There is almost ALWAYS a good reason to find yourself in Villa de Lleyva, Colombia. In truth, the town itself is reason enough. Fiercely protecting the architectural influence of the Spanish that invaded these lands centuries ago has given the whole town a sense of cleanliness, continuity, and tranquility that has appealed to travelers from all over South America – and the world – for decades. It also helps that there’s so much to do here. Museums, art galleries, hot springs, waterfalls, historical tours, and a myriad of other activities have only added to the appeal and decisively positioned Villa de Lleyva, Colombia as a tourist mecca. The municipality has capitalized on this reality by hosting festivals of all kinds, all year ’round.
While I’ve lived here only a very short time, I’ve traveled to, in, and around this incredible little town at least a dozen times over the past two and a half years. Though I’ve never managed to land here during one of these infamous festivals. This year, however, the Wild Man and I arrived just in time for one of the more beautiful and popular events: Dia de Vuelas, or Day of Candles, otherwise known as the Festival of Lights.
In the last weeks of November and first days of December, businesses and private residences throughout town drag out loads of decorations and strings of lights which are then draped over trees, windows, rooftops, balcony railings and any other available surface. The city fills the parks with little light installations and constructs a tree of lights in the infamously grand Plaza Mayor, or main plaza. A couple days before the official December 7th launch date, the pueblo begins to fill with tourists from all over the world. And on the last day of the first week of December, the party begins.
I’ve understood that the tradition stems from the candles lit to celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the Christian church formally acknowledged the divinity of women and their sacred place in what had otherwise been a largely patriarchal organization. In keeping with the roots of the holiday, not only are strings of “traditional” Christmas lights strung up all over the city, but city sidewalks and private residences are lined with people lighting candles which they let burn to puddles of wax on the cobblestones.
You can certainly feel a sense of anticipation in the air as coffee shops and breakfast restaurants open their doors in the morning hours of December 7th. The massive tree in the Plaza remains unlit, but covered with fluttering metal butterflies. Tourists shop, enjoy coffee or food, and take photos in front of the tree. The live entertainment for the night commences setting up their equipment and solo musicians pull their instruments from worn cases earlier than usual, stationing themselves on sidewalks already filling with spectators. Food carts of all kinds took up their positions along the streets and festively-dressed tourists crowded their stations for a delicious bite of fire-roasted sweet corn, or tamales, or kabobs, or empanadas.
As dusk settled over town we could hear the first strains of music from the Plaza and as full darkness fell, we made our way to one of the parks to watch the fireworks. For nearly an hour, from at least three different locations around the tiny town, the sky above Villa de Lleyva exploded with light and sound. Adults cheered, teenagers kissed, children cried and car alarms wailed under the rain of ash and color. And after the grand finale, we joined the throngs of people migrating toward the music and the massive main plaza.
Groups of people lighting candles lined the sidewalks, and we must have passed hundreds of them, always carrying a gentle solemness despite the clamor of voices and music from every corner of town. We eventually found a place on the stairs of the church at the top of the square and from this vantage watched the celebration ebbing and flowing through the crowd that had gathered. Even shoulder to shoulder, dancing, singing, and drinking, somehow the space around all who were clustered around burning candles was respected.
While the Wild Man did inform me that this was a very tame, quiet, and subtly-lit version of the festival, it was a beautiful night and one we won’t soon forget.
*****What you need to know if you go:
- Dressing. It’s colder than you think here after the afternoon rain comes, and especially after it gets dark. It might be a good idea to bring a hat and definitely a heavier jacket.
- Parking. There will be a TON of people and parking in Villa de Lleyva is already a challenge. Carpool if you can, consider staying in a place close to the square, and definitely be prepared to walk.
- Watching. The streets of Villa are cobblestone and while they’re beautiful, it isn’t especially comfortable to stand for hours. We say several groups of people, and almost always with older family members or friends, carrying chairs. Even a blanket to fold up and put on the cobblestone stairs would be a lot more comfortable to sit on.
- Eating. Restaurants will be packed and while many of them are definitely worth the wait, it might be a good idea to bring snacks. Better yet, support the locals who are vending their delicious creations in the street.
- Sleeping. I’ll give you a few ideas at the bottom of the post for places that I’ve stayed and know are awesome, but in general, be prepared to pay. Accommodations of all kinds are available – and expensive – this time of year because it’s such a popular place to be. Make your reservations early, and don’t discount the value of staying in a place that’s within walking distance to the square. It’s probably more expensive, and it might actually be louder, but it also might be worth it if you’re not accustomed to walking.
- Getting around. We saw quite a few people with crowns of lights in their hair, or matching hats with a light on top, or matching Tshirts. If you’re coming with a group, it might be a good idea to dream up a way to stay visible to one another.
As always, I’m going to recommend my partner, the Wild Man and his adventure tour business Colombia Natural Sport, if you’d like more information, or to schedule other wonderful things to do while you’re in Villa de Lleyva. He’s been giving people the most amazing possible adventures in this wonderful place for more than 15 years and if you can tell him what kind of experience you’re after, he’ll help you get exactly what you want.