The Tren Turístico de la Sabana, as it’s officially known, is Colombia's only remaining steam train and is a great way to see Bogotá’s picturesque (if cloud-covered) countryside. The train departs from La Estación de la Sabana at 8:30am on Mondays through Fridays, 8am on Saturdays, and 7am on Sundays and holidays, or you can hop on board at the Usaquén train station about 40 minutes later. Passengers are dropped off at the same station they boarded at about nine hours later. The train ride is popular with families, and on board you'll enjoy an authentic “papayera” band playing vallenatos, as well as an Andean band playing typical music from the Cundinamarca region. A small on-board restaurant serves typical Colombian snacks such as hot chocolate accompanied by fresh cheese, tamales, and aguapanela, a sugarcane-based hot beverage. You have the choice of disembarking at the salt mines of Zipaquirá, where, for an extra fee, you can visit the famous, one-of-a-kind underground salt cathedral; or you can get off at Cajica, a typical Cundinamarca pueblo, with a pleasant plaza, cute stores, and tasty pastries. For more information about the Bogotá Turistren, visit www.turistren.com.co.
Note: To purchase tickets, go to the Sabana station, Calle 13 no. 18–24 (tel. 1/375-0557) or the Usaquén station, Transversal 10 no. 110–8 (tel. 1/629-7407 or 629-7408). Tickets cost COP$52,000 for adults, COP$38,000 for children, and COP$25,000 seniors over 60.
23km (14 miles) N of Bogotá
Chances are if you are coming to Chía, you are going to Andrés Carne de Rés, the enormous steakhouse—seriously big, like a small village—that has been continually expanding and filling up with kitsch since 1982. If you are just passing through, as many do on their way to Zipaquirá, you’ll find a quiet rural town with a few good country-style restaurants that is slowly getting morphed into Bogotá’s urban sprawl.
It’s absolutely easiest to get to Chía and back by a 45-minute taxi ride, particularly late at night when they are lined up outside Andrés Carne de Rés until the sun rises. They cost anywhere from COP$55,000 to COP$90,000, depending on your negotiating skills and how late you are. Uber is also an option. Several La Candelaria hostels also set up roundtrip party bus transfers there on the weekends.
48km (30 miles) N of Bogotá
Zipaquirá was home to a large Muisca population before being settled by the Spaniard Don Luis Henríquez in 1600. Often called Zipa, the rural town with a well-preserved colonial core surrounding a large cobblestone plaza makes for a popular day trip from the capital, particularly for its signature attraction, the Catedral de Sal, an underground church built in a 500-year-old salt mine. While it has a population of about 110,000, the most of any city in the sabana (savannah) surrounding Bogotá, it still feels quite compact and easy to get around, because most places of interest are in a relatively small area. If you’re not going on to Villa de Leyva, staying in one of Zipa’s small hotels for the night gives you a taste of life in a rural colonial town in the Andes, with none of the transportation hassles.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities are particularly lively in Zipa, with passionate processions that see colonial relics marched through the streets of town, ending at the Salt Cathedral. It’s also worth noting that Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez lived here briefly and graduated from high school here in 1946.
By bus: From Bogotá’s Portal del Norte Transmilenio station, look for the buses marked Zipa, which depart about every 10 to 15 minutes and take 45 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic.
By train: The historic tourist locomotive known as the Tren de la Sabana, reaches Zipa in about 3 hours from Bogotá, then stops for 1 1/2 hours before returning.
Without question, Zipa’s main attraction is on the hill above town, the spectacular Catedral de Sal ★★★ (www.catedraldesal.gov.co; tel. 1/852-3010), open daily from 9:30am to 5pm. Admission is COP$50,000, and includes a guided tour. The massive salt deposits here have been exploited since the time of the Muisca, who traded it with different villages, and later by the Spanish. When Christianity arrived, the miners began hanging religious images on the walls for protection, which soon became a shrine. The first church in the mine was built in 1954, dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, the patron saint of miners, and could hold 8,000 people. It was still an active mine, until it closed due to safety concerns in 1990. In 1995, a new, three-nave cathedral was built 60m (197 ft.) below the old one. At the entrance to the church are 14 small backlit chapels representing the Stations of the Cross. Masses occur on Sundays, and occasionally concerts are held here too. The entrance to the mine is on the hill above town, a short taxi ride from the center or a 20-minute walk.
