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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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A Monolith and a Monster’s Mansion – Guatapé & La Manuela Hacienda, Colombia

On weekends and holidays locals travel to Guatapé, less than two hours from Medellin, to enjoy the cobblestone streets and vibrantly painted buildings in the Colonial center, climb up the nearby El Peñón de Guatapé monolith (don’t miss our aerial drone travel footage of that later in this post) and explore the reservoir. And you should too. But try to avoid weekends and holidays when the narrow, winding road into town can get choked and hotels can get full.

El penol Guatape monolith

The famous El Peñón de Guatapé monolith from afar.

Exploring and sleeping in Guatapé

When not bursting with local tourists, Guatapé is a peaceful place. The square is a lovely place to grab a beer or a coffee. Houses and businesses in the center are meticulously kept. Some business still use olde timey hand painted signs featuring symbols for the function they perform instead of words (ie, scissors for a barber).

Guatape building designs

Many of the well-kept homes and businesses in the central area of the town of Guatapé are painted with festive, three-dimensional scenes that often depict the business or service offered within.

There are a lot of budget accommodations in Guatapé, some of them owned by expats like Mi Casa and the Lake View Hostel. We stayed at the mid range Hotel Guatatur, a blue and white bulk on the main square which has attempted to set a stylish tone. Avoid internal rooms (they’re dark) and consider splurging on room #303 which has corner windows that give views of the reservoir and the church plus a big jetted tub.

Guatape church

The church in Guatapé, Colombia.

The upscale Charlee Hotel in Medellin also recently opened Luxe by Charlee in Guatapé with vacation rentals for the swanky set.

Guatape street

Festively painted buildings in the heart of Guatape, Colombia.

Climbing the El Peñón de Guatapé monolith

Yes, town is quaint. But the real draw here is the Guatapé monolith, also known as El Peñón de Guatapé. It’s millions of years old. The Tahamies Indians, who used to live here, worshiped the rock. The neighboring town of El Peñol (where the monolith is called La Piedra Del Peñol) claims it as their own and has kept Guatapé residents from completing a project that would paint the name “Guatapé” on the rock (only a couple of spectacularly glaring letters have been completed).

El penol Guatape monolith

That’s the climbing route up more than 700 steps to reach the top of the El Peñón de Guatapé monolith.

The rock was first climbed in 1954. It took five days. Today, you can do it in half an hour each way if you’re fit by climbing 738 very steep steps (10,000 COP/about US$3.50 to climb).

Climb guatape monolith

As if to encourage climbers, a new number is spray painted on the route up the El Peñón de Guatapé monolith every 25 steps.

Feeling lazy? Check out our drone footage from the top of El Peñón de Guatapé monolith, below, to enjoy the view without the climb.

Trespassing on Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda La Manuela

The other draw in Guatapé is the huge reservoir which sprawls and meanders like a  mini Lake Powell.

Panorama top El penol Guatape monolith

Click here to see a larger version of his panoramic shot of the reservoir near Guatapé , Colombia.

Boats are available for exploring the lake but most people travel right past the reservoir’s most infamous attraction: Hacienda La Manuela, a bombed and abandoned complex once owned by the King of Cocaine, narco terrorist Pablo Escobar.

La Manuela Haciende ruins Pablo Escobar Guatape

The bombed and looted shell of Hacienda La Manuela, formerly owned by narco terrorist Pablo Escobar.

Escobar had many haciendas but La Manuela, named after Escobar’s daughter, is interesting for a number of reasons. It was bombed in 1993 by Los Pepes, a group of bad guys and the Colombian government’s “Search Block” soldiers who were united in their quest to oust Escobar and his crew. La Manuela was eventually abandoned which means that those willing to trespass and duck under a few fences can now wander around the shell of the place.

The place has been tagged by graffiti artists. The swimming pool is now a green mess. Anything of value (windows, doors, etc) has long since been removed and the truly hopeful have also dug holes in the ground and smashed through concrete walls looking for hidden loot.

