In August of 2010 I flew into Bogota, Colombia. It was the start of what would become a 2+ year South American adventure. To say I was unprepared is an understatement. I spoke zero Spanish and had literally bought a guide book as I was leaving for the airport. Now, Bogota is a wonderful city, but it was seriously overwhelming to this unprepared traveler. After a few days I was dying to get out of the city. Thankfully as soon as I left, I wound up finding the perfect Colombia travel retreat – Villa de Leyva.
Villa de Leyva is the epitome of a small colonial Colombian town – whitewashed buildings, small country churches, a huge town square, and picturesque cobblestone streets. It was founded in 1572 as an important Spanish settlement.
Over the years much of the colonial architecture has been preserved and even new buildings are build in the colonial style. In the center of the town is a huge 14,000 square meter plaza where a number of annual festivals are held.
Located about 3 to 4 hours from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is a very popular weekend getaway. Buses leave the Northern Bogota bus station almost hourly and cost around $10-15 US dollars. The countryside surrounding the town is filled with vacation homes of the rich and elite of Bogota. Quiet and peaceful during the week, Villa de Leyva fills up on the weekends and hotel and hostel rooms can be hard to find. If you are planning to visit during a holiday weekend or a festival, be sure you book a room before you arrive or you might end up camping instead.
What to do in Villa de Leyva
Check out the Colonial Architecture
Villa de Leyva has some incredible colonial architecture that makes walking around town like visiting a museum. The whitewashed homes and businesses feature intricately carved balconies, windows, and doors. In addition to private homes, the village also has a number of churches and convents that reflect the religious colonial architecture of the Spanish well.
Villa de Leyva has been home to a number of famous individuals over its many years and a number of the homes have been turned into small museums honoring the town’s heros. Casa de Antonio Ricaurte is now a military museum dedicated to this hero of the Colombian Independence. Casa de Nariño celebrates the live of another Colombian Independence figure, Antonio Nariño who spent the last few years of his life here. You can also visit what is suppose to have been the first distillery in Colombia and the former home of the famous Colombian poet, Luis Vargas Tejada.
The peaceful, country setting of Villa de Leyva has lead it to become a hot spot for both Colombian and foreign artists. Numerous art studios and shops can be found in town but many are closed except on weekends when the number of tourists in town shoots up. The Museo del Carmen also has a large collection of religious art.
What to see outside of Villa de Leyva
The town of Villa de Leyva itself is quiet and peaceful. Many people coming to visit are looking for relaxation and not the typical tourist sites. Thank being said, if you do end up a little bored in town, there are plenty of interesting sites and activities to see and do just out of town. Look for local taxi drivers who will charge you a low set price to visit these sites all in one day.
The whole are around Villa de Leyva was at one point, in the distant past, a large sea. The area is filled with huge fossils of prehistoric marine life and there are a number of museums dedicated to the personal collections of local fossil collectors. The most impressive of these is the El Fósil museum located about 5.5km outside of town. The museum features a number of fossils with the most impressive being a giant, nearly complete fossil of a chronosaur.
Meaning “Little Hell” in Spanish, this is the site of an ancient Muisca Indian astronomy observatory. Located about 8km outside of Villa de Leyva this site was given its name by the Catholic missionaries visiting the area. The name no doubt came about from the shock of the 8 foot high phallus statues that circle the area.
La Periquera Waterfalls
Located further from town (about 14km), the Periquera Waterfalls make for an enjoyable hike. The largest of the falls is 15 meters tall and the area around the falls is also a popular camping site. Be prepared to pay a small fee for camping on both national park and private land.