It is high noon and the horses meander their way through the desert following an ancient footpath once used by the Muisca Indians. In the distance, Villa de Leyva is bathed in sunlight, its white walls rising from a parched and dusty valley. It’s an image worthy of a postcard and one, which captivates visitors.
Founded in 1572 as a retreat for Spanish clerics and viceroys, Villa de Leyva has been preserved by the passing of time and although it is only three hours from Bogotá by land, it is a world removed from the bustle of the big city. Caressed by the cool winds of the Boyacá highlands, Villa de Leyva, is a cardinal point on this country’s tourism map and it continues to draw inspiration from those who wander its colonial streets and majestic Plaza Mayor.
Declared a National Monument in 1954 for the preservation of its architecture, Villa de Leyva’s main square covers almost 14,000 m2, making it one of the largest in the hemisphere and emblematic for its red tile roofs and painted green balconies.
The locals, or Villaleyvanos, take great pride in their town and the community has adopted a sprinkling of foreigners who have opted out of the mainstream way of life to find solace and inspiration among the crystal running streams and backwaters of the central highlands. On any given weekend the population swells thanks to the many leisure activities available. While one might be tempted to spend hours staring at the blue sky from the cobblestone Plaza Mayor, there are many walks and nature trails leading off from the square in every direction.
We head west. Mauricio Cortés, a respected local guide, leads the way on his stallion. Surrounded by cacti and bearded olive trees we are immersed in a biblical landscape and riding towards one of the most interesting attractions in the La Candelaria desert: El Fósil. Although it can be reached by car from the town in less than twenty minutes, El Fósil – or the Fossil – is a place where time stood still 100 million years ago, so there’s no need to rush. Give yourself a morning to visit the remains of the 7 meter-long marine Kronosaurus unearthed in this dried up lake bed by paleontologists back in 1977.
If you prefer to be up close with live animals rather than prehistoric ones, then just off the main Villa de Leyva to Santa Sofía road operates the Espexoticas ostrich farm. For the price of admission you can touch these flightless birds, feed them under supervision and walk the gardens.
With several microclimates, Villa de Leyva and the surrounding countryside, has arable land for farmers and horticulturalists. Bright warm days and cold nights are ideal for growing tomatoes, flowers and grapes. Two wineries operate in the valley producing a young Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. At the Ain Karim estate, you can sample a regal ‘Marqúez de Villa de Leyva’ Gran Reserva and take home a case of fine Colombian wine.
Five centuries have not passed Villa de Leyva in vain. Although strong religious traditions have survived – the town has a Carmelite convent and the secluded monastery of Ecce Homo on a hill nearby – it is essentially young and festive at heart. Entrepreneurs have turned their stately homes into cozy hostels, art galleries and restaurants.
At night the cobblestone streets come alive to the beat of passing pedestrians, many buying local arts and crafts or choosing a restaurant from the many good choices to be had. The Casa Quintero, on the main square, has several eateries for the weary eco-traveler. Live music emanates from courtyards lit by candlelight, and two other commercial centers house specialized boutiques and even a French crêperie: Donde Remy. So grab a seat around a hearth and order a glass of the local “Bailey’s” – Sabajón liqueur, while listening to troubadours.
Villa de Leyva is a destination for all seasons and the traveler should pack accordingly. Warm gear is required for trekking the nearby paramos -moors- and the sacred Iguaque lake. The hike can take up to six hours and should be accompanied by a guide. Another interesting option for touring Villa de Leyva is with Zebra Trips, a local tour company with several all terrain vehicles to take you off the beaten path such as to the ancient muisca astronomical site ‘El Infiernito’. Erected in 1000 A.D, ‘El Infiernito’ is mysterious and one of the most important archeological sites in the region.
Head to the beautiful ‘La Periquera’ waterfalls in neighboring Gachantiva. Here, between the raging river and clear cascading falls you can cool yourself off from the heat of a desert ‘safari’. The nearby scenery is very typical of Boyacá with a patchwork of green, rolling hills and painted cottages. For the seriously sports inclined, there are great cliffs and gorges for abseiling. Frenchman Pierre Lacour in nearby Santa Sofía organizes excursions with up to 14 rappels to be done in groups of six during the day. He also serves an organic lunch with hand picked vegetables and fruit from his orchard.
Villa de Leyva is a place where people and nature converge. The dust bowl of La Candelaria becomes a playground for motorcyclists and dune buggies. The skies above ‘Villa’ are a canvass for kite fliers and the annual Wind and Kite festival is held here every August. Then there are the fields littered with fossils. Don’t miss the local farmers market on Saturday. Pick up earthenware pots in picturesque Raquira and taste the famous longaniza sausage in Sutamarchan.
Celebrating a connection to the earth and sky is what makes touring Villa de Leyva and the region so unique. It’s about color and remembering how grounded we are to this earth.
This article was made possible thanks to an invite by Proexport.