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Come for the Crucifix, Stay for the Craft Beer – Buga, Colombia

There are two miraculous reasons to travel to Guadalajara de Buga. One involves a crucifix. The other involves craft beer.

Holy Water Ale cervesaria - Buga, Colombia

Mmmmm…..craft beer.

The miraculous crucifix of Buga

Guadalajara de Buga (usually simply called Buga) is just 45 miles (70 km) from Cali, but the tranquility of this colonial town, whose architecture and living tradition earned it a place on Colombia’s elite list of Pueblos Patrimonio, makes Buga feel a world away from the big city.

Founded in 1555, Buga is one of the oldest cities in Colombia and its main claim to fame is a story that’s nearly as old. As the legend goes, an indigenous washer woman was trying to save money to buy a crucifix. She finally washed enough clothes in the local river to save the money needed to buy a simple crucifix. However, as she was on her way to make the purchase she saw a neighbor being hauled off to jail because of unpaid debts.

Instead of buying the crucifix, the woman paid off her neighbor’s debts. When she returned to work in the river she noticed something shiny in the water and discovered  a small crucifix floating by. She grabbed it and brought it home where the crucifix continued to grow and grow.

Today, the legend of the indigenous washer woman and her miraculously growing crucifix is marked by The Lord of the Miracles, a distinct dark-skinned Christ on the cross, which is housed in the Basilica del Senor de los Milagros in Buga. Every year millions of pilgrims visit the pink church.

The miraculous craft beer of Buga

If you worship at the house of hops, you’re in luck as well.

Stefan Schnur Buga microbrewery & hostal

Brew master Stefan Schnur with some of his Holy Water Ale beers made in Buga, Colombia.

When German Stefan Schnur arrived in Buga he did not intend to create the only bed & beer hostel in Colombia, but that’s what he did when he opened the Buga Hostel in 2011.

The hostel is affordable with standard hostel accommodation. The Holy Water Ale brew pub and cafe attached to the hostel, however, is a craft beer miracle with nine different beers brewed by Stefan at a small, nearby brewery. There’s also an inventive menu including homemade bread and legit pizzas with locally made sausage and other great toppings on homemade crust. Don’t miss happy hour.

Holy Water Ale brew pub - Buga, Colombia

The Holy Water brew pub, part of the Buga Hostel in Colombia.

 

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Seven Down, 43 to Go: Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants

One of the great things about writing about travel is that it often intersects with food. Food is a universal experience (everybody’s gotta eat) and trying new types of food is a major reason why people travel in the first place. Our experiences of places are certainly enriched by the chefs, restaurants and meals we encounter, so with the release of the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants last week we wanted to tell you about the seven restaurants on the list that we know well. We assure you that we’re doing our best to get to the other 43…

Central – Lima, Peru

This restaurant, helmed by Virgilio Martínez and Pía León, was voted #1 on the list for the second year in a row so it’s fitting that we start our list here. During a 13 course “Mater Ecosystems” tasting menu lunch at Central a few months ago it was easy to see why the place gets so many accolades. Inspired by the wide range of ecosystem and elevations in Peru, which produce a corresponding richness of ingredients and cooking styles, our meal included ingredients like juice made from the pulp that surrounds cocoa beans, quinoa colored with cactus fruit, and dried potatoes all masterfully combined into dishes with names like “Spiders on a Rock” and “Marine Soil.” It’s edible art and the kitchen tweezers are obviously getting a workout.

Bonus: whet your appetite with Martínez’s new book “Central” which features delectable photography by Nicholas Gill.

Central Restaurant - Lima, Peru

Restaurate Leo – Bogotá, Colombia

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: love it or hate it, the food being prepared at Restaurante Leo by Chef Leonor Espinosa is some of the most daring and creative cuisine in this rising culinary capital. And we’re not the only ones who think so. Leo is at #16 this year, way up from its debut on the list at #33 in 2015. Go for the tasting menu instead of ordering ala carte to get a real sense of the scope and scale of Chef Espinosa’s vision of modern Colombian cuisine made by honoring and preserving traditional ingredients and techniques. Find out more about Leonor Espinosa in our story about the queen of Colombian cuisine.

