Villa de Leyva is a well preserved colonial city in the highlands of Colombia. It is a good place to visit, but the surface elements of tourism hover above everything else. It has good places to eat, drink, great hiking, but there is something missing in this city: soul.
VILLA DE LEYVA, Colombia- I walked out of my hotel in Villa de Leyva and found myself beneath a virtual canopy of kites — dozens and dozens of them. Their array of colors sparkled in the bright sunlight as their cellulose thin fabrics shimmered in the wind. Children and adults ran back and forth across the plaza, giving flight to their kites, or they just stood and watched their birds hovering far up in the sky. The buildings around the plaza hold the ruins of ill-fated kite flying initiatives over their eaves and roofs. The power lines of this city are decorated with the same colorful wreckage.
Villa de Leyva’s Plaza Mayor has the distinction of being one of the largest pubic squares in the Americas. But its best distinction, perhaps, is that it’s virtually empty. Besides a fountain serving as a little island in the center of its otherwise empty sea of cobblestone, the plaza is completely clear of obstacles: no statues of forgotten military men, no stone artifices of priests or artists, no fences blocking off pretenious sections of grass that people are prohibited from walking on, no trees growing larger and larger every year, and no arrogant works of art which express nothing more than “I made this material monstrosity to take up space that you could otherwise be using.” No, the plaza mayor of Villa de Leyva is wide open, It is, literally, a big, blank space in the heart of the city — and I have never seen a town of people enjoy such a plaza more in all my travels in Latin America.
I walk across the plaza and grab an 1800 peso bottle of Club Colombia Roja from a shop called La Cafeteria and sit down on a bench and look over the scene. It is Saturday, and everyone is smiling or staring off blankly at the kite fliers, the mountains beyond, or into their bottles of Poker beer. We ease our way through the day — it seems to be the style here. Half the crowd before me are the upper crust from Bogota, a few foreign tourists, vendors who are relaxing after a day of selling their wares at the market, and locals who operate businesses which provide services to the crowds who come into this colonial city each weekend.
I’ve been in Villa de Leyva for nearly two weeks by this point, and have gotten the feel of the town down pretty well, learned its ebbs and flows, found cheap places to eat and sleep, and have long finished the work of travel. I am well into the enjoyment phase of the profession, I have a routine — which consists of a beer in the plaza each afternoon after working. I sit looking at a group of four old ladies with Stetson hats who came in from the countryside for the weekly market. They were all drinking beer together and joking. I could not help cracking a smile over old ladies drinking beer, but it seems common here — they have been at it en masse since the market began early in the morning. The market grounds are encrusted in a layer of yellow metal caps from bottles of Poker beer from years and years of boozing traders, recreating as they worked. I can not say that I know of a more joyful market.
My gaze was soon interrupted by a young girl plopping down next to me on the bench with a touch of intention. She was licking a massive ice cream cone. Her mane of thick hair fell in swirls down over her shoulders. Her skin was tinted olive and her eyes where slightly more oval than most of the mestizos in Colombia. I think Amazonas.
An awkward “I know one of us is going to start a conversation” moment passes. She then compliments me the tattooing that covers my arms, hands, and neck. She says that she has some too and makes to show me. They are on her back and she starts to take off her jacket and lower her shirt, but upon noticing someone that she knew from across the plaza watching her, she thought better of it. She told me that her name was Diana. She asked if I like “desportes extremos.” I answered that I have nothing against them. She told me that she likes adventure sports, then ran through the list: rappelling, rafting, climbing . . .
I asked her where she’s from.
So much for my analysis of her jungle features.
I asked her about the compulsory military or police service that the men need to do in Colombia upon turning 18, and asked if women were exempt from this. She said that she wanted to be conscripted, and tried to join the military — but, due to her female status — her only roll could be pushing papers in an office. F’ck that. So she did a course in tourism and has been out in Villa de Leyva for the past year working at a tourist restaurant and living for free in a hotel.
“Do you want to go back to Bogota?” I asked in Spanish.
“No, it is too crowded there, too many cars,” she replied and looked out at the sky and mountains and smiled.
She had found a way to live where most people from her home city can only visit. I congratulate her, and tell her that I, basically, do the same. We both work hard for little pay, but each day we wake up in amazing places. She serves tourist food and I serve tourists travel information. Completely worth it.
I asked her what she was doing that night as a catalyst question to keep the conversation going. She said nothing, smiled, flipped her hair, and then, seemingly, paused for me to ask her out. Shit.
“Um, the sky is really beautiful,” I saved myself.
Villa de Leyva’s potential for a vagabond hostel
As I travel through Colombia I’m looking for a prime location to open a hostel. I need to make more money, the travel writing only cuts it if I never want to step foot on an airplane again. My wife wants a place where she can bake cookies or something, I want a business that will net me more money where I can still sit around talking with travelers. We’ve both worked in hotels and hostels around the world, and have no doubts that we could run a pretty good one.
We scoured the hostels of Villa de Leyva — there was no center of the backpacker universe here. We inquired as to the cost of rent, logged the nearby attractions and “things to do,” walked daily out in the mountains, but decided against it. Though I know that I could open a hostel that could rule here, I am unsure if I would want to be tied to this city for so long.
There is just something missing in Villa de Leyva — a sense of soul does not resonate when you walk through the streets. The city comes off more like a stage set filled with actors than an actual place where unscripted life happens. The people are polite, though not overtly friendly. They look at you strange when you say hello to them in the street, as though you read the wrong lines for your character. The shop keepers, the restaurants, the tour guides, the service employees, the tourists all seem to be wearing masks, playing their parts with the utmost calculation.
Many of the people in Villa de Leyva are from away — from other parts of Colombia, other parts of the world. Places full of “away” people tend to lack a feeling of cohesion, a common history, a broader story, a wholesome sense of community. It was as though the entire population was nervously meeting itself for the first time each and every day, as transplanted strangers go about their days with proximity but not intimacy. The formality of this place was as stiff as a board, as hard as its cobblestone streets. The city seemed to be staring at itself in a pool of water, admiring the beauty of its face while forgetting to wipe its ass.
I watched as a cop removed a traveling hippy from the plaza for playing the guitar while selling his jewelry, and I knew that this place did not have the proverbial IT that travelers sift the world in search of. This is an old folks city, a place for the upper crust of Bogota to spend their money in and talk about the good life. Geriatric, both literally and figuratively.
But Villa de Leyva is a tourist city: aesthetics rein over substance, pernicious influences expelled on sight. It is a great place to see the show pass before you, to sit on a bench, drink a beer, be comfortable, be old, and watch the kites fly high over the plaza. Tourist cities are geographic prostitutes: you come, you pay, you leave, no love is expected and none is given — but this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy it.