The nice thing about Bogota is that it’s so close to so many other places, that it’s very easy to leave. One place that can be reached in under three hours is Villa de Leyva, considered to be one of Colombia’s finest colonial villages.
From Bogota you can get on a bus to Tunja anywhere between the main Terminal and the Portal Norte of the Transmilenio. Two hours after leaving the city you will find yourself in the chilly capital of Boyaca.
(If you want to risk having to watch an action movie at full volume, get on one of the green Libertadores buses that run from Sogamoso to Bogota. They are the the smartest buses and, compulsory movie apart, are the most comfortable way to go. If on the other hand you are looking to avoid the movie and listen to nonstop vallenatos, avoid these big green buses.)
Once in Tunja’s station (the most wonderfully dismal station in the world, and I say that with love because I’m fond of Tunja) you climb to a higher parking lot to get a bus to Villa de Leyva. These come in two sizes: small or smaller, and the people are likely to have bundles. The heart of Tunja is some six or seven blocks uphill from the station. Tunja is very high up, and the climb will affect you, but Tunja is worth seeing even if only in passing, and I recommend stopping there for lunch, especially if you’re in a more rough-and-ready mode of travel and are looking to save money. You can get a COP4,000 corrientazo if you wander around the streets near the center. The people of Tunja may appear slow and somewhat furtive, but they’re not unfriendly, they just don’t do anything quickly and don’t see a whole lot of tourists: it’s the capital, but the capital of Boyaca, and is provincial compared to Bogota – wonderfully provincial.
The green of Boyaca tends to have faded a bit by the time you get to the hills in which the grim town of Tunja is perched. After that the road to Villa de Leyva winds between smooth and increasingly dry hills. It reminded me of the San Bernadino mountains in Californa; the valleys in this part of Boyaca are also fertile and much farmed, though not on the scale of the San Joaquin valley. It is dry and sunny most of the time in the region around Villa de Leiva, and you’ll see the crops and greenhouses as you approach.
Villa de Leyva is a genuine, bona fide tourist trap. By their proliferating hotels and hostels shall ye know them, and by the souvenirs, the cobblestones, the whitewashed buildings with wooden trim all painted green all according to regulation faux-colonial, and by the abundance of effete eateries that serve what I’m pleased to call “art food”: long on presentation and short on substance.
The regulation faux-colonial is not bad, actually. In fact, it is so pleasant that one wishes there were more of these considerations about the aesthetic of a town observed in Colombia. And there is a lot of real colonial architecture there, with all the charm of an old and gracious way of life, especially attractive in days when architecture seems at times to be at war with human-kind. And it is welcoming to have so many handy places to stay.
If you go left upon exiting the bus terminal you will find a good many hotels, and if you take the next road running parallel and one block west you will find more. If you go to the center square and then turn right immediately, proceeding onto the block beyond the square you will find even more, including the Hospederia Colonial where I stayed for COP60,000, which is not bad. It had a huge bathtub and for the first time since coming to Colombia I had a good, long soak. Yes, the water was hot and everything. I’m sure there are cheaper Hospederias there if you wander far enough, and I’m certain that if you want more expensive, with breakfast included, with jacuzzi, a terrace and so on, you can get it (look for hotels on the plazas: there are three or four and the hotels on them are more expensive).
Villa de Leyva, being a tourist trap, has a dismayingly large number of gringos wandering around. But besides the embarrassing gringos, there are the abundant Colombian tourists, who have mostly come from Bogota. That’s the thing about places that are easy to travel to, with a lot of accommodation, and obliging natives who look upon you as on a fatted calf;full of horse rides, bike rentals, excursions to waterfalls, crawling with parasitic artists cranking out paintings, sculptures, crafts, weavings, etc., and existing in stark contrast to the city. Everybody has caught on by now, that Villa de Leiva is a nice place to be.
Villa de Leyva is pleasant to walk around because of its streets: they are paved with flags and cobbles so that no car can go fast, and in this country where it seems pedestrians are given fewer rights than they deserve, it is odd to be in a place where the sense is that every automobile is an intruder. It is also full of museums; if you want to be scrupulous about your vacations, and if your idea of a good time is to part with your money, you can shop for exactly the sort of things designed to give people the excuse of opening their bulging wallet and relieving some of the pressure therein.
When darkness comes, they light up the great lamps hanging from those colonial eaves. They’re bright, the whitewash is very obliging, and the result is that the streets at night are well lit. So you can amble in that strange world and hear the sounds of the night, listen to the dogs barking, have something to eat or drink in the open air – the way Colombians like to.