Tucked against the foot of spectacular mountains, scenic VILLA DE LEYVA, founded in 1572, is a must-see showcase of colonial architecture. The untroubled ambience and mild, dry climate make it a perfect place to relax – sitting in the 400-year-old plaza drinking sangria, you’ll be able to appreciate why many describe it as Colombia’s most beautiful town. In the mountains around (see Around Villa de Leyva), you can go hunting for fossils, or enjoy the countryside on horseback. The narrow streets throng with day-trippers from Bogotá on weekends, but the rest of the time, this lovely town reverts to its former tranquil, timeless self.
Villa de Leyva looks and feels immaculately preserved, right down to hand-painted tiles prohibiting horseback riding and car traffic along the main plaza. A lively market, mostly featuring fruit, veg and clothing, is held in the Plaza de Mercado on Saturday morning.
Once home to a national hero who fought for Bolívar, and operated by the Colombian armed forces since 1970, the house where Antonio Ricaurte was born contains some personal objects and documents (in Spanish only), plus modern military paraphernalia, but the best reason for coming here is the beautiful garden.
Facing the Plaza Mayor is the Casa-Museo Luis Alberto Acuña, which houses the most comprehensive collection of sculptures and other artwork by influential, avant-garde twentieth-century artist Luis Alberto Acuña, who lived here for the last fifteen years of his life. The large, colourful murals in the courtyard, depicting Muisca mythological figures, are a highlight.
The town plays host to two spectacular annual festivals. The larger is the Festival de Luces (Festival of Lights; Dec 6–8), a fireworks extravaganza that gathers the best of the region’s pyrotechnicians, while the popular Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival; Aug) sees the country’s finest kite-flyers compete in a variety of categories as spectators shout encouragement. There are also smaller festivals, including foodie-friendly Festival Gastronómico (Sept): ask at the tourist information office for details.
Facing the imposing Monasterio de las Carmelitas and its attached church is the Museo del Carmen, justifiably famous for its collection of religious art. Here you’ll find large numbers of wooden icons from the Church’s early years of proselytizing in the New World, as well as altarpieces and paintings that date back to the sixteenth century.
The impressive Plaza Mayor is one of the largest in the Americas, paved with large cobblestones, centred on a stone Mudéjar well and surrounded by attractive colonial buildings. Dominating the plaza is the huge stone portal of the seventeenth-century Catedral, rebuilt after an 1845 earthquake.