You would be hard pressed to find a more picturesque town than Villa de Leyva. Whitewashed homes, old cobble stone streets, a town square filled with kids playing and locals grabbing a cafe with friends, this is the image I have of Villa de Leyva. Located just a short 3 hour drive or so from Colombia’s capital Bogotá, the small town with all its colonial charm has long been a weekend destination for families looking to escape the hectic city. Home to only a few thousand people year round, Villa de Leyva has grown to be one of Colombia’s best kept destinations. It doesn’t have the crowds of Cartagena or the importance of Bogota but was it does have is charming, village life.
Founded in 1572, Villa de Leyva was an important trading point and stop over for the Spanish traveling to and from Bogota. The town was built in a classic Spanish colonial style with important religious and governmental buildings added as well. Throughout generations the town has preserved nearly all of its colonial buildings and it has been declared a National Monument of Colombia and protected from further development.
I have had the privilege of visit Villa de Leyva both as an independent travel and as a guest of a Colombian friend. The town has so much charm that I can honestly imagine just running away and living there forever. It is a classic small town but with big charm and due to its popularity and location from Bogota, it is also a lively community with lots of festivals, restaurants, art galleries, and countryside activities to keep you busy. For me though, the beauty of the town is to forget all that and just stroll along, with no plans at all. This is a community that inspires people with its beauty, rejuvenates them with its peaceful tranquility, and holds more treasures in its simple whitewashed homes than you could imagine.
The heart of Villa de Leyva is the center square, Plaza Mayor. Considered the biggest square in Colombia and one of the biggest in South America, Plaza Mayor is the center of all the town’s activities. Lined with hotels, restaurants, churches, and cafes, the plaza ranges from peaceful and nearly empty during the week, to busy and lively on the weekends. Villa de Leyva is famous for many yearly festivals, all centered around the main plaza. On my first visit, I was lucky enough to catch the yearly Wind and Kite Festival which attracts national kite champions, artisan kite makers, and lots of families just out to enjoy the show. Another popular festival, Noche de las Velitas, lights up the plaza with the largest fireworks show in Colombia to kick off the Christmas season.
Beyond the main square though, Villa de Leyva’s beauty lines in its simple Spanish homes, perfectly preserved throughout the years. Nearly every building in town sports the classic whitewashed walls and there are strict rules about building modern homes in the village. The architectural details of Villa de Leyva are hidden in the intricately carved front doors and balconies of the homes and businesses. Flowers overflow from balconies and front windows but to see the real beauty of these simple buildings, you need to get inside. Most include center courtyard gardens, classic to Spanish architecture, and are filled with artisan touches.
The hostel I chose to stay at on my first visit was a simple whitewashed building on the edge of town. The only sign of its interior beauty was the massive intricately carved door. Once it opened though, I found myself in a lush garden space, bright, airy, and filled with the smell of flowers. Every inch of the home was either freshly whitewashed or made of beautifully carved wood, from the staircase to the door frames. If you have a chance, or if hotels are booked up, try and see if you can arrange a stay in a local finca, aka farm, on the outskirts of town. These homes are usually a bit more modern but are still filled with beautiful, classic Spanish style architecture and vast landscaped gardens.
This is a town of historic beauty and for many years it has been a popular retreat for some of Colombia’s best known poets, painters, and sculptures. For a town so small, you will find many fine art galleries and even more small, handicraft shops. A popular place to visit is the old home of famous Colombian poet and playwright Luis Vargas Tejada who lived and worked from Villa de Leyva. Another great spot is the home turned museum of Luis Alberto Acuña, one of Colombia’s greatest painters.
The talents of the local people go beyond art though and straight into the simple but hearty food. There are dozens of restaurants and small cafes in the village serving everything from Italian to regional Colombian specialties. I highly recommend trying the local cocido boyacense dish, which you can find at a number of restaurants around town. This classic Colombian dish can only be found in this region of the country and it filled with odd vegetables and tastes you have never even heard of.
As for explore the small town, I’d suggest just walking. The town itself is very small so there is no real chance of getting lost. There are bike rentals available but the rough cobble stone streets make riding around town a garring, uncomfortable experience. Save the bikes for a trip into the surrounding countryside, which is also incredible and worth exploring.
If you like old colonial churches, Villa de Leyva has many from the San Francisco convent to the Iglesia del Carmen, which an attached museum that is one of the best museums of religious art in Colombia. The small town is not only charming but also historically significant to the country of Colombia. Check out the Casa Museo de Antonio Nariño to learn about this hero of Colombian independence or Casa del Primer Congreso, where the first president of the short-lived but proudly free United Provinces of New Granada was elected and which was a turning point in the establishment of Colombia as an independent country herself.
I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful places to explore just outside of town. Important archaeological sites, incredible fossilized dinosaurs, beautiful waterfalls, and great hikes are all found within a few miles of town. Many tour companies have been set up to take you to the best of the sites. This is an incredible safe part of Colombia though and don’t be afraid to explore a bit on your own. Rent a bike or even a horse and just head out to see what treasures you can find in this picturesque valley, deep in the heart of Colombia.