Attractions surrounding Villa de Leyva include giant fossils, archeological sites, nature reserves and a town specializing in local crafts. They can be reached on horseback, by bicycle, bus or taxi or via a tour. If making an arrangement with a taxi, make sure the driver knows exactly which sites you want to see, and agree on the price beforehand.
The arid desert highlands surrounding Villa de Leyva attract trekkers, but 120 million years ago the huge flood plain would have been better suited to scuba diving. The ocean waters have since retreated, leaving the country’s largest repository of fossils. Five kilometres out of town along the road to Santa Sofía, the star of the El Fósil museum is the most complete fossil of a 120-million-year-old baby kronosaurus, a prehistoric marine lizard found by a campesino here in 1977. The 12.8m-long lizard is one of only two in the world excavated in its entirety, but on display you’ll find it without the 5m tail, which was lost.
Around 15km north of town, the large nature reserve of El Santuario de Iguaque has excellent hiking. It’s named after the park’s most sacred lake, Laguna de Iguaque – believed by the native Muiscas to be the birthplace of humanity – which can be visited as a day-trip; there are eight lakes altogether in the park at an altitude between 3550m and 3700m, and it can be cold and wet (the best time to come is Jan, Feb, July & Aug), so come equipped accordingly.
Also known as El Infernito, this Muisca observatory, dating back to early centuries AD and located around 2km on from El Fósil, is Colombia’s answer to Stonehenge. Pathways run between the 115-odd stone monoliths, the larger ones strongly resembling enormous stone phalluses. The Muisca used to decide when to start planting crops by measuring the length of the shadows between the stones.
Tiny Ráquira, 25km from Villa de Leyva to the west, is famous countrywide for its pottery. If you’re looking for crafts to take home, besides perusing the many pottery workshops, you can raid the craft shops around the main square for hammocks, jewellery, woodcarvings and ponchos. Sunday is market day and a particularly good time to visit.