Restaurate Leo - Bogota, Colombia

Osso Carneceria y Salumeria – Lima, Peru

Rezo Garibaldi did not open Osso in order to get on any lists. He opened Osso so he could put his considerable skills as a butcher and meat lover to good use. He just ended up on everybody’s favorite food lists along the way. This year Osso is at #27 on the list of Latin America’s 50 Best, a well-deserved jump up from #34 last year. But Renzo is not resting on his laurels. Read our story about  Renzo’s next meaty moves to find out what he’s about to debut in Lima.

Osso Carneceria y Salumeria - Lima, Peru

Andres Carne de Res – Chia, Colombia

Colombia’s ultimate party restaurant, which hangs on at #49 on this year’s list (down from #42 in 2015), is best enjoyed with a group of meat and booze loving friends. Don’t bother with the city location. It’s not the same. Instead, head to the original, cacophonous location in nearby Chia where up to 3,000 revelers can be fed and watered at the same time. First, read our story about how to survive Andres Carne de Res.

Andres Carne de Res - Bogota, Colombia

Harry Sasson – Bogotá, Colombia

This place, at #40 in the 2016 rankings (down from #24), was arguably the first fine dining option in Bogotá and its creator, Harry Sasson, is the country’s original celebrity chef. Located in a renovated mansion which looks olde timey from the front but thoroughly modern inside, the restaurant has spectacular architecture and a vast menu. For grand dining it’s the place. Read more about Harry Sasson and his iconic flagship restaurant in our story about Colombia’s original celebrity chef.

Harry Sasson - Bogota, Colombia

Isolina – Lima, Peru

We were a little surprised (but happy) to see this place as a new addition to the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants at a respectable #41. Located in the arty yet sophisticated Barranco neighborhood of Lima, this two story restaurant is a great place to try traditional dishes involving organs (though less adventurous fare is on the menu as well). With so much to try and such huge portions it’s a good idea to bring friends and order family style. Cocktails are stellar as well. Isolina is casual and unassuming but the food is solid and like nothing you’ll get at other name restaurants in Lima.

Isolina Restaurant - Lima, Peru

Criterion – Bogotá, Colombia

Jorge and Mark Rausch are an influential culinary duo in Colombia and their gleaming Criterion restaurant, on this year’s list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants at #29, (down from #18 last year), is a cornerstone of Bogotá’s Zona G fine-dining area where they let their French training shine. Read our story about Criterion for more.

Criterion Restaurant - Bogota, Colombia

Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants hit list

While every restaurant on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants is compelling, here are the list makers we’re most excited about checking out in the near future.

A Casa do Porco – Sao Paulo, Brazil

As the name would imply, this place, which debuted on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants at #24, is all about pork. Our love of pork (we did the pig), that extremely high debut and big praise from Osso’s Renzo Garibaldi make this a must-stop for us.

D.O.M. – Sao Paulo, Brazil

The highest ranking restaurant in Brazil, at #3 on the 2016 list of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants and #11 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, draws inspiration from the Amazon and presents the results to eager city eaters. We can’t wait to see what that’s all about.

Gustu – La Paz, Bolivia

Danish chef Kamilla Seidler, who was also named the Best Female Chef in Latin America for 2016, is at the helm of Gustu. At #14 on the list, Gustu is part Bolivian food revolution and part philanthropic endeavor in a city not necessarily known (yet) for gastronomy.

Maido – Lima, Peru

Hot on the heels of Central is Maido where Chef Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Nikkei cuisine (a combination of Peruvian and Asian) holds down the #2 position.

 

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Photo Essay: How to Make Panela, Colombia’s Sweet Obsession

Travel in Colombia for more than 15 minutes and you will encounter panela, the country’s beloved brick of raw, unrefined sugar that’s used in all sorts of food including the ubiquitous aguapanela and guarapo beverages. One scary study estimated that Colombians consume more than 75 pounds (34.2 kg) of panela every year.  Residents of plenty of other countries love it too, though they call it by different names like chancaca in Chile, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia and gur or jaggery in India.

Colombia produces 1.4 million tons of panela a year. It’s a major part of the economy and the country even holds an annual National Panela Pageant. Much of the panela is made in big factories, but some is still made in small, semi-automated workshops called trapiches. We came across one on the side of the road and stopped to watch the process of making panela–from sugar cane to finished brick.

Here’s how to make panela

Sugar Cane press extracts sugar cane juice

Step 1: Fresh cut sugar cane is put through a press to extract as much  juice as possible.

