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Friday, August 14, 2009

Villa de Leyva: A Safe Haven

Villa de Leyva (pronounced "veeja deh layba") is a beautiful historic town about 3 hours north of Bogota. Preserved as a national monument for the last 50 years, the colonial town still harbours cobblestone streets and traditional buildings from the past. There is not a single piece of modern architecture in sight.

Cradled snugly in lush, green, lolling hills of the Colombian countryside, Villa de Leyva is a well-loved weekend escapade for the locals. On the Sunday that we arrived (a little too late), we just missed the annual kite-flying festival which attracts hoards of local tourists.

It is also one of the safest places in Colombia. No barrios or shanty towns populate the hillsides surrounding the town centre. No touts trying to peddle their wares with the irritating insistence of a housefly. No beggars to invoke guilt in you. No homeless people rolled up in old mattresses and trash bags. No delinquents pissing against the walls. The policia patrolling the streets tend to lost children crying for their mothers, not robbers and thieves. Tourists stroll along the streets with large cameras swinging from their necks, which they trustingly hand over to others to help snap a picture.

With the exception of having to dodge a few overly-curious stray dogs as we plodded through the darkened streets in search of the guesthouse we had booked ourselves at, the locals assured us (even to the extent of pooh-poohing at our nervousness) that there was absolutely nothing to worry about in Villa de Leyva:

- Bus driver: "No peligroso, no no no! Villa de Leyva es muy seguro! Si!" (Not dangerous! Villa de Leyva is very safe! Yes!)

- Restaurant staff: "No asesinos, no ladrones, no peligro. Es incluso seguro que las muchachas caminen solamente." (No assassins, no thieves/robbers, no danger. It is even safe for girls to walk alone.)

True enough, we had never felt so relaxed and secure in Colombia before. But still, we didn't rest on our laurels. After all, we were heading right back to Bogota after this!

We pretty much just hung around the main plaza throughout our 3-day stay. It was the most tranquil and un-busy town square we've ever seen. Maybe because it was so huge that it would take alot of people to make it bustle just a teensy bit. And there simply aren't that many people living in Villa de Leyva to do that!

The plaza was the size of a football field, maybe even bigger. It's wide expense reminded us of Tiananmen Square in Beijing!

A pretty white-washed church anchors the main focus point of the plaza

Artisan shops selling local handicrafts and cafes line the walkways under the arches

A fancy doorway - reminds me of the facade of the Treasury in Petra, Jordan

Utmost care is taken to ensure that nothing looks modern... even the signage painted on the walls look classic. Right down to the Coca-Cola brand logo.

Wouldn't be surprised if they had Visa and Mastercard logos done the same way

The pace of life is slow; the ambiance, tranquil. Vehicles are not allowed within the plaza boundaries. Try to drive in and the policeman on duty will blow a shrilly protest on his whistle, rudely jarring the intimate conversations of the passers-by, who throw disapproving looks in the direction of the errant vehicle. Unlike in the rest of Colombia, tooting of horns is prohibited. Maximum speed of the vehicles skirting the plaza - a mere 5km/h.

More stringent rules than any place I know in Singapore

Intimate conversations at every corner

Children who are lucky enough to attend school in Villa de Leyva really have it good. At 1pm sharp, they spill out of their sprawling school grounds set in the hillsides and onto the narrow streets. Their first stop - one of the many small grocery stalls where they pick up a delicious popsicle for a mere COP 700 (US$0.35) The helado (ice-cream) comes in a variety of rainbow colours, each encapsulating a tasty burst of guanabana (soursop), fresa (strawberry), queso (cheese), arequipe (caramel) and many others made of never-before-heard fruits which are endemic to Colombia, like feijoa, curuba, and maracuya.

We saw young boys clutching beautifully-welded metal candle-holders in various stages of completion. Artisans in the making. Dannie commented that their artworks put his achievements (plain-as-can-be acrylic bookends) in Technical Class to shame!

School's out!

Still clad in their school uniforms, the younger kids dash out to the centre of the plaza with colourful wads of cloth tucked under their arms - kites! They unfurl their prized fighters and launch them high into the wind. The two boys in the photo pranced about in a complicated tango (or rather, tangle) whenever their their lines crossed. It was very funny watching them scuttling like little crabs - to the left, then to the right - under each other's lines in a bid to untangle the knot.
Keeping their distance, but their kites won't!

The Kite Runner

Too young to go to school but never to young to fly a kite!

Despite it's popularity as a much-appreciated retreat from Bogota, Villa de Leyva doesn't quite qualify as a tourist attraction or upmarket vacation destination. True, there were a few pricey restaurants that couldn't make us part with our money, but there were also our much-loved almuerzas or set lunches, which as usual, kept us filled to the brim for most of the day.

Only 1 choice for the menu del dia here but it was good: vegetable soup, mini steak, plantain cake (tasted like banana kueh), salad, "tiger rice" (white rice mixed with strips of brown noodles), juice and dessert.

A soulful tummy-warming vegetable soup to start the meal

Enjoying pollo salsa and melon juice at another eatery. We really couldn't stomach the big lump of yuca (tapioca) though.

Making sure that he's not on the menu

What we loved most about Villa de Leyva was that there was absolutely nothing to do there! Nothing, except to take your time to carefully navigate the tricky cobblestone surfaces, take in the lovely architecture of a world past and present, enjoy the cool air and soak up the scenic settings. No must-see guidebook recommendations, or imposing cathedrals, or looming museums (there is a small natural history museum and a paleontology museum though) or even a busy local market to garner bargains at.


And absolutely lovely that way.


Ming said...

hey haven't had time to check out your blog in ages, but i must say it's really interesting! you guys look like you're having SUCH a good time! and i love your pictures!!

Lint said...

Gimme the tapioca!!

Yi Lin said...

Ming - thanks babe for taking the time to read our blog when you can! Get Mark to check for updates daily and give you a summary report :P

Sis - this is not like the tapioca kueh and Thai tapioca dessert back home okay. It's served in a big lump, as big as a whole potato, and is rock hard. We should carry 1 around in a plastic bag and use it as a slingshot against any robbers!!! It would knock them out cold.

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