An early morning arrival into Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. My lovely airbnb hosts, Juliana and Juan, had arranged for a driver to collect me at the airport taking away some of my anxieties about visiting this city that has, regardless of whether it is deserved, a poor reputation in terms of crime.
After a bit of rest I was off exploring the city heading straight for Plaza de Bolívar, (commemorates El Liberatador, Simón Bolívar, first President of the Republic of Gran Colombia) for a bit of orientation and people watching. A lovely plaza surrounded by the Congress, Council chambers, court and cathedral.
I was then off to lose myself in La Candelaria; with it’s lovely old colonial buildings and myriad of museos. My first stop was Museo Botero, which houses a wonderful art collection donated by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero in 2000. Botero is a prolific producer of art and has a wonderfully distinctive style of oversized subjects. He’s particularly know for his renaissance inspired pieces – the Mona Lisa was definitely one of my favourites. The collection also includes many works by European artists such as Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Miro, Moore and the list goes on; quite a treat.
The Casa de Modena (the Mint) was the next to be visited. It provided a great history of the colonisation and independence of Colombia through coins and notes.
Colombia’s history is pretty fascinating given its past relationship with neighbouring countries of Peru, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. Essentially these countries were colonised by the spaniards in the 1500s and established as Nueva Granada. There was then a period in which a number of the provinces (now countries) were established as a republic in 1819 – the colonists had lost interest in retaining ties with Spain once the French had taken rule of parts of Spain. Infighting continued between the united countries who had opposing views on centralisation and federalisation until finally Colombia obtained independence as the republic of Colombia.
The usual decimation of the indigenous population occurred with 95% of the muiscas (central indigenous peoples) and taironas (Sierra Navada indigenous peoples) being wiped out in the first century of colonial times. Disease was one of the causes but another was the overwork of people through the form of a Clayton’s slavery that was created – high taxes imposed, assigned to colonists to work and then a pittance paid to enable taxes to be paid.
The mint also contained an art collection from local artists. One group of paintings that caught my eye was of women lying in their coffins with flowers adorning their dresses. Apparently the colonial women of the elite had two fates (as determined by their father) – the convent or marriage. The paintings depicted those who had led a life of sanctity; the flowers representing the virtues of the nun while alive – red rose for passion, iris for chastity, carnation for love, lily for purity, jasmine for elegance and grace and violets for humility. I ponder what my flower would be had I chosen the nunnery!
Time to check out what food the supermarket had on offer for this vego – motorbikes, yep, right next to the bananas! I wonder if Aldi will branch into this market?
There was no real evidence of tourists on the street or at least they were difficult to spot unless you heard them speak, although Juliana and Juan tell me that the number of tourists is growing markedly.
The streets are packed with people, regardless of the day of the week. Eight million of the 45 million Colombians live in Bogotá.
Wheeled stalls are everywhere selling hotfood, snacks and fresh fruit – whole, cut, fruit salad or as juices. The other occupants of the streets are horses – pulling buggies of all sorts of things from rubbish to fuel for cooking to construction materials. With all these people and activity it’s not surprising that the traffic and fumes are quite bad in the city. A system of regulating car use in the city by number plate has been adopted to help this – I’m told the rich get around it by buying two cars enabling city driving any day of the week.
I visited the Catedral de Sal (Cathedral carved into salt 130m underground) in Zipaquira the following day. The cathedral adjoins the 4th largest salt mine in the world. More than 400 tonnes of salt is mined here per day and there’s enough to continue mining for another 500 years.
Salt was the first commodity of the muiscas; used to barter for other goods (‘sal’ > salary?). Next was gold, reflected in the legend of El Dorado (the chief who as part of a spiritual ritual coated himself in gold dust and then immersed himself in the lake – rather than any treasure trove as hoped by the Spaniards). Emeralds were the final commodity with Colombia being the largest miner of emeralds. Interestingly Colombia is the second largest exporter of cut flowers, after Holland. Lovely flower stalls and shops run along streets in particular districts.
The Museo del Oro (gold museum) provided a good insight into the use of gold by the indigenous people of Colombia and South America. Easy to see where the current style of tribal body piercings originated and why the spaniards were so interested in Colombia – the collection of body and wall adornments was amazing. The choice of adornment for breasts and the penis are interesting!
Final stop for the day was the national museum – another in a prison. It was lovely to see all of the locals there taking advantage of free entry on Sundays (by luck I too had managed to visit all of the museos on their free days). Wonderful museum exhibiting pre-Hispanic pieces through to pieces associated with the liberation of Colombia. Unfortunately most of the information was in Spanish but I was able to get the gist of most of it. Botero’s works also featured as did some art from South American artists like Ceballos – I didn’t think it was quite in the class of the European masters. There was also a great display of the women who had made a significant contribution to Colombia’s independence.
Took me a bit to get the street numbering system (on a grid using numbers rather than names). Knowing my Spanish numbers (thanks Paula) certainly helped as I asked people directions (the rest was worked out by hand gestures!).
Final full day in Bogotá and I was off on a bicycle tour. We did the rounds of the national park, hockey and blind football fields (ball bearings in the ball guide the players – seeing refs are used), bullfighting ring (current mayor doesn’t support bullfighting, nor does a lot of the population, so he turns it into an ice skating rink on occasions).
The street art is pretty amazing – you know it’s well respected when others haven’t tagged all over it!
A visit to the national university (public and very left wing) was interesting – plenty of political slogans painted on the buildings along with faces of some adored revolutionaries. I chuckled at the so-named Lenin Plaza at the art building. We were told that the peace rally planned for tomorrow on the anniversary of Jorge Gaitan’s death (parliamentary candidate assassinated in 1948) was likely to be well attended as the country attempted to finalise peace negotiations between the guerrilla group, FARC, and the government).