Pablo Escobar La Manuela Haciende ruins  Guatape

The pea green pool at La Manuela, Pablo Escobar’s abandoned hacienda on the reservoir near Guatapé , Colombia.

The most interesting thing about La Manuela, however, is the chance to see the lengths which Escobar and his crew were willing to go to in order to ensure a speedy escape from the place. At La Manuela, the escape route includes a tunnel big enough to drive through which leads to a different part of the reservoir where a speed boat would be waiting. For more, check out our award-winning piece about Pablo Escobar’s legacy in Colombia which was published by RoadsandKingdoms.com.

Pablo Escobar tunnel La Manuela Haciende ruins  Guatape

This tunnel, big enough to drive through, was part of an elaborate escape route at Pablo Escobar’s La Manuela Hacienda.

Rumor has it that La Manuela may be turned into a nightclub which we really, really hope they name Esco Bar.

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Doing Nothing, Seeing Everything – Mompox, Colombia

In this age of travel itineraries packed to the gills with “experiential” and “immersive” experiences it’s easy to return home exhausted but still somehow lacking any real insight into the destination you visited. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (referred to simply as Mompox or Mompos) is the perfect place to remember the joy and value of doing nothing as a way of seeing everything and letting the culture, history and idiosyncracies of a place sink in naturally.

Diving into the Magdelena Ricver - Mompox, Colombia

Kids enjoying the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

“You don’t travel in space in Mompox, you travel in time.”

A local Momposian shared those romantic words with us and they turned out to be true. Founded by the Spanish in 1540 in the middle of the mighty Magdalena River, Mompox became an important port town and way station for traders in the 17th-19th centuries. Mompox flourished. And then the river silted up. However, the town didn’t shrivel up and die when river trade stopped. It simply took a nap.

IMG_5386

La Iglesia San Agustin in Mompox, Colombia was built in 1606 and is part of the Colonial heritage and architecture that have made Mompox a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mompox stirred a bit in the 1990s when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical economic importance, remarkably unchanged Colonial center and collection of churches. The pace in town, which is also part of Colombia’s exclusive Pueblos Patrimonios group, is still best described as sleepy though it’s never boring thanks to a long list of local quirks and characters.

Mompox, Colombia UNESCO World Heritage site

The center of Mompox is filled with intact Colonial streets like this one.

Quirks and characters in Mompox

The blindingly white Mompox cemetery is located right in the center of town and is worth a roam around. You can’t miss the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato (The Cat). As the nickname would imply, he loved cats and after his death his family kept a fresh supply of cat food at his grave. There are now more than 45 cats living in the cemetery.

Mompox cemetery

The cemetery in Mompox is home to the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato and more than 40 cats who continue to be fed by El Gato’s relatives.

The Hospital San Juan de Dios is said to be the oldest hospital in the Americas still operating in its original location. Swing by City Hall where the Act of Independence from Spain was signed in 1810, making Mompox the first Colombian city to declare freedom from Spain.

Built in 1660, the beautifully restored Municipal Palace, aka Cloister of San Carlos, was the site of the first secondary school in Mompox. In 1809 the Universal School of Saint Peter the Apostle was founded on the site which is said to be the first university established in the Caribbean.

Cloister of San Carlos - Mompox, Colombia

The beautifully restored Cloister of San Carlos is on the site of the first university in the Caribbean.

All of that sight-seeing is best done in the mornings or evenings as mid day temperatures soar in Mompox. The good news is that the streets are remarkably car-free (in part because of how hard it is to reach Mompox, more on that later). If it weren’t for a proliferation of small motorcycles, there would be more donkeys pulling carts than motorized vehicles in Mompox.

slow paced Mompox, Colombia

Donkeys are still a common sight in the streets of Mompox, Colombia.

