Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Walking with Dinosaurs on Water and in Paradise


Moody skies over Villa de Leyva's main square
It’s been a while, but let’s jump straight back in and leave the catching up for later. We’re back in rainy, cold, choked-up Bogota after a long weekend (yet another Colombian bank holiday) in Tunja with the in-laws. We’ve been in Colombia since October, but despite an undying affection for the gorgeous little village where we got married, Villa de Leyva (one of Colombia’s finest colonial gems), we still hadn’t managed to make it back there. We corrected this at the weekend with not one, but two trips in the space of 24 hours.


Getting the Colombian granny treatment
Villa de Leyva is about 45 minutes over the mountains from Tunja, but lies a little bit lower in terms of altitude, and nestles in a sun-blessed valley that gives it a delicious micro-climate, even if it’s not much good for growing vegetables, for the lack of water. Trip one was pure fun: we lunched, we lounged, we wandered, and we despaired at the unchecked growth of unsustainable tourism. As it is a mere few hours’ drive north from Bogota’s international airport, Villa de Leyva has seen one of the most explosive bursts of international tourism in Colombia’s recent past. When I first set foot there in 1996 people stopped and stared at the bizarre intrusion of an incomprehensible 6’3” white bloke into a scene of uninterrupted semi-rural tranquillity. Now you can hardly move for new shopping centres, artfully tucked inside beautiful colonial villas; the cobbled streets are thronged with horses for hire to take the backpackers on treks round the valley and its mountains (which harbour the fabulous Iguaque lake, believed to be the birthplace of humanity by the long gone local indigenous people, the Muisca); and for those who can’t be bothered to bump around on the horses, there is a large fleet of quad bikes to roar across the fossil-strewn surroundings. This used to be sea-floor, before the rise of the Andes, and this area is particularly fertile ground for fossil hunters.

Oisin had been warned to keep an eye out for dinosaurs, and once we got into the main square, reputed to be the largest colonial square in Latin America (this may be another example of Colombia hyperbole…), he danced across the cobbles and shouted in delight every time he spotted “a bone!”. His paleontological skills may require some further polishing.

The following day we returned, but this time it was strictly business. Pati’s parents are close to retirement, and want to buy themselves a little place in the country near Villa de Leyva and get out of Tunja. You can’t blame them – the countryside is overwhelmingly seductive. But there was a problem with going out scouting for property, a 6’3” incomprehensible white-faced problem, one that apparently would scream “money, money, we’re fecking minted, treble the price, quick!” before we’d even got out of the car. So I was dutifully dispatched to the local dinosaur park, with Fernando to keep me safe, and Oisin as an excuse for being there in the first place.

Are you sure it won't bite?
Gondava is one of those tourist ventures that could go either way. It is sort of a still-life of Jurassic Park. They clearly don’t have the budget to set up “real” dinosaurs, moving, blinking, tail-wagging dinosaurs (that eat 4 year olds for lunch), so the park, set into a sizeable chunk of hillside just outside Villa de Leyva, is populated by quite an extensive collection of concrete dinosaurs. After Oisin got over the teasing of his uncle and his father, he decided they were safe enough to approach and soon his attention had turned to the added-values, the rides that you have to pay extra for in these places. In this case, it was a “bubble”, a huge inflatable globe that allowed small children to experience the aquatic version of a hamster wheel. As the child floated away from us into the middle of the artificial lake, I asked the man in charge what the minimum age requirement was. “About 5,” he replied. “He’s only 4,” I told him. “Oh, he’s big for his age…”



Looking out over Soraca
The next day we were whisked off to Soracá, a tiny village about 15 minutes’ drive outside Tunja, and another 200 metres higher up the side of the mountains. Friends of Pati’s cousins have moved onto a family farm there, and we were treated to a tour. With 53 hectares they have taken on a big challenge, but they have well-thought out plans for a permaculture farm, and already (on top of having teaching jobs in Tunja) are producing natural yoghurt, handmade jams and organic vegetables for the local markets. Needless to say we fell in love with the idea and with the place, and then to make matters worse, they took us up the hill to see a farm that is for sale, complete with ruined farmhouse. With a mere 2 hectares, it is tiny in comparison, but it sits atop a ridge between two valleys, and must be about 3000 metres above sea level. To the west and north there are views over Soracá and Tunja, and to the east views across the next valley towards Genesano. We only spent about 20 minutes there, but in that time Pati already had the house rebuilt and had organised the community yoga classes in the garden outside. It felt like it could be a foretaste of paradise. If only we hadn't blown the PPB (Purchsing Paradise Budget) on curries and Australian beer.
"Investment opportunity"


And this is the view from the farm on the hill overlooking Soracá. Sorry for the quality of the phone video...