On a recent trip to Bogota, Colombia, we did as the locals do when life in the sprawling, congested capital starts to get heavy, we spent a restorative weekend in Villa de Leyva! Find out what makes this high-altitude desert so magical and how you can experience this magic for yourself.
Destination: Villa de Leyva, Colombia
Located 7,000 feet in the Andes Mountains, the town of Villa de Leyva is a gem preserved in history. The streets are still paved with cobblestones, the bouganvilla flowers still cascade over whitewash walls, and the pigeons still roost on brick-tile roofs just as they had 400 years ago. As one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved its colonial style and architecture, Villa de Leyva is part of the Colombian National Network Of Heritage Towns.
Buses depart from Bogotá daily. We prefer leaving from La Terminal Central Salitre - here, you can purchase your seat directly from the ticket counter. Many buses pick up more passengers along the edge of Bogotá even after all of the seats have been filled. You don't want to be the person sitting on the steps of the bus for 4 hours so purchase your ticket and board the bus at this terminal.
From here, you can either take a 2.5 hour bus ride to Tunja then switch to a van for the 45 minute ride to Villa de Leyva or take a bus directly to Villa de Leyva. The rate is around $24,000 pesos ($8 USD) and goes up if you choose to travel on one of the larger, luxury bus lines that have wi-fi and restrooms.
The route is winding and scenic. Be sure to sit on the passengers side of the bus to get the best views.
Photo Tip: If you want to capture the scenery along the way, set your camera on Action or Sports mode to stop the action and improve your chances of getting the shot as you drive by with Continuous Shooting mode.
These photos were taken from the bus while on the move!
Geography & Climate
The weather is a perfect all year round with little variance throughout the year. Temperatures are in the 70s (degrees F) during the day and in the 50s (degrees F) at night. Because you're between 7,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level, the sun is hot and burning - be sure to wear sunscreen! We like sunscreens made with natural ingredients that also nourish your skin in this kind of dry climate.
The dry seasons are December, January, February, and June, July, August, and September. March, April, May, and October and November see heavy rain. August is known for its winds and to celebrate the natural force, locals hold a popular Wind and Kite Festival in the Plaza Mayor of Villa de Leyva.
The cobbled Plaza Mayor is the meeting point for sundowners. As the sunlight begins to roll down the mountain behind the seventeenth-century Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Rosario, the Plaza takes on an orange glow that beacons you to stay.
Locals and tourists hang out on the Plaza steps after dinner socializing, and drinking Poker beer or the stronger local firewater, Aguardiente. Musicians stroll the cobblestone streets of the Plaza playing folkloric llanero harp. With the Andes as a backdrop, it's quite magical!
Villa de Leyva has become a weekend destination for Bogota residents and Colombian tourists. Occasionally you see some European backpackers and even more rarely a small group of American tourists, but no matter where you're from, this has always been a safe, tranquil, artsy town where you can release all of the stress from city life and truly unwind.
To get a true sense of the local culture, stay for the Saturday farmers market. In a smaller plaza up the hill, farmers from the surrounding countryside gather to sell their produce. By 4am, they are making their trek into town and by 7am some of them are opening their first Poker beer.
The produce is enormous, tasty, cheap, and mostly organically grown. Don't be surprised if you're invited to taste slabs of steak or blood sausage fresh off the grill. Though it may be cooked, washing it down with a can of Poker will help kill any bacteria - or so we're told!
Photo Tip: Seek out the local farmers markets wherever you travel to capture shots full of color, great lighting, and social portraits.
When there aren't any major events or festivals happening in town, Villa de Leyva is a tranquil place to stay with options at every price point. Our favorite spot to soak in the view is El Duruelo hotel - we love them even more now since they've started to make changes towards running a more sustainable facility - more on that in another blog post in the works.
Check out AirBnB for reasonable rates on apartments or houses for larger groups. If you're backpacking through, there are a few hostels in town and many campgrounds on the outskirts of town where you can camp along el Rio Cane under the Milky Way.