Liberator and Latin hero Simón Bolívar first arrived in Mompox in 1812 when he recruited hundreds of local men to join him on his triumphant march to Caracas. Bolívar subsequently returned to Mompox many more times as he traveled up and down the Magdalena, spawning a local version of the “George Washington slept here” legend.

Piedra de Bolivar - Mompox, Colombia

Piedra de Bolivar records the eight visits that Simón Bolívar made to Mompox between 1812 and 1830.

Always a political town, residents reacted to decades of tensions between Colombia’s rich Conservative Party and the poor Liberal Party in a unique way. The two parties were established in 1849. The Liberal party ruled between 1861 and 1885 and established separation of church and state. In 1885 the elite Conservative Party took power and re-established the influence of the church in Colombian politics. That, in part, lead to the “War of 1,000 Days” which raged between the two partied from 1899 to 1903. More than 120,000 Colombian died.

In Mompox, these political tensions became so fierce that town was literally divided in two with proponents of the Conservative Party living on one side of town and proponents of the Liberal Party living on the other.

Those divisions have eased, though political opinions remain strong, and Mompox today seems tranquil and united, as we saw when we stumbled upon a group of Momposians practicing a traditional dance in Plaza Concepcion. Check out our video, below.

Modern Mompox is a pleasing version of Southern US bayou country as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, who was inspired by his time in Mompox. His wife was born near here and a movie version of his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold was shot in Mompox. But that’s not surprising. In Mompox time doesn’t seem to have simply stood still, it seems to have gone backward in a feat worthy of the “magical realism” the author helped to perfect. Learn more about exploring Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia, including Mompox, in the piece we did for the Biography channel’s website.

Magdelena River Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture on the riverfront of the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotels in Mompox

The town’s existing selection of budget to mid-range family-run guest houses, which seem to outnumber actual visitors, has been augmented in post UNESCO status times by more polished (but still under US$100) offerings. The pioneer is La Casa Amarilla which is run by British expat and journalist Richard McColl and his Colombian wife Alba. The hotel is homey and fully appointed and has an enviable location on the riverfront right next to La Iglesia Santa Barbara. Guest benefit from the owners’ local knowledge.

Iglesia Santa Barbara - Mompox, Colombia

La Iglesia Santa Barbara, built in 1630,  is right on the recently-restored waterfront and right next to La Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Richard was the only gringo in Mompox until the recent arrival of a second one who opened an Italian restaurant near the hotel and planted a nine foot tall fork in the ground in front of it.

Two boutique hotels have also recently opened in Mompox. Portales de la Marquesa opened in 2013 after a 14 month renovation of a house that dates back to 1735.  Located on the riverfront, the hotel is now a chic haven with air conditioning, WiFi, fine art, original tile floors, a small pool and a lush central courtyard. You can rent individual rooms or the whole property.

 Portales de la Marqueza Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

The enormous suite at Portales de la Marqueza boutique hotel in a restored Colonial building in Mompox, Colombia.

Bioma Boutique Hotel opened in 2011 after a year of sometimes controversial renovations which included a fair amount of demolition and hand washing the original terracotta roof tiles. New ironwork was all produced locally and the view from the roof deck is amazing. Don’t miss the small niche to the left of the front door, a remnant of the days when the building was used as a movie theater and tickets were sold through the niche.

Bioma Boutique Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

A guest room at Bioma Boutique Hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.

IMG_5518

A view of Mompox rooftops from the roof deck a the Bioma Boutique Hotel.

Eating and drinking in Mompox

Head for the square in front of the Santo Domingo Church and look for the cooks and waiters wearing shirts that say Asadero Donde Chepa. Here you’ll eat the best US$4 steak you’ll ever have along with homemade chimichurri and fantastic hot sauce.

Asadero Donde Chepa - Mompox, Colombia

Head to Asadero Donde Chepa in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mompox for tasty grilled meat meals at economical prices.

Then head to Plaza Concepcion and Cafe Ti where you can claim a rocking chair out front, enjoy a cold beer and watch local boys play chess on fold-up mats as bats swoop overhead and the Magdalena slowly meanders by. Look for the saxaphone on the wall outside the front door and look forward to hearing New Orleans style jazz and ragtime as you enjoy the breeze.

