I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to get sick of seeing too many of places that are known to be beautiful. The term “templed out” comes to mind but no, I’m not talking about temples. Latin America is home to some of the world’s most beautiful colonial towns. After a few months of travelling from Mexico to Colombia, you might think I had finally had enough of seeing colonial towns. Not even close! My fascination for this beautiful architecture just kept growing and growing the more I saw them.
Two of my favourite colonial towns hail from Colombia – Barichara and Villa de Leyva. These two towns are known to be Colombia’s prettiest small towns – the best in their league. I’ll show you the best things to do in both of those towns and try and help you choose between the two if you don’t have time to visit both.
The Best Things to Do in Barichara
Having watched telenovelas (Spanish dramas) as a kid, (yes, I was a fan of Thalia, a Mexican actress) I have always adored the beauty of the old Spanish villas where they were usually set. From cobblestone streets to rustic looking churches, Barichara fits with that fantasy image perfectly. In fact they actually film a lot of telenovelas there. A lot of local tourists are drawn to it for that reason, but there is so much to see and do for everyone else as well.
Walk the Cobblestone Streets
One of our favourite things to do in Barichara was to walk the cobblestone streets. These streets are picture perfect and so atmospheric – you really feel you are alone in a timeless rural town. The white houses with terracotta roofs, the elegant villas and the views of the surrounding countryside make this a really special place to stroll around.
Walk to Nearby Villages
The Camino Real is network of tracks connecting various small villages near Barichara. We hiked to Guane, which took around two hours, and caught the bus back to Barichara. It was a really fun walk through the beautiful countryside. Guane is a very pretty village too and it has some hotels and restaurants – it’s very very small and quiet compared to Barichara though (which is already small and quiet!).
Watch the Sunset above Town
Walk up to the one of the steeper streets in Barichara and you’ll soon see some amazing views over the surrounding countryside. We went up to the top of town at sunset one night and it was so peaceful – I highly recommend it!
Visit the Churches
There are a few churches in Barichara and they blend perfectly with the beautiful colonial villas nearby. These aren’t massive or especially flamboyant churches, but they really add something to an already idyllic town. The Barichara Cathedral, in the main plaza, is the biggest in town and really stands out when looking down from the hilly streets above.
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Hang Out in the Plazas
One of the best things to do in any colonial town or city in Latin America is to grab a seat in a plaza (a town square) and watch the world go by. The main plaza in Barichara was being renovated when we were there but we found some more on our walks around town. They were really cool places to sit and watch the slow local life unfolding.
Eat Fat-Bottomed Ants (Hormigas Culonas)
If you’re up for a unique culinary experience, don’t miss the chance to try one of Barichara’s local delicacies, the fat-bottomed ants or hormigas culonas. Jon and I aren’t big fans of extreme food tours but we were very curious about this big ass ants that we had to give them a try. In a small shop in the northern part of town with the sign “hormigas culonas”, we bought a small batch which had just been fried. I popped one in my mouth. It wasn’t bad. It tasted a lot like fried peanuts’ skin (without the peanuts). Apparently, the ants are high in protein and low in saturated fat so people in Barichara do love it. Another way to try these ants are by dining in one of Barichara’s restaurants where they mixed the ants with gravy.
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The Best Things to do in Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva is another gorgeous historic town in Colombia. There isn’t a lot to do in either town, but that’s part of the charm. Taking in the picturesque cobblestone streets and exploring the surrounding countryside are the main highlights in Villa de Leyva. It was a very peaceful and relaxing place when we visited but I’ve heard it fills up with day trippers from Bogota in the weekends, so keep that in mind.
Walk the Historic Streets
The cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. They invoke the feeling of a distant era and are so much fun to walk through. If you’re anything like us, you’ll be stopping for a photo every few minutes!
Peek Inside the Surreal Terracotta House
A short walk out of town will take you to this surreal Gaudi-inspired house created by architect, Octavio Mendoza. It’s almost entirely built out of terracotta – it reminded us a bit of some of the houses in Morocco and Greece but with a far stranger twist. The interior is as interesting as the exterior; there are all sorts of weird artworks spread throughout its rooms – including a giant spider!
Visit Pozos Azules (Blue Ponds)
The countryside outside Villa de Leyva is really beautiful, and a great way to see it is by walking to Pozos Azules (Blue Ponds). These lakes come in different shades of blue and green – don’t swim in them though as I’m pretty sure they are toxic!
View Villa de Leyva from Above
You can hike up the hill above town for nice views over the area. We didn’t go all the way to the top but the view from half way up was good enough for us (we were a bit lazy due to eating too many empanadas). A quick look at the Wikitravel page for Villa de Leyva just informed me that the path to the top of the mirador (viewpoint) promises dangerous cliffs and general misery, so it sounds like we made the right choice by not going all the way!
Walk a little further past the lakes and you’ll come to a couple of dinosaur museums. Excavations in this area have unearthed lots of ancient fossils, some of which are on display. CIP (Centro de Investigaciones Paleontologicas) is the best of the museums and you’ll even get a tour of the complex (in English if you need it). The tour guides are local students and are really passionate about dinosaurs. Also check out “El Fossil”, a small museum featuring the remains of a large dinosaur.
Hang out in the Largest Plaza in Colombia
The largest plaza (square) in Colombia (and the probably the largest entirely cobbled plaza in South America) is found in Villa de Leyva. The size is impressive, but the ring of white buildings and the rugged countryside surrounding it makes it a memorable place.
Barichara VS Villa de Leyva: Which one should you visit?
Both! But if you only have time for one, the logical choice is Villa de Leyva. Barichara is kind of in the middle of nowhere (in relation to the typical Colombian tourist trail) and will take a while to get to. Villa de Leyva is only a few hours from Bogota and is much easier to cram into a tight itinerary. We loved them both but would rate Barichara slightly higher – we just really loved that place!
Will you try and seek out the most beautiful small towns in Colombia on your next visit? Which one are you most excited to travel to? Let us know!