Villa de Leyva
Boyacá is a cultural and historical heart of Colombia. It was once the center of the Muisca empire who the Spanish fiercely fought to appropriate their gold. The city of Tunja was their empire’s capital. Most travelers don’t consider a stop at Tunja though the city does possess an impressive city center with well preserved colonial homes and churches Most travelers only stop at the city’s bus station on a transfer form San Gil or Bogota enroute to Villa de Leyva which is just 20 miles to the west.
Villa de Leyva – A National Monument
The department of Boyacá boasts numerous, well-preserved, Spanish colonial villages dating back to the 1700s and Spanish rule.
But Villa de Leyva is one of Colombia’s most special towns. Considered the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited villages. Only a three hour trip day trip from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is never at a loss for visitors. It has been declared a national monument.
The town boasts an impressively preserved main square, Plaza Major, the biggest and the most beautiful cobblestoned square in Colombia with 42,000 sq. feet of rock surface area.
The town of 13,000 inhabitants is a tourist mecca with 320 hotels, 380 restaurants and 170 stores. It is also the second most expensive city in Colombia – next to Cartagena. I stayed at Posada Santa Catalina near the central plaza in a nice little hotel for $18 a night. More economical options are available in Tunja.
Around 95% of the businesses in Leyva are owned by people from outside the community – Bogota, Medellin and foreigners which begs the question: is tourism good for the inhabitants of third world countries? But Villa de la Leyva is just one of many colonial towns in the area.
Mongui – Doorway to the Paramo
Another beautiful colonial village in Boyaca is Mongui. It has also been voted the most beautiful village in the department of Boyacá. Located six miles northeast of the city of Sogomoso, set high in the hills, Mongui is 6,000 feet above sea level. Due to the altitude the air is cool and seemingly rather thin of oxygen.
A small town of only 5,000 inhabitants, Mongui, which means sunrise in native language, is beautiful with a large cobbled stone plaza and a magnificient Basilia built by the Franciscans in the 17th century. The church has an interesting museum. And just a couple blocks off the plaza, down Carrera 3, is the Calycanto bridge, a beautiful arched stone bridge.
Mongui is becoming famous as a traveler’s destination, not only for the village, but also as a doorway to one of the most beautiful ‘paramos’ in South America.
What is a Páramo?
It’s unique environment unlike anywhere else on earth. Paramos can only be found in the northern Andes of South America and some isolated regions of southern Central America. But most of the paramos in the world are in Colombia. Páramos are defined as the ecosystem existing above the mountain’s forest line, but below the permanent snowline. Known as evolutionary hot spots they are the fastest evolving regions on our planet.
All roads from Mongui lead up, into the mountains. Not very long ago, travelers would arrive in town wanting to explore the paramo. But trying to find a guide or information on the paramo was an investigative chore. Then, 3 years ago, the village government organized a tourist promotion office, put out a glossy magazine and started offering tourist information on the village, its sites and the surrounding mountains and paramos. Some of the local mountain guides got together and formed a cooperative establishing an office right on the main plaza. Opened from early morning to late evening, they organize guided tours of the surrounding paramos.
Guided Tours of the Paramo
One can now easily book a tour of the paramo in the evening upon arrival or even in the morning of the same day. Exploring the paramo on ones own is possible but it is highly recommend going with a guide. With a group of 3 or more guide services only run around $15 – $20 per person. And the naturalistic and cultural information offered by the guides make their service well worth it.
Basically there are two trips – the half day and the full day. Both trips take you into the paramo. The full day trip takes one higher with a better views and scenery.
The half day trips go to a lake called ‘Lago Colorado’ or, Colored lake, in the Paramo de Oceta. Both tours come complete with partial jeep transport which takes hikers out of town, several miles past the farms, to the head of the hiking trails.
It’s about a 3 hour walk up the steep mountains of the Paramo de Oceta. Most hikers didn’t qualify it as an easy climb, mostly due to the altitude. But the guides are patient, stopping frequently to let everyone catch up and catch their breath while pointing out specific plants of the paramo: frailejones , giant fly trap flowers, alpine sun flowers and giant wild lupins.
The full day trip goes off to another paramo at a higher altitude. It’s an 8 hour walk there and back and unless you’re already acclimated to the altitude and in great shape, the half day tour offers plenty of challenge and sites to see.
The guides say the mountain climbers, mostly European, who come to Colombia to scale the famous Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, a peak just a four hour bus trip from Mongui, train on the paramos of Mongui to get acclimated to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada which top 17,000 feet in altitude.
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