This university town (pop. 178,000), home to the Universidad de Boyacá, boasts some spectacular churches. Make sure you arrive during church visiting hours, as the city does not have much else to offer. As there are frequent bus connections with Bogotá and Santander, Tunja is a good base from which to explore Boyacá. Everything you need to see in Tunja is located in its centro histórico.
Visitors have been known to audibly gasp at their first sight of the spectacular Capilla del Rosario, a chapel constructed of wood painted in red and gold-plated floral designs.Tunja is a city of churches, with over a dozen that date to colonial times. Hours of visitation can be irregular, but they are always open for mass, which is a good time to take a look. Most churches celebrate mass at about 7am and 6pm daily, with more frequent masses on Sundays. There tend to be more churches open for visitation in the mornings (8am-11:30am) than in the afternoons.
On the eastern side of the Plaza de Bolívar (Cl. 19 at Cra. 9), Catedral Santiago de Tunja (Cra. 9 at Cl. 19) is a 16th-century construction, originally built out of wood and earthen tapia pisada, which is an adobe technique. It was the first cathedral to be built in Nueva Granada. It has three naves, four side chapels, and two front chapels.
Santa Clara La Real (Cra. 7 No. 19-58, Cl. 21 No. 11-31, tel. 8/742-5659 or 8/742-3194, 8am-11:30am and 3pm-4:30pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-11:30am Sat., masses 7am and 5pm Mon.-Sat., 7am, 11am, and 5pm Sun.) was built between 1571 and 1574 and was the first Clarisa convent in Nueva Granada. It has one nave with spectacular gold decorations adoring its presbytery with golden garlands, grapes, pineapples (which were a sacred indigenous symbol), pelicans, an anthropomorphic sun, and other symbols of nature. Also look for the seal of Tunja, the double-headed eagle, modeled on the seal of Emperor Charles V, who gave the city its charter. In the choir is the tiny cell where Madre Josefa del Castillo lived for over 50 years in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. From there she wrote two books and several poems, with themes of sexual repression and mystical descriptions of heaven and hell. Near her cell are some frescoes made with coal, an abundant resource in the area. The adjacent Convento Santa Clara La Real was undergoing a painstakingly careful restoration at the time of writing.
The sky-blue interior of the Iglesia de Santa Bárbara (Cra. 11 No. 16-62, between Clls. 16-17, tel. 8/742-3021, 8:30am-12:30pm and 2pm-6pm daily, masses 5:30pm and 6pm Mon.-Fri., 7am, 9am, 10am, and 11am Sat., noon, 5pm, 6pm, and 7pm Sun.) and Mudejar ceiling designs make this one of the prettiest churches in Tunja. The single-nave structure, with two chapels making the form of a cross, was completed in 1599. When it was built, it was raised at the edge of Tunja, near an indigenous settlement.
Built in the 1570s, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán (Cra. 11 No. 19-55, tel. 8/742-4725, 8am-11:30am Mon.-Fri., 7am and 6pm masses Mon.-Fri., 7am and 6pm masses Sat., 7am, 10am, noon, and 6pm masses Sun.) is one of the most elaborately decorated churches in Colombia. Visitors have been known to audibly gasp at their first sight of the spectacular Capilla del Rosario, a chapel constructed of wood painted in red and gold-plated floral designs. It’s often dubbed the Sistine Chapel of baroque art in Latin America. Figures of El Nazareno and El Judío Errante are part of the collection of paintings and woodcarvings in this church with several chapels. If you have time to visit just one church in Tunja, make it this one.
The Claustro de San Agustín (Cra. 8 No. 23-08, tel. 8/742-2311, ext. 8306, 8:30am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-1pm Sat., free) dates to the late 16th century. It served as an Augustinian convent until 1821, when it was taken over by the government. The friars were sent to another convent, and the building would become the home of the Colegio de Boyacá and later transferred to the Universidad de Boyacá. Adorning the corridors around the patio are several murals dating back to the colonial era. The claustro (cloister) is administered by the Banco de la República, and they often hold cultural events here. You can settle down with a book or work on your computer in the pleasant reading rooms.Other religious sights worth visiting include the 17th-century Iglesia San Ignacio (Cra. 10 No. 18-41, tel. 8/742-6611, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Wed.-Sat.), which now serves as a theater, and the Templo y Convento San Francisco (Cra. 10 No. 22-32, tel. 8/742-3194, 10:30am-12:30pm and 3pm-5:30pm daily, 7am, 11am, noon, and 7pm mass Mon.-Fri., 11am, noon, 6pm, and 7pm mass Sat., 8am, 10am, 11am, noon, 5pm, 6pm, and 7pm mass Sun.), one of the oldest churches and monasteries in Tunja. It was an important base for evangelization of nearby indigenous communities.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Colombia.