Sugar Cane Juice boiled and evaporated

Step 2: The extracted sugar cane juice runs from the press  into deep bins over a big fire fueled by the dried husks of pressed cane.

Sugar cane juice boiled and evaporated until it becomes a semi-sold

Step 3: Workers stir and transfer the boiling cane juice as it thickens.

Semi-sold sugar cane juice poured into molds

Step 4: Thickened sugar cane juice is poured into wooden molds and left to set.

Semi-sold sugar cane juice cools and solidifies

Step 5: The molds are left to set and cool.

Solid panela is removed from wooden molds

Step 6: Once the molds have set the panela discs are carefully removed from the wooden molds.

Solid panela is removed from wooden molds

Step 7: Cool and solid panela discs are stacked in preparation for packing.

Panela is packaged for sale

Step 8: Carefully packed, the finished panela is ready to be taken to market.

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Beer, Bridges & the Battle of Boyacá – Tunja, Colombia

Tunja is the capital of Boyacá province. At 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) it’s one of the highest and chilliest provincial capitals in Colombia. Tunja can also boast about its picturesque mountain setting, scenic main plaza, mansion museums with the most unusual original frescoes we’ve ever seen (hint: hippos) and close proximity to Puente Boyacá (basically, the Gettysburg of Colombia). There’s even some local craft beer.

Plaza Bolivar Tunja Colombia

Imposing Plaza Bolívar in Tunja, Colombia.

Mister, you never see elephant, how I describe elephant?

There are plenty of museums to visit in Tunja including religious museums and, less predictably, a pair of mansion museums with original murals depicting wild animals which the artist never saw with his own eyes.

Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon building

Do not miss the animal paintings inside the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon in Tunja, Colombia.

Excellent examples of these animal portraits can be seen in the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon next to the church on the main plaza. The ground floor garden is free to enter, but pay the tiny entrance fee (2,000 COP/about US$0.70) so you can visit the second floor where the painted ceilings are located.

Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon

Upstairs at the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonsalo Suarez Rendon features antiques and original architecture but the painted ceilings depitcing animals never seen by the artist are the real attraction.

One room is covered in detailed depictions of “Animals of the World” including a rhino and an elephant painted in the early 1500s with nothing more than a few plates from European books to go by.

Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon painted ceiling

The artist who created this incredible ceiling in the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon never saw the animals he was painting.

The animal murals on the ceilings were only discovered after a newer ceiling collapsed, revealing the amazing paintings. The work is still in fantastic shape and, truth be told, the artist managed to render most of the animals pretty accurately. There’s a second painted ceiling with more animals and some animal frescoes done in charcoal and egg white as well as in paint.

Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas ceiling

More animals can be found inside the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas.

The Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas (3,000 COP/about US$1) also features some amazing animal-filled murals and ceiling paintings and the artists are believed to have worked from books in Juan de Vargas’ own library which included an impressive number of books from Europe.

Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas rhino

This incredible rhino on a painted ceiling inside the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas made quite a journey to Colombia.

A paper written by John E. Simmons, President of Museologica, and Julianne Snider, Assistant Director of Penn State University’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery, which was published in 2013 notes that the rhino images found in both the Museo Casa del Fundador Gonzalo Suarez Rendon and in the Museo Casa de Don Juan de Vargas that they believe was copied from a book on architecture that was written by Juan de Arfe in 1587 and may have also been influenced by a famous rhino image created by Albrect Dürer in 1515.

 

Claustro de Santa Clara Real

The gawdy chapel at Claustro de Santa Clara Real in Tunja, Colombia is now mostly used for weddings.

Leaving wild animals behind, we headed to the Claustro de Santa Clara Real (3,000 COP/about US$1, closed mid day) where we gawked at the gawdy red and gold chapel as the guide (Spanish only) pointed out symbols from the indigenous Muisca culture which were added during construction including a big gold sun on the ceiling above the altar and Muisca faces on some of the figures. The chapel is now mostly used for weddings.  Big, red and gold weddings…

Puente Boyacá, the Gettysburg of Colombia

It’s fitting that we went from the capital of Boyacá province to the Puente Boyacá memorial. Boyacá was one of Colombia’s nine original states and it’s known as the “Land of freedom” because this is where the Battle of Boyacá took place.

