Villa de Leyva is a quaint colonial village in the mountains approximately 3 hours from Bogotá. The buildings in the town, all white with green doors and clay roofs, line cobblestone streets that extend from the central plaza. In the center of this small town sits the largest plaza in South America. Smooth foottrails have been worn into the stones of the plaza from paths that generations have daily tread. I woke early the days that I was there to watch the town wake up. There was no rushing here. Each morning at the plaza was a slow awakening that eventually blossomed into a hub of activity that lasted well into the night. The central focus of this town is no different from many Latin American villages. It is the church. Since I was there just before Christmas, there were events daily at the cathedral in the plaza. From my hostel I could hear chanting early in the mornings. Children sang at novenas on the front steps in the evenings. There is a relationship to the church in the activities of this town – and relationships among locals play out daily just beyond its doors.
On our way to Villa de Leyva, we stopped in Zipaquirá, to see the Catedral de Sal. What a magnificent sight! Deep below the ground, 180m (590ft) below ground to be exact, in an old salt mine, a cathedral was built. As we descended down the path, we passed the Stations of the Cross, artfully interpreted and built, all out of salt, with some marble sculptures here and there. The path led to a huge cavern converted into a cathedral. A luminous cross behind the altar towered over the large room. Scars from the pick axes that mined for salt in another time mark the walls and ceilings.
How does something like this come to be? Originally an area was carved in the mine as a place for miners to pray. And from there it grew…and grew, eventually into a large cathedral in the early 1930s. Structural compromises lead to the closing of the older cathedral, and in the 1990s, the current cathedral was built as a replacement, below the original. It is a stunning creation, a means to glorify God. (In addition to being a tourist attraction, services are held here every Sunday.) Of course, as lots of tourist driven places go, even those that are intended for higher purposes, there is also a Disneyland aspect to this place. But the glory has not been lost even in the midst of the light shows and concession stands.
A short distance outside Villa de Leyva we were introduced to a different seeker of sorts. Jaime Rodriguez Roldan has built is house on a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. These aren’t just any mountains. They serve as the backdrop of the creation story for the indigenous peoples here, the Muiscas. At the base of this mythologically and culturally rich landscape, Jaime has created an assembly of symbolic items from many native traditions, with origins in North and South America. Among many other things, he has built a labyrinth, which is how we came to be in his presence. (There is a registry of labyrinths worldwide. My friend Chris’s mother had built one in Galveston, Texas years ago, so he looks for registered labyrinths in his travels.) There was a natural beauty in the environment that Jaime has created for himself and his family there. While a lot lost in translation, both between his Spanish and my moderate understanding of it and between his ayahuasca-influenced inspiration and my perspective from the world I was standing in, it was undeniably a powerful place to experience, packed with symbolism and earth driven design.
These three places, with their own attempts of pointing toward God, brought in me nostalgic thoughts of Santa Fe. The historic architecture, the presence of grand old churches, the connection to indigenous peoples and the respect for the magical land that surrounds them…these places hold much in common. As I was experiencing this new town in a foreign land, there was a comfortable familiarity that quietly hummed within me. Maybe it was not the places in and of themselves that brought that on, but the God who created each of them and whose glory is seen in different manifestations in all that is here, if we’re looking.