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Colonial history, and pre-history!

Colombia day four

View Colombia 2023 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Early morning view from La Posada de San Antonio

We were awake early, as the Posada de San Antonio has creaky floors and doors, so that when one person gets up the neighbours are likely to know about it! Glancing out of the window I saw that the low clouds over the mountains behind the hotel looked quite dramatic so I slipped some clothes on to go out and photograph them from the terrace.

We went down to breakfast at 7.25, five minutes before the advertised start time, and with luggage in tow to drop off at the desk for collection later in the morning. However a large group of German tourists had beaten us to it and were already queuing for breakfast. It transpired that all elements of the meal, from fruit and cereal through hot dishes to bread and croissants, were being served from a counter rather than laid out as a buffet. I suspect this was a legacy of the Covid pandemic, and it might have made sense a year or so ago, but it now seemed both unnecessary and irritating! Still, we reached the front eventually, and both chose a modest breakfast as by now it was nearly time to meet up with Doriel. But we did find a few minutes to take some more photos of the hotel, in the lounge area and courtyard. I was fascinated to spot fossils, mainly ammonites, set into the stones of the latter.

A sitting room in the hotel

Breakfast room and courtyard

Ammonite in the courtyard

Villa de Leyva – 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.

In Villa de Leyva

We spent the first hour or so of the day strolling around the town with Doriel. It was the perfect time to explore. The low sun was casting interesting shadows on the white walls, and away from the main square it was very quiet, these back streets feeling 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.





In Villa de Leyva

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

On the bridge

By the stream

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.



Hibiscus in the gardens

The sound of children’s voices floated out of a nearby school, in a lovely old building. Outside, one class were playing basketball.

The school, and a local near the main square

But 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.


The Plaza Mayor

We strolled over to the Carmen Convent only to find it locked, having changed its closed day from Monday to Tuesday. Had we known we might have squeezed in a visit yesterday.

The Iglesia del Carmen

But no matter, we had plans to see another convent shortly and meanwhile that left us time for coffee. And unlike yesterday, Doriel led us to a small independent place just off the square where I enjoyed an excellent espresso.

Monasterio de Santo Ecce Homo

Coffees finished, it was time to meet up with Miguel back at the hotel, collect the luggage we'd left there, and head for some out of town sights. Our first stop was at the Monasterio de Santo Ecce Homo, once home to Dominican Friars. Today however it is a museum and an interesting one too, although I loved most the beautiful buildings and especially the cloisters.



We visited the small Spanish church, and various rooms now repurposed as museum galleries but once a library, a refectory etc. I was especially taken by a 17th century wooden Virgin, minus hands but with a wonderfully expressive face.


In the church

Sculptures in the museum (17th century Virgin on the left)

The refectory

El Fossil

El Fossil

From the convent we drove the short distance to the museum housing El Fossil. Finding a fossil in this area is hardly unusual. I’ve already mentioned the ones in the courtyard of our hotel, and the Convento de Santo Ecce Homo was dotted with them too, as were several houses in the town (today of course it is forbidden to build them into a property in that way). But one afternoon in 1977, a local farm worker stumbled across a massive, near-complete skeleton of what was later identified as a Kronosaurus, a Cretaceous-period relative of the crocodile. Working with the owner of the land and local experts he helped to excavate around the fossil, leaving it in situ. Rather than ship it off to a museum elsewhere, they decided to construct a museum around it.

Stretching around 7 metres long from the tip of its nose to where the vertebrae of the tail would begin, the fossil is dated at about 110 to 115 million years old. Today it is recognised as a sub-species of Kronosaurus, and has been named Kronosaurus Boyacensis, named for the department in which it is located, Boyaca. The quality and age of the fossil, made it especially impressive for me.

After a short exploration of the rest of the museum, with its collection of other local fossils, it was time to leave and start the drive back to Bogota for our evening flight to Armenia - and that's a town in Colombia, not a country in Europe!

We broke the journey to have lunch at a restaurant with lovely views, good food and a very chilly room!


Views from the restaurant

My salmon

Soon after that we hit the Bogota traffic and it was a slow final few kilometres. But Miguel and Doriel had timed it well and we were at the airport more than early enough. There was time to catch up on emails, sort the day's photos and write up my notes before boarding.

We had a sudden rush at the last minute when we realised they'd changed the gate (I'd heard an announcement in Spanish that mentioned Armenia but as it wasn't repeated in English I'd assumed wrongly that it wasn't important!) but we made it OK. The sun had already set by the time we took off so it was hard to take photos, but I tried anyway!

Take off from Bogota

We landed on time at 7.00 pm and were met by a garrulous guide who spent the 44 minute drive to the hotel telling us about the region, the sights we would be seeing (thankfully not with him), his family and much more.

We were surprised to find that the Bio-habitat Hotel was on the edge of town rather than the middle of nowhere as we'd imagined. But our glass box of a room, termed an Aviary, was secluded and surrounded by trees as promised.


Our room at the Bio Habitat Hotel

From the path to the room

Having had a fairly large lunch we decided that the welcome BBC (Bogota Beer Company) beer we'd had on arrival, supplemented by some of the chocolate we'd bought in the market in La Candelaria, would keep us going until breakfast. So we just chilled in the room until bedtime, enjoying the sounds of the surrounding woodland.

Posted by ToonSarah 09:45 Archived in Colombia Tagged churches food streets architecture hotel flight square monastery geology colombia street_photography

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I like those white buildings with the orange roofs.

by irenevt

Yes, they really struck me too. And so different from other Colombian towns we visited which were really colourful!

by ToonSarah

The first hotel looks lovely, as do the backstreets of Villa de Leyva. Love the idea of building the museum around the fossil to keep it in the place it was discovered. And what a discovery!"

by Grete

There are several fossil and geology museums in this area Grete, some with more exhibits than this one, but I was pleased to come here and be able to see such a huge fossil in situ!

by ToonSarah

What a lovely town!

And nice hotel room in Armenia, I do hope you took photos on day light too! :)

by hennaonthetrek

Yes, there's one in the next post Henna :)

by ToonSarah

What a day and I must say ... telling about the Kronosaurus made me wanna go and have a look myself ... You have me convinced that this is a country to visit in the next upcoming years!

by Ils1976

The Kronosaurus was fascinating and particularly so because they've left it in situ :) I hope you get to visit Colombia!

by ToonSarah

Hope so too one day!

by Ils1976

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