Puente Boyoca Bridge battle

The Boyacá Bridge, near Tunja, where independence from the Spanish was won.

Puente Boyacá is pretty much the Gettysburg of Colombia. The sprawling, park-like outdoor memorial (free) is located on both sides of the highway that runs between Tunja and Bogota. Here you can see the bridge (puente in Spanish) over the Teatinos River where, in August of 1819, pro-independence forces defeated the Spanish in just two hours, marking the official start of Colombia’s freedom from Spanish rule.

Simon Bolivar monument Puente Boyaca bridge

Latin independence hero Simón Bolívar is dramatically depicted at the Boyacá Bridge site near Tunja.

The grit of guerra (war in Spanish) has been glossed over with rolling lawns and  and epic statues, including a massive rendering of independence hero Simón Bolívar, of course.

Simon Bolivar

Latin independence hero Simón Bolívar is dramatically depicted at the Boyacá Bridge site near Tunja.

Where to eat, drink and sleep in Tunja

We stayed at Hotel Casa Real just a few blocks from the main plaza (70,000 COP/about US$25, not including breakfast). It was charming (fresh cut flowers), clean, quiet and comfortable.

Porkos sandwich Tunja

With a name like Porko, it has to be good.

Don’t miss Porko Sandwich Shop a few blocks off the main plaza. The lechona (whole slow roasted pig stuffed with rice) is lovely and the made-to-order roasted pernil (pig leg) sandwiches on sesame seed buns with a choice of sauces (7,500 COP/about US$2.60) are delicious. Plus, it’s a sandwich shop called “Porko”.

Tunja is also home to two tasty craft beers. One is called Cerveza Magnus and the other is called Cerveza Bruder. Bruder also has a brew pub in Tunja which is large and welcoming and serves beer on tap or in bottles and has plenty of big televisions.

Bruder Beer Tunja

Bruder is just one of the two craft beers made in Tunja, Colombia.

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Beautiful, Embattled Lake Tota – Sogamoso, Colombia

The city of Sogamoso is certainly not going to win any beauty contests. It does, however, make a great base for travelers who want to visit one of the few wineries in Colombia, check out a museum devoted to the country’s Muisca culture, tour Andean villages and admire Lake Tota (Laguna de la Tota in Spanish). The highest and largest lake in Colombia is a stunner despite the environmental battle that’s raging around it.

Lake Tota Colombua Laguna de Tota

Lake Tota is the highest and largest lake in Colombia. It’s also facing serious environmental challenges.

Beautiful, embattled Lake Tota

We don’t know about you but we’d never seen a mountain lake with a white sand beach before we arrived on the shores of Lake Tota in the Andes above Sogamoso. At 9,891 feet (3,015 meters) and covering 21 square miles (55 square km), it’s the highest and largest natural lake in Colombia and the second highest navigable lake in South America (after Lake Titicaca in Perú & Bolivia). It’s also very, very beautiful and that’s part of the problem.

Playa Blanca Lake Tota Colombia

This sandy white beach surrounds part of Lake Tota in Colombia.

The deep lake doesn’t look polluted. The water is clear, green reeds flourish around the edges and provide haven for birds. The beach-like sandy shore is so white it’s called Playa Blanca (White Beach). Locals brave the cold, high altitude temperatures to take a dip and the lake supplies water for thousands of area residents.

That water, it turns out, might not be safe to drink. Local conservationist Felipe Velasco says he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’s been borderline obsessed with the water quality and general environmental well-being of the lake since 2009 when he unwittingly rented a plot of land he owns on the lake shore to a trout farmer. At that time he says he was unaware of the polluting effects of trout farming and when he became aware of the environmental impact of fish farming he tried to get out of the lease. Years late he was still trying to end the lease.

Lake Tota Colombia

Despite its beauty, Lake Tota is under serious environmental pressure.

The champion of Lake Tota

Since entering into the trout farm lease, Felipe has learned about other environmental threats to the lake and, in 2010, he formed Fundacion Montecito, a non-profit org focused on protecting Lake Tota and the area around it.

Felipe Velasco Fundacion Montecito Lake Tota

Felipe Velasco is fighting to stop pollution in Lake Tota and the surrounding areas.

