Published: July 4th 2008June 17th 2008
We moved on from Bogotá reluctantly, knowing that we had not seen everything, but feeling that it was a good idea to keep up the travelling pace. We headed north to the city of Tunja and quickly caught an onward collectivo connection to the small town of Villa de Leyva.
Known as being one of the best examples of a colonial town in Colombia, Villa de Leyva did not disappoint. It was declared a National Monument in 1954 and has apparently not changed much since then. The town has a lovely laid-back feel, and we enjoyed wandering around, snooping around old colonial houses and courtyards, wowed by the architecture, white-washed walls and red tile roofs. We also visited a small museum, Casa Museo de Antonio Nariño, where Nariño lived in the early 19th century. He was a very important figure in the Colombian independence movement and the museum contained various artefacts related both to his domestic life and his human rights work.
From the town it is possible to hike up a steep path to reach a statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the valley. The hike was longer than we expected but worth it for exceptional views over
Villa de Leyva and beyond. One day we also took a longer hike, heading out of town for a few kilometres to reach the site of "El Fosil". This is a small museum containing a massive fossil of a Cronosaur, a prehistoric sea creature (this area was underwater many years ago). The fossil was interesting and the accompanying displays showed why this area of Colombia is a paleontologist's dream.
We timed our visit to see the local market, which fills the huge main square every weekend. Coincidentally Villa de Leyva was celebrating its birthday, so the festivities were in full flow with lots of people dressed in traditional costumes and singing traditional songs. One of the best parts of our visit was - as always! - the culinary side of things. We found a wonderful French bakery which cooked stunning chocolate tarts, baguettes, pizza slices and sold fresh goats cheese. So, one evening we ate a picnic dinner on the main square containing the above along with a bottle of local Villa de Leyva wine. I had never tasted Colombian wine before and whilst it wasn't quite up to Argentinian standards, it was still very drinkable! We also found
ourselves in a local "German" pub one night, chatting to the German owner whilst drinking local beers. What a great town...
We would have liked to have stayed longer in Villa de la Leyva, but once again found ourselves leaving to make sure we keep up the momentum. Our final stop in the Colombian highlands was the large but laid back town of San Gil. Here we stayed at a great hostel, The Macondo, run by a friendly Australian guy.
One day we took a day trip to the nearby colonial town of Barichara. It is a gorgeous place, with more old-style houses, pretty back streets and a well preserved main square. After stocking up on provisions, we set off to walk an old "Spanish Trail" to the next village of Guane. The path was restored in the 1990s and now provides a wonderful journey with views over the vast valley, passing the occasional farm and local family. Guane is a very quiet town and after a picnic lunch in the main square and a fresh fruit juice we were ready to head back to Barichara. Unfortunately we somehow managed to miss our bus and so ended up
having to walk the Spanish Trail all the way back uphill!
In San Gil we visited the spectacular El Gallineral Park near the town centre. This is home to four hectares of trees, paths, lakes and orchids. The most impressive feature is the "tillandsia", a silvery moss that engulfs most of the trees and hangs down from them creating an ethereal image as the sun shines through the strands.
To finish our time in the highlands we booked ourselves in for something I have wanted to do for many years... paragliding! We booked the trip through our hostel and I got twinned with possibly the maddest Colombian pilot ever. He thought it was fun to do all kinds of "acrobatics" and I was left screaming as we went into spins and thoroughly relieved when he calmed down a bit and we just soared effortlessly above the landscape. The views were incredible and once the initial fear had subsided, I felt very secure flying hundreds of metres above the ground. An exceptional experience. I want to go again...!
There are more photos below