IMG_7055

Locals play chess on fold out boards in front of Casa Ti on Plaza Concepcion in Mompox, Colombia.

A great economical lunch can be had at Comedor Costeña where around US$4 gets you a full plate of meat, salad, rice and a cold beverage right next to the river.

Things to do in Mompox

If you insist on “doing something” in Mompox you can visit the Museo de Arte Religioso (about US$2) for a guided tour of religious paintings and statues, silver pieces and portraits of Bolívar. The Casa de Cultura (about US$1) can also be visited. Keep your eyes open for original frescoes peeking through some walls. Just be aware that you may have to wake somebody up to let you.

Local crafts include delicate filigree jewelery and brutally sweet fruit wine but that’s about the extent of your shopping options.

You can also book a river trip on the Magdalena or to small islands within the sprawling, Mississippi-like flow.

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

The end of another lazy day in Mompox, Colombia as the sunset lights up the sky behind La Iglesia Concepcion.

Getting to Mompox

Getting to Mompox is tricky because the town sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains. However, reaching Mompox has gotten easier since we were there.

When we made the trip from Aracataca it took seven hours of driving including more than 40 miles (65 km) over rough unpaved road and a “ferry” over the Magdalena River itself which consisted of three pontoons tied together with a platform on top for people and vehicles.

Our heavy truck made the whole contraption groan and pitch as we pulled on along with seven motorcycles and about a dozen people. Check it out in our video, below.

Our truck got stuck getting off the ferry on the other side of the river when a rear tire pushed the ferry backward, trapping the tire between the ferry ramp and the riverbank. It took four men to push us out in four-wheel drive. After another 20 miles (32 km) of bad road we finally reached Mompox.

Travel tip: If the route you choose takes you past a town called La Gloria make time for a brief visit because this is the birthplace of the Biblioburro, a mobile lending library on the back of a donkey.  We regret not stopping.

The trip to Mompox has recently gotten much easier. The route from Aracataca is now entirely paved and a new eight mile (12 km) long bridge is scheduled to open in December 2015 which will ease access even more. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.

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Photo Essay: Christmas in the Andes of Colombia

Traveling during a holiday that’s shared in your home country is a great way to fast-track to the heart of a foreign culture as you compare local traditions with your own. That was certainly true for us as we traveled from our base in Sogamosa to small towns in the Andes of Colombia as they geared up for Christmas with their own unique takes on crèche Nativity scenes, including one deep underground in a former salt mine and one made out of coal. We also saw plenty of Christmas trees made out of recycled bottles and took in the stunning town-wide Christmas lights show in Corrales and more. Get a glimpse of what Christmas looks like in Colombia through our favorite moments from Christmas in the Andes.

Recycled-water-bottle-christmas-tree-Barichara-Colombia

The first of a long list of Christmas trees made from recycled plastic bottles was this one, spotted in the main plaza in the amazingly restored Colonial town of Barichara,  Colombia.

Corrales: Big lights, small city

Though the town of Corrales is a tiny, sleepy place for most of the year it puts on a big city holiday light show for Christmas drawing gawkers from around the country who come for the festive display of lights which are placed on anything that doesn’t move. They also enjoy the town’s famous golf-ball-sized Genova chorizos. The whole town smelled like Santa and sizzling sausages.

Christmas lights plaza Corrales Colombia

Christmas lights of Corrales Colombia

Luces de Navidad, Corrales Colombia

Mejor luces de Navidad, Corrales Colombia

Corrales Colombia Christmas snowman

Corrales Sogamoso Colombia Christmas lights

Corrales Colombia Christmas lights

The Christmas light show in Corrales, Colombia included one display that did more than just twinkle and flicker.  Check it out in our video, below.

Salt Cathedral: World’s deepest Nativity scene?