One of the main polluting elements in the lake is trout farming. When we spoke to Felipe he said there were eight caged trout farms in Lake Tota producing millions of trout a year and resulting in concentrated organic pollution and pollution from fish food in the lake. In 2013 one million trout died from oxygen deprivation in Lake Tota, according to Felipe.

Felipe believes local onion farmers are an even bigger threat than the trout farms. Farmers have been growing onions on the shores of the lake and nearby hillsides for decades. The majority of onions consumed in Colombia come from farms around the lake. There are so many onion farms that the place smelled like onions when we were there.

Lake Tota Onions

Farms around Lake Tota produce most of the onions consumed in Colombia. It’s big business and an important part of life in the local communities as this onion statue in the main plaza in Aquitania, the principal town on the lake, attests. However, pesticides and fertilizer used on the fields are polluting the lake.

When we spoke to Felipe he said that chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer used in the onion fields inevitably find their way into the lake, polluting the water even more . “I see the lake as a living body that can’t talk for itself,” Felipe told us.

Over the years, Felipe and others have managed some environmental victories for Lake Tota, including international recognition and some protections and the implementation of environmental education in local schools, but commercial scale fish farming and onion farming continue.

Muisca Temple of the Sun Sogamosa

A recreation of the Temple of the sun at the Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox museum (often just referred to as the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Other things to do around Sogamoso

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (better known simply as the Temple of the Sun), on the outskirts of Sogamoso (6,000 COP/about US$2 per person, exhibits all in Spanish), is one of the few (some say the only) museums focused on the Muisca people. There are various rooms with displays of baskets, pottery and other relics but the highlight, for us, was the chance to check out recreations of the culture’s elaborate round buildings including the Sun Temple which the Muisca used for religious ceremonies before it was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors in 1537.

Temple of the Sun Museum Sogamosa

The Archeological Museum Elicer Silva Celis Suamox (aka the Temple of the Sun) in Sogamoso.

Further outside of town you will find one of the few wineries in Colombia. The Marquesa de Puntalarga winery manages to grow grapes and make a wide variety or wines at 8,400 feet (2,560 meters). We found most of the wines produced here to be too sweet for our taste, but we had to admire owner Marco Quijano’s success with grapes at this altitude.

Marquesa de Puntalarga winery Sogamosa Colombia

Grapes growing at 8,400 feet at the Marquesa de Puntalarga winery near Sogamoso.

We heard persistent rumors (and even saw a flyer) about a brewery called 1516 in Sogamoso. However, the website doesn’t open and multiple emails to the owner went unanswered. If you find and visit 1516 brewery, please tell us all about it in the comments, below.

Sogamoso also makes a good base for visiting Andean villages including Mongui which is part of Colombia’s exclusive group of Pueblos Patrimonios. We toured many of the towns during Christmas when each village creates a nativity scene in the main plaza. Check out our Christmas in the Andes post to see more.

Plaza in Sogamosa Colombia

Sogamoso is not a beautiful city, but the main plaza and cathedral aren’t bad.

Where to sleep in Sogamoso

It’s no contest: Finca San Pedro is the best place to stay in Sogamoso. Located a short distance out of the city itself, this economical and homey place is set in a large and tranquil garden. There are private rooms and a dorm and a shared kitchen. Yoga retreats are also offered.

This is also a great place to learn more about Lake Tota. Felipe’s brother Juan runs Finca San Pedro and is very knowledgeable about the area and the issues affecting Lake Tota.

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Stay a Little Longer – Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Villa de Leyva, about 100 miles (160 km) from Bogotá, is a charming mountain town full of Colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and a pleasing mix of locals and visitors. That’s why it’s one of the most famous and popular members of Colombia’s elite group of Pueblos Patrimonios. The sights and attractions around Villa de Leyva – including, Colombia’s best winery (and it isn’t bad), a phallic archaeological site and a house made entirely of terracotta – are just as interesting as the town itself. Many travelers come to Villa de Leyva for just one day but we bet we can convince you to stay a little longer with our travel guide to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva plaza panorama

The main plaza in Villa de Leyva is the largest in Colombia and one of the largest cobblestone plazas in all of South America. (click to see a larger version of this panorama)

Exploring Villa de Leyva

Founded in 1572, the town sits at just over 7,000 feet (2,100 meters), so pack your layers. Even when flooded with swanky weekenders from the capital, Villa de Leyva retains an antique air. The town’s impressive Plaza Mayor is the biggest plaza in Colombia at 150,694 square feet (14,000 square meters) and some say it’s the largest cobblestone plaza in all of South America.

