The second city we visited on our Colombia trip was Villa de Leyva, a small town about four hours north of Bogota that has some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in Colombia. We went there for three days and two nights.
The easiest way to get to Villa de Leyva from Bogota is to take a bus to Tunja, then transfer to another bus. Direct buses are infrequent, but apparently buses to Tunja are available all the time. In Colombia, there is no one national bus company for intercity travel, but lots of smaller private companies, so it is confusing to figure out schedules.Andy researched online to find out the most reputable companies; we cabbed to the bus terminal from our hotel, got in line, and found out a bus was leaving for Tunja immediately. Perfect. We climbed aboard and settled in for the three-hour ride to Tunja.
The ride wasn’t terrible; I couldn’t read for fear of getting carsick, but watching the countryside roll by was entertaining. Our transfer in Tunja was equally simple; despite the language barrier, after a few minutes of wandering around the terminal we found the area where colectivos wait for shorter bus trips. These are minivans that run within or between cities for short trips. As two gringos wandering around the terminal with giant packs, it was probably pretty obvious that we were looking for a ride to Villa de Leyva, since that’s the main tourist destination in the area. It didn’t take long for someone to call out, “Villa de Leyva?” to us. Why yes, that is where we are going, how could you tell? Perfect.
We boarded a minivan that had just two seats left. Someone on board had a dog, just chilling on the floor of the van, and everyone had to climb over the dog to board. We climbed in, and went on a wild one-hour ride through the mountains. Beautiful views, but a stomach-jolting journey.
After disembarking from the van, we trudged up the main street, looking for our hotel. I felt like I was in a Wild West town; we stuck out as gringos, there were lots of people just hanging out and staring, and to our right was a guy with an open fire grilling meats and ears of corn, dogs scampering around his feet. Certain things, like the dog in the van and the guy grilling, I would have loved to get pictures of but we were really conscious of not sticking out as tourists any more than we already did (and not making ourselves targets for mugging).
All the roads in town were pedestrianized and paved with giant flat stones:
The town is tiny, so we found our hotel easily and dropped off our stuff. The hotel, Hotel Antonio Narino, was fine, pretty basic, nothing special. We spent the first day exploring the streets and courtyards and historic buildings. Every building was whitewashed stucco with red tile roofs, and many buildings had balconies with overflowing flowers. It’s a popular weekend destination for Bogotans, so it’s touristy but not in an American-tourist sense. Most of the historic buildings have been converted to restaurants, hotels, shops, and art galleries. Many of these structures have beautiful courtyards, often with multiple restaurants and shops tucked away, arcade-style.
We wandered around, checking out the architecture, the parks, the streets, the details, the mountain views in the distance. It was fun to be in a completely different atmosphere from Bogota, to experience small town life and slow down a little, to relax and play with our cameras, to read, talk, and soak up being on vacation, and being so far away.
One of the most amazing features of the town is Plaza Mayor (the main square). Every city and town in South and Central America has one, but Villa de Leyva’s is one of the largest. The scale is truly breathtaking. We were bummed to see upon our arrival that there was a festival going on and the square was full of vendors, flea market-type activity, and even some cheesy carnival rides. Luckily it was all cleared up by the day we left. The Plaza Mayor is truly the center of town, and it had not only amazing views, that photos can’t even really captures, but it was also the vibrant social gathering place for the community.
That last photo shows the Plaza Mayor on the final night of the festival, as the vendors were breaking down their wares. Each night, we hopped around to a few different small bars along the Plaza, sitting outside on the terraces, drinking Club Colombia (beer), or Ron Medellin (rum), watching the small town street life. Vendors hawked their goods, groups of children ran and played, and stray dogs ran and barked at each other. We watched the Copa America football (soccer matches) on television, ate arepas, and just sat back and enjoyed the atmosphere. It was pretty wonderful.
Up next: biking in the hills around Villa de Leyva, a wine tasting, and a giant dinosaur fossil.