Ever wondered where South America’s largest square is located?
Of course you have, right?
Well, it so happens to be in the colonial town of Villa de Leyva, a stunner of a place that was founded in 1572. It’s even been touted as one of the prettiest in Colombia, so if that isn’t enough reason to get there, what is?
Even the landscape around Ville de Leyva has its charms, resembling something straight from Tuscany with hilltop farmhouses, rows of crops and pencil pines.
The first thing you notice about this UNESCO town is all of its buildings are white and terracotta. It’s as if the building code was set a very long time ago, with even its modern houses adhering to the same palette.
Enter the old part of Villa de Leyva and you’re slipping and sliding over cobbled streets, especially on that immense main square. Here on Plaza Mayor you’ll find a very modest church that’s devoid of towering steeples and intricate details, and around it sit cafes and bars, shops and eateries, and many tourists and locals enjoying it all.
For a fix on caffeine, look no further than Sybarita caffe which serves up espresso and other filtration methods like V60 and Chemix. They even do Turkish coffee.
The baristas here are very keen on having a chat about what beans they have available, all of which are locally grown and produced.
Sybarita Caffe, Carrera 9, #11-88
They may not be as meticulous with their coffee as Sybarita, but another one worth checking out is Cadadulce Cafe, about a block from the square.
They’re friendly, they have a fab selection of cakes and desserts, decent espresso and an air-con room out the back to enjoy it all.
Fig lovers have to try the brevas con arequipe – a deliciously sweet confection of figs cooked in spiced sugar syrup, served chilled, split and filled with arequipe; which is similar to dulce de leche.
Cadadulce Cafe, Carrera 10, #13-72
For an early morning coffee, fresh juice or smoothie – or any time of the day, for that matter – look up the friendly guy in this minuscule set-up two block down from the square.
100% Natural Cafe, Carrera 9, #10-17
There aren’t many places that open early for breakfast, unless you’re willing to run around town and find a local joint doing a typical morning spread of food. I only spotted one of those near the bus depot.
If an American breakfast (10,000) is more your thing, head to Villa Pizza on the square and tuck into scrambled eggs with homemade bread, plus some fresh orange juice and tea, tinto or hot chocolate.
All that for around $4. Bargain.
Villa Pizza, Calle 12, #9-83
The ultimate meal we had in Villa de Leyva happened to be Spanish, not Colombian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
Restaurante Don Quijote puts on an excellent value lunch spread of cordero al horno (52,000), and it’s big enough for two, maybe three to share.
The most divine roast lamb shoulder with sides of herbed spaghetti, salad and bread. I was head over heels with that lamb, but I quietly loved seeing (and eating) fresh and colourful leaves and vegetables again – something you don’t see too much of in Colombia.
Other dishes include Spanish tortilla, grilled chicken and steaks, salmon, trout and pasta.
Restaurante Don Quijote, Carrera 10, #13-35
With a name like Aussie Cafe Pub, we couldn’t go past this one. This relatively new joint is run by a local boy, Fabio, that lived in Oz for some time. Since then he was obsessed with opening his own Aussie pub, although couldn’t find a location.
His parents happen to own one of the huge colonial casas in town, so he settled on opening a cafe-bar in the front room of their 300 year old ‘family house’.
The menu is a very brief, five-dish menu of nachos, steak & mash, steak & caramelised onion sandwich, garlic trout (17,000) and a delicious chicken & mushroom risotto (10,000).
Aussie Cafe Pub, Carrera 8
Another casa worth dining in is where you’ll find Mercado Municipal, known for its local and international cuisine.
Stepping in off the street gives you the impression its more of a takeaway dessert cafe, but duck around the counter to the left past the pastry chefs doing their sweet things with oozing chocolate, and you end up in the stunning courtyard of this 1740s colonial house.
Expect to see barbacoa, meats cooked in a 1 metre deep wood-fired pit, plus soups, salads, a huge choice of starters – including the tuna tartare (22,000) served on toasted tortillas with maybe a little too much sweet sauce through it all.
The wood-fired pizza is pretty fab.
Mercado Municipal, Carrera 8, #12-25
So what else is there to do in Villa de Leyva?
Well, there’s always quad biking, hiking in the mountains, there’s a Saturday market, Casa Terracotta and Museo Paleontologico.
Something you can’t miss in this town is all of the fossils. They’re everywhere, even used in building walls. To see the biggest fossil in town, dated to about 110 to 115 million years old, head out of town almost 5 km to Museo El Fósil.
The star of the show is a near-complete kronosaurus boyacensis, discovered by farmers in 1977. Other than the 7 metre beast, there are hundreds of smaller marine fossils, including ammonites, dolphin-like ichthyosaurs, and more.
A cab from the bus terminal will set you back about 8,000 pesos. Entry to Museo El Fósil is also 8,000 pesos.
Another relatively interesting site near Villa de Leyva in Estacion Astronomica Muisca. It’s believed to have been used by the indigenous Muisca people 2,000 years ago to calculate the seasons with a series of stone monoliths that resemble, well, some rather large appendages.
Wander the grounds, take a look and maybe even give one a hug. Go on, you know you want to.
Either cab it to the site or walk for about half an hour from Museo El Fósil through some beautiful farmland. The only downside for us was trying to get back to town from the monoliths. Taxis tend to not venture this far out of town looking for fares, so we ended up walking halfway back to town before flagging one on the road.
Entry to Estacion Astronomica Muisca is 7,000 pesos.
From Terminal de Transporte de Bogotá we got the Flota Valle De Tenza bus, which costs 24,000 pesos per person and leaves at 10am, arriving at 2pm. The ticket booth (#151) is located in Corridor Norte 3 at the terminal in Bogotá.