Villa de Layva Colombia Pueblo Patrimonio

The church that anchors the main plaza in Villa de Leyva, Colombia.

Museums in Villa de Leyva

In a town so historic it’s no surprise there are so many museums to visit. Here are a few we liked.

Colombian history: The Casa Museo Antonio Nariño (free) is devoted to the life and times of aristocrat, early indepenence leader and one time Presidential candidate Antonio Nariño. Displays about his many achievements are arranged throughout his former home. Frankly, the architecture was as interesting as the materials inside.

Streets colonial Villa de Leyva Colombia

An atmospheric street in Villa de Leyva, one of Colombia’s most popular Pueblos Patrimonios.

Geological history: Many dinosaur bones have been found in and around Villa de Leyva and the Paleontological Museum (3,000 COP/about US$1.00), which is run by a local university, is a good place to get an overview of the weird things that lie in the dirt around here. display cases overflow with fossilized sea creatures, ammonites and dug up skeletons of long-dead species.

music Villa de Leyva Colombia

People watching in Villa de Leyva.

Religious history: The Museo del Carmen (3,000 COP/about US$1.00) is located in a church that dates back to 1845. It has five different rooms that house hundreds of pieces of religious art and books, some of which date back to the 1600s. It’s considered one of the best religious art museums in Colombia.

Something weirdly modern:  The Fundacion Casa Museo Luis Alberto Acuña (4,000 COP/about US$1.50) offers a breath of fresh air with rooms filled with modern art. Named for Colombian artist Alberto Acuña, the museum has a lot of his work plus rotating installations of work from other modern artists.

Day trips from Villa de Leyva

Marquese de Villa de Leyva winery

Colombia doesn’t have a lot of wineries, but you an visit one near Villa de Leyva.

Colombia’s best winery: There are at least three wineries in Colombia. We have been to two of them. Marquese de Villa de Leyva winery just outside of town is, by far, the best. They have winery tours, tastings in a lovely tasting room with snacks and everything and you can buy bottles direct from the winery. Learn more in our story about the best winery in Colombia for TheLatinKitchen.com.

Villa de Leyva terracotta house

This house just outside Villa de Leyva is made entirely out of terracotta (inside and out) and is said to be the largest piece of pottery in the world.

The world’s largest piece of pottery: In 1998 a Colombian architect began work on a project on his property outside Villa de Leyva. His goal was to create a home using only materials found on his land. The result is a massive home-made entirely out of terracotta (baked earthen mud). The structure is terracotta. The furniture, counter tops, lamp fixtures, sinks and other details are terracotta. He calls it the largest piece of pottery in the world and for a few bucks you can tour the house and see for yourself. Learn more in our story about the terracotta house for AtlasObscura.com.

El Infiernito archaeological site Villa de Leyva

Welcome to Dickhenge…

Dickhenge: The El Infiernito archaeological site (aka the Muisca Observatory, 4,000 COP/about $US1.25), just outside of town, gives you the chance to check out an outdoor area that the Muisca people used as an astrological observatory. You will, no doubt, notice the more than 30 carved stone objects rammed into the ground. You will also notice that every single one of them is phallic. We do not know what huge stone penises have to do with astrological observation.

We don’t really know what this is: Just down the road from the observatory is the weird Parque 1900. There’s a restored old cars at the entrance. We could see rudimentary amusement park rides and hear piped in music. We did not go in.

Sutamarchán suasages Villa de Leyva

Lunch Sutamarchán style, near Villa de Leyva.

Sausage for everyone: The nearby town of Sutamarchán, about 15 miles (25 km) from Villa de Leyva, is famous for its longonizas (sausages). Especially on the weekend, the main drag through town is lined with restaurants that have huge grills out front on which they are cooking up piles of longanizas, morcillo (rice-filled blood sausage), chorizo, grilled pork morsels, potatoes, corn and more which are served on a heaping plate called a picada which is meant to be shared.

Fossil of Monquira

This giant prehistoric crocodile was found in the ground near Villa de Leyva and this museum was built around the find.

