“ Tunja is a city located in Central Columbia. „
Although Villa de Leyva is much more of a tourist town, Tunja has far better transport links (up to 4 buses an hour from Bogota, compared to Villa's two daily departures). For this reason, and because the hotels in Tunja looked a little bigger and better, we decided to stop there for a night en route. We got an early bus from Portal del Norte, and got to Tunja a little after 1pm, a journey of about 3 hours and costing 18,000 pesos (£6 each one way). The bus terminal is small but obvious - we thought we might miss it but it's a proper little stall-lined yard that all the busses pull into even those continuing on to other destinations. The walk to the town centre is easy enough because like many Colombian towns, Tunja works on a grid system so you can count streets rather than looking for road names, but it's also an extremely steep walk and we were quite winded once we'd made it onto the Plaza de Bolivar. In my head, I was accompanying my marching with a "Tun....ja! Up 2,3,4..." It made it a little better.
........ Where's Willy? ........
Like many places in the Americas, Tunja was built on top of an ancient settlement, in this case on the site of Hunza, once a pre-Hispanic stomping ground of the Muisca people. I know little about them other than their fondness for building fields full of stone willies (like El Infiernito about 30km away), but if this was also how they once used the space here, alas nothing remains. Nowadays Tunja is very much a student city, with a fifth of all residents being enrolled at one of the half dozen local universities.
........ Good God ........
Tunja is also a rather religious place, much more openly so than the capital, and we were lucky enough to be there during Easter week. My guide book said things kick off on Maundy Thursday but on the Tuesday night celebrations already seemed to be in full swing. We watched a little from our hotel room and then went down to experience it at street level. The processions were immense, ornate and slightly scary, and people had clearly travelled from nearby towns to take part. I spent my last Semana Santa lying by a pool in Mexico, so it was my first experience of the crazy KKK-style costumes, the barefoot children and the weighty caskets being toted around, some with fake candles, some, alarmingly, with real ones.
........ Building Up Our Expectations ........
We spent the afternoon exploring the town which has a few things of note. The first is the colonial architecture which surrounds the main square and the streets around it. The style is predominantly Mudejar and it incorporates the many churches in town and also the historic mansions, many of which have now been converted into museums or galleries.
The first building we went into was the Case del Fundador Suarez Rendon, the original home of the city's founder. We were looking for the famed ceiling details, but instead found a rather odd temporary exhibition looking at Truth and Tolerance in a quite traumatic way. While the art wasn't really to my taste, the building was pretty with a nice courtyard, and belied its rather drab exterior. That said, I do find it odd when an exhibition looks so foreign against the backdrop of the building it is housed in - this one would have looked a lot less strange in a plain convention hall than in such an ornate building.
We weren't ready to give up, so headed round the corner from the square in search of the other building with the fancy ceilings, and found it in the form of the Casa de Don Juan de Vargas. Unlike the Casa del Fundador, this one had a small entrance fee, and came complete with a guided tour, whether you liked it or not. Our guide was about 14 years old and regularly forgot facts, pausing to try to dredge them from his brain. He also thought everything was 'from the era' or 'reminiscent of the era' and pointed out which things had been in the house when the scribe lived there. The Museum is neither that impressive nor that interesting, with your standard stately-home-esque tables and vases and bookcases ("one of these books is in English," he boasted proudly and then looked scared when I asked him which one, though one was indeed in that language).
The reason we'd gone in in the first place was to see the ceilings as there was a special section in my guide all about these - practically the only thing they said you had to see if ever in Tunja. And these were pretty impressive. The main hall was covered completely in a real mish-mash of illustrations, ranging from Greek Gods to jungle scenes. If you ever fancied seeing Jesus and Zeus peering through the stems of tropical plants and surrounded by monkeys and elephants, this is the place to come. We would quite happily have spent all our time in this one room, rather than traipsing through the others, and although he tried his best, you didn't really need someone saying "and that's an elephant....and that's a rhino" to appreciate that's what they were.
These ceilings were hidden for years, and only discovered when a part collapsed, revealing what lay above it. I'm glad they did as they are quite unusual and made our stopover worthwhile. I certainly didn't begrudge the 2000 peso (about 70p) entrance fee, especially since it came with a pretty ticket to keep. In lieu of postcards (which are hard to find in Tunja) this made a nice souvenir.
........ A Pocketful of Sunshine ........
For a place touted as the coldest and wettest county capital in the country, we had remarkable weather in Tunja, and enjoyed sitting in the Plaza de Bolivar which is far more accommodating to visitors than Villa's Plaza Mayor. In addition to places to sit (at the edge and around the statue in the middle), there were vendors wheeling around trucks selling drinks and ice creams, and an unusual kiddie driving school set up, where you could hire a 'car' (think Barbie Jeeps and the like) and drive around the Plaza.
I was appreciative of the fact the children were confined to this nice, wide open space, as Tunja's streets are extremely narrow - you'd have thought it was Christmas Eve from the way they were packed when we went on a wander to the supermarket, but then it didn't take many people to fill out such a tight space.
........ Tun-yeah? Or Tun-nah? ........
Tunja is an interesting place because despite the few things we visited, it's neither specifically aimed at nor advertised to tourists. It's a more authentic Colombian town than some, and certainly less diverse than Bogota. It's a decent size and can easily be explored on foot, as everything from the bus station to accommodations to the sights are within easy walking distance. The city has a number of small hotels and the large conference one we stayed in, the Hunza (whose name I know understand). There are places to eat but these are more local joints or student hang outs than gourmet restaurants. We ate in Pizza Nostra, and picked up a few bits from local bakeries and the supermarkets too - the centre is quite well equipped in this regard. There are numerous small shops and a few chains, but bigger / better shopping is slightly out of town, for example at the Unicentro mall.
While it's not a place you might want to spend a long time, I was glad we stopped if only for the contrast between here and Bogota and Villa, our other destinations for the week. It's a pleasant enough stopover but doesn't offer enough to warrant a trip in its own right. You can also do it as day trip from Bogota, but you might feel you'd travelled a long way for nothing, and for 5 to 7 hours on a bumpy bus in one day, I'd want a guarantee of a little more than a few pretty painted ceilings at the other end.