Situated northeast of Bogota, this part of Colombia is more popular than ever, and for good reasons… I had already visited the most famous landmarks of this region back in 2009: Villa de Leyva, San Gil, Barichara & the Chichamocha Canyon. I wanted to go back, amongst others for photography, and actually found in 2016 that areas which were unknown or out of reach a few years back are opening fast and offer many different opportunities, well Off The Beaten Track.
So if you plan a trip there, do not only focus on the “highlights” but also consider taking time for places further afield, if possible. I must acknowledge that I did it not enough, as I wanted sufficient time for other parts of the country I still do not know.
On an organizational point of view, this area is very easy to travel, but do not underestimate travel time, which can be significant… The hotel infrastructure is well developed, catering for all types of budget and expectations, at least in the major centers, and remains absolutely decent even in more remote places. Buses are frequent, in my experience on time and very reliable, and partly really comfortable (and never crappy). Beware that in more remote places, it’s Spanish… or Spanish!
Villa de Leyva – A Popular Colonial Gem
Located only 180 kilometers north of Bogota, it is a very, very popular weekend destination for city dwellers, who enjoy the clean air and pleasant climate in this charming town. So rather plan a visit during the week…
The most remarkable landmark of this city is the Plaza Mayor (not named after some famous “Libertador”, surprisingly), 120 meters x 120 meters in seize, all cobble stone with a tiny fountain in its center, surrounded by beautifully restored colonial homes.
Apart from the giant plaza, Villa de Leyva’s architecture differs from those of other famous colonial towns. All houses here are painted in elegant white, not the colorful mix of Salvador or Olinda in Brazil, Trinidad in Cuba, Cuidad Bolivar in Venezuela or la Candelaria in Bogota. But above all, it is extensive, not a tiny wee historic center with run-down barrios a few blocks away. Even the area further out – easily recognizable by its paved streets – is well-maintained and worth a visit.
Already in 1954 Villa de Leyva was declared a national monument for preserving its colonial character, so do not expect a hidden gem. Its enterprising inhabitants have turned their colonial homes into beautiful “hospedajes” or boutique hotels, trendy restaurants or pricy handicraft shops.
Being such a popular and scenic place, be ready for some surprises when visiting Villa de Leyva. Back in 2009, it was a performance of Argentine Folklore that enchanted us. In 2016, the surprise was even bigger: the Plaza Mayor was the background for the final of the world famous TV show Master Chef, from… Poland! A nice setting for the show, but for the heavy rain that started at around noon… And the fact that all the necessary settings made it impossible to make good pictures of this unique place…
The surroundings of Villa de Leyva offer many interesting excursions, of which the one to the “Baby Kronosaurus & Miniature Stonehenge”, that we did back in 2009.
The Picturesque Villages Of Boyacá
I had obviously not sufficiently researched the area before starting the trip, and only a discussion with fellow travelers caught my attention… Sogamoso, approx. 1.5 hour from Tunja / 3 hours from Villa de Leyva, is the hub from where you find regular buses to the many enchanting colonial villages of this area…
The most famous is undoubtedly Monguí, and tourism is showing first signs of take off there, though you won’t meet many foreigners. Monguí is an enchanting place, with a large central square surrounded by beautifully restored colonial houses and an imposing, 300 year old colonial church.
The most striking is the authenticity of this small “Pueblo”, and how friendly & welcoming people are to the few travelers you can see there. I only had one day there, but enjoyed every second of it… Beware that at 3.000 meters, the air is thin and nights are really cold! So plan accordingly, especially if you plan to go trekking…
But Monguí is not the only charming colonial village in the area around Sogamoso and Lago de Tota: I haven’t visited them, but were told that Iza, Tópaga, Nobsa or Tibasosa are also well worth the visit, and really Off The Beaten Track… Check the great article of my friend Kate from Her Travel Therapy on the remote villages of Boyacá !
Endless Possibilities For Trekkers
No matter if around Villa de Leyva, Lago de Tota or around Cocuy further afield (the National Park is currently closed), the landscape is unique and trekking possibilities are numerous, ranging from easy walks for one or two hours to challenging several day hikes in more remote areas. I am no trekker and won’t be any good advice here, but consider this area if trekking is your oyster.
