A High-Desert Treasure
Traveling from Monguí, we had a new experience: a fast, easy trip on modern highways! In a single morning, we descended almost a thousand meters to the postcard-pretty town of Villa de Leyva.
This Colombian Pueblo Patrimonio (officially designated heritage town) is best known for its vast and open main plaza – billed as the largest cobblestoned square in all of South America. The town was chartered in 1572 after the Spanish overcame the Muisca people, who had inhabited the area for centuries. (You’ll hear variations on that sad history, over and over, throughout Latin America.) Later, the town played a key role in Colombia’s independence from Spain; in fact, the first Congress of Nueva Granada was held there in October 1812.
Against this historic backdrop, the first thing you notice about Villa de Leyva is that it is washed in light – with a sky as big as anything I remember from my West Texas childhood. (Maybe that’s why I felt so at home there!) The wide-open spaces, bougainvillea-draped cobblestone streets, and beautifully preserved colonial buildings (some dating back to the 16th century) all conspire to make this a truly enchanting place. And it’s stunning on a moonlit night.
(Usual note: Most of our photos are in galleries – just click through to see a larger view.)
Things to see and do in and around Villa de Leyva
Shop for one-of-a-kind handicrafts
Strolling through town, you’ll see street after street filled with artisan workshops and tiendas. Be sure to check out Alieth Tejido Artesanal, a cooperative of local women who weave beautiful woolen handicrafts and wearables such as sweaters and ruanas (ponchos). We also loved Alma Bazar, a quaint shop in a four-century-old casa that also houses an interesting art gallery and cafe.
Go wine tasting
There are wineries nearby? “We’re there!” said John, the one who spent 30-plus years in the wine industry (and Susan, who doesn’t mind drinking it at all!). It turns out that this part of Boyacá department is one of Colombia’s most up-and-coming wine regions, and Villa de Leyva plays host to several first-class wineries. We spent a lovely morning at Viñedo Ain Karim, named for an ancient Israeli village.
Visit Casa Terracota
This quirky attraction on the outskirts of Villa de Leyva was originally created by a local architect to serve as his primary residence. It became such a curiosity that the poor guy had no privacy, so he eventually moved elsewhere and turned the house into a tourist attraction. Casa Terracota is supposedly the world’s largest work of pottery, and its builders had to develop a technique to fire the clay in situ using portable kilns. It’s still a fully functioning house with working bathrooms and kitchen. It’s touristic but definitely worth a visit!
(Note: Due to Covid restrictions, the house interiors are currently off-limits. John was able to get these nice inside shots by peeking through the windows.)
Experience monastic life at the Convento Santo Ecce Homo
About 8 km outside of Villa de Leyva, this tranquil monastery was one of our favorite stops. The Convento was founded in 1620 as a hermitage for Dominican friars and seems little changed from those days.
Take a drive (or bus) to Raquira, Colombia’s pottery capital
Raquira is about an hour away from Villa de Leyva by car and is also easy to get to by bus. The dozens (perhaps hundreds) of terra cotta workshops churn out pots and figurines of every size and shape imaginable, supplying nurseries and shops all over Colombia.
Check out the Pozos Azules.
This series of man-made ponds is not far from the Casa Terracota and is best visited on a sunny day, when the water is a brilliant turquoise. The day we visited was overcast, but the ponds were a lovely deep teal and very quiet – which made for some nice “reflection” photos. The owners have done a nice job of creating a tourist attraction of what are essentially five irrigation pools – with a well-manicured walking trail to each.
Where to eat and drink
With its proximity to Bogota, Villa de Leyva draws plenty of visitors from the capital city. That gives the town a more cosmopolitan and upscale (and yes, touristic) feel than others we visited, with an interesting and diverse restaurant scene. Our favorites:
El Patio. Varied menu with excellent food and service, presented in a colorful and whimsical outdoor setting.
Chez Remy. Very tasty French cuisine served up in a lovely garden setting. It was the perfect place to linger over a long lunch and a nice rosé.
Pasteleria Francesa. Another must-visit French establishment, with croissants and other goodies to die for. We enjoyed chatting up the bakery’s friendly owner, who was born in Paris but has spent his last 20 years in Villa de Leyva.
La Bodega and La Cava de Don Fernando, two watering holes right on the parque prinicipal. If you’re craving a nice micro-brew, La Bodega is the local outlet for Bogota Brewing Company. La Cava is especially fun for people-watching (with excellent mojitos!), and they also serve up a decent pizza.
Where to stay
For most of our visit to Villa de Leyva, we stayed at the cozy and comfortable Maria Bonita, a newish hotel with the feel of an old Spanish hacienda. At about $65 US a night, it’s a great value.
We splurged a bit on our last night and moved up the hillside to the Hotel Duruelo, a large hotel-spa-convention center perched high above town. An upcoming birthday was all the excuse we needed to indulge in massages and the sumptuous pool area. The hotel is beautifully landscaped and has the feel of a centuries-old monastery.