V is for Villa de Leyva
Traveling as a young person helps you to form impressions and widen your world view. I was fortunate in that early in my teaching career, I had opportunities to explore Colombia, South America where I taught English as a Second Language to elementary school students.
Julie, another American teacher at my school, and I traveled to Villa de Leyva (among other cities) during Easter week one year long ago. I kept a journal and this is somehow one trip that somehow etched itself in my memory.
We took a bus and stopped at various cities in the department of Boyacá. Each day or so we explored one city. Moniquirá. Santa Maria. Tensa.
Our mode of travel was inexpensive: bus. Sometimes we were lucky enough to get a seat. Most times we weren’t. But the scenery was gorgeous so at least we had something to look at.’
The bus trip from Tensa to Villa de Leyva took about six hours. On this bus, we had a seat–although we almost didn’t. We had to remind the bus driver that we had paid first. They always overbook to get as many fares as possible.
In my journal, I’d jotted this down:
I tried not to breathe in the stale, hot air that comes from being enclosed for long periods of time. Bodies pressed in toward me. The bus hurtled and stopped, like a drunk stumbling home after an all-night binge. So crowded with the locals traveling from the villagers coming into work from nearby little towns.
I sat reading my book when suddenly, with a soft plop, the body of a young woman slumped over me. I waited for her to stand up and apologize. When she didn’t, turned to see why not. She remained motionless on top of me.
I thought, the old-faint-to-get-a-seat trick. Well, it’s not going to work! I gently set her upright, expecting her to smile.
She didn’t. She plopped down on me again, her hair tickling me. “Oh no! Is this woman dead?” Just as I was about to panic, her eyelids fluttered open. In my gratitude to see some life in her, I gave up my seat immediately. She happily took it.
She looked weak, as if she might faint again and held her stomach. Was she pregnant? Did she suffer from motion sickness?
An old woman next to us groped in her worn and tattered sack and extracted two grapes, which she gave to the woman.
A nearby man looked on. He curled his lip at the old woman’s actions. “¡Boba!” (Idiot!) He seemed to think her ministrations were ancient and outdated. I noticed the young woman took them gratefully and slowly sucked on them. I silently heralded the old lady’s compassionate.
Now standing up, I tried to maintain my balance in the small space I now occupied as the bus continued to lurch forward. I was so scrunched up that I couldn’t even look down at my feet! I breathed inward every time someone pushed me to get off the bus. I felt something on my foot. I found myself looking down at the head of a campesino woman. I gave up trying to discover the source of my discomfiture.
The bus groaned to a halt and the young woman slowly stood up and made her way off the bus. It was her stop. I reclaimed my seat.
My shoe! Now I could see it. Red drops were splattered on the top and side. I looked back at the campesino woman standing just beyond my seat. Then I saw the cause.
She calmly carried what looked like a freshly-killed chicken by a string around its neck. Oh my goodness! I sighed and took out my book…
Villa de Leyva is an old colonial village famous for its cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings. It was declared a national monument in 1954 and is considered one of the most beautiful, photogenic and preserved villages in Colombia.
Curiously, I wrote, “Around every corner, you could spot a group of vacationers, those with cameras, those without, crying children, parents with their hands full of purchases, people drinking natural juices and littering the plaza with candy wrappers.”
The town was built around the plaza and it was said to be the largest plaza in Colombia.
We found a room at a hospitad called “La Roca,” (The Rock), which cost us about 500 pesos a night. We decided to stay for two nights. La Roca was located between two gift shops in the main square so it was convenient. That day we wandered in and out of gift shops. My companion, Julie, splurged on a mola, an Indian design woven into cloth.
The next morning, we hiked up to the highest point in the city and ate breakfast at Villa de Leyva’s nicest hotel. What a view! Behind, there were seven cages with monkeys in each of them, some ducks and birds of every kind.
“Julie, can you believe we are just two school teachers making $200 per month, and here we are, dining at the nicest hotel in Villa de Leyva? Where else could we do that but here?” We had all the perks but none of the big costs of the hotel that day.
I knew there was no one more blessed than me.
The other memory that has stayed with me was this long hike out of Villa de Leyva.
We decided to check out a paleontology museum about 5 km from Villa de Leyva. It was indeed lejos, far from the market square, on foot, anyway. The road was dry, and our throats soon became parched. Every time a car passed us, a cloud of dust gathered and we had to turn our backs to the cars to protect our eyes. We fanned the air after each vehicle drove by. After forty minutes of the sun beating down on me, I started to cough. We broke away from the main road and took a road some children told us about. This relieved the dust problem but didn’t help our thirst.
Suddenly, we realized were lost in the middle of an arid desert. The path had grown smaller and finally stopped. I felt like I was in the Land of the Lost, an old Saturday morning kid’s program in which two children wander into another epoch filled with dinosaurs and had hair-raising escapades. I expected to see a kronosaurus lunge out at us from beyond a boulder at any moment!
We continued walking and eventually saw the museum.
On the way back, it was easier. A British driver, who went by the name of George, gave us a lift. What I remember most about that ride was the miscommunication between George’s mother and me. Even way back then I must have had hearing problems!
We had been chatting for awhile when George’s mother politely asked, “Did you say you were from Bucharest?”
“No, we’re not from Budapest. We’re from Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander, in the northern part of Colombia.
“Oh,” she said, sounding like a chastised child who hadn’t learned her geography lesson. “Budapest?” Her face wrinkled in confusion. I thought you said Bucharest, Romania.”
Bucharest Romania? I’d heard Budapest, as in Budapest, Hungary. Neither one of them sounded like Bucaramanga.
I think we all hear what we are most familiar with and fill in the blanks from there. It’s kind of like how I hear and see now.
Cheerio-George must have really rolled his eyes!
What old hidden gem have you visited in your travels? Have you ever felt like you’ve been given a gift that is over your budget but somehow accessible? Do you have an interest in dinosaurs? Have you ever visited a dinosaur museum? If so, where?