If you tell a Colombian you are going to Villa de Leyva, he’s likely to sigh and wax poetic about the magical Colonial town that is a three- and-a-half hour drive from Bogota – and a world apart.
In the lap of the Andes, and drenched in art, native and Spanish history and classical architecture, Villa de Leyva is poised to become the next San Miguel de Allende or Antigua, Guatemala – charming, Colonial-era towns that have become private playgrounds for foreign tourists and the wealthy.
Villa de Leyva attracts travelers from Colombia, Latin America, Europe, and, most recently, the U.S. They are drawn by the perennial spring weather, authenticity, great shopping opportunities for clothes, arts and crafts and Colonial houses transformed into enchanting hotels, from basic to elegant.
Although the population is only 12,000, there are a surprising 90 restaurants that tempt locals and visitors with a wide variety of cuisines that include Colombian, Spanish, Peruvian and Italian. After sunset, many offer candlelight dining and live music, which bathes diners in dreamy romance ballads that drift over the cobblestone streets.
The town, founded in 1587, is known for its adobe, wood, and stone buildings with whitewashed walls and green windows and balconies. The 14,000 square meter plaza is the largest in Colombia, and it’s surrounded by a great expanse of hotels, bars and restaurants.
During major holidays and festivals, thousands of people head for Villa de Leyva, and the plaza is crowded with visitors. Off-season, the atmosphere is laidback, and young people sit on the steps, listening to the live guitar and accordion music of students, friends and buskers.
The colorful, exciting Saturday market is the real deal; locals wear Andean hats and carry ruanas draped over their shoulder. They sell abundant fruits, vegetables, cooked food, crafts, and oddities like a baby goat from a taxidermy experiment gone sour. On the outskirts of town is Casa Terracotta, a sculptural house built entirely from clay, down to the knobs in the kitchen. It took 14 years to build.
A must-see nearby attraction is El Fossil Museum, which houses a 125-million-year-old, 39-foot long (12 meter) fossil of a Kronosaurus—a gigantic marine reptile. It was found on the spot in 1977, and the museum was built around it.
Santo Ecce Homo was a convent built by the Dominicans in 1620. Today it is a Catholic museum of clothes and art. One of the most notable pieces is a painting of Christ’s head; sometimes the eyes look open and sometimes shut. If you stand quietly and look at his lips, they also move from shut to open.