CARLOS SUAREZ STANDS in his studio in the village of Raquira, 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 Boyaca,’ 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 Boyaca. It was in this state that Simbn Bolivar defeated Spanish armies in 1319 and set in motion Colombia’s independence. And centuries before, this region was the heartland of the Muisc a – the pre-conquest civilisation 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 civilisation is long gone, but their earthenware-making traditions have survived. All over Boyaca are roadside stands selling all things ceramic, from the practical (flowerpots, urns, amphoras and piggy banks) to the peculiar (ceramic dinosaurs and ceramic Cristiano Ronaldos), ‘It makes me very proud knowing I’m part of an ancient tradition,’ says Carlos, washing his hands, ‘The Muisca were skilled potters – they didn’t even have electric wheels!’
The landscape of Boyaca too has the hue of fired clay. Scrubby brown hills stretch to the horizon, with farmers puttering along country roads in antique tractors. Abandoned rail way 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 to day where Bogotanos come to escape the traffic-clogged streets of the capital. They wander cobbled squares where Mudejar fountains trickle and idle away afternoons in cafes set in creaking colonial mansions, A few climb the blustery hills behind the town for views over its ceramic-tile d rooftops.
Among the buildings down below, one in particular stands out. This is Casa Terracota- an experimental house entirely made of Boyaca clay, designed by architect Octavio Mendoza, It is a building that uses no steel and no cement, that has no straight lines and no comers – as fluid and organic as if it were moulded at a potter’s wheel. Its walls, roof, gas cooker, oven, beds, showers, staircases, toilets and chairs have all been baked into existence, ‘It feels like a cross between Gaudi, 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. And whenever you feel the clay between your fingers it somehow takes you back to an earlier time.’