Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Villa de Leyva

October 12th to 14th

Ask the locals in Tunja about 'Villa de Leyva' and they all go misty eyed and talk of a hidden paradise in rapturous tones. It's a 700 metre climb back the way we came, but that's never stopped us before.... so another diversion....

Luckily we've got our newly enlarged visas in our back pockets!

The ride is another doozy as we climb sharply out of Tunja through massive agrarian landscapes backed by ever rising emerald hills....


Higher still the land tends to brown as the peaks are too steeply angled to delay rainwater long enough to sprout vegetation. From this vantage we can see the road slicing along the ridge as it drops into the next valley....


And drop it does! We are getting a bit confused after expecting a full day of climbing as we continue to fall and there is no longer much road between us and our destination. Our descent is confirmed as we stop to admire the scenery and I am instantly swarmed by blood sucking black-fly. Above 2500m we have been free from such attention as mosquito and other nasties cannot scale such heights.

We continue to zoom down a thin line of tarmac carved along a rock wall...


Racing past agave plants flowering massively and dwarfing nearby telegraph poles....


Suddenly we hit town and decide our guide book must have got it wrong. The dramatically rising air temperature confirms our descent, and we conclude that Villa de Leyva is 700m lower, not higher than Tunja. Oh well - an easy day today and we can worry about regaining all that lost altitude later.

Villa de Leyva; a Paradise....
Hmmm....
Well I guess it all depends on what you are looking for. The scenery of the ride is far more interesting than the barren scrubby hills surrounding the town and we are definitely not impressed by the authentically ancient cobble-stone streets that threaten to destroy our bikes and rattle our fillings free from our teeth.

We attempt to find cheap digs and start to understand the town's appeal to the city slickers of Tunja and nearby Bogota. Most accommodation is strictly not cycle tourist friendly. It's more your spa retreat, room service, full manicure and facial type of crowd with prices to match. We take a deep breath as we leave the first couple of places but eventually find a family run business that has an outhouse with spare beds behind their lovely (and way beyond our price range) hotel. It's a third of the price at 30,000 pesos.
OK that sounds a lot, but it's about $US17 and pretty good value!

We don hiking boots for the uneven stone streets and explore a bit more.

Villa de Leyva is a throwback. Established in 1572, it was declared a national monument (like the whole town is the monument) in 1954 and nothing modern is allowed to exist. It's all rather jolly quaint!

Whitewashed colonial houses and the Parish Church surround what is reputedly the largest plaza in all of Colombia....


All the streets around the town centre are painfully cobbled and extremely lighty-brighty in their immaculate, eye melting whiteness.


Window shutters are traditionally wood carved and uniformly brown or green....


Roof tiles are ordered ranks of inoffensive pale salmon, neatly laid and not-a-one broken.
As a town it's all incredibly well behaved, and surprisingly, as a graffiti virgin I feel just a slight itch to run amok with a brush and some colour. It's not in my nature, but all those pristine expanses of immaculate whiteness is acting like a bland rag to a bull with a spray can.
Somebody stop me!

We race past all the twee souvenir shops in a rush to get away before something goes wrong and hike out into the hills.

The town is a lovely museum and I can see the appeal for rich city folk on a pampering weekend, but for us the hills above the town provide an escape from a theme park into some fine hiking country. Trails skirt along rock crags....


and are lined by weird combinations of agave cactus and pine....


The air is warm and loamy, with the scent of resin heavy and sweet on the breeze. Spanish moss drapes the trees and giant bromeliads sprout short legs and wild sprays of green - like a huge pineapple - wildly enthusiastic....


Those obsessively correct tiles make for a fine view back over the town's rooftops to the patchwork hills behind....


Maybe I'm being a little unfair. Villa de Leyva is undeniably pretty - maybe even a little dainty, but we do find a fairly hard hitting museum to the martyrs of the Colombian fight for independence. Antonio Ricaurte, a Captain in Simon Bolivar's army was born here and there is stunning original artwork of brutal scenes endured by the freedom fighters....


There is a (surprisingly) interesting Palaeontology museum just outside of town with models and exhibits from when this whole region was a giant pre-historic inland sea. Even more incredible when you consider the whole area has now been elevated to over 2000m (6,600ft) by the rising Andes.

Villa de Leyva also has tons of nice bars and restaurants hidden away in old colonial court yards behind those bland white facades....


Changed my mind...
I kind of like the place really.
And I'm sure your mother would too....

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