Puzzling in the Mountains

Puzzling in the Mountains

Journey to a Puzzle Tournament

Written by Creative Ruth & Leon Bernard / February 14th, 2024 / Main Photo: Ruth and her team at the Puzzle Tournament in Villa de Leyva


Every December feels like we accidentally stepped on a time machine that shot us into the present twelve months earlier. People get self-reflective, nostalgic, and even anxious, but not me though. While everyone was out caroling and introspecting, I was already in the future thinking about the last week of January 2024 when I’d be going for the second time to a puzzle competition in the mountains.

That moment passed and now it’s time for me to share the experience here at Soonness Fun Reads with the international puzzling community, AKA you.

First, we trained

Back in January 2023, during the previous version of the tournament I’m about to chronicle here I met my puzzle-building team, a group of talented people from different backgrounds brought together for the love of puzzles. Back then we were really starting out in this puzzling world, none of us had ever been to a competition before or even knew these types of events existed, we were all first-timers.

The event included a community-integration dinner where we first met purely by chance. It just happened to be that when I arrived at the restaurant, the only seats available I saw were next to Marcela, Alejandro, and Beatriz. We got along pretty quick and by the end of the night we had already formed a chat group and made plans to get together.

We started meeting casually to share our hobby and quickly realized that if we wanted to be competitive, we needed to get good. That meant practicing more, studying the pros, detecting everyone’s skills, timing ourselves, and challenging each other.

We found out landscapes were our weakness, because we’re not a fan of that theme we generally avoid it, but then, we noticed they are pretty common in puzzle competitions, so we had to get some landscape puzzles and start training with them.

Finally, in January 2024 we were ready for our humble puzzle Super Bowl. This is where my chronicle of the journey to my second puzzle tournament starts. Let’s go!

The Trip

This was the unpleasant part of the experience for me. You see, the day before the event I was on a work trip in a different corner of the country, so, to get to the town where the tournament was being held, I had to fly home late that night, get a couple hours of sleep, and then drag myself to the bus station (cause I don’t drive) to take the 5 am bus hoping I’d get there in time, spoiler alert… I didn’t.

Regardless of the tortuous traveling experience, I do love going once a year to this place and meeting the jigsaw puzzle community. So, since we’re all here to learn, right? Allow me to share a little about the puzzling town in the mountains I alluded to.

The Puzzling Town

Imagine yourself in a valley 7,000 ft (2,130 m) above sea level. Around you, cobblestone-paved streets, white houses with little wooden balconies and red clay roof tiles, catholic churches with their bell towers reaching to the sky, and the gentle giant embrace of green hills showered in sunlight keep you suspended in the year 1568 when the colonial campaign of the Spanish crown was in full swing. Oh, and there are dinosaur fossils too.

The place is called Villa de Leyva and it’s located on a high plateau up in the Andes, the mountain range that runs across the western edge of South America. Before being colonized, the area was ruled by the Muisca people, and before that, by dinosaurs, apparently. Their fossils are safely kept in local museums.

Today, the town is a busy tourist destination in Colombia that proudly merges themes of colonial architecture, native culture, natural beauty, and paleontological history to delight visitors, inviting them to enjoy events that go from jazz festivals to kite-flying contests, and since 2022, also an international jigsaw puzzle tournament.

Day 1: Individual

With the geo-historical context out of the way, we can now go back to the puzzles. I mentioned I couldn’t get in time to the event, this is what happened. After four hours of road trip, my bus finally arrived at Villa de Leyva from Bogotá at 9 am. I shook off the numbing effect of the motion sickness med and ran off to the event, by the time I got there the Individual competition had already started one whole hour before. I didn’t stand a chance.

They were kind enough to let me enter anyway and handed me the puzzle for the challenge. Immediately, I thought, “Dang, now I’m really screwed.” It was Vintage Still Life by Ravensburger and Andrea Tilk, a lovely picture of an old-time explorer’s table with a bunch of objects reminiscent of African culture laid out on it. The problem was the elements had similar shapes, textures, and colors, so I knew it would take me a lot of time to build it. I got to work immediately.

I was sorting the 500-piece puzzle with the extreme concentration of an athlete, trying to catch up when suddenly I heard some commotion, so I unglued my eyes from the table to see what was going on and realized at 1 hour 14 minutes, Ednéia, a contestant from Brazil was already claiming first place.

