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Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva (also spelled Leiva) is a magical, colonial town 100 miles northeast of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, and a stage fit for any novel by this country’s favorite son, Gabriel García Márquez. Dominating the walking town—full name: Villa de Nuestra Señora de Santa Maria de Leyva—is one of Colombia’s largest cobble-stoned squares, in the center of which is a small Mudéjar-style fountain. Around the square are whitewashed, two-story houses, small shops fronted by covered walkways boasting slender columns and plaques chronicling former citizens. In the middle of one of the sides is a humble church, where you can sit outside and watch children running to school. This is the perfect place to watch people emerge from sleep, a coffee in one’s hand and the strains of Colombian rocker Carlos Vives coming from a tinny jukebox. The sparseness of the architecture makes the plaza seem immense.

On the weekends, things get busy here, with Bogatá’s elite city slickers fleeing to second homes; during the week this town, founded in 1572, reverts to being a sleepy haven. Foreign tourists are few. Politicians are reputed to now own the villas scattered in the surrounding hilly countryside that once belonged to narcotraffickers. A knock at the correct door will result in cheap milk direct from the cow sniffing at you, and an amble around town is an experience unlikely to be forgotten. Small plazas open into narrow walkways, which reveal restaurants and the occasional priest emerging from the darkness of a monastery. A cemetery, seemingly taken out of New Orleans, adds to the town’s unique ambiance.

Three hundred yards from the square, the tarmac runs out, trails leading to both grand ranches with horse stables and to poor housing with livestock, ruddy-faced children and stoic parents. Hang around outside some of the churches on a late Sunday morning, and after hearing the voices of unseen nuns chanting mass, you can rent horses to visit the nearby archeological site of Los Infiernitos (The Little Hells) that displays long lines of phallic dolmen-shape statues. The ride across the stony scrubland and along narrow roads also is enjoyable.

The places to stay here are equally memorable. Choose between the Hostería Los Frayles, which has a sister property in Bogotá, or the more expensive, equally colonial Casa de los Fundadores. Cheaper accommodations can be had in private homes. A small bus terminal links Leyva to Bogotá, and this is the way to travel here, if only so someone else can do the talking if an army patrol is encountered. It is relatively safe in this area of Colombia, but common sense definitely should prevail. Do a little research, don’t be afraid to ask questions and then enjoy one of South America’s hidden jewels.

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