Villa de Leyva and Mongui – the beautiful villages of Boyaca’

Villa de Leyva

Main plaza Villa de Leyva
The biggest cobblestone square in South America – 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 en route 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 special towns. Considered  the most beautiful village in Colombia, Villa de Leyva is also one of the most visited  villages in the country. 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.

A street in Villa de Leyva
A street in Villa de Leyva

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.

Around 95% of the businesses in Leyva are owned by people from outside the community – Bogota, Medellin and foreigners.

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 nearby Tunja.

Mongui – Doorway to the Paramo

A passing rider in the paramo above Mongui
The cobblestone plaza of Mongui
Fountain in plaza Mongui
The stone bridge – Calycanto – in Mongui
The bell tower of the Basilica at night

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 rather thin of oxygen.

It’s a small town of only 5,000 inhabitants. Mongui means sunrise in the local native languag. The town boasts a beautiful 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 organizational 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. it is 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.

Giant lupins in the paramo
The Paramo de Oceta’

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 they point out specific plants of the paramo:  frailejones , giant fly trap flowers, alpine sun flower,s and giant wild lupins.

Waxy plant of paramo
A paramo sunflower

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. The climbers train on the paramos of Mongui to get acclimated to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada which top 17,000 feet in altitude.

A jeep takes you out of town, past the farms to the trail head
A house in Mongui

For more on colonial towns in Colombia see the articles on:

Colonial Towns in Santander

Travel Mompox – a backwater river town frozen in time)

Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you. 

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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