The Plaza de los Comuneros, Zipa’s large cobblestone plaza, is fringed with palm trees and a cathedral that dates to 1805. With the clay-tile roofs of the whitewashed houses and green hills off in the distance, it’s a pleasant place for an afternoon stroll.
Where to Stay & Eat
While most visitors to Zipa come for the day, it’s an attractive enough town to stay the night. The 34-room Hotel Camino de la Sal ★ (www.hotelcaminodelasal.com; tel. 1/851-6159; Carrera 4 no. 5–03; doubles from COP$120,000) is a modern hotel in the center. There’s also the 23-room Hotel Cacique Real de Zipaquirá (www.hotelcaciquereal.com; tel. 311/532-1251; Carrera 6 no. 2–36; doubles from COP$107,000) in a two-level building with clay-tile roofs and a colonial courtyard. For dining, there are several good rustic restaurants that slow cook meat over open fire pits on the road to the Salt Cathedral, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants with typical foods in the historic center.
Laguna de Guatavita
57km (35 miles) NE of Bogotá
This 20-hectare crater lake, sacred to the Muisca people, is best known as the source of the myth of El Dorado. As the legend goes, when a Muisca cacique (chief) died, a nephew would be chosen to replace him. In that ceremony, the nephew would strip naked and be covered with mud and gold dust, then would be rowed out to the middle of the lake where gold and emeralds would be tossed in as a tribute. The lake was actually drained multiple times by the Spanish, who found very little of the treasure they had hoped to find. Cracks at the bottom are still evident. In 1856, a golden raft with the cacique on it, supposedly depicting the ritual, was found in a cave near Bogotá. Known as the Muisca Raft, it is perhaps the most important piece in the collection at the Museo del Oro, not to mention one of the most famous gold relics on earth. While direct access to the lake has been cut off, a trail around the crater gives a nice view. There is a COP$15,000 admission. There is a small restaurant on the way to the lagoon, as well as a snack kiosk at the entrance.
Although coming to Guatavita with your own transportation is possible, most tourists come on a day tour from Bogotá. Impulse Travel, formerly Via Colombia (https://impulsetravel.co/tour-operator/en), has private tours for COP$454,000 per person (cheaper per person the more travelers there are in your group). You can also bundle this tour with a visit to the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá.
Villa de Leyva
The perfectly preserved colonial town of Villa de Leyva (pop. 12,000) was named a national heritage site by the Colombian government in 1954, and ever since, it has become a popular weekend hangout for Bogotanos looking for a break from hectic city life. The cobblestone streets, Spanish-style villas, and small-town pace give the town a charming, lost-in-time feel. Villa de Leyva and the surrounding countryside are among the safest places in Colombia to wonder off the beaten track and do a bit of exploring -- and with multiple waterfalls, a nearby desert, adventure-sport opportunities, and even a couple of vineyards, there's plenty of exploring to do.
Even though the town's main sights can easily be explored in 1 day, most visitors end up staying at least 2 to 3 days, drawn in by the town's irresistible charm.
Libertadores (tel. 1/423-3600) offers two direct daily buses from the Bogotá bus station to Villa de Leyva, at 4:30am and 2:20pm. Trip time is about 4 hours. Several other bus companies also offer direct routes, especially on weekends and holidays, but they often stop for passengers along the way, making for a long ride. If you can't make one of these two routes, take one of the buses to Tunja, which depart every 5 minutes or so, and from Tunja you can catch a 45-minute colectivo to Villa de Leyva. (At the Tunja station, head upstairs, and then outside and board any of the large vans labeled VILLA DE LEYVA.) In all, getting to Villa de Leyva should cost between COL$16,000 and COL$17,500. Take a taxi to the Bogotá terminal module 3, or head to the Portal del Norte, as buses headed for Boyacá and Villa de Leyva pick up passengers there, too. All buses and colectivos will drop you off 3 blocks from the main plaza in Villa de Leyva, walking distance from most hotels. If you have a lot of luggage, you may want to consider taking a short COL $4,000 taxi ride, especially if you're staying in one of the many farms or inns around town.