Hundreds of feet underground lies a Nativity scene that is on display year round. It’s part of the Salt Cathedral in the town of Zipaquirá and every figure is carved from salt.

Nativity Pesebre Salt Cathedral Colombia

Boyacá: battle of the Nativity scenes

As we traveled through the department of Boyacá we noticed that every town’s Nativity scene had a poster next to it announcing its participation in a department-wide contest to find the very best interpretation of this Christmas classic which is called a pesebre (crib) in Spanish. Here are our favorites.

Nativity Pesebre Aquitania Lake Tola Colombia

We were amazed by the craftsmanship of the figurines in this Nativity scene in the town of Aquitania, Colombia on the shores of Lake Tota.

Nativity Pesebre Puntalarga Colombia

The main drag through the town of Punta Larga was lined with life-size depictions of the story of Jesus’ birth.

Nativity Pesebre coal Topaga Colombia

Topaga is a town in the heart of Colombian coal country and they have developed an industry around carving the uniquely hard coal from their hills. This includes their Nativity scene which was made entirely from coal.

Nativity Pesebre Mongui Colombia

The town of Mongui, Colombia uses its bucolic river-side setting to good use by building its Nativity scene on the banks of the water as it flows through town.

Nativity coalNativity Pesebre Cuitiva Colombia Cuitiva Colombia

Yes, those are eggs for heads in the Nativity scene we found in Cuitva, Colombia.

Nativity Pesebre Tibasosa Colombia

The wise men arrive in the Nativity scene in Tibasosa, Colombia.

Nativity Pesebre Iza Colombia

We love that the town of Iza, Colombia blanketed their huge and detailed Christmas display in fake snow.

Check out our video post to see the Christmas traditions in the Colombian town of Villa de Leyva which are dominated by three nights of fireworks. And don’t miss our photo essay about the amazing Ruta de Navidad Christmas light displays in Bogota.

Fireworks Villa de Leyva Festival de Luces

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Christmas Fireworks Videos, Festival de Luces – Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Every year the Colonial town of Villa de Leyva, just a few hours from Bogota, Colombia, pulls out all the stops for Christmas. The highlight is the traditional Noche de las Velitas (Night of the Little Candles) which celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. This has evolved through the years into three nights of fireworks set off right from the town’s inordinately huge central plaza. Rival crews compete to be the best of the fest and the event marks the start of the heart of the holiday season.

The 2013 Festival de Luces was the 27th anniversary of this celebration. Locals and a smattering of travelers gathered in the plaza and on nearby patios fortified with bottles of Old Parr Whiskey or aguardiente and cups of hot chocolate or (better yet) boozy canelazo, a beloved holiday hot toddy.

We arrived with our cameras, of course, so you can see the surprisingly serious displays for yourself.

Festival de Luces Fireworks Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Festival de Luces 2013 Christmas fireworks in Villa de Leyva, Colombia

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZcyO3ahWr4?rel=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhE_bbg2CVY?rel=0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69KsgJJGL6I?rel=0

 

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The Heart and Soul of Handicrafts – Pueblos Blancos & Masaya, Nicaragua

The Pueblos Blancos (white towns) are reached by traveling about an hour from Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The towns got their collective name either because of the stark white churches that anchor their central squares or the fact that their streets used to be paved with a white limestone concoction or the fact that the buildings used to be painted white to ward off bad spirits. It depends on who you ask. One thing is not in dispute: the Pueblos Blancos are the heart and soul of handicrafts in Nicaragua. We also found the best street food in the country (Andrew Zimmern endorsed) here and managed to miss one of the oddest festivals in the world (hint: it involves bull penises).

Lake Masaya, Nicaragua from Al Cielo hotel

Hacienda Puerta del Cielo Eco Spa is in the jungle outside Masatepe and offers one of the best views of Lake Masaya and Masaya Volcano.