Barichara – “El Pueblito Mas Lindo De Columbia”
In 2009, we wrote: “When we arrived on a Sunday at around 03:00 pm you could hear a pin drop: nothing, no cars, hardly any people, no music from bars or backyards, the town had simply shut down for the hot hours.” 7 years later, I was in for a real shock! “Columbia’s most beautiful village” (nothing less does this colonial village claim to be) is now a very popular destination, for Colombians and foreigners alike. The Parque Principal is now full of cars and visitors, at almost any time of the day.
Barichara takes great pride in its outstanding colonial architecture, and sometimes looks even too perfect to be true… The cobblestone are simply too well arranged, and the facades’ white simply too clean. It is charming nonetheless, an invitation for long and aimless strolls in this museum-like village. The only disturbances are now the many cars parked about everywhere…
“El Camino Real”: Barichara To Guane
There is only one major activity to do in Barichara: hiking the old “Camino Real” to the tiny village of Guane. From the viewpoint behind the Cemetery, the path descending down the canyon and across the plateau below can be seen, as well as the Rio Suarez in the distance.
What a great walk! I left at 07:30 am, to avoid the heat. I truly enjoyed being emerged in complete tranquility during this leisurely 2 hour walk.
Guane is an extremely quiet hamlet gathered around a plaza dominated by a small church made of the same okre colored blocks of stones like the churches in Barichara. The archeological museum is definitely worth the visit, and the 20 minute guided tour (only in Spanish) gives you good insights of the pieces in display. And of course, you should stay until noon to enjoy the local specialty: “Cabrito”, young goat meat with some intestines as a side dish.
Going back to Barichara is very easy: a minibus leaves the central square every hour and takes you back to Barichara in approx. 30 minutes.
San Gil – Back On The Gringo Trail
After several days in places with (very) few foreign tourists, San Gil came in as a shock: I was back on the Gringo Trail, big time! San Gil was already popular back in 2009, and is now THE place to be in Colombia, especially for younger backpackers (with Santa Marta & Medellin, obviously).
This rather unremarkable little town chose the high-flying title “La Tierra de Aventura” or “The Land of Adventure”, because it attracts lots of (young) tourists who sign up the various adrenaline-pumping activities. White water rafting ranging from a comfortable class 1 to a frightening class 5 is high on the agenda, followed by kayaking, caving, paragliding, abseiling, horseback riding, mountain biking, paint ball, bungee jumping, eco-walks… And I surely forget some! Well, I decided to join the throngs and went for 2 activities White Water Rafting on Rio Suarez (40 €) & Paragliding over the Chicamocha Canyon (52 €).
White Water Rafting on Grade 3 to 5 Rapids on Rio Suarez was definitely good fun. Colombian Rafting offers a really professional, entertaining and safe experience. Security is top priority, and they don’t go for the “Rough Version”, as I experienced (and almost drowned) in Uganda on the Sources of the Nile.
El Canyon del Chicamocha
The road between San Gil and Bucaramanga partly follows and even descends into this majestic canyon, providing a stunning vista with Rio Chicamocha snaking along more than 1.000 meters below. The area is desert-like, with lots of thorny shrubs, cactuses and even more goats climbing with ease through the steep terrain, tugging at twigs.
Halfway between these two cities is El Parque Nacional de Chicamocha, the baby among all Columbian National parks, which only opened in 2006. It turned increasingly popular after the Cable Car started operating in February 2009.
Back in 2009, Paragliding above the Chicamocha Canyon was not an option, so we decided to take the Cable Car.
In 2016, for my second day in San Gil, I decided to opt for a bird view in the Chicamocha Canyon and reached for the sky: tied to an instructor I took to the air over this desert. This Tandem Paragliding experience was absolutely unique, especially given the stunning landscape! I leisurely hang in the air during altogether 40 minutes and enjoyed the unique scenery far from above, at times several thousand feet above the bottom of the canyon… Something I would recommend to anyone coming in this area!