zealand. Not bad for a cheap Target peacoat! Te Anau, April 2011.

ugh, I promise to never make this face ever again

Probably the most obnoxious photo of me on this site. Just keeping my ego in check. Israel, December 2009, practicing my best Candy Vanna White pose.

5. This totally awesome, magic, beat-up red leather bag. For the mere price of $2, I rescued this bag from its sad fate languishing in the basement floor of a Cambridge, MA thrift store almost seven years ago, and we’ve been near-inseparable ever since. I get more compliments and people inquiring about the provenance of this unlabeled, fraying leather bag than any other bag I own, and with good reason: It’s got character. And you can’t buy that, ladies and gentlemen.

Plus, it sure has a lot of stories/secrets to tell. This bag has accompanied me through nearly all of my travels in the continental U.S., and has made appearances in Canada, Israel, Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Canada and all across Colombia. It has been known to hold water bottles (filled with both water and other substances), shirts, shoes, umbrellas, cameras, makeup, DVDs, four different phones, gloves and/or other winter accessories, snacks, jewelry, baseball hats, Ziploc bags of cereal, iPods, notebooks, regular books, concert tickets, at least 100 different pens, various forms of currency, chopsticks, nail polish, lollipops, sunglasses and, on at least one occasion, a flashlight. My goal is to fit either an entire outfit or a small animal in it sometime before the end of our functional time together.

It’s funny to look at this list and realize that the things that last the longest, and that become the most significant to us, are rarely the things on which we spend the most money. None of these items cost more than $35 — most were less than $20. And yet here we are — five, six, eight years later — still together. I have a stronger emotional investment in most of these items than any of the (few) fancy shoes or dresses in my closet, and that’s not a coincidence. The things we love, like the people we care about most, are the ones that share experiences with us, and remain with us through the endless security lines, the bad restaurants, and the moments around the globe that change our lives. These are the things we remember.

These are mine. What are yours?

Boyacá In a Day

Gallery

This gallery contains 45 photos.

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 … Continue reading

Going Back to Cali

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This gallery contains 40 photos.

So much has happened over the last month or so that it’s become hard for me to keep track of exactly what I’ve done, where, with whom — and whether I’ve done these adventures the justice of writing about them. … Continue reading

Vacation, By the Numbers

Days: 13

Different airports: 4

Co-travelers: 4 — always 3 other people, but two switched off mid-vacation

Number of times I had to unpack my entire backpack so an unfriendly customs official could rummage through my undergarments and judge the number of earrings I bring on vacation: 1

Meals eaten at Mexican restaurants: 3

Meals eaten at pizza places: 2

Total number of avocados consumed: at least 7

Hikes: 4

Hikes on volcanoes: 1

Times I thought I might pass out for various reasons: 3

Times I actually did pass out: 0. Yay me!

Ziplines conquered: 13

Micheladas consumed: 5. More, if you want to count the 1-liter one as more than one beer (it was $5! I love Quito)

Buses taken: 11

Dollars spent at Otavalo market in Ecuador: UGH.

Steps climbed at La Piedra near Guatapé, Colombia: 670

2×1 happy hour cocktails purchased: 12

Cocktails that were actually good: 4

Unsuccessful attempts to find Pablo Escobar’s grave: 2

Cats at hostels: 4

Motochiva rides: 1

Number of eggs eaten: I can’t count this high

Fourth of July parties attended: 1

Success: total

More coherent, complete sentences and photos to follow!

Don’t Worry, Mom, I’m Only Planning to Kidnap One Alpaca

Today I’m off on a grand 12-day adventure to Ecuador and Medellin! I don’t expect to be anywhere near the interwebs during that time, but I’ve scheduled a few posts, mostly photos, to keep you all entertained in my absence. See y’all in July!