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Trip Report Villa de Leyva, Colombia´s colonial gem

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Boyacá, one of Colombia´s most beautiful departments, forms a crescent of mountains, rivers and fertile uplands just a few hours drive north of Bogota. Most travellers head for for the colonial town of Villa de Leyva, and with good reason.

see the photos for this story at

The immense main plaza is supposedly the largest in Latin America, the size of two football pitches, and as sparse as the rugged pioneers who built it back in the 1570s. Tourists lurch zombie-like over an unsettling stone sea, back-dropped by grey-green hills painted with shadows from passing clouds. Clanging church bells send doves skimming over the plaza. harried by hawks above. Shut your eyes and hear conquistadores clatter their horses over the rough cobbles. History seeps from every crack.

Turn to the side-streets that surround this stark centerpiece and you will find a gentler colonial charm where timber-framed houses hide chichi tourist shops, hotels and restaurants, and those clattering hooves are ponies taking tourists on the popular treks in the surrounding countryside. The surprise is the continuity of the colonial structures.

There is not one bit of naff architecture in the whole town. Even the petrol station has adobe walls and baked tile roof. The overall the effect is astounding, thanks to government decrees protecting the old town and insisting that all new construction is colonial style.

But there is something else special about Villa de Leyva. It is is 100% hassle free! Strangely, for a for a major tourist destination, there are no touts or street sellers and a welcome lack of those soul-numbing interactions we face every day on many city streets in Colombia; sidestepping glue-sniffers, dodging beggars, or paying off squeegee men at the traffic lights moments before a vendor thrusts somethng through your car window.

In fact Villa de Leyva has been a tourist attraction almost since its inception. Though initially founded as a barrack town for soldiers (which partly explains the large plaza, where regiments paraded) it soon became a get-away for wealthy Spanish families who enjoyed the dry warm climate (at 2100m, the valley is less chilly than most of the Andean towns), and olive groves that reminded them of Spain.

It was also HQ for religious orders, drawn to the area part of the evangelical conversion of the Muisca people who had their own religious bases in the valley. By the end of the 17th century - its historical apex - it had evolved into a major market town for wheat and vegetables, but this was ended by crop blights that heralded a new century of decline.

The town revitalised after Colombian independence and briefly hosted the new government in 1811. It achieved national heritage status in the 1950s.

Today the town is booming, and I was fascinated by the cram of ´colonial´ hotels being constructed a few blocks south of the plaza. Could the town ever fill all these new hotel rooms? I quizzed our horse guide, Raul. ´To be honest I think the inversionistas have gone a bit far,´ he replied, nodding to the very Colombian habit of everyone jumping on any money-spinning bandwagon until the wheels fall off.

To try keep visitors coming the town has diversified a range of jollies such as midnight treks in the nearby ´desert´ (really just scrubland), horse treks, 4x4 motorbike excursions, hikes to nearby national parks, vineyards, gastro-pubs and a visits to a bizarre Gaudi-like terracotta house that seems to have slipped past the local planning bye-laws.

We opt for the 3-hour horse ride to various sites around town, including an impressive fossil museum where the bones of a giant marine predator lie sulking in a glass case. Food, shopping, churches and visits to museums fill up the rest of our long weekend, and a fruitless search for childrens swings.

My seven-year-old daughter, already unimpressed by the museums ´with only old things´, is bemoaning the lack of activities for youngsters. I explain to her gently that the conquistadors were not very good at playgrounds for kids. ´You´ll have to wait another 400 years, my dear´.

The dry hills around Villa de Leyva, in contrast to the mostly green fertile Boyaca

Driving there. There are various routes from Bogota to Villa de Leyva, but the shortest and fastest (150kms, 3 hours) is shown below. Allow an extra hour to escape from Bogota, depending on traffic.

• Take main highway from Bogota towards Tunja.
• 1km north of the historic site of Puente de Boyaca, take the turn off west to Samaca.
• Pass straight through Samaca and after 24 kms meet the main road from Tunja, head west. Villa de Leyva turnoff (just after a toll booth) is well signed.

Accommodation. There is a wide range from luxury hotels to simple hospedajes, hostels, cabins and campsites, in and out of town. Some residents offer camping in their gardens. In my experience there is no need to book ahead, just turn up and browse around for the best deal.

Food. Ditto above, a wide range for tastes and budget. For cheaper eats head further from the plaza.

Activities: can all be easily booked when you get there, there are signs all over town for horses, bikes, trips to the nearby Iguaque National Park etc
The websites and have a lot of of info.
What to bring. Warm clothes for the evening, rain and sun gear if you go hiking.