2 & Boyacá
Carlos Suárez stands in his studio in the village of Ráquira, dropping a dollop of clay onto his potter’s wheel with a satisfying thwack. He sets about sculpting a vase, watching intently as the material shape-shifts before him, the excess clay accumulating in the wrinkles of his hands.
“When I touch this clay, I can tell it is from Boyacá,” he says, not once looking away from his wheel. “And whenever you touch clay, you feel a connection to the earth beneath you.”
In the great epic of Colombian history, many defining acts have played out on the soil of Boyacá. It was in this state that Simón Bolívar defeated
Spanish armies in 1819 and set in motion Colombia’s independence. And centuries before, this region was the heartland of the Muisca – the preconquest civilization whose gold objects gave rise to the legend of El Dorado. They also created little ceramic snakes and frogs, and human figurines with coffee beans for eyes.
The Muisca civilization is long gone, but their earthenware-making traditions have survived. Throughout Boyacá are roadside stands selling all things ceramic, from the practical (flowerpots, urns, amphoras and piggy banks) to the peculiar (ceramic dinosaurs and ceramic likenesses of Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo).
“It makes me very proud knowing I’m part of an ancient tradition,” Suárez says. “The Muisca were skilled potters. They didn’t even have electric wheels!”
The landscape of Boyacá also has the hue of fired clay. Scrubby brown hills stretch to the horizon, with
offers several characterful rooms arranged around a former convent just south of Villa de Leyva's main square. Inside you’ll find timber furniture, antique woodcarvings and open fires; outside are well-kept gardens and a little fountain frequented by hummingbirds (from $90; hotelcasaterra .com).
is just west of Villa de Leyva’s main square (admission $3.50; casaterracota.com).
the pottery capital of Colombia, is roughly a 30-minute drive from Villa de Leyva (souvenirs from $1). farmers puttering along country roads in antique tractors. Abandoned railway lines rust in the long grass, with little stations that have not heard the whistle of a passing train in decades. In the valleys are market towns, none more beautiful than Villa de Leyva, where higgledy-piggledy streets are lined with whitewashed bungalows, window shutters painted in racing green.
Built in the 16th century as a retreat for military officers and nobility, Villa de Leyva is today where Bogotános come to escape the traffic-clogged streets of the capital. They wander cobbled squares where Mudéjar fountains trickle, and idle away afternoons in cafés set in creaking colonial mansions. A few climb the blustery hills behind the town for views over its ceramic-tiled rooftops.
Among the buildings down below, one in particular stands out. This is Casa Terracota, an experimental house entirely made of Boyacá clay, designed by architect Octavio Mendoza. It is a building that uses no steel or cement, and that has no straight lines or corners. It is as fluid and organic as if it were molded at a potter’s wheel. Its walls, roof, gas cooker, oven, beds, showers, staircases, toilets and chairs all have been baked into existence.
“It feels like a cross between Gaudí, Star Wars and The Flintstones,” says Barbara Teran, a volunteer builder at Casa Terracota. “When you sit here at night by candlelight, you feel like a little animal who lives underground,” she says. “And whenever you feel the clay between your fingers, it somehow takes you back to an earlier time.”
Potter about in Boyacá, a state of sleepy villages, rolling hills and a millennia-old ceramic-making tradition.