Villa de Leyva’s town plaza, one of the biggest in South America

Villa de Leyva: Charm, Nature, and Long-Sleeves, Oh My!

The temperature was dropping. Huddled in our windbreakers and jeans, my friend and I couldn’t stop smiling. We left our boiling, garrulous city of Barranquilla, Colombia for a week of much-anticipated vacation almost nine months into our Peace Corps service. We descended now by bus into the cool valley of Colombia’s Villa de Leyva. Each terracotta-roofed settlement and glimpse of the sweeping, farm- and pine tree-studded mountain slopes added more excitement to our shivers.

For both of us, this was our first chance to explore a bit of Colombia’s temperate interior. Posted in a huge urban city on the coast, our Colombian experience had thus far been confined to the coastal culture—a salsa-blaring, gregarious, raucous sort of urban living. In contrast, Villa de Leyva is a small Spanish colonial town a few hours outside of Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá. With less than 10,000 citizens, the city has retained a quaint, if slightly touristy, colonial ambiance to this day—and is notable for possessing one of the largest plazas.

Villa de Leyva’s town plaza, one of the biggest in South America

For its location and charm, Villa de Leyva has become a frequent weekend destination for folks from Bogotá. Despite gaining hostels, hotels, restaurants and tourist sites, the town has remained tranquil. In fact, a resident told us, all buildings, including personal residences, are required by law to be one-story, white-washed, trimmed with a matching green and topped with a terracotta roof—all of which helps complete the town’s slightly manufactured allure. And yet its beauty is genuine. Walking down the path from our hostel to the town, the effect was overpowering: cloud-wreathed mountain tops and charming buildings adorned with magenta flowers are all one sees. And best of all: it was quiet. In search of a peaceful respite, there was no doubt that we had found it.

The city itself is lovely to walk around, with its huge cobblestone plaza, cafes, a small cathedral, and artisan shops selling handmade wool items like hats and sweaters as well as traditional ponchos. Numerous local houses have been converted to small museums that display articles and information of local notables, some free and most a few thousand pesos (US $2 or so).

More exotic, however, are the destinations outside of town. From options such as an ostrich farm, Los Pozos Azules, a monastery, and a vineyard, all within a ten kilometer range, I chose first El Fosil and then El Infiernito”.

El Fósil is the skeleton of a kronosauris, discovered in the valley. Laid out in a small museum along with a collection of other, smaller fossils, it’s a remnant from the days when the area was actually covered by the sea. Appearing to represent something between a whale and a crocodile, it was certainly enough to make one think twice about entering, well, any large body of water.

Past El Fósil, hidden a little way from the main road, lies El Infiernito, or, El Observatorio Muisca. The observatory turned out to be a quite humble destination, a simple set of thirty or so small pillars. Here, the indigenous tribe La Muisica measured time related to seasons and harvests according to the way the sun fell on the pillars. The Spanish, when colonizing the valley, renamed it “El Infiernito”—the Little Hell— to discourage visits by the natives, whom they were busy evangelizing.

The lagoon in which La Muisca believe humankind was birthed

There was little signage around this site, but fortunately, all roads lead to Villa de Leyva; I wound my way home along dirt paths lined by enormous fincas, or hacienda-style farms. In this area, in contrast to the greater valley, many of these farms are owned by foreigners or wealthy Colombians, who have built tranquil Spanish-style palaces from brick and stone.

Villa de Leyva’s perhaps most under-discussed feature is its proximity to Parque Iguaque, a natural reserve high in the Andes just 14 kilometers from town. Here reside high-altitude lagoons, where the La Muisca believe the birth of humankind took place. Guidebooks describe it as a  simple “three hour hike” to the main lake. And so, we set off early in the morning to what was a gorgeous, though far more challenging hike than anticipated.  Passing above the tree line, we were treated to sharp winds that our one-adventure-fits-all jeans-and-a-windbreaker outfits weren’t quite suited for. But we persevered despite the numbing temperatures and reached the small lake tucked between peaks. There, we had to wonder—what were the original inhabitants doing there in the first place, up so high in such a cold region?!

One other notable aspect of Villa de Leyva (especially for the typically under-served vegetarian set) included its delicious health food options. We found vegetarian restaurants that served quinoa and hot chocolate with a soy milk option, a small store with wholesome grains and other natural ingredients (perfect for use in hostel-kitchen cooking), and a panadería just down the street from our hostel that baked small loaves of bread with wheat, flax and oats daily—ultimately, simply more reasons to rejoice in the offerings of this town.

After our three-day stay, it was with a wistful sense of fulfillment that we hopped on an early morning bus back to Bogotá, to return from there to Barranquilla (I could have stayed for weeks!). Although with its slight theater-set atmosphere Villa de Leyva didn’t offer the thrill of the path-less-trodden sort of adventure, it held what, after nine months of loud coastal living, was for me even more highly cherished: the ease and tranquility of a small town amid beautiful natural surroundings. As a friendly citizen of Villa de Leyva, formerly of the city Medellín, told us—of course he preferred Villa de Leyva to any other place in Colombia—“It’s just so peaceful here.”

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