Villa de Leyva: Colonial Town in a High-Altitude Valley

Puente Boyaca

Puente de Boyaca

The Road to Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is tucked into the mountains a few hours’ drive north of Bogotá. Traffic was heavy getting out of the city on the holiday weekend we set out, but we still had time to make a stop at a very important historic site. Just before the city of Tunja, once you’ve entered the Department of Boyacá is a reconstruction of the bridge where a famous battle was won by Simon Bolivar and his forces. The Puente de Boyacá was site of the battle that finally granted independence to Colombia on August 7, 1819.  There are a number of plaques and statues relevant to the battle for independence, an eternal flame, and a large statue on the hilltop with figures representing Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, the nations liberated by Simon Bolivar. After a look around, it was late afternoon when we arrived in Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva

Parish Church on the Square in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva: Past and Present

This colonial town is historic, designated a national monument since 1954. As such much of its architecture has been protected. We loved walking through buildings, some from the late 1500s (the town was founded in 1572), imagining when they were the homes of wealthy land-owners. Traditionally, the buildings were built in the shape of a big square surrounding an  open center courtyard. We were told that this courtyard was the center of activity for the household. Cows were milked, animals were kept, work was done here. Now, restaurants have tables set up here, with shops around the perimeter. One afternoon we sat in the restored Casa de Juan de Castellanos and heard live music played by a very talented singer/guitarist. It was the perfect atmosphere: a michelada (beer with lime and salt), some snacks, and some old boleros.

The town square is wide open, one of the largest in the Americas, and centered around the church. People gather there all day long, but especially in the evenings to visit and hang out with a beverage or two. The entire square, and most of the town’s streets are paved with large cobblestones. Though it doesn’t stop the lovers of high-heels from wobbling about, I’d bread an ankle for sure.  There are a number of museums tucked among the many, many storefronts. One notable one is the Casa Museo de Antonio Nariño, where this defender of human rights and translator of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man spent his last two months.

Villa de Leyva front yard

Front yard of the mountain house above Villa de Leyva


Aguardiente: the local spirit of choice

More Colombian Hospitality

Even though it’s located in a valley, Villa de Leyva is still high altitude (2150 m/7000 ft). We stayed at the home of our friend’s husband’s uncle.  The house was homey and rustic, a perfect mountain retreat on the way up to the Iguaque Sanctuary park, where there are lots of opportunities for hiking. The grounds of the house were large, and filled with plantings. In the back yard was a tall wooden pole like a Maypole and as tall as a telephone pole with four straps hanging from the top to the ground.  The only child in our party wasn’t the only one to investigate. The idea was to put the loop of the strap around your butt and run as fast as possible in a circle with the strap stretched as tight as possible. At the furthest point, you feel yourself being lifted off the ground. The flight lasts longer if someone heavier than you is running at the same time. We didn’t get to try with four people, but we had fun tiring ourselves out anyway.

After dark, we gathered on the patio where we were offered shot after shot of whiskey or aguardiente by our hospitable hosts. (We had actually started with a bottle while we were still walking around the town–see photo above!) Later, someone started a fire in the hearth in the main sitting room, and when it was hot enough two large sides of beef wrapped (lomo)in tin foil were added and cooked in the fire. We had a number of homey meals like this, sitting in shifts to accommodate those who arrived for the weekend, peaking at over a dozen of us. Mornings were eggs and breads and hot chocolate.  One special lunch was a local stewed hen with rice that had been cooked in a clay pot. Everyone agreed the flavor of both was much more authentic and delicious than anything processed you can find.

During the day, we walked through the fields and down paths, surprising cows and checking out the mountain getaways of Bogota doctors and business-people. Back at the house, we were shown around the grounds. Our hosts took great pride in showing us all of the plants: everything from ornamental flowers to fragrant herbs, wild blackberries, and a banana plant that had taken five years to produce a bunch. There was even a delicate orchid brought from the city and lovingly transplanted in the crook of a bigger tree, in the hopes that it would send out roots there and flourish.  From the terrace we were fascinated by butterflies, hummingbirds and larger birds of prey swooping overhead. From the patio there was a great view of the valley and the town below.

Cooking dinner, Villa de Leyva

Cooking dinner, Villa de Leyva


Ráquira: pottery capital of Colombia

Around Villa de Leyva: Day-Trips

Day-trips included an excursion to Ráquira. The specialty here is clay pottery, so we saw lots of ceramics: everything from a real “piggy” bank to dishes, toys and huge sculptures in the main town square. Everything in focused on shopping, and the main street is jam-packed with souvenir shops. You can watch pottery being made in some of the workshops. Of course we also had to snack. The highlight was a sticky treat that looked something like taffy.  A man stretched this gelatin-like substance on a wooden rod and formed it into candies or served it directly in small cups. Officially, it’s called gelatina de pata de vaca (cow’s foot gelatin). Sure enough, the process does include extracting the gelatin from cows feet. With the flavors added, it tasted to us mostly like a sweet, caramelly marshmallow.

longaniza platter

Longaniza and morcilla with potatoes at Roberticos in Sutamarchan

On the way back to Villa de Leyva, we stopped to snack again in the town of Sutamarchán. This is the capital of longaniza sausage of Colombia, which is similar to the Portuguese linguica we’ve had on Cape Cod.  It’s recipe varies depending on the country but the Colombian version was relatively light in color with a little spiciness.  Our platter also contained morcilla, a type of blood sausage that is a mixture of rice and pork blood.  They came with the typical, small, yellow potatoes we’ve seen so often in this region. Robertos longaniza factory and restaurant  is apparently THE place to go for this specialty, and it didn’t disappoint!

Our last stop of the day was to see El Fósil (The Fossil). This fossil is of a Kronosaurus, a 20m/65ft-long marine lizard discovered in the late 1970s. The museum was built around the fossil despite many scientists trying to get the find moved to their research institutions. When this little guy was alive (the fossil is of a juvenile) the entire region was an ocean.  There is another paleontology museum in town.

Eating at Roberto's

Eating at Roberto’s

About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.