Eating is easy in Villa de Leyva with new restaurants popping up every year. By exploring the inside courtyards behind the whitewash walls, you can find food options ranging from the typical Andean stews to comforting pastas to familiar burgers to gourmet takes on traditional dishes. International restaurants that have come into town have expanded the options to include French pastries, Korean bbq, and even Middle Eastern fare. We'll take you on a gastronomic tour of Villa de Leyva in another blog post in the works.
[hiking straight to Jesus]
Villa de Leyva is surrounded by the Andes mountains but hiking up these mountains can be treacherous with steep inclines, loose rocks, deep crevasses, and spiny desert plants. The most accessible hike is located behind the Duruelo Hotel where a small trail leads seemingly straight up the mountainside to a Jesus statue overlooking all of Villa de Leyva.
Known as the Mirador el Santo this almost one-mile hike, is challenging with breathtaking (literally!) views. Expect the hike up to take between 20 to 40 minutes depending on your conditioning. Wear proper shoes as the rocky dirt trail can be slick in places. Sunscreen and water are also key when you're 7,000+ feet in elevation so bring a small backpack and soak up the views while you're catching your breath at the top. It's humbling when you reach El Santo and get a view of the even larger mountain behind it - that's when you realize you aren't even 1/3 of the way up!
[10th annual weaving fashion show]
The local tourism board does a great job of giving people excuses to come back to Villa de Leyva and the surrounding areas. Some of the monthly events include:
April: Holy Week | Sachica | Boyaca
June: Tomato Throwing Festival | Sutamarchan | Boyaca
July: International Jazz Festival | Villa de Leyva
July: Traditional Folk & Hilanderas Festival | Villa de Leyva
July: Poetry Festival | Villa de Leyva
August: Wind & Kite Festival | Villa de Leyva
October: Tree Festival | Villa de Leyva
November: Horse Festival | Villa de Leyva
November: International Independent Film Fest | Villa de Leyva
December: Festival of Lights | Villa de Leyva
December: Weaving Fashion | Villa de Leyva
2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the Weaving Fashion festival in Villa de Leyva. The festival celebrates the natural fibers and weaving techniques used in pre-Columbian traditions. Over half a dozen local artisans and designers showcased modern takes on traditional ruanas, dresses, jackets, and accessories during a fashion show in the historic Plaza Mayor that we were fortunate to catch. Check out some of the highlights below...
[discovering the valley of the dinosaurs]
The discovery of Cretaceous era marine fossils in and around Villa de Leyva show us that this valley was once a shallow water sea. Prior to the formation of the Andes Mountains, over 100 million years ago, marine reptiles and molluscs swam through this valley. One of the largest finds, a near complete 23 foot crocodile-like kronosaur, is housed within the Museo el Fosil. Dozens of other dinosaur skeletons can be seen at the modern Centro de Investigaciones Paleontolgicas - the only active research center of its kind in Colombia where scientists are developing new techniques to recover, study, and conserve the fossil record.
[four wheeling the pozos azules]
The desert also holds three brilliant blue lagoons known as Pozos Azules. Though manmade, it's the earth's natural minerals that deliver the stunning contrasting blue to the desert's sunburnt clay.
*Photo Tip: Get here early before the crowds to get the best photographs - you'll love the contrast in color!
Getting to the Pozos Azules is easy since it's just a 5 minute ride out of town, but the best way to experience the desert is either by horseback or ATV! We rode tandem on a single ATV and after just an hour, we were muddied, with huge smiles on our faces, reeling from our adrenaline rush!
Most places in town offer guided excursions starting at $60,000 pesos ($20 USD) per hour - it doesn't necessarily get cheaper as you go closer to the desert so go with an outfitter that's convenient to you and that has good gear.
You'll want to wear comfortable shoes, a hat, and sunscreen as it's a short hike to reach all of the pools and there is no shade in this part of the desert. The mud dries quickly into clay so it's easy to get off your clothing and skin before lunch.
Villa de Leyva serves as a great base for outdoor excursions like horseback riding, mountain biking, waterfall rappelling, camping, and caving. There are lots of tour agencies in town to choose from. You can also check out Groupon for package deals that give you a full day of adventure at a discount.