The best handicrafts in Nicaragua

The road leaves Managua behind and is soon lined with family run furniture stalls acting as both shop and workshop. Rocking chairs are a favorite item and a staple of life in Nicaragua. The town of Masatepe fancies itself the rocking chair capital of the country, but the furniture on offer runs the gamut from some truly well-crafted dining sets to amazingly kitchy children’s beds.

If it’s decorative pottery or dishes you’re after, head to San Juan de Oriente. And for houseplants, head to the seemingly endless greenhouses in Catarina. You could furnish your whole house (tacky or tasteful) and do your landscaping too without ever leaving this area. Many people do.

The oddest festival in Nicaragua

Every town in every country in Latin America has an annual festival to honor their particular patron saint. It’s a good excuse to muddle up piety and partying and residents look forward to and plan for their patron saint days all year-long.

Things are done a little differently in the Pueblos Blancos of Diria and Dirioma where, every year, their patron saints are honored with a “dicking” festival during which presumably drunk adults (read: mostly young men) wander the streets whacking each other with dried out, elongated bull penises. This phallic fun is not done anywhere else in the country for fairly obvious reasons.

Sadly (sort of) we missed this festival but the best local English language news source, the Nicaragua Dispatch, published a good story on the penis festival spectacle. Yes, there are pictures.

Masaya Volcano from lake Masaya near the pueblos blancos

Masaya Volcano looms over the Pueblos Blancos region of Nicaragua and became dangerously active in 2012.

The best street food in Nicaragua

Furniture and bull penises take a back seat to serious eats in the nearby town of Masaya. Though not technically a part of the Pueblos Blancos it’s close enough and worth a stop especially around 5 pm when a desolate triangle of concrete near the Don Bosco school in a barrio called Monimbo is transformed into El Tiangue (the market), your source for the best street food in Nicaragua.

Fritanga - Masaya, Nicaragua

Welcome to El Tiangue in the town of Masaya, a nightly festival of the best street food in Nicaragua.

Tables heave under loads of artisanal cheese, grilling meat of all descriptions, frying plantains, mountains of rice, stacks of sticky homemade sweets and a whole bunch of stuff we struggled to identify. There’s a reason Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern visited this open-air street food wonderland while filming the show’s “Nicaragua” episode.

Nicaragua is full of fritangas–basic street stands selling grilled meat, chopped cabbage and rice and you’ll eat at plenty of them while you’re in Nica. But Masaya’s El Tiangue takes the fritanga (and more) to a whole new delicious level. We had some of the best grilled chicken we’ve had in our entire lives here, piled high on a plate with rice, crunchy cabbage salad and crispy, salty plantains for shockingly cheap prices. If you’re lucky you might even snag one of the few tables and chairs or just perch on a ledge and dig in with the locals.

Artisan Market  Masaya, Nicaragua

The open-air stone market building in Masaya is a pleasant place to wander and search for quality among the souvenirs on offer.

Masaya is also home to the sprawling Mercado Viejo (old market). The open-air stone market building is a breezy place for an enjoyable stroll and there are some quality finds here but most of the “handicrafts” are ho-hum. Bear in mind that Masaya is especially known for its hand-woven hammocks.

Hammock factory - Masaya, Nicaragua

The town of Masaya is famous for handmade hammocks, not sign makers.

There’s also a malecon (promenade) in town with views of Masaya Lake at the foot of the massive (and recently very, very active) Masaya Volcano.They say the lake, formed in one of the volcano’s dormant craters, is more than 200 feet (70 meters) deep in the middle.

Masaya’s central square is a fine place for a cold Toña, the official beer of Nicaragua, and some quality people watching in the evening after you’ve stuffed yourself silly at El Tiangue.

Masaya, Nicaragua church

Locals gather at the central church in Masaya as the sun goes down.

Masaya-plaza

A roving band accompanies a small procession to the main church in Masaya.

Zeus-Gym

Maybe there were so many gyms in Masaya, all with hyperbolic graphic signs like this one, because everyone eats too much at El Tiangue.

 

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