About 6km west of Villa de Leyva on the road to Santa Sofía, an area known for fossils, is the Museo El Fósil ★ (https://www.facebook.com/elfosilmuseo; admission adult/child COP$6,000/4,000; daily 8am–6pm), which was built around the near-complete skeleton of a bus-size 115-million-year-old baby kronosaurus. It’s the most complete specimen of this prehistoric alligator-like reptile. A few other glass cases house smaller fossils excavated in the area, though for the most part the kronosaurus takes up the entire room. Just across the main road, the more sophisticated Centro de Investigaciones Paleontológicas ★ (tel. 321/978-9546; admission COP$8,000 adult, COP$4,000 child; Tues–Thurs 9am–noon and 2–5pm, Fri–Sun 9am–5pm) has a bigger display of fossils, which include a full plesiosaurus skeleton and saber-tooth tiger.
El Infiernito ★ (tel. 310/235-6079; admission COP$6,000; Tues–Sun 9am–noon and 2–5pm), 2km north of El Fósil, is one of the most important Muisca archaeological sites in Colombia. The site is home to more than a hundred stone phalluses standing vertically in two lines 9m from each, which allowed them to identify the planting season by measuring the shadows. When the Spanish discovered the site they found it improper, proclaiming that the Muisca should go to hell, hence the name.
The Convento del Santo Ecce Homo ★ (admission COP$5,000; Tues–Sun 9am–5pm), 6km beyond Infiernito, is a stone-and-adobe building in various states of repair. It’s full-on strange, with wonderful details like the stone floors paved with fossils and an original wooden ceiling with images of pineapples, suns, and moons that were carved to help convert the native population. The complex was built by Dominican fathers in the mid-17th century, though it was taken over by the military a century later and then abandoned. It has since been spruced up, though many of the original artifacts have been removed.
On the road to Ráquira, 14km west of Villa de Leyva, is Sutamarchán ★, which is known for its longaniza, a regional sausage similar to Portuguese linguiça, as well as rellena (blood sausage). Nearly the entire town is made up of open-air restaurants with these hanging sausages. The best are right in the center of town, around the corner from each other. There’s Robertico ★ (Carrera 2 no 5–135), which is more rustic, and the cleaner El Fogata ★ (Carrera 5 no. 5–55). Both keep similar hours (daily 8am–8pm). From town you will see signs for several different wineries. The best known is Viñedo Ain Karim ★★ (www.marquesvl.com), which produces the Marqués de Villa de Leyva label. While Colombia is not a typical wine destination, the area’s unique microclimate allows for some production of cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. Rather than one harvest per year, they’re able to have three harvests every 2 years. Tours (COP$10,000) are daily from 10am to 5pm and include a guided walk through the vineyards and facility, plus a tasting.
Another 10km beyond Sutamarchán is Ráquira ★, a village that thrives in making ceramics. Right on the main drag you’ll see dozens of studios and shops where artisans are hard at work creating colorful bowls, cups, and piggy banks, as well as hammocks, ponchos, and carvings. There’s a market on Sunday when you’ll likely get the best deals.
Forty-five kilometers west of Villa de Leyva is Chinquinquira ★, the home to an image of the Virgin Mary that is credited with a 16th-century miracle. Painted around 1555 by Alonso de Narváez in Tunja, the painting wasn’t well taken care of and began to fade. Eventually it was moved to Chiquinquirá and more or less forgotten, until a Sevillan woman named Maria Ramos found it and began praying to it. On December 26, 1586, as she prayed to it, the painting was suddenly restored to its original glory. The legend became famous and countless other miracles are attributed to it. Pope Pius VII even declared the Virgen de Chiquinquirá, nicknamed locally La Chinita, the patroness of Colombia. The chapel built to house the image now attracts pilgrims from all over Colombia.
Too Much of a Good Thing: Parque Nacional Cocuy & the U’wa
The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy is a mountain range containing more than a dozen peaks that reach beyond 5,000 meters in altitude. It’s the highest section of the Colombian Andes and is home to some of the best hikes in South America. There are thundering waterfalls, blue mountain lakes, and rapidly disappearing glaciers, not to mention rich biodiversity that includes spectacled bears, pumas, and Andean condors. It’s also the ancestral home of the U'wa, who live in constant spiritual communication with the mountains. Unfortunately, the entire 306,000 hectare Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy ★★, including the signature 7-day circuit, has mostly been closed to visitors since late 2013. The combination of too much trash brought in by an increasing number of visitors and not enough supervision was having a terrible impact on the environment, pushing the government to close the park to ecotourism. Some park officials have been pushing for it to reopen, but the U’wa have resisted, insisting that they are the traditional authorities over the terrain. Until some sort of agreement is in place, all entrances to the park have been closed. Be sure to contact the national park offices (www.parquesnacionales.gov.co) well in advance before planning any hikes in the park.