Visitor Information: The Villa de Leyva tourist office is located right off the main plaza at Carrera 9 no. 13-04 (tel. 8/732-0232; www.villadeleyva.net) and is open daily from 8am to 5pm. If you plan to be in town for at least a couple of days, you might want to invest in the English/French Villa de Leyva Tourist Guide, available for COL$12,000 at the tourist office and in some hotels.
What to See & Do in Villa De Leyva
Villa de Leyva's main attraction is its large cobblestone plaza, supposedly the largest town plaza in Colombia. There are also a number of decent museums and sites in town worth seeing.
Located on the main plaza, the Iglesia Parroquial De Villa de Leyva was constructed in 1604, and it's here that independence hero Antonio Nariño lived from 1823 to 1846. Also located on the main plaza is the Casa Museo Del Maestro Luis Alberto Acuña, dedicated to the life and eclectic works of the eponymous artist; it's open daily 9am to 6pm. (If the museum appears closed, simply knock and someone will let you in.) Admission is COL$2,000 adults, COL$1,500 children.
In the Casa Museo de Antonio Nariño, Carrera 9 no. 10-21 (tel. 8/732-0342; Thurs–Tues 8am–noon and 2–6pm; COL$3,000), you'll find documents and items belonging to Antonio Nariño. The house was built in 1600, and the independence hero spent a few years here prior to his death.
The Museo de Arte Religioso, Plazoleta del Carmen (tel. 8/732-0214; Sat–Sun and holidays 10am–1pm and 2–5pm; COL$2,000), houses one of the country's best collections of religious art (17th–20th c.).
If you're in town on Saturday, be sure not to miss the Saturday market, when peasants from Villa de Leyva's rural sector come to town to sell their fruits and vegetables. The market is located 3 blocks from the main plaza, walking toward the Hospedería Duruelo.
In addition to the sights listed below, walking tours and day-trips into the Boyacá countryside are available with tour companies. Colombian Highlands, Carrera 9 no. 11-02 (www.colombianhighlands.com; tel. 8/732-1379 or 311/308-3739), is run by bilingual biologist Oscar Gilede and offers many eco- and adventure tours that can be done by car or horse. He also runs the clean Renacer Hostel, a pleasant hostel about 1km (a half mile) from town (see below). Terra Touring, Calle 13 no. 7-63 (tel. 8/732-0241), provides tours in Spanish, French, and English. Guías y Travesías, Calle 11 no. 8A-50 (tel. 8/732-0742), also provides excellent, relatively inexpensive day tours, as does Aventourese (tel. 311/877-4338).
If you're looking for horseback-riding opportunities, contact Hacienda Flamingo (tel. 310/480-539; ask for Rafael Orejuela or Patricia Delgado), Criadero El Olivo (tel. 315/324-9832; email@example.com), or Yeguada Alcazaba Del Viento (tel. 310/223-3955; firstname.lastname@example.org). They all rent out horses by the hour or day. Your hotel should also be able to provide you with information.
Where to Stay
Villa de Leyva has about 150 lodging options. Unless you're going to be in town in December, January, or during a holiday weekend, it should be pretty easy to find a hotel room—though since Colombia seems to have more holidays than any other country, it's best to book in advance. It's imperative that you make advance reservations if you'll be here during the Astronomical Festival in the beginning of February, Holy Week in March or April, Villa de Leyva's anniversary on June 12, the Gastronomical Fair in July, the National Kite Festival in August, the National Tree Festival in September, or the Festival of Lights in December. Most hotels and posadas here are charming, colonial-style places, so it's hard to make a bad hotel choice. A good website to check out for Villa de Leyva lodging options is www.villadeleyva.net. Information is in English, Spanish, and French.
