They come by the thousands. On buses, in cars, on foot, as if entering the grounds of some medieval fair, carrying their dragons, boats and a wild array of tethered animals in their arms. This is not Glastonbury, but the start of the annual ‘Festival Del Viento Y De Las Cometas’ (Wind and Kite Festival) in the colonial town of Villa de Leyva where for two days in August this 16th century town hosts a festival which has more to do with the heavens than with earthly indulgences.
The white-washed walls of this preserved national monument with its rows of red-tiled roofs, becomes a perfect scenario for those who like to take flight or watch the colorful kites whirl – in their many shapes and sizes – through pristine blue skies.
Ever since the first kite festival was held in the main square of the town – back in 1975 – the tradition of flying them in Villa de Leyva has blossomed into a business, which involves everyone in this community of 12,000. From the shopkeepers who sell the flying objects, to the hotel owners who try to accommodate each and every visitor, the town falls under the spell of kites. Even the barren plots of land – usually reserved for paleontologists looking for fossils – on the outskirts of the town are converted into campgrounds for those with no room at the inn.
And they come in droves. From the amateurs who drive the three hours from Bogotá to attend the Festival del Viento, to the serious professionals who endure hours under blue skies keeping their works of art floating high above the town’s plaza, the Festival attracts young and old alike, many just visiting, willing to sit – with binoculars in hand – for hours on the stone steps of the Church.
In August, kites are sold everywhere across the country, but nowhere as intensely as in Villa de Leyva. On street corners, from the backs of cars and hanging outside the many craft shops which dot the village, kites flap in the wind, are bartered, mended and built. And when the festival ends, the remains of these airy objects can been seen wrapped around lampposts and stuck in the tops of trees for generations to come.
Villa de Leyva has some special features, which attracts kite runners. Besides its openly expansive 16th century Plaza Mayor, one of the largest in the Americas, the village is located near a large, arid desert where the warm air of the ‘Candelaria’ rises and meets the cold currents descending from the eastern moors. All of this generates some powerful thrust for three sticks of woods, some multi-colored cloth and yards of string.
The Wind and Kite Festival began when Pepita de Camacho (who still resides in Villa de Leyva), gathered the main families in the town together thirty-six years ago and asked them to fly kites. It was an ambitious proposal, as everyone knew that August was a windy month and kites would be another good reason to entice ‘Bogotanos’ to the village for a weekend of fun and games. But the informal gathering literally, blew out of proportion. Many Embassies joined the movement and went to participate, sending their most important kite runners and showing-off their national colors. During the 1980’s, the kite business was booming around the world and new designs appeared on the horizon. Kites without tails appeared in the skies over the Leyva, as well as, acrobatic ones, 2 tier machines and three-dimensional objects. The festival evolved and became more an ‘art’ exhibition than just a local windy contest. There are now more than 15 kite festivals currently operating in Colombia.
Watching kites is so exciting it can force you to drink. And that is precisely what the organizers of this year’s 37th edition of the Festival don’t want. The usual crowds of drunken adolescents staggering through the streets of this colonial masterpiece, guzzling cartons of rum and fire water –aguadiente – and then trying to find some corner of the town to leave their indelible mark as there is a serious shortage of public toilets in a town never designed for a spectacle of this magnitude.
This year the organizers of the event have termed the slogan ‘more traditional than ever’ in order to highlight the ‘family values’ associated with kite running. Starting on the weekend of August 16th – the festival will also showcase kite exhibitions and new categories, such as night flying, delta, acrobatics, inflatable, miniature and gigantic. It promises to be a good show and always worth the trip to Boyacá. One thing is certain, the winds will blow.
Festival del Viento y las Cometas: Saturday August 18th to Monday 20th.