Lotsa fossils: The Fossil of Monquira museum (8,000 COP/about US$2.50) is about 10 minutes by car from Villa de Leyva in the town of Monquira. The museum is home to an impressive collection of fossils that bear witness to the fact that this area was once under a big salt water bay. The most impressive installation is the fossilized remains of a 23 foot (7 meter) long prehistoric alligator type of thing which was discovered on site by a local in 1977. The museum as actually built around it. The creature is so massive and out of context that it feels fake, but it’s not.

Raquira Colombia pottery

The town of Ráquira is famous for its pottery and not shy about it.

Potteryland: Ráquira, about a half hour from Villa de Leyva, is a town that’s famous for its pottery. Even if you’re not in the market for a garden donkey or a rustic set of coffee mugs, it’s worth a drive through just to marvel at the center of town, whose name means “city of pots”. It’s like a kitchy Disneyland for pottery lovers.

Christmas in Villa de Leyva

Every Christmas Villa de Leyva pulls out all the stops and hosts a massive fireworks display. The town’s huge main plaza is turned into a viewing area for the dramatic show that explodes over the Colonial rooftops of the town.

They’ve been doing it for the past 30 years and town gets packed for the annual event. We paid 7,000 COP (about US$2.50) at the local tourism office just off the main plaza for access to the “VIP” viewing area in main plaza where rows of plastic chairs were set up. We were told the money goes to buy Christmas gifts for kids.

The fireworks finally started around 10:30 after the crowds waited through hours of live music performance (made more excruciating by a terrible sound system) and some dance performance. At one point impatient locals started chanting “Luces! Luces!”.

The fireworks display lasted for about 40 minutes and it was worth the wait. Check out the show in our Christmas fireworks in Villa de Leyva video, below:

 

Hotels in Villa de Leyva

Obviously, tourism is a big deal in Villa de Leyva and the town has hotels to suit every type of traveler. We were looking for history, so we stayed at Hosteria Molino del Mesopotamia, one of the oldest buildings in Villa de Leyva. Built in the mid 1500s as a flour mill (molino means mill in Spanish), the original buildings of the hotel actually existed before Villa de Leyva officially did. The property was purchased by a family in 1960 and ultimately converted into a hotel.

New buildings and rooms were added in a sprawling garden over the years but you can still stay in the original building which is nearly 450 years old. Yes, that means rooms have quirks (sloping floors, gaps in window jams, drafts) and the decor can best be described as an antiques hodge-podge, but the ambiance is nice.

Canelazo Hosteria Molino del Mesopotamia Villa de Leyva

We enjoyed our very first canelazo in the small bar at the Hosteria Molina de Mesopotamia hotel in Villa de Leyva.

You can still see the massive mill stone in the hotel’s restaurant and the cozy hotel bar has a fireplace made from what used to be an earthen bread oven. That’s where we had our very first canelazo. Learn more about this beloved Andean hot toddy in our piece about canelazo for TheLatinKitchen.com. Recipe included.

Restaurants in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is also bursting with restaurants from basic eateries where you get a set meal for a few bucks to well-designed restaurants and bars headed up by creative chefs and bar tenders.

Mercado Municipal Restaurant Villa de Leyva Colombia

Good things come out of that wood burning oven at Mercado Municipal restaurant in Villa de Leyva.

Mercado Municipal restaurant was a stand out for us. Chef/owners Laura Jaramillo and Mario Martinez, who trained at a culinary school in New York City and the Culinary Institute of America, respectively, have created a casually elegant, bistro-style restaurant with a welcoming back garden. They serve up fantastic food for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Many vegetables come from their own organic kitchen. They have a wood-fired oven for pizza and other dishes. They also have an in-ground oven they use to slow-cook succulent meat. The international wine list is impressive and you can expect to hear Amy Winehouse and Pearl Jam on the sound system.

The sister restaurant to Mercado Municipal is called La Bonita and it gets good reviews for its Mexican food, but we didn’t eat there so we can’t say for sure. We did enjoy a great michelada at Big Sky Lounge and Grill. Big Sky also serves a wide range of Colombian microbrews, including their own.

Like most things in Villa de Leyva, restaurants can get packed on weekends.

Believe it or not, there are plenty of other things to do and see around Villa de Leyva like an ostrich farm and some hot springs and a weird desert. Even we didn’t have time for it all. If you’ve done something fantastic in or near Villa de Leyva that’s not in this post, tell us about it in the comments section, below.

 

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