It may be overpriced and overdone, but it’s hard to deny that there’s something special about Villa de Leyva, Colombia’s favorite colonial small town. I tend to stay away from destinations on the beaten path, but Villa De Leyva brings me back over and over. Here, you’ll find Colombia’s largest cobblestoned plaza surrounded by untouched colonial churches and buildings, framed by arid mountains and surrounded by picturesque, narrow streets, cozy restaurants, pastry shops and impressive mountainside fincas. So whether you’re in Colombia for a couple weeks or long-term, pack up your weekend suitcase and discover one of Colombia’s most charming destinations.
When to Go
Villa de Leyva has sunny, spring-like weather all year round, but December through March is the sunniest, warmest time. On weekends and holidays, Villa de Leyva comes to life with Bogotanos escaping the busy city, but during the week, things quiet down and Villa de Leyva reverts to its sleepy, old-time self, where you’ll find men and women wearing traditional ruanas (shawls) and hats, and life seems to go on as it has for 100 years. If you want to see the authentic Villa de Leyva, a weekday visit is best, but if you want to be in town when things are popping, I recommend heading to town during one of Bogota’s many puentes, or holiday weekends. If possible, don’t miss the weekly farmer’s market, held every Saturday on the main plaza.
The easiest way to get to Villa de Leyva is to take a Transmilenio to the Portal del Norte and walk over to the Exito. Buses heading toward Tunja (2.5 hours; COL$17,000/US$8.50) pass by every 15 minutes or so. At Tunja, you’ll have to transfer to a smaller bus headed to Villa de Leyva (45 minutes; COL$5,500/US$2.75). There are a few buses a day that go directly to Villa de Leyva from el Terminal de buses, but you’ll want to call ahead to confirm departure times (+57 1-423-3600; Diagonal 23 No.69-65).
Where to Stay
Whenever I got to Villa de Leyva, I stay at the Renacer Hostel (+57 8 732-1379; Mobile 311 308-3739). It’s about 1 KM outside of town and is situated on a tranquil hillside overlooking the Villa de Leyva valley. The hostel is run by Oscar Gilede, a young biologist who also runs Colombian Highlands, which offers hiking, rappelling and horseback riding tours in the Villa de Leyva area. Even though the hostel is a bit of a walk from town, the energy feels right and the colonial-style farmhouse attracts a diverse group of travelers. There’s a group dining area, a camping area, dorms and private rooms, a TV room, Internet and breakfast for COL$5,000/US$2.50. The hostel fosters an air of comradery among guests and it’s not uncommon for someone to pull out a guitar or share a tasty meal with new friends.
If you want to be closer to town, La Roca, (+57 8 732-0331) offers doubles for about COL$90,000/US$45.000 and is located right on the plaza. Travelers looking for more upscale lodging will want to head to El Duruelo (+57 8 732-0222). Although rooms are not particularly luxurious, the hotel has gorgeous gardens and a spectacular pool.
However, it’s hard to go wrong when it comes to lodging in Villa de Leyva, as nearly all hotels and hostels are housed in traditional, colonial era homes that ooze charm. Unless you’re visiting on a holiday weekend, it’s not necessary to book ahead of time.
Where to Eat and Drink
Those looking for more upscale dining options will want to head to Casa Quintero on the corner of the plaza by the main cathedral. Inside you’ll find about half a dozen elegant restaurants serving up mostly international fare. Restaurants around the plaza offer the best in terms of people watching, but tend to be more expensive than those on the side streets. For whatever reason, pizza seems to be a particularly popular option in Villa.
Villa de Leyva can’t compete with Bogota in terms of nightlife, but the Villa afterhours scene has charms of its own. Rather than head to a bar or club, locals and tourists alike hang out around the church steps and indulge in beer and aguardiente. Soon enough, everyone’s become fast friends and the plaza is converted into an outdoor bar. Of course, there are plenty of places to get a beer or two, but when in Rome…
If you’re in Villa de Leyva during the week, you won’t find much of a party scene.
What to Do
In my opinion, the ultimate Villa de Leyva plan is to stroll the cobblestoned streets, dine at one its quaint restaurants, and enjoy a long afternoon siesta in your hotel hammock. However, those wanting a more active city break have their choice of outdoor fun, such as horseback riding, hiking and rappelling. Known as the El desierto, or the desert, Villa de Leyva’s surroundings are a stark contrast to Colombia’s typically colorful and vegetated landscapes. However, there is an undeniable beauty in Villa’s arid hills and desert vegetation.
Villa de Leyva is famous for its archealogical sites and ostrich farm, so just ask your hotel concierge for a map and suggestions. Outdoor enthusiasts will want to book a tour with Guias y Travesias (+57 8 732-0742) or Colombian Highlands (+57 8 732 1379).