Villa de Leyva & Salento: The Epitome of Colombian Charm
Just a few short hours by bus from Bogotá, the village of Villa de Leyva has a laid-back charm to it that will entice you to kick back & stay awhile. I distinctly remember the vibe of Villa de Leyva & how its beautiful aesthetic (cobblestone streets lined by neat houses with intricate wooden facades & scores of terraces) made me immediately regret not having planned a stay longer than two days. The village seems to be a place people mostly go to vacation or live out a relaxed retirement, but it truly comes alive during the annual kite festival in August.
When the kite fest comes to town, Villa de Leyva explodes with activity. The historic city center, complete with imposing cathedral, is transformed by various kiting competitions & thousands of spectators who descend upon Villa to witness the magic. For the better part of an evening & the following day, I camped out on various outdoor terraces- taking in scores of competitions & in complete awe of many of the handmade kites on display. On top of that, the kite fest brings such a crowd that it's easy to link up with a group even as a solo traveler. If you travel to Villa on the weekend of the fest, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance so you can actually stay the night. If it wasn't for Colombian hospitality, I would have learned this the hard way (I ended up staying the evening on the grounds of a beautiful hotel, but in a makeshift room that had previously been a stable... haha).
Outside of the kite fest, Villa boasts scores of unique restaurants & boutiques that provide plenty to enjoy & explore. It's a beyond-charming place to spend a weekend or a few days.
Another Colombian village that has a special draw is Salento, a few hours outside of Medellín in the coffee region of Colombia. Salento itself feels very much like Villa de Leyva - it's got the distinctive flair you'll come to recognize as typical of Colombian villages (although Salento is a bit more commercialized & touristy than Villa).
Visitors come to Salento to hike the famous Corcora Valley (Valle de Corcora), renowned for its beautiful landscape & incredibly tall palms. Restored, colorful Willy Jeeps depart regularly from the Salento town square en route to Corcora Valley. The drive itself (probably about 15 minutes) is spectacular; the views can't be beat & something about the whole experience makes you feel like you're in some Colombian movie (truly a moment where that mysterious magical realism comes alive!). From the drop-off point, it's easy to find a guide to help you navigate the short (2ish hours) or long (half day+) treks possible in the talley for a reasonable price. The valley itself is magnificently beautiful- boasting green, rolling hills as far as the eye can see, the occasional hacienda (& accompanying livestock) & treacherous-looking snow-capped mountains in the distance.
A visit to Salento wouldn't be complete without a visit to a nearby coffee plantation, where you'll learn about everything from coffee plants to coffee roasting. You can either take a Jeep to the plantations or walk yourself (1+ hours each way). Beware of stray dogs if you choose to walk!
Salento itself, like Villa de Leyva, is absolutely brimming with enjoyable restaurants & special boutiques. You can spend hours strolling down the main stretch in Salento taking in all the town has to offer & end your day with a climb to Salento's viewpoint (also a park). The town (nevermind the surrounding area) has plenty to keep you busy & entertained for at least a day or two.
It's not hard to find a hostel in Salento & I've heard great things about plenty. My friend & I stayed in the recently-opened 'El Viajero' hostel while in Salento & had a great time. The hostel has a view that can't be matched & most memorable was our impromptu salsa evening with some of the staff.
You can't go wrong visiting Villa de Leyva or Salento. Either will give you that typical Colombian village experience &, as a result, a deeper connection to the wonderful country of Colombia.