You can already picture the description in travel guides. ‘Picture perfect colonial town’, ‘stunning location at the foot of the hills’. It’s all true for Villa de Leyva. But it’s also a place with two faces: a touristy one in the weekends when the Bogotanos descend upon the town, and a laidback rusty one on weekdays.[/span]
Located 2-3 hours north of Bogota, this colonial town does have a lot going for it. The climate is mild, somewhere between the eternal spring of Medellin and the eternal autumn of Bogota. Excellent food, affordable prices when you don’t stay in the historic centre.
It’s been a national monument since 1954, which explains the preserved cobblestone streets. There has been an influx of expats slowly changing the city, but until now the San Miguel de Allende-effect (in Mexico) hasn’t set in: no Starbucks, and during the week this is still a mesmerizingly quiet Colombian town.
Villa de Leyva is your typical colonial town. A grid of streets, organized around the Plaza Mayor. That plaza is a special one though: not a park, but a huge square with cobblestones and a small fountain in its epicentre.
The architecture has been kept in place. What has changed slowly is the small boutique hotels, food courts and more, catering for a more affluent Bogota and international crowd.
Food and drinks
Nothing but short of amazing. To start with, there are several old houses with open air food courts, where you will have an endless amount of options. The Casa de Juan de Castellanos and the Casa Quintero are excellent examples on either side of the Plaza Mayor.
More high-end cooking can be found at the lovely Parque Narino two blocks up, at the Mercado Municipal. The most beloved dish here is the barbacoa, meat that has been slowly cooked in an underground barbecue. In Calle 13 is a great Italian restaurant called Tortello (on your left side) with exclusively regional ingredients. The main square has Los Portales, a good pizzeria and pasta place in one of its corners.
Coffeewise this is an awesome place as well. Cafe del Gato and the Sybarrita Cafe are local institutions. The Pasteleria Francesa, several blocks away from the main square, is only takeaway. Their coffees are good, their bread (especially almond croissants) are nothing short of incredible. Usually only open a couple of days per week though.
Activities / things to do
- Plaza Mayor: the focal point of Leyva life. This is where the locals and tourists congregate in the early evening, sitting on the stairs in front of the small church
- mirador: one of the few things to do inside town, this lookout is completely different from how it is described in the Lonely Planet. Walk towards the sports ground (with a roof) at the end of Calle 12. Past the athletic tracks in the corner you can discern a rocky path. Just follow the rocks up for 45 minutes to reach the Jesus statue, and with it amazing views over the entire valley and beyond. You can even see the nearby desert (didn’t explore that, but looked great from a distance)
- Museo Paleontologica de Villa de Leyva: not to be confused with its bigger sibling on the other side of town, this is a small museum that explains the archaeological history of the region. With a botanic garden outside. All in Spanish only
- Pozos Azules: a short walk southwest of the village, these are six small lakes. If you go on a warm day, this is a beautiful natural place to swim
- on the road to the small village of Santa Sofia:
- Centro de Investigaciones Paleontologicas: this is an actual research center, where you can see the scientists at work. It also has several huge pieces of bone remains. A fun place for kids. You can walk here in an hour from Villa de Leyva, but if rainy take a taxi because the shortest road can otherwise be muddy as hell
- Convento del Santo Ecce Homo: an old monastery / convent wiith a magnificent chapel. A fifteen minute walk from the main road, ask the collectivo to stop there
- Paso de Angel: once in Santa Sofia, with its quirky but impressive church, walk northwards out of town. The Maps.me app will guide you to the Paso de Angel, a 90 minute walk outside of the village. This mountain ridge gets extremely narrow (around 40 centimeters!) in one spot. That is also the reason authorities closed it when I visited in 2020. On the other side of the ridge, after a short walk, you can admire the Guatoque waterfall
Getting to Villa de Leyva and getting around
- from/to Bogota there are usually several direct buses from/to Terminal de Salitre. Check beforehand though, schedules change all the time
- from other destinations (El Cocuy, San Gil) you should be able to find buses to Tunja. The ultra-new and beautiful bus terminal there has collectivos (mini-vans) going regularly to Villa de Leyva
- getting around is easy: within town everything is in walking distance. If you want to venture beyond, grab a taxi or a collectivo bus. You can also hire bikes if you want to be more adventurous
- Weather: gloriously moderate during the day, in the evening it might get slightly chilly. It’s still possible to comfortably eat outside though, just take a pullover or a fleece just in case. Ah, and always be prepared for rain. Yes, speaking from experience
- Safety: not an issue. Villa de Leyva is a quaint tourist town