Villa De Leiva is about 2 hours north-east of Bogotá. It’s a lovely colonial town that gave me a peek into a different side of Colombia.
The town is known for its Plaza Mayor, which at 14,000 square meters is the largest square in Colombia and believed to be the largest entirely cobbled square in South America.
It is actually quite easy to get from Bogotá to Villa De Leiva using public transportation and its cheap! We left our Hostels at 6 am and where in Villa De Leiva by 11 am. The journey took is 5 hours and cost 27,000 COP’s each which is $12!!!
How to get to Villa De Leiva from Bogotá using Public Transport
If you’ve never done it before, travelling by bus in a foreign country can seem intimidating, scary and crazy. What if you get lost? What if you get robbed? All natural responses to being in an unfamiliar place but once you do it once, it’s easy to do it again.
I wanted to do one trip outside of the city but the tour prices from my hotel were a bit more than I wanted to pay for what would be a solo trip. After meeting my two backpacking friends it became much easier to plan a trip outside of Bogotá. We get less than encouraging advice from Nick’s hostel on how to get to Villa De Leiva on anything other than private transport provided by the hostel. But, after some research we figured out how to do the trip via public transport and decided to do it the next day. It is not as easy to find exact directions for such trips in Colombia, as you would for say Thailand, as not that many foreigners back pack through the country (yet) and Google maps is not as accurate as it is elsewhere, so we got things a bit wrong but we got there!
We took the TransMilenio to the Portal del Norte TransMilenio station and walked to the bus Terminal Notre which is located on the main road Troncal Autopisa Notre and Calle 192. We could have taken a different TransMilenio bus to a station that was closer to the Terminal Notre but, we thought Terminal Notre was right beside Portal del Norte. You live and learn, and you also create Google Map directions for the next traveler.
Terminal Notre is a fairly new and a number of bus companies operated out of it with frequent buses directly to Villa De Leiva or to Tunja. You have two options – get a bus directly to Villa De Leiva or take a bus to Tunja and then one to Villa De Leiva. We were early enough to catch the buses directly to Villa De Leiva but, if you miss it you can take a bus to Tunja wich offers more frequent bus service to Villa De Leiva.
One common negative piece of feedback western travelers shared, online at least, about the experience was the “increase of travel time” because the bus would pick-up locals along the route. This really doesn’t increase your travel time as the bus doesn’t stray off its route, nor does it wait to pick up people. Local’s wait along the road and flag down the bus that will take them to their destination. Would private transport make the trip faster? Sure, but probably only by an hour.
You can see everything in Villa De Leiva in a day
Most travelers got to Villa De Leiva for a night or two, and that plan definitely allows you to see more of the attractions outside of town and seeing the town by night must be an experience! But, you can still experience the town and see the major attractions in a day like we did.
I should mention that we went on a weekday and there were far less tourists there than their would be on a weekend. We arrived at Villa De Leiva at 11 am and walked to the Plaza Mayor from the bus terminal. The town was quite. Restaurants were only beginning to open and school children where on their way home from school. We were hungry after our 5 hour trip and found a place that was open on the square and ordered waffles before exploring the town.
Plaza Major was impressive, a square that is much too large for such a small town. I don’t know why they built such a large square here or what purpose it served. I haven’t been able to find anything in my research … there is no mineral deposit near by that would make the town a key center of trade nor would it have been easy to get to 500 years ago.
We didn’t see everything in Villa De Leiva as many of the attractions are outside of the town’s core and it was very hot. It took us a longer to walk everywhere and we got lost trying to find the Observatorio Astronómico Muisca, which is supposed to have some ancient phallic figures. We didn’t have the energy to make it try to walk anywhere else and the cab ride would have cost us as much as the bus from Bogotá!
We did get to see the Casa Terracota which is a unique house made out of terracotta. It is a new building of no historical significance. It is someones folly. A house built to attract tourist for a stay in kooky home in the beautiful mountains of Colombia. I would stay there for a night or two!
A Town of Smiles
The thing I loved the most about Villa De Leiva was its happiness. The people were more relaxed, curious, friendly and generally happier than they were in Bogotá. The community of Villa De Leiva is prospering, it is a key tourist spot and tourism appears to employee the community. I could be wrong but, the ever-present poverty and the traces of trauma found in Bogotá was absent. The town people were very friendly, especially the children who were quick to greet us.
Being in Villa De Leiva gave me a chance to see Colombia outside of Bogotá. The town has remained unchanged for 400 years. There hasn’t been much new development and many of the buildings are from the sixteenth century. Making Villa De Leiva one of the few towns in Colombia to have preserved most of its original colonial style and architecture.
After a day of walking around and a traditional at a local restaurant, we took the last bus to Bogotá at 5 (ish) pm. We were back at our hostels at 10 pm. I said farewell to Nick who was off the next day to continue his trip in Colombia.
Up next, a day at the Usaquen Sunday Market.