Villa de Leyva has a mighty center called the Plaza Mayor, a large expanse of cobblestones and open space that pumps life into the charming little streets that branch off of it and run up the hillsides. The pace of the plaza changes dramatically depending on what day you go there, and we arrive in Villa de Leyva on a day when the town’s heart is beating energetically. It’s a Sunday and we’d thought that the weekend visitors from Bogota would be heading home, but Monday is a holiday so it’s actually the weekend’s last hurrah.
Our bus ride from Bogota to Villa de Leyva is insightful, if not efficient. At the terminal, it takes us a few tries to find a direct bus to Villa de Leyva and as we leave, we are the only ones on our minibus. This is our introduction to the unrestricted ways of Colombian buses—you don’t need to board at the station because buses are constantly picking up and dropping off passengers on the side of the road at any random location. The bus crew shouts “Villa de Leyva! Villa de Leyva!” at countless people on the street before we have any takers. Then at times, the bus is so full that people have to stand in the aisle.
We leave Bogota during Ciclovia, a Sunday event where sections of certain streets are closed and people can take a stroll, bike, rollerblade, and jog on car-free roads. It’s an idea that started in Bogota and has spread around the world. There’s a warmth that emanates from Bogota and many other places in Colombia on Sundays because so many people are dedicated to taking the day to get out of the house and spend quality time with family and friends.
Not far beyond the city, we are immersed in Colombia’s natural beauty; its mountainous terrain and rich shades of green. A few hours later as we approach Villa de Leyva, the misty air and the land dry out; the sky brightens to blue and the mountains fade to olive tones. We make one last stop on the road so the drivers and most of the passengers can stock up on peaches from a roadside vendor before we drive into the dusty little bus station in Villa de Leyva.
My travel partner and I have dorm beds booked in a rustic hostel on the outskirts of Villa de Leyva. I would’ve preferred to stay in town, but we are lucky to have beds somewhere. Because it’s a holiday weekend, all the hostels in the town center are full. There is an abundance of three day weekends in Colombia, and locals take advantage of them by getting away to the pueblos nearby their cities and beyond and accommodations fill up quickly.
We settle in and walk down a hill into town passing by chickens, barking dogs, and military base where soldiers in training wave at us. In the center of town, the Plaza Mayor hosts an abundance of weekend visitors. There is the constant crackling sound of tires rolling over cobblestone as fancy cars with Bogota license plates drive into town. Equally fancy people stroll around square and the streets eating ice cream, drinking beer, and poking around handicraft shops. It’s busy in the center, but we don’t have to go to far until we are out of the bustle, and into a more local Villa de Leyva where permanent residents take it easy hanging out on benches and observing the scene.
We didn’t make it to Villa de Leyva in time to go to the big Sunday market of a nearby village called Raquira that specializes in pottery, but we find a little flea market full of piggy banks and other pottery. Not wanting to fill up my backpack so early in my trip, I buy one of the smallest piggy banks available. The little amount of change that I use to pay for the tiny piggy bank is probably all I could fit inside it. A couple from Bogota thinks my purchase is hilarious. “How much money can you even put into that?” one of them asks me, laughing as I hand the merchant some pesos. I explain that it is not to use for savings, but to add to my collection of decorations from my travels at home. Piggy banks are everywhere in Colombia and it seems that they are more than a novelty or decoration to locals, people really use them to save.
We have coffee in a center filled with restaurants where fashionable young Colombians gather with friends for late afternoon drinks and where men with sweaters draped around their shoulders walk hand in hand with women who are dressed casually but still adorned with designer accessories. As foreign backpackers, we are out of place and it’s fascinating to be in the middle of it. It’s almost like we are flies on the wall in a “see and be seen, but don’t let on that you want to be seen” environment.
After our cafe tintos, my travel buddy decides to go back to the hostel and I want to stay in town, so we make arrangements to meet for dinner later. We have only been exploring together for a few days since Bogota, but we have found a nice balance of social time and breaking off to do things independently.
I go back to the square where I find a lively informal musical performance by youth who had been taking part in a band competition in Villa de Leyva. When that dies down, I go to the other end of the square to sit on the steps of the church and watch the clouds and flashes of lighting in the distance as I wait for my friend.
Adults talk amongst themselves and let their kids run around the square out of their view. The kids periodically return to their parents with new friends they’ve made and then run off into the plaza again, chasing each other and entertaining themselves in the way that only kids can do. This is similar to scenes I’ve observed in Mexico, the kind of genial and trusting environment that makes a country’s bad reputation seem so absurd when you’re in it.
In the crowd next to me, civil disobedience arises for the sake of music. People are chanting “Musica! Musica! Musica!” Some street performers play a few bars of a song and the crowd cheers. Policemen quickly stop the band before they get too far into their song, and the crowd begins to chant for music again. This cycle continues for quite some time before the police give up and let the band play on. A circle forms around the band, leaving enough space for a dance floor.
The band gets the crowd going when they perform a song that everyone seems to know and love. Some sing and sway with their family and friends and a few couples dance. The person who stands out the most on the dance floor appears to be a foreigner. He dances wildy around the circle looking for partners. A few brave souls dare to dance with him while others run away as he approaches. One woman attempts to teach him the correct steps to the dance which he tries for a few seconds before returning to his frenetic twirling. Everyone is entertained by el gringo loco and there is a lot of laughter accompanying the singing.
The following evening, I take a walk around town and then wait for my friend in the same spot. The plaza has mellowed out. There are a few kids running around the square and people gathered on the steps, but most of the weekenders have gone home. It’s so quiet and it feels like a different place. But the sky is still big and beautiful and accented with lightning flashes and the sturdy mountains circle the village like a cocoon.
Even with the Plaza Mayor almost empty, it still has a special kind of magnetism. As I sit on the steps, I know this is the kind of place I could stay for awhile and be consumed for another week enjoying the ebb and flow. But I’ve decided to move on the next day, to peel myself away before that happens. Until then, I’ve still got little more time in the oversized heart of this magical little town.