Riding through the red light district was pretty depressing (Juan has since told me that there is an increase in men coming to Colombia to use the services of these women – doesn’t bode well for the plight of these women). The final stop on the tour was the fruit markets. I’ve never seen so many varieties of fruit in the one place at the one time in all my life – standard citrus and apples, mixed with stone fruits and tropical varieties I’d never seen before, even in Asia. The benefits of this temperate climate.
All in all the bicycle tour was a success once I realised I needed to ride like an Italian driver – assertive and full bottle, brake, full bottle, brake! For some drivers the traffic lanes seem to be more for decoration than use as lane delineation.
I had the realisation on my return home that the reason I was getting so out of breath with little exertion was the altitude – Bogotá is the world’s third highest capital city after Lima and Quito respectively. Nothing a lovely meal of tapas in La Macarena (the bohemian area) with Juliana and Juan couldn’t fix!
Wow, Colombians know how to rally! The peace march was huge – I woke to the sounds of the chanting. Once on the ground all I could see was a sea of white shirts and flags with people organised into their respective associations and chanting their respective anthems. It was wonderful to see such a huge turnout – I would have thought there were at least a million on the streets. I had to actually get into the march and move with it a couple of blocks to take a side street up to Cerro Monteserrate.
Up to Monteserrate by funicular (it’s 3150m above sea level) and I could still hear the chanting – was pretty powerful. I then bolted home, again weaving through the sea of marchers still coming to the square, to get to the bus terminal for a trip to the preserved colonial town of Villa de Leyva in the Colombian Highlands.
The very comfortable coach trip was just over $10 AUD for the 4 hour journey! We passed a huge contrast in housing highlighting the extremes between the wealthy and poor. The usual food and fruit stalls dotted along the way and at the stops (sometimes just light signal stops) vendors were allowed onto the bus to sell their wares to passengers.
The short intervals between roadside crosses was disturbing – looked like a good proportion of the 100 000 people killed on the roads in Colombia each year may have occurred in these parts.
My home for the next two nights was Renacer Hostal – a lovely colonial finca in the hills just out of town. Another biker – this time he was sharing my dorm room along with his body guards that took up half the room. Unfortunately he had no concept of lighting and it’s effect on sleeping people so had no concerns about turning on the lights on his return from town well after midnight. Obviously didn’t have the itorch app on his phone!
My orientation of the town was on horseback. It’s been a while but I was off galloping in no time – these boobs weren’t made for trotting; something I think my guide worked out quickly as well!
The town is very attractive. The local building by-laws have helped ensure its character is preserved. The 14 000 square metre plaza is said to be the largest in Colombia.
Passed the flour mill established in 1568, four years before the town, and onto the ‘desert’ – land in the plateau below the mountains which has become arid as a result of the over-farming and tree culling of the colonials. I was shown some ‘blue pools’ in the same area which were essentially dams that were blessed with white clay bases giving them a lovely blue hue.
It was then onto the fossil museum, which was supplied with the finds of local farmers. The most significant was the find of a pliosaur in 1977, which has been left in-situ and the museum built around it.
The last stop was a site of the muisca people. The site contained the muisca equivalent of Stone Henge – a series of stones placed to enable a determination of the solstice and equinox and thereby assist this agricultural group of people to determine the right times for planting and pruning, etc.
The other interesting part of the site was what the local’s candidly refer to as ‘Woman’s Paradise’ – the photos give away why. The phallic structures are estimated to be up to 5000 years old and the grooves established through a stone wet saw mechanism (this group of people are not believed to have had metal tools). There is much speculation about how these 15 metre structures were transported from their source on the other side of the mountain. This is also the case for the large slabs of stone of the tomb on the site, which is said to have contained some of the gold and urns I had seen in Bogotá along with the mummies in the national museum – the muiscas are believed to have been into a bit of human sacrifice to help the deceased’s transition to the afterlife.
The poor town has its own noxious lantana; in the form of a plant not unlike Grandfather’s Beard, which some people in Australia use to adorn tree branches. Unfortunately this variety expands all over the tree eventually strangling it. It’s so light it transports from tree to tree easily and so has been disastrous for the local growers.
Things improved on the accommodation front. The manager of the hostel informed me he believed they had made a mistake with my room and that I should have received a double. I assured him I had only booked a bed in the dorm but he insisted on the upgrade – lucky me! He had been my horse-ride tour guide and had told me during the tour of his two years of post graduate study in Australia (mostly in Brisbane) so I think he wanted to look after this Brissie girl.
A good night’s sleep and then I had a morning to visit Casa de Antonio Nariño. Nariño was known as ‘the precursor’ to independence – for his related political activities and jail time (17 out of his 58 years – these were a committed lot).
Lastly I stopped in at the Luis Alberto Acuna Museo. Acuna is a contemporary Colombian artist (born 1904) who applied a pointalist style and this was his home. Aside from his lovely work in the gallery there were interesting sculptures in the garden and murals decorating the walls – depicting pre-Hispanic and colonial times.
My last walk across the beautiful but very awkward cobbled streets. I struggled in thongs – I don’t know how las ninas were doing it in heels!
Unfortunately the coach home wasn’t quite as comfortable but I enjoyed the company of Ellen, a sixty something Canadian woman on the last two days of a six month solo trip through north eastern South America. Ellen had reached most of her port towns by crewing on yachts (despite never having had sailing experience) – mental note on that one for my next trip (findacrew.com)!
On my return to Bogotá that evening Juliana and Juan were kind enough to take me along to a lovely Italian restaurant in Usaquén; the area frequented by the university crowd. A lovely way to farewell these new friends before I head off to an eco-resort in the Caribbean.