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For my first blog trip, courtesy of ProExport (the same people who bring you colombia.travel), my mission was to discover Villa de Leyva in the state of Boyaca. Villa de Leyva is a focal point of history, paleontology, art and nature. There is no crime, no garbage in the streets or streams, no raucous crowds. All the buildings are in the colonial Spanish style, with white walls and tiled roofs as mandated by the town's charter. Most of the streets are made of the original stones and mortar, completing the illusion that here time has stopped. The climate is perfect thanks to the dry air of the adjacent Candelaria desert, despite being located at over 2,000 meters (6,000 feet) above sea level. It is a place of singular beauty, and not unlike many others who have discovered it, I fell under its spell and long to return, not just to visit, but to live!
In the center of Villa de Leyva is the imposing Plaza Mayor, the biggest square in Colombia. On one side is the old church, Nuestra Senora del Rosario, where General Antonio Nariño, one of the figure heads of Colombia's revolution, is buried. Two blocks from here, another square honors Antonio Ricaurte, another hero of the revolution and patron of the Colombian air force, who blew himself up taking many Spanish soldiers along with him, reminiscent of modern Islamic terrorists! All the streets leading to Plaza Mayor are full of shops, hotels and restaurants. I should warn here that the large stones in the streets make it mandatory for people to amble slowly and cars even slower. It is too dangerous for women to stroll in high heels! Many buildings have Spanish style courtyards where you will find more shops and restaurants on all sides and sometimes on two levels. Every business in this area is elegant and makes the best use of the beautiful old buildings they are housed in.
I stayed in the oldest building of all, the hotel El Molino de Mesopotamia, which is in a hacienda erected here in 1568, four years before Villa de Leyva was founded. I slept in a 300 year old poster bed, and although not all rooms have one, every corner of this hotel is steeped in history, as it was where the Viceroys of Spain once lived. The Inn's dining room is located in what used to be a flour mill (see photo below), the molino in the hotel's name. The establishment is traversed by small canals fed by mountain springs, the inspiration behind the Mesopotamia in its name. Nightly rates are 132,000 COP single, and only 180,000 COP double, breakfast included, which is not much when compared to other historic hotels in other parts of the world. That said, the bathrooms are in need of an update, although I still strongly recommend you stay here just for the breathtaking beauty of the place! Lodging in Villa de Leyva is inexpensive overall, the highest single rates being around 130,000 COP, and the lowest around 30,000 COP at a very nice hospedaje within one block away from the main plaza with private bathroom included.
If the simple pleasure of wandering through the streets and browsing through the many pretty shops is not enough, there are a number of other attractions in town as well as just outside town. I did not have enough time to visit any of the in-town museums except for one located in one corner of the Plaza Mayor, the Museo Luis Alberto Acuña, named after the local artist, which has a collection of his work as well as eclectic mix of fossils,and religious art, among many other things. Other museums are: Museo El Carmen for religious art; Casa Museo Antonio Ricaurte, the Colombian air force's museum housed in the building where Ricaurte was born; Casa Museo Antonio Nariño, the mansion where General Narino spent his final days. A bit out of town on the road to Santa Sofia, you can visit the Santo Ecce Homo monastery, built in 1620. For a panoramic view of Villa de Leyva and the surrounding valley, follow the signage to Arco Iris.
A prehistoric sea has left the area with an overabundance of fossils, which you will find not just in museums, but embedded in the walls and doorsteps of many buildings. A small museum just outside of town, the Museo El Fosil, has one of only two pliosaurus fossilized skeletons ever found (see photo). The enormous beast, precursor to crocodiles, is impressive, and you should not miss seeing it. Closer to town is the Museo Paleontologico, which has a larger collection of fossils.
If you are looking for the unique and unusual, visit the Terracotta house (Casa de Barro) which is down a dirt road on the outskirts of town (see photos). This fairy tale house, the whimsical brainchild of Colombian architect Octavio Mendez (whom I met in town), is entirely made from clay extracted from the property surrounding it. The chimneys on the roof are clearly phallic, a reference to the monoliths found at nearby El Infiernito archeological site, another must see. El Infiernito, officially known, as the Parque Arqueologico de Monquira is an ancient sacred Muisca Indian site, both an astronomical observatory as well as the place for fertility rites. The big penis-shaped rocks dot the landscape and as can be expect, are the object of much speculation and humor!
Finally, if eco tourism and adventure are your thing, go hiking to the Laguna de Iguaque, a sacred lake at 3,600 m (7,200 ft) in the Iguaque nature reserve. The Muisca Indians believed this lake to be the place where humanity was created. To the north of Villa de Leyva, El Valle Escondido, or Hidden Valley, accessible only by a barely navigable dirt road, lives up to its name. Cross an improvised bridge across the Cane (Dog) river and follow the road up the mountains on the other side and you will reach El Arca Verde, an eco village dreamed-up by Pierre Lacour, a French expat. All the buildings are constructed with materials gathered from the surrounding land and their style is inspired by mallocas, the local indigenous huts. Pierre and his wife Mariela, a Colombian, seek to make this a self-sufficient community, immune to the world's slavery to money. To that end, they practice permaculture, where food crops are mixed rather than separate, providing a natural form of pest control. Activities include horseback riding in the breathtaking surrounding mountains and participating in spiritual ceremonies. Pierre tells me he is not interested in mass tourism -- those who come here should do so to commune with nature and seek answers. A mere 15,000 COP gets you a bed in the spectacular main house, though Pierre is willing to let you stay for nothing if you are willing to help out with your labor.
Getting there: There is no way to fly to Villa de Leyva (Tunja, the sad capital of Boyaca, has no municipal airport). From Bogota, it is a three hour ride by bus or car. The entire trip is through the eastern Andes, thus it is a breathtaking trip anyway! It's also possible to get there from Bucaramanga heading south.
Tourist info: Right off the Plaza Mayor is ProExport's tourist office, where you can get maps and brochures as well as talk to a representative.
Tours: Zebra Trips has 16 different tours that cover just about anything worth seeing in the surrounding area. Their distinctive zebra striped jeeps are easy to spot. If you want to have a private guide who has his own vehicle, I recommend Mario Arango, who made this an enlightening visit during three days. I did not ask him if it was okay to publish his phone number, but I will update this page as soon as I do.
What to bring back: This is a town of artisans, so there is a wide choice of handmade souvenirs and no shortage of shops where you can buy them. Notable is the Alieth shop, a cooperative of 35 native women specializing in wool garments and mochillas (bags) made the traditional way (a future post will feature these incredible women and their craft). Other great buys are the locally made sweets, which include honey candies and meringue cookies. There are wineries in the area, so you might want to sample the local vintage by picking up a bottle.
Costs: As tourism goes, a visit to Villa de Leyva is very economical. Lodging is inexpensive, as are attraction tickets. Restaurants get more economical the further away you go from the Plaza Mayor.