Large cobbled square surrounded by low whitewashed buildings
Architecture,  Colombia,  History,  Monday walks

A stroll around Villa de Leyva

Colombia’s Villa de Leyva is one of those places where time seems to have stopped still. Or at least, it would seem that way were it not for the large number of visitors, both Colombian and international, who descend on the town to see its perfectly preserved colonial architecture, cobbled streets and huge main square. They, and the many craft shops and restaurants, speak of a town that is as much museum as place to live.

If you stay overnight, however, as we did (in the beautiful Posada de San Antonio), you can get out early and beat the crowds, at least on the streets a few blocks from the centre.

La Posada de San Antonio

Let me take you on a walk around this picturesque town, the first of my Colombian Monday Walks with Jo.

A brief history

The town was founded by the Spanish in 1572. They chose an area originally inhabited by the indigenous Muisca people, near the village of Zaquencipa. But they had intruded on a spot sacred to those people, so twelve years later the Spanish town was moved to its present location. It grew wealthy through the cultivation of wheat and the production of olive oil. It was also an important centre for trade between the Spanish and local peoples, exchanging agricultural produce and salt for gold.

Today however tourism is the mainstay of the economy here. Even on the town’s outskirts, where it has expanded well beyond the colonial boundaries, building restrictions dictate that all houses must be no more than two storeys and whitewashed. The smooth surface of the streets, rather than cobbles, is the only real clue to how new the streets are. Where the cobbles stop, so does the colonial heart.

Our walk

We strolled the quiet back streets, sleepy in the early morning sun. Bougainvillea spilled over the walls and balconies. Dogs dozed in the sun. Signs hinted at the tourist-focused businesses still hidden behind shuttered windows. The combination of old terracotta tiles, whitewashed walls and dark frames and doors was a feast for the eyes – and for my camera.

A small stone bridge crossed a stream which created a green oasis between the houses.

We wandered through a little square, its central garden filled with beautiful hibiscus and other flowers. The garden is dedicated to the memory of Antonio Nariño, the town’s most famous resident, seen as the forefather of the country’s independence. Nariño, who died here in 1823, was a stalwart defender of human rights and is also remembered for his translation of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man into Spanish.

The sound of children’s voices floated out of a nearby school, in a lovely old building. Outside, one class were playing basketball. We passed the Iglesia del Carmen, unfortunately closed that day (it houses a museum of religious art).

The Plaza Mayor

Eventually, like all who wander Villa de Leyva’s streets, we came to the huge Plaza Mayor, its most celebrated and iconic sight. This is one of the largest plazas in the whole of the Americas, at 120 metres by 120 metres (14,400 square metres). Originally laid out as a parade ground for the conquering Spanish army, it is now lined with small bars and restaurants. On the south side is the modest parish church, built in 1608, and in the centre a small fountain. The square is covered in huge cobblestones. These, combined with the relatively small buildings around the edge, only serve to emphasise its vastness.

Large cobbled square surrounded by low whitewashed buildings
Plaza Mayor
Large cobbled square surrounded by low whitewashed buildings
Plaza Mayor

Our walk over, we relaxed over an excellent Colombian coffee in a nearby coffeeshop. But no cake, Jo, I’m sorry to say!

My feature photo, by the way, was taken the previous evening when the weather was less sunny!

I visited Villa de Leyva in February 2023

34 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    What a lovely-lovely place Sarah! Love the colourful bougainvillea against the whitewashed houses … I totally understand why you had a great time with your camera 🙂.

  • Monkey's Tale

    Villa de Leyva is the perfect Colombian colonial village, except for maybe Barichara, it was one of our favourite towns and you captured it perfectly. Maggie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Maggie 🙂 We didn’t get to Barichara but I loved Villa de Leyva, especially the quieter streets a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor. And some interesting sights in the area which I’ll share in due course. Did you visit the Eccehomo monastery? I loved that too!

  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    What an interesting and photographic place, Sarah. I love the white with dark trim contrast – and the flowers! I love the beauty of them all, but my favorite photo is the one with the El Patio sign, the flowers, and lazy dog. It looks like what I imagine a Columbian town would look like.

  • Marie

    I know little or nothing – I’m ashamed to say – about Columbia so have loved everything you’ve posted so far and am looking forward to so much more!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I didn’t know much before we went, but found it a beautiful and fascinating country. A troubled past but seemingly finding peace now 🙂 One little thing I learned – it’s ColOmbia, not ColUmbia 😆

  • margaret21

    I always have mixed feelings about these set-piece communities. I know they’re often lovely, with a great story too, but the fact that they have been forced to develop into places with tourist-friendly bars and shops with knick-knacks seems to rip out their soul. They also point up the fact that I too am a tourist, when I like to pretend I’m a traveller 😉

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Haha yes, I know what you mean about the tourist v traveller thing. There used to be heated debates on the Virtual Tourist forums about which you defined yourself as and whether you could call yourself a traveller, depending on your travel style. I confess I must really fall into the tourist category, based on our style of travel, but I try to approach it with a traveller’s mindset, if that makes sense? And I do know what you mean about these places – Khiva in Uzbekistan struck me the same way. They’re wonderful for photo opportunities and as a history lesson but I wouldn’t want to live in one.

      • margaret21

        Oh no, Sarah. You’re a traveller. You put the effort into looking beneath the surface, to chatting with locals, and making sure the money you spend goes into the local economy. Or that’s how it comes over to me anyway.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Sounds a lovely little town, Sarah. As you say, the colonial buildings look lovely, particularly with the restrictions on development holding back any ugly intrusions. Interested to gorge on more of your Colombia experiences.

  • restlessjo

    Beautiful! Some of the photos seem to indicate a mountain backdrop, which I love. I have no idea of the geography of Columbia, nor would I know where to head, so I’ll need to consult a map. I’m sure that you’ll lead me around in weeks to come. It seems the Spanish got along with the local population rather than decimating them, which is good to know. And unusual!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Jo 😊 Yes, there are mountains all around, or at least high hills, depending on your perspective! These are part of the Andes chain which splits into three to run the length of Colombia before reaching the sea. As to the Spanish getting along with the local population, I suspect it was patchy as in the north – some trading that profited both sides and some rubbing along together, but also plenty of flare-ups and also the issue of the diseases they brought with them. There was a lot of land-grabbing and reparation is only now being made, and that only in part.

Do share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you!

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