Tranquil Colonial Towns:  Villa de Leyva and Barichara

From chilly Bogota we descended 400 metres to Villa de Leyva a truly lovely colonial town in the mountains north of Bogota. It took our small bus a full hour to leave Bogota, as the Sunday traffic was pure gridlock due in part to the Sunday morning Ciclovia which opens 121 kilometres (in addition to the regular 376 kilometres of bike lanes) of Bogota’s roads to cyclists, walkers and runners from 7 am to 2 pm every week. It is truly a spectacle with families on bikes, leading dogs, jogging, walking, stopping at the regularly placed juice bars to chat generally having a great time along the freeway and through the whole city. For such a great idea it is a small price to pay to have terrible Sunday morning traffic! The slow pace of the bus gave us ample time to appreciate the graffiti with which all the concrete walls and overpasses are adorned, and after our tour we had a far greater appreciation of the different styles of the many artists.

We immediately adored Villa de Leyva which is immensely picturesque with its white stuccoed buildings with dark wooden balconies, bougainvillea spilling over all the garden walls, garden doors offering glimpses into lush interior patios and cool but pleasant temperatures. But the most surprising feature was the cobblestone paving of the streets, done with immense boulders, very rough and uneven with no mortar between to make the going less difficult. The plaza is a huge open space floored with these stones — the biggest plaza in Colombia — and amazingly difficult to navigate. The city was founded in the mid-1500’s and as a National Monument nothing can be changed, even though I could not figure out how elderly people could possibly leave their homes!

  Doug as usual could not see any point in a taxi from the bus station — it’s only 3 or 4 blocks he said — and despite my objections we set off like lurching drunks dragging our poor bags as best we could in what turned out to be a bit of a search for the hotel. I was rather irritated by the time we reached it but it was such a lovely place that I mellowed immediately. The family who had opened 5 rooms built on the roof of their house were so excited to have people stay 3 nights that they had decorated our huge bed, the table and even our bathroom with rose petals! We hoped they were not disappointed that we were not honeymooners but they seemed very pleased with the “sorpreza.” It really was fitted out like the Four Seasons, I think we are spoiled for the whole rest of the trip. And $40 into the bargain!

  The town is small but has lots of cute little restaurants, artists’ studios, and shops selling ponchos, bags, weavings and so on, some of them very nice but not portable enough for us. Doug bought a small painting from an artist who worked in a paint encrusted studio (even the phone, stereo, furniture etc were spattered) with two small dogs sitting in his lap while he splashed away. We enjoyed wandering through a traditional colonial house formerly owned by a famous Colombian artist Luis Alberto Acuna filled with his paintings and sculptures as well as some of his large collection of historic works.  

Many small but excellent restaurants are available. We are still enjoying the sense of variety after Cuba. Our favourite place for cold white wine and dinner was on the Plaza watching the majestic Iglesia illuminate for the night while listening to a very pleasant guitarist who sang one set of folk songs in English and one in Spanish each evening. Of course we wanted to extend our stay, particularly when we had found ourselves with an extra day before our flight from Bucaramanga to Cartagena, but uncharacteristically I had booked the next place with Expedia who seem to be impossible to access while travelling somewhere where 1-800 numbers are not accessible. Live and learn.

  Reluctantly we set off to Barichara by car to avoid 4 changes of bus. We immediately dropped into our first river valley and the heat settled in. Evidently it was an unusually hot day, and we are not acclimatized. The vegetation changed from the green hills around Villa de Leyva with the tiny green farms surrounding that area, to gradually drier and and yellower fields and hills. Our driver who mainly takes adventure travel trips spoke English and showed us the geological formations for which the area is famous. Knew nothing about plants though, but I find that almost universal among guides.  

We rose again, leaving the river valley, until reaching Barichara 4 hours from Villa de Leyva. It is a very different colonial town from the previous one, with the 16th and 17th century housesitters many built of sienna coloured stone, others whitewashed, perched on the rim of a canyon. Immensely steep streets run up to the rim though it’s panoramic views were slightly obscured by haze. Being 350 metres lower than Villa it was appreciably hotter. Quite stunning in its own way, but lacking the lushness of our favourite, though I must say I have never seen so many types of cactus, they were really into seri-culture. Very closed in the traditional way of Latin America, one never has any way of knowing what lurks behind the doors, and the walls are too high to peep into the gardens.

  Our hostel was in one of these very old houses and had a lovely interior garden. The room was austere as they usually are in this sort of ancient house, with originally tiled floors and a very high ceiling, wooden shutters opened into the interior courtyard. It was a pleasant place and since we both spent a day or so dealing with a malaise of some sort, not a bad place to be stuck in. We had trouble finding places to eat though as with the closed door policy, the restaurants are indistinguishable from the other houses. We managed though and all in all there were a number of interesting churches and capillas to enliven our strenuous climbs up and down the precipitate streets.

  One day we hiked a “Camino Real” to Guane, a nearby village, had the menu of the day almuerzo, and took a bus back. It was downhill most of the way, so broiling hot even though we had started early. The trail was laid by a German surveyor in the mid 1800’s and is used by pilgrims for a religious walk. Along the way various stations of the cross were signposted, neither of us could remember how many stations there were, I began hoping for 10 when we reached the 8th, but apparently the real number is 15, the last one being the church in the town square. All the paving was large rough stones set in the dirt and along both sides marched very well constructed dry stone walls. Apparently only 5.5 km., the walk took longer than expected due to the constant need to take care not to fall on our faces tripping on the rough stones!

  We found out we can go to Bucaramanga airport from here to catch our flight to Cartagena. Much nicer than spending a night in a city we were not interested in seeing. So off again tomorrow.