2 & Boy­acá

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Easy Trips -

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.

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