The itch to travel is a desire to be everywhere at once. It’s a mental disease but an excusable one, since human nature instilled in us a certain insatiable curiosity. Until my early twenties, I used to have this obsession with sitting in the middle seat of any dinner table, large or small, so that I could follow the conversations happening on both ends. But of course, one can’t be at two places at once, and it can be stressful to follow two (or three or four) conversations, especially at crowded dinners. After all, you are sitting in just one seat. You are confined to the space you occupy and there is no way to be on every chair at once. If you get up to the other end of the table, you miss out on all that happens in your current seat.
Before embarking on this journey, I made a promise to myself to not over-scratch this itching spot–I would not be able to see every museum, climb every beautiful hill, or watch every magical sunset. I would move slowly, and when I saw something I liked, I would stop and admire, even if that meant for months, even if at the expense of many other, perhaps more beautiful vistas.
Within minutes of arriving in Villa de Leyva, I knew I was going to be in love with the place. Driving through the town to the Renacer Hostel, which is a few kilometers outside the stone-paved streets of the town center, I stuck my head out of the car like a happy puppy. The town is apparently a hot spot for weekend-getaways for Bogotans, hence is filled with cute cafes, restaurants, and boutique hotels. A blogger on “Backpacker. South America” describes it as a charming town “still waiting for its backpackers.”
Filled with neither backpackers nor Bogotans, Villa de Leyva seemed to be asleep just as promised with its Plaza Mayor – one of the largest plazas in South America – virtually deserted. Villa de Leyva might have been sleeping after a busy Easter weekend but I did not get much rest as the following five days I spent in the town as my legs were constantly moving climbing various hills. In many ways, the town reminded me of Pai, my favorite spot in Thailand. The town-center had everything the city-dweller in me needs (coffee, food, and a pharmacy) but within a few kilometers in every direction of the town stretched seemingly infinite number of waterfalls and lakes to swim in, mountains to climb, and breath-taking views to admire.
Could it be that I found the spot I was looking for? I could already imagine myself renting an apartment in town to plop myself down as a sleepy Villa de Leyvan. But I was barely six days into my South American adventure and itching for more.
Most people spend their lives living in one space, occupying just the square meter in which they happen to find themselves. While this does not come close to describing my 31-year-old existence, I had been stationary for the past eight years living in Tel Aviv, mainly because I love this city and its holy sunsets that without fail transforms a bad day into a hopeful evening. Leaving Tel Aviv, even on holidays, always felt like missing part of the conversation in the city that never sleeps.
Yet neither does that itch that always sneaks up on me, telling me to change seats. So after climbing up a 3800-meter mountain to Iguaque Laguna, getting lost hiking the trail behind Renacer Hostel to some waterfall (which Marine and I may or may not have found), playing in the cold waters of Periquera Waterfalls, and bicycling around the outskirts of Villa de Leyva, I left this sleepy town which whipped my ass into shape, to find an even sleepier one: Barichara. Meanwhile here is my guide to Villa de Leyva’s hikes, bikes, and beautiful sights:
Day 1: Trip to Periquera Waterfalls
On my first morning I joined Yoav and Linda, an Israeli and German non-couple couple that I had dinner with the evening before to go the Periquera Waterfalls which we chose from a two-paged list of activities available to visitors to Villa de Leyva. Out of the seven waterfalls in the area, three are easily accessible, we were told and boarded a local bus to go on a very bumpy road for about 30 minutes until we reached the entrance to the Periquera. Besides us, there were only three Colombians enjoying a weekday swim in the waterfalls. Looking for the third waterfall where we could swim, we sat down by the river and ate the fruit we had bought just before getting on the bus. As beautiful as our little hike was, for me the highlight of the day was waiting for a taxi on to return to town. Since the next bus would come only in about two hours, the man running the tienda at the entry to the park offered to call us a taxi for not much more than what the bus would cost us. He would come in 15 minutes, he said, but of course that was 15-min Colombian time. It took our driver Jose more than an hour to arrive. Meanwhile, there we were, sitting by this man’s tienda starting at one another, asking him “Donde Jose?” every 10 min. At some point, the man left his tienda and went to a nearby tree, cutting pieces of what turned out to be guama fruit. A delicious, strange fruit that looks like a giant bean and inside is puffy, cotton-like, sweet flesh of the fruit. The man just kept picking the fruit from the tree and handing it to us. As we were starving already, we just kept eating the sweet fruit he handed, spitting the large seeds into the beautiful view of the Periquera. Thankfully Jose eventually came to pick us up before we developed allergies from overconsumption of guama.
I had a 6 a.m. wake-up call on my second day in Villa de Leyva in order to climb up to Iguaque Lagoon, where according to the Muisca legend was the origin of man-kind after some kind of incestuous relation between mother and son. The climb up to the laguna some 3800 meters high is through the very well-kept Santuario de Flora y Fauna Iguaque (they do charge a hefty entry) and is supposed to take about three hours. Of course, it took me a good four hours of huffing and puffing through the steep stones that seemed never ending. I was so tired circa hour three that I seriously considered plopping myself on one of those stones, eating my cheese and tomato sandwich, and calling it a day. While the lake itself was not very impressive, the hike was quite beautiful. Our group, which consisted of three thirty-somethings and two twenty-somethings, started out sweating through our t-shirts in rainforest like flora, wondering why the friendly hostel receptionist Diego was so insistent on having us take warm clothes. When we reached the top, the temperature had dropped a good 15 degrees, and the trees of the rainforest had turned into cactuses. Oh, did I mention that we were the only ones at the entire national park that day?
Day 3: Apparently-7-hour-hike-up-a-mountain-was-not-enough hike
So the next morning I meet Marine, a French woman living in Belgium at the end of her two-month trip through Colombia. Marine is not tired and surprisingly neither am I. Why not go on another hike after 4 hours up and 3 hours down the Iguaque? Sounds great!
There is a waterfall right behind the hostel? Great, let’s find that. This is lovely, I am so sporty! An hour in, we seem to be on the wrong trail. Where is that waterfall? Who knows.. What? You didn’t bring water, Marine? No problem, we’ll share. Where is that damn waterfall? Wait, this is not a trail. We are not on the trail. What say you? You are going to just climb up to see what there is behind that hill? On a non-trail? Like a goat? Hmmmm. I think I’ll wait for you here…
At that point, Marine was just blindly climbing up a hill, I was sitting on a stone twiddling my thumbs. She was way up there, still climbing. We tried to communicate by waving our arms about but eventually I decided that I was certainly not that adventurous and went down to look for the trail we had lost.
About an hour after I returned to the hostel, Marine came back, a bit red but smiling. Did you find the waterfall, I asked? She hadn’t. I told her that I saw a small waterfall on the way back, maybe that was it? Maybe, she said. Oh well, that was fun!
Day 4: Biking around Villa de Leyva
I don’t say that Villa de Leyva whipped my ass to shape for no reason. I woke up that day with every intention of doing nothing but reading and writing at a coffee-shop. But Marine and Will were going biking and that was just too tempting. We made a loop around various sites including the Museo de Fosil, where you can see the bones of a kronosaurus found in the area since this mountainous region was under water tens of millions years ago. Also you may find this cute little dog pictured below who will be very keen on eating your delicious empanadas.
Some other stops on our bike-tour was the Clay House which I believe belongs to some private Colombian man who is a big Gaudi fan and the Pozos Azules. I think the pictures speak for themselves:)