Iglesia y Convento de Santa Clara Real was meant to be quite an impressive colonial church and complex resplendent with a profusion of religious artwork from the period but was unfortunately closed when we were in town. There was no notice to the effect but it was literally around the corner from our hotel so we went by the 1571 convent numerous times only to find its doors closed. Hopefully, it was being restored as it looked in quite disrepair from its exterior. It would be nice to see it join the ranks of the other fine colonial buildings in town and help make Tunja the attraction it should be.
While Casa Cultural Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was not up to par with either of our other colonial casa visits, it was interesting enough and since it was free, we couldn't complain about our Spanish-only-speaking guide. Home to the famed former president of Colombia by a military coup, the museum features an art collection and memorabilia and photos of the corrupt and brutal dictator.
While the building was not as impressive and it lacks the stunning interior furnishings, the museum was certainly eye-opening and our guide was very enthusiastic about showing us around, even for free. Doreen did an amicable job of listening to the whole tour but my Spanish listening skills, especially on a topic like history which is only so interesting to me in my own language, left me mentally wandering a bit.
Certainly worth a look if you have extra time in town and/or are fluent in Spanish!
Though quite pretty from the outside, Iglesia de San Ignacio was never open while we were in town and perhaps is no longer in service. Despite it's prominent position in town and its exterior being in great shape, I found very little about it on the Internet nor was it mentioned in my guidebook. The little I do see is in Spanish and since I'm not exactly fluent in that fine language, I'll leave further investigation up to you. You'll not miss it as it's just off the main square and quite close to Delicio Almojabana!
Iglesia de San Augustin turned out to be one of our favorite sights in town perhaps not despite it no longer being a church but because it now houses a library. The quiet courtyard was at the time displaying a fine collection of fairy tale artwork which was one of the more interesting exhibitions we saw while in Colombia. It's a bit on the edge of town but well worth the walk as entrance is free and main facade is still a pretty example of colonial architecture even if there is no special exhibition. Take a peek inside none-the-less as it's a nice glimpse into Colombian kids studying and the library rooms are fairly impressive if in need of a bit of loving care.
Since we had such a great experience at Casa Del Fundador Suarez Rendon we decided to check out its bookend colonial masterpiece across the square. Casa de Don Juan de Vargas did not disappoint. In fact, the home Tunja's most noted writers is every bit the 16th century stunner, again with rich ornately painted ceilings and great period furnishings. As a bonus, the courtyard was much prettier and there was a back garden area that seemed worlds away from the hustle bustle of the busy city that is Tunja.
Our guide was not as knowledgeable, nor as fluent in English but she was young, quite cute and obviously enjoying doing the tour in English. At 2000 COP ($1), it was again a bargain and we were glad we decided to it as well.
Sometimes you cannot judge a book by its cover and certainly churches by their exteriors. At the end of Pasaje de Vargas you pop out on rather large but simple looking Iglesia de Santo Domingo with its plain white facade. Once inside the 16th century marvel, you are overwhelmed by what is easily one of the most stunning church interiors in all of Colombia and perhaps the continent. Intricate wood carving abounds and a mother-of-pearl statue of the Virgen del Rosario sits prettily in this baroque masterpiece decorated by Quito's Fray Pedro Bedon. Somehow it had an Asian feel to it, almost like a temple, perhaps influenced by the mixture of gold and red. At any rate, we loved it and stopped in every time we were remotely in the area, which was every day we were in town. Not to be missed.
Casa Del Fundador Suarez Rendon was one of the top highlights sight-wise for us during our stay in Tunja which was surprisingly crammed with colonial marvels like this one. Its stunning exterior is perfectly captured late afternoon but do not miss its equally impressive interior. Period furnishings hint at the aristocratic lifestyle on the conquering Spanish with ornately painted ceilings the obvious standout features.
This was also a fun visit and gave us an idea how hard Tunja is trying to capture the tourist trade currently monopolized by nearby Villa de Leyva, forever endearing it to us. Our new Christian friend Daniel took us here and arranged an English-speaking tour guide. We thought he was looking for a tip but it turned out he was just very good-natured and enjoyed talking in English himself. The guide was quite good, humorous and we were given a very private and informative tour of the mansion of the founder of Tunja. Admission was 2000 COP ($1) each.
The most stunning building exterior on Plaza de Bolivar is easily Catedral Santiago de Tunja. Dating back to 1554, it is not only the town's largest but also most elaborate church. It is best captures in photos late afternoon with its west facing front.
While Tunja's Plaza de Bolivar is no stunner it is the center of a very vibrant city, full of students going about their daily business. This is no made for tourists Disney-incarnation of a South American city as some may allude to neighboring Villa de Leyva. Though there are some garish modern buildings on the square, there are some nice ones as well and if you want to experience a truly authentic Colombian town, you have come to the right place. The requisite statue of the plaza's namesake stands proudly in its center.