A recipe for colonial beauty – Ville de Leyva

3 Apr

Take a good helping of cobblestones and mix well with white washed buildings topped by terracotta tiles. Add a pinch of colourful creeping plants and lightly stir in some locals steering horse-drawn carts. Make a space in the middle of your mixture for one of South America’s largest plazas and pour in a good amount of art and crafts. Whilst it’s warming in the temperate climate, sit back, relax, and breath in the aromas from French bakeries and cute coffee houses serving Colombia’s finest beans.

If Villa de Leyva was a dish, it would be lovingly made with an age-old recipe but served with a modern twist. The meal would be leisurely and each mouthful would reveal different layers of flavour and style. The people serving your dish would immediately make you feel welcome and the final bite would leave you contented.

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Lying only 4 hours (165 kilometres) from Bogota, rural Ville de Leyva feels like a world away. The small village of around 10,000 people is nestled in rolling countryside below imposing mountains. Villa de Leyva translates as ‘Lazy Villa’ and it’s easy to understand why with its laid back and unhurried vibe. Arriving in the village we felt our shoulders relax and a slow pace of life wash over us.

Declared a National Monument in 1954, Villa de Leyva is a must on any Colombian itinerary. It’s a favourite weekend retreat for ‘Rolos’ (people from Bogota) who need a slice of the good life. The architecture of the village is reminiscent of mainland Spain with beautiful carved stone houses, wooden balconies and arched alcoves. Many of the white houses are adorned with vibrant, colourful creeping plants that waft sweet fragrances into the air as you walk past.

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A true test of colonial heritage has got to be a villages cobblestones, and here, they’re so chunky and uneven it can be hard to walk in a straight line, even before a beer. Plaza Major lies at the heart of the village and with an area of 14,000 metres squared it forms one of the largest and most impressive squares in the whole of South America. The streets around the plaza are full of historic buildings, creative museums and inventive restaurants serving a huge variety of gastronomic delights. If you’re craving freshly baked bread and delicious pastries like we were, don’t miss Pasteleria Francesca, an authentic French bakery.

We stayed at Hostal Renacer (Colombian Highlands) which is a 15 minute easy walk out of the village. The first taxi ride from the central bus terminal was paid for by the hostal so we travelled in style with our backpacks. The hostal has a mixture of budget dorms and cabana style doubles but we opted to use our trusted tent and sleep under canvas in their gorgeous grassy garden. The facilities were excellent – with outdoor cooking and BBQ facilities, a lounge area with TV and movies, a cafe serving delicious breakfasts and evening meals, and a tour desk.

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A host of interesting and beautiful places can be visited in a day on foot or by hiring bikes and delving into the countryside. Everywhere is completely safe to wander on your own. Vinedo Guanani on the outskirts of the village is an artisan winery and restaurant famous for Feijoa wine and, only 2 kilometres from Villa de Leyva, Pozos Azules are natural swimming pools with beautiful blue water. The Fibas Jardin Botanico is filled with unusual desert plants and Casa Terracota is a unique house made entirely from clay.

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The countryside is also filled with fossils of animals that once lived under water. Ville de Leyva, which is now at an elevation of 2,140 metres, formed part of a vast sea bed millions of years ago before the tectonic plates pushed the Andes mountain range up. 4km out of the village, El Fossil is a small but informative museum with a range of fossils from the region.

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Its show piece is a 7m fossil of a Pliosaurs – a creature that looked like a giant alligator. The fossil is 120 million years old and is so impressively large it was actually left where it was discovered and the museum was built around it!

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Tourism in Colombia is still in its infancy and we discovered that local recommendations often offer information on activities and places to visit that aren’t yet found in well-known guide books. ‘Passo del Angel’ or ‘Angel Step’ was just one of these places!

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We thought Villa de Leyva was rural until we took a 30 minute bus ride to Santa Sofia climbing into green hills studded with farms and overtaking carts piled high with earthy vegetables. From the main plaza, where we were dropped, we hiked 7 kilometres (around 1 hour 15 minutes) to Angel Step – the first 20 minutes along a paved road, (taking a right turn at the pink house) and continuing along an old, stone Muisca path towards Angel Step.

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We’d initially assumed that Angel Step was so named due to its celestial beauty. However, upon seeing the mountain ridge, where at one point its tiny ledge was only 40 centimetres in width with sheer vertical drops either side, we realised it was so named as putting one foot out-of-place would send us to meet the angels! Gulp!

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I’d always know Dan wasn’t comfortable with heights but to see him sat on the ground looking defeated with his head in his hands, I realised that my taunts of “Come on you wuss” were no longer appropriate. Terror had kicked in and he couldn’t bring himself to move any further.

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My curiosity got the better of me though so, instead of turning around at that point, I told Dan to sit tight whist I went to take some photographs. He seemed happy with this plan so I turned around with only a smidgen of guilt to explore further along the ridge.

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The walkway widened again and thick shrubs and bushes grew around the path disguising the drop either side and leaving only beautiful views. I ran my hand through the long grass and it felt like soft, freshly conditioned hair. The path sank down and then climbed a small hill where I’d hoped to be able to look back and see Dan was still in one piece but to my amazement he was striding along the path towards me.

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In my absence, Dan had had a word with himself and instead of being defeated, he’d taken what he felt was the only sensible option – shuffling over the tiny ledge on his backside! Yes, you read that right, he sat and moved like a giant toddler whilst trying not to burst into tears! He really was my hero and the views that we shared from the lookout point were worth all the hard work.

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Where the mound of earth we were standing on ended, the valley’s merged and unbroken countryside seemed to go on forever.

We posed for a few ‘Where’s Wally’ style pictures on the end of the mound and felt rather tiny.

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We’d walked part of the way back, Dan dragging his heals in dread of the inevitable ‘bum-shuffle’, when we bumped into two locals walking their dog. They took us by surprise as we hadn’t seen anyone else for around an hour but we were greeted by smiles and a fierce wagging tail. It transpired that they were taking an alternative way back and they invited us to join them. Dan jumped at the chance to save his pride and we returned to the lookout point, following a bounding, enthusiastic dog.

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We walked down a narrow, rocky track which brought us out at the bottom of a dried up river bed. To one side a dramatic precipice, where a thundering waterfall drops during the rainy season, made for a good photo opportunity. To the other side a small amount of fresh water trickled down the winding river.

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Smooth boulders were strewn around and deep sink holes were clogged with green algae. The rocky banks were steep and we could just make out the path we’d walked and shuffled along earlier! Our four-legged friend was in his element and rushed from one good smell to another. We ducked under tree branches and clambered over piles of rocks as we advanced our way up river.

When our circuit was complete we bid our new-found friends farewell and headed back to Santa Sofia to catch the bus. They wished us “Buena suerte y buen viaje” – “Good luck and safe travels” – but in more ways than one we’d already made the hardest leap.

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