The Hospedería Duruelo, Carrera 3 no. 12-88 (tel. 098/732-0222; email@example.com), is the poshest (and most expensive) place to stay in town, and it's easy to see why. The sprawling, 86-room Spanish-style residence is surrounded by beautiful, well-kept gardens and offers a gorgeous three-tiered pool, full spa service, and spectacular views of Villa de Leyva and the surrounding countryside. Guest rooms are standard, if not particularly impressive, though a splurge on one of the "Especial" rooms will get you a great view of the orange thatched roofs, unspoiled nature, and impressive mountains of Villa de Leyva. If you can't afford to stay at the Hospedería Duruelo but still want to be pampered like the rich and famous, the hotel offers day-use plans, which allow for use of the pool, bar, Jacuzzi, gym, sauna, and Turkish baths for COL$45,000 with lunch, COL$25,000 without lunch. In high season, a standard double will cost you COL$258,909. The hotel is a short but uphill walk from the main plaza.
For a truly unique lodging experience, head to the Hostería Molino La Mesopotamia, Calle del Silencio (ask for directions; tel. 8/732-0235), a more-than-4-centuries-old residence that once served as the town's grain mill. The mill was built in 1568, 4 years before Villa de Leyva itself was founded, and for the last 45 years, it's been a hotel. In high season, a double will cost you COL $150,000. The hotel is an easy 4-block walk from the main square. Note, however, that you shouldn't expect 5-star comfort here, and there have been complaints that the hotel isn't being kept up as it should be, so pickier travelers may want to head elsewhere.
If you have a low budget, check out the ecofriendly Renacer Hostel (http://renacerhostel.com; tel. 8/732-1201). Run by biologist/environmentalist Oscar Gilede (who also runs Colombian Highlands), the hostel is about a kilometer from town and offers dorm and double rooms from COL$60,000 to COL$120,000 per room. The hostal is located in a beautiful, colonial-style farmhouse on a hill with beautiful views of the Villa de Leyva countryside. Breakfast is available for COL$5,000, and a kitchen and two common areas are available for guests. If you're traveling alone, Renacer is a good choice as you're likely to meet more solo travelers.
Where to Dine
For a small town, Villa de Leyva has a decent dining selection. Monday through Thursday, hours can be limited and many restaurants close down. When possible, call in advance to check hours. El Centro Gastronomico Casa La Quintera is located to the right side of the church on the main plaza and houses Villa de Leyva's best (and most upscale) restaurants. The restaurants on the plaza tend to be a bit more expensive (COL$10,000-COL$25,000); head to the side streets for better deals. For breakfast in town, head to La Tienda de Teresa, Carrera 10 no. 13-72, where you can have arepas with almost anything you can imagine—cheese, chicken, beans, and even hamburger. If you're here later in the day, try one of their great desserts, starting at COL$1,000. You can even leave your mark by signing the wall, as many visitors have.
A beautiful little restaurant, Rincón del Bauchue, at Carrera 9 no. 15A-05 (tel. 8/732-0884), specializes in typical Boyacá dishes including mazamorra chiquita (well-cooked corn, often in a milky broth), cuchuco de trigo con espinosa (wheat/potato vegetable soup), and cocido boyacense (a sort of sampler platter that includes soup, potato, beef or pork, and rice). Rincón del Bauchue has its own minigreenhouse, a ceramics workshop, several dining rooms—including an outdoor eating area -- and even offers guest rooms during high season.
Pastries in Villa de Leyva: Villa de Leyva is well known for its charming, popular pastry shops. La Galleta, Calle 13 no. 7-03 (tel. 8/732-1213), is famous for its milojas, a typical Colombian dessert made with a cookie base, cream, and arequipe. This cozy little coffee-dessert shop plays jazz and blues and is open from noon to 7pm on Monday to Friday and 9am to 9pm on Saturday, Sunday, and holidays. The newly opened Tortes y Tortas, right off the plaza, is open Thursday to Tuesday from 10am to 8pm and makes low-fat, low-sugar desserts, in case you're watching your waistline. This comfortable pastry shop is owned by a friendly couple from Bogotá and specializes in Colombian desserts. Finally, La Pastelaria Francesa, Calle 10 no.7-03 (no phone), owned by Frenchman Patrice Rio, bakes delicious bread and serves up a variety of quiches and European-style pastries, jams, and chocolates, and is always crowded on weekends.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.