I kept my cool and powered through, and then, 3 minutes later, it happened again. This time right next to me, Ignacio, a contestant from Chile with whom I was sharing a table, secured second place.

Finally, the competition was over and I went to meet my team with the satisfaction of having battled till the end. We collected ourselves, got some lunch, Red Bulls, and went back to the event for the next competition.

Day 1: Pairs

Back at the contest everything was set, we got to our table and the organizers presented us with the next puzzle challenge. This time was Underwater Species, a marine life artwork with vibrant, translucent, and luminous creatures floating in the ocean, essentially, a whole lotta blue.

We decided to start sorting the textures first instead of the edges to avoid frustration with the almost plain color. At some point we got stuck, so we switched places to see if a change in perspective could help, and it did. We pushed forward and finished 12th, which wasn’t too bad given other 53 pairs were competing.

After the event was done, a surprise mini-contest sponsored by the brand Ingenio was announced. I couldn’t compete in this one cause the participants were randomly selected, but that’s ok, I’ll survive.

That was it for day 1. It was time for dinner, laughs, and some stories from the community.

Fun Puzzling Stories

When building a large puzzle, not having an adequately sized surface to work on can be a problem. You might build it on the floor, but it can get dusty or become an easy target for hungry pets. You could build it in sections and then put them together, or… you could repurpose your pool table, set a big light over it, and puzzle like a badass. Or at least that’s what solved the problem for the Camargo-Benítez from Tunja, Colombia. Since then, not much pool playing is allowed on the pool table.

Puzzlers like to show off our accessories, collections, and the furniture we buy to give the objects of our puzzling affection a home within our homes. But what if you could build your puzzles at work and then use them to decorate the company? Sounds crazy but that’s exactly what Churruy from Mexico does. It helps that the company is actually a bar and he’s the owner. Still, this puzzler entrepreneur builds giant puzzles in his business and then puts them everywhere, on the walls, the ceiling, and even on the tables.

You think you’re committed to your hobby when you buy sorting trays, puzzle boards, special lighting, or a brand-new shelf from Ikea to store your growing collection. You invest in your passion and feel like a serious puzzler. That’s until you meet Mariandrea from Buga, Colombia. She and her husband raised the bar by making the architect of their new house design a terrace with a big wall specifically set to accommodate a giant 24 ft (7.5 m) wide puzzle. They also made sure the blueprints included a good-sized area for a puzzle studio.

Day 2: Teams

There are a few reasons I’m willing to get up early on a Sunday, getting ready to compete on the last day of a puzzle tournament is definitely one of them. So, I got out on a sunny day and walked to meet the team around 8 am. We all had t-shirts with our team’s name printed on them. We were in uniform and ready for battle.

Once everything was set, they handed us the puzzle we needed to conquer and immediately, a familiar feeling came rushing in. It was Berlin at Night, a puzzle that had a low completion rate in the World Jigsaw Puzzle Competition of 2023, so we knew we were in for a tough ride. But if you like speed puzzling you know we live for the challenge, so we strategized and got building.

The plain color shades and the mirrored elements made it hard, but eventually, we put it together and crossed the finish line in 9th place.

Time to leave

At noon the tournament was officially over and we were free to go. Another 4 hours of bus riding with little comfort awaited me, but it was all worth it because the event provided me with all kinds of fun and heart-warming stories.

I saw whole families competing together, pairs and teams assembled on the spot between strangers. I watch the generational gap disappear with young adults and seniors sharing a puzzle table. I knew of a guy who rode his bicycle 100 miles (160 km) to get to the event. He also got an 8,000-piece puzzle courtesy of Churruy, (the guy with the bar full of puzzles in Mexico) to help him in his puzzle journey. I saw a lady give a crash course on puzzle building to her husband because she wanted to compete with him in pairs.

2024 was a great year for the International Puzzle Tournament in Villa de Leyva. Everything was improved and the experience was fulfilling. Now I only need to go back to the puzzle gym and train harder so me and my team can come back stronger next year.


Get to know the Author: Creative Ruth & Leon Bernard

Ruth is a graphic designer/puzzler. Leon is a writer/musician. Together, they make content for puzzle lovers in English and Spanish under her brand name, Creative Ruth. She builds the puzzles, and he assists her with writing and creative production. In their small apartment; Ruth, Leon, and Michelle (their cat) live a "creatively dynamic life." Meaning their living room is also a music studio, a puzzle building room, and a cat playground at the same time.

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