Three hours north of Bogotá is the well-preserved colonial town of Villa de Leyva in the Boyacá department of Colombia. Walking into town visually sets you back 400 years. The exceptionally large central plaza and streets are covered in ankle-twisting, high heel breaking cobblestone. It’s clear why this charming town attracts many foreign and local tourists; it’s the perfect getaway from the bustle of Bogotá, and our bags were packed.
We thought that getting to Leyva would be relatively easy – Uber to the bus station and a direct bus to the town. Bam. When we arrived at the station, however, we could not get a bus. We slid from one ticket window to the next, but to no avail. We assumed that since we’d arrived in the afternoon, we missed the buses, or that the buses were all full. As much as we loved our hostel in Bogotá, we were determined to get to this place, so our other option was to take a bus to Tunja, where we’d then be able to catch a local bus to Villa de Leyva (about an hour away). Given the few options we did have, we got on the next bus to Tunja, a long ride with frequent stops. It was raining heavily when we arrived, but we were that much closer to Villa de Leyva, until…
Chit-chat and unsure faces cued us in to what was happening – there were no buses traveling to Villa de Leyva, at least not at that moment. A local strike in the region was affecting transport, and as far as we knew, spending the night in Tunja was very much a possibility. Then all of a sudden, people started running to what we’d soon find out was our bus. Huzza! There were two of these buses, and people packed themselves in. We found ourselves in the back seat of what was more a van than a bus, our heads one bump away from shooting through the roof. Normally, buses to Villa de Leyva cost 4,000 COP (~$1.40), but these opportunists were charging 15,000 COP (~$5.20). In their defense, they made the cost quite clear, and we had few, if any, other options. It took us about 1.5 hours to finally arrive to Villa de Leyva. A little girl on board threw up at one point, and our van was later stopped by a mob of people warning the driver to be careful, because strikers were throwing rocks at buses. Our biggest threat were potholes and the darkness, and thankfully, we arrived safely.
The few hostels we saw along the walk toward the plaza were a bit pricey, so a kind woman in a store directed us across the town center and down the street, and when a tall guy whose look screamed traveler appeared, I was sure to ask him where to find a hostel. He pointed to a place just feet away from us – a hostel whose name I’d recognized from an earlier search, Hostel Rana. An older, mostly serious woman who looked up at us when she spoke (we’re just 5’2), gave us a tour of the hostel. She had a computer, but I think it was there just to occupy space on her desk. She kept record of her guests and their payments in a notebook. We booked two nights in a 4-person room that we had to ourselves (35, 000 COP a person per night ~ $12.20). We were perfectly fine with the price until we found out that the hostel right next door offered the same room (with en suite bathroom) for 25,000 COP per night (~$8.70). We could have slapped ourselves, but refrained because we’d finally made it to this town and would make the most of it.
We spent three days in Villa de Leyva, extending our trip by a day to make room for a hike. With each passing day, we realized just how much this strike affected the area. Travelers arrived, but it became clear that we couldn’t leave – not by any local buses. A group of us at the hostel sat chatting about our predicament, laughing at each other’s unorthodox entrance into the town, unaware at the time of why it was difficult to get there in the first place. A sketchy driver in a red car, a packed van, a bus from another town. Everything now made sense. I thought back to that first day, us going from window to window trying to get a bus to Villa de Leyva, thinking the buses were full. They weren’t full, they were just not running, and now we knew why. It would have been helpful to know then, but so it goes when traveling. We ended up paying a guy with a private vehicle a ridiculous fee to get back to Bogotá (400,000 COP ~$140), despite our best efforts to bargain. We later found comfort in the fact that other drivers were charging similar prices for the same trip. Even so, it was still difficult to hand over all that money, especially since we were only two people. We tried to find two others for the trip, asking around the hostel and going three times (we must have looked crazy) to the hostel next door to find out if anyone was traveling to Bogotá the next day, but our efforts proved unsuccessful. Even our driver tried to find people around the terminal before picking us up, but without luck. We would have stayed an extra day in Villa de Leyva if it were not for our flight out of Bogotá the following day. So, the two of us took the hit. And with all this talk about a transport strike and bus attacks, we saw not one sign of it (thankfully, I guess, but still).
Just to be clear – we did enjoy the trip.