After a disappointing time in Bogota, I made sure I asked around before deciding where to head next. Villa de Leyva was one of those recommendations, and it sounded like the perfect place to start on the long journey north to the Caribbean coast.
The recommendation was perfect – from the moment we stepped off the bus, the contrast with Bogota couldn’t have been any bigger. The town is one of Colombia’s colonial highlights, and it’s a real stunner. The centrepiece is an enormous main square – reputedly the biggest in all of Colombia (and apparently about the only one not named after Simon Bolivar or one of the other revolutionary heroes). It’s set on a gentle slope, and is completely cobbled. Unlike the squares in most colonial towns in Mexico & Central America, it’s also completely free of trees, which gives it a much more open, airy feel, and makes it much easier to appreciate the views of the whitewashed buildings (another contrast to colonial Central America) and the mountains behind.
After the dangers of Bogota it was lovely to be able to wander around in safety, and just relax in one of the many cafes around the square. It was also quite a relief after the cold temperatures of the city to be somewhere with a more pleasant climate. The place was so enticing an overnight stop turned into three days there, filling our days up enjoying the local countryside (despite the best efforts of our guidebook to mislead us).
First up was an ascent to the Lago de Iguaque, a little lake at the top of a mountain that’s sacred to the local indigenous people. The guidebook described it as a ‘lesiurely, relaxing five hour stroll’. It started out easily enough, but about half way through we found ourselves scrambling up an extremely steep slope for an hour, which at an altitude of 3,500m is hardly something I’d describe as leisurely OR relaxing. It was all worth it though for the views (once we’d finally got our breath back).
The next day took us to one of the other local sites that the guidebook described as ’2km north of the fossil museum’ but actually turned out to be about 5km along roads that forked regularly with no signposting the wholeway. After numerous wrong turns (and being chased away by a pack of dogs at one point) we finally (and I’m still not sure how) we made it to the ancient solar observatory, dedicated to a fertility god, and made up of a series of standing stones that cast shadows to help the locals identify the ideal planting season. Well, that’s what the signs said it was. My friend Matthew described it more succinctly as looking like a ‘forest of cocks’, for that is indeed what the standing stones looked like.
A couple of great hikes, a beautiful little town, and charming locals. Which was all it took to start me falling in love with Colombia.