- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

VILLA DE LEYVA, Colombia — It’s easy to feel you have stepped back centuries when you walk through the cobblestone streets of this former Spanish colonial village.

Villa de Leyva, its architecture largely unchanged since it was founded in the mid-1500s, is one of the few areas of Colombia spared by the country’s four-decade-old civil war.

On a recent three-day weekend, several expatriate families — including European diplomats, American and European oil executives and American journalists — made the three-hour drive to Villa de Leyva, a trip that would have been unsafe until recently.

Two years ago, rebels erected roadblocks on a highway linking the village to Bogota, the capital, kidnapping and killing several travelers. Since the army and police re-established control over the area in the past year, however, the route is considered safe, and Villa de Leyva is beginning to thrive as a tourist destination.

Still, some of the oil executives, who could be prime kidnapping targets for rebels fighting in the war, rode in armored jeeps as a radio-equipped security guard zoomed ahead on a motorcycle to make sure the path was clear.

Every few miles, army patrols, some backed by tanks, guarded the highway for the thousands of travelers streaming out of the capital for the holiday weekend.

The group of foreigners drove over misty, winding roads along the flanks of Andean mountains until the valley cradling Villa de Leyva opened up before them. The cars wobbled over the cobblestone streets as the caravan passed the town’s broad main square and pulled into the Hosteria del Molino la Mesopotamia, a 450-year-old former hacienda that once was a retreat for Spanish viceroys.

In its early days, the Mesopotamia housed a mill, with water coming from a small spring-fed reservoir that now is used as a swimming pool. One of the original millstones is on display in the hotel restaurant.

The hotel rooms, most of which open onto an interior courtyard, come in all shapes and with all sorts of furnishings.

One features a brocaded four-poster bed suitable for royalty. Another has a loft. Heavy wood beams, and doorways low enough to bang your head against if you aren’t careful, underscore the age of the place. Paths running through the grounds are bordered by exotic flowers in a panoply of colors.

Once checked into a hotel or hostel, most people leave their cars behind and walk around the village. Its narrow streets are lined with thick-walled whitewashed houses with purple bougainvillea cascading from balconies. Tawny mountains — green during the winter — rise up beyond.

Villa de Leyva is fast becoming an artists colony. Many of the restaurants have paintings on the walls with price stickers attached. Several of the village’s larger homes have been converted into handicraft stores and art galleries that face interior courtyards with flowering trees and fountains.

Camaleon, a new restaurant off the main plaza, has excellent steaks and pasta. Across the square, families with children often gather at a pizzeria with outdoor seating. Small restaurants are sprinkled along several streets, along with coffee shops and bars selling tropical and subtropical juices, including the green and chunky feijoa, a local specialty, and tart lulo.

For day trips outside town, there is horseback riding through terrain reminiscent of New Mexico, mountain biking and fossil hunting. A fossil museum featuring pieces from what once was a seabed is a few miles outside town, as is an Indian archaeological site featuring gigantic phallic symbols.

If Colombia were at peace, tourists from all over the world would be flocking to Villa de Leyva, as they do to Antigua outside Guatemala City or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. Mostly, it is Colombian tourists from the capital who come here.

As a soft night fell over Villa de Leyva, the bells in the cathedral on the main plaza tolled. People flocked to warmly lit restaurants and bars.

Walking back to the Mesopotamia, a traveler paused at a deserted plaza. The stars twinkled overhead in a charcoal sky. Time seemed to stand still. The silence was broken by a clattering of hooves as a rider wearing a cowboy hat, jeans and chaps led a string of horses past, then disappeared down a side street.

Back at the hotel, the visitors from Bogota gathered for drinks and conversation before a glowing fireplace. Colombia’s war, recent terrorist attacks in the capital and the threat of kidnapping all seemed a long way off.

• • •

Visas are not required for Americans and most other nationalities. Check with the Colombian consulate or your travel agent if in doubt.

Many airlines fly to Bogota from the United States — including Avianca, the Colombian airline — and from Latin American and European cities.

Car rental agencies are plentiful in Bogota. Take the highway northeast to the city of Tunja, then follow the signs from Tunja to Villa de Leyva. Buses are available from the Libertadores terminal in Bogota, at Autopista Norte and Calle 170, for about $7 round trip, with a change of buses in Tunja.

Do not stray off the highways en route. Check with the U.S. Embassy or the Colombian police if in doubt about security.

The Mesopotamia hotel charges about $51 per night for a family-size room. Call 57-987-32-02-25 for reservations. Travel agents in Bogota have information on other hotels.

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