14th -21st December
The Colombian capital of Bogota is such a polar opposite to Villa de Leyva from where we had just come from that it is honestly a bit of a shock to the system! The sheer amount of vehicles crammed onto the roads compete with pedestrians for every little available space, driving here is little short of a nightmare. Buses and trucks churn out thick black smoke alongside clapped out cars and the well-heeled in shiny new 4×4’s all trying to get somewhere amongst the mayhem.
It is the second highest capital city in South America on a high plateau in the Andes mountains at 2640 metres and is also the largest and most populous with a population of around 8 million.
In the 90’s, the city was considered to be one of the most violent in the world but government plans to reduce it have worked, steadily reducing the crime rate over the years. Although it has improved, crime is still a reality and so we decide not to risk taking the camera equipment with us when walking around the streets. Crime is highest after dark when the very visible police presence disappears for the day.
We set out on foot heading to central Bogota and the historic La Candelaria area, a colonial barrio, and the main tourist area which is filled with museums, cafes, backpacker hostels, students and restored old houses. The streets are filled with interesting artistic graffiti.
Our first stop is the free and fun Museo Botero housed in a lovely colonial mansion over two floors filled with art and sculptures related to all things chubby all donated by the artist, Botero himself in 2000, including international pieces by Picasso and Monet.
Botero is Colombia’s most famous artist, considered a national treasure and the gallery represents one of Latin America’s most important art collections. His requirements were that the art be at eye-level, unobstructed and free to all.
Seeing the priceless works of art in a pretty setting in the heart of the city makes for a great experience; there are curious paintings of chubby men, many of which are self-portraits, women and children, animals and others which depict the social and political life of Colombia depicted in a quite often hilarious, large over exaggerated volume. More sketching’s and oil paintings in the artists unique style are all housed around an open central courtyard with a fountain.
A short walk away is the city’s most famous museum, the grand Museo del Oro or Gold museum. We opt for a free guided tour and find we have a personalised one! The young but very enthusiastic guide takes us around the biggest collection of pre-hispanic gold in the world, more than 55,000 pieces of gold laid out over 3 floors.
There are so many exquisite pieces, figurines, ceramics, textiles and ornaments all made by the indigenous Colombians providing a glimpse into the lives of these ancient people. They believed the art was symbolic of the spirit realm and were imbued with the power of the spirits themselves.
An elaborate gold face covering worn by a powerful leader, symbolic of the jaguar, a symbol which is seen in many of the gold pieces.
There are many mixed figurines which are intriguing, a man-eagle, a jaguar-frog and a bird-woman. Some of the pieces are so minute that the intricacies of the artwork can only be seen under a microscope! Our guide explains that shaman rituals would be carried out using golden trays and hallucinogenic plants. The shaman would journey between the middle upper and lower worlds, thereby connecting with them all.
Our favourite piece is the small but intricately made Muisca golden raft forming the centrepiece of the upper room which was crafted between 600 and 1600 and found in a cave by three farmers in 1969. It represents the El Dorado ceremony in which the heir to the chief would cover his body in gold dust, jump into the lake and offer gold and emeralds to the Gods. The ceremonial raft would have been constructed from reeds.
There’s also a slightly surreal experience where the lights are turned off in a room, native people chant to a rhythm as pieces of gold are lit up all around us!
A trip to Bogota would not be complete without visiting Monserrate, the 3152metre peak at its centre. We walk via the Plaza de Bolivar and the bronze statue of Simon Bolivar passing small market stands along the way selling jewellery, hats and gloves etc. The rest of the city also seems to have the same idea as us as we queue in a long line with the locals to take the cable car to the top. The mountain is a place of pilgrimage for many Colombians, as there is a shrine to the El Senor Caido, (Fallen Lord) in the sanctuary behind the church.
You can also hike to the top which takes about an hour climbing 600m. Every Sunday and during the Easter week, some locals climb the entire thing on their knees! The reason being as an act of penance for their sins.
The street just below the cable car is busy with street vendors selling pink candyfloss and obleas, a buttery corn on the cob.
The staff cram as many people as possible in for the ride up but once at the top, the views and cool mountain air is great! At the summit, there are lots of religious statues everywhere and the gardens are bright with flowers.
It’s a sunny day with a stunning birds eye view over the sprawling city which stretches for as far as the eye can see. At the top, there is a lovely 17th century white church which is packed with people.
As we walk through the cute market selling trinkets, doing as the locals do, we stop for some traditional coca tea, to help with the altitude!
There are also many small busy restaurants at the back of the market place, each showing off their own overflowing mound of food 🙂
Coca, widely known in western society as the source of the drug cocaine and until 1903 was used as an ingredient to make Coca Cola. Coca Cola still uses cocaine-free coca leaf extract in its recipe today whilst other soft drinks in South America still include the coca leaf.
Coca has been used by the native people of Colombia and South America in general for thousands of years. The guide at the museum explained to us that local leaders of the tribes would use Coca to aid meditation, to focus their mind and to suppress their appetite and thirst.
It was also used in medicine as as an anaesthetic and analgesic to relieve headaches and pain from wounds, sores and a number of other conditions.
As in the past, today Coca is widely use to combat the effects of altitude sickness; throughout the Andes you will find both shops and cafes offering Coca tea.
During the week we get a message from Miguel who had seen us driving around and kindly invites us for dinner at his parent’s house. Miguel had also previously taken his bike across South America.
We also stop to get an oil cooler fitted at Iguana 4×4 and bump into Landcruising Adventure who have been on the road for 10 plus years with the majority of their time spent in South America!
One evening, we walk to the plaza which is decked out in Christmas lights. The square is packed with people and there is a big stage being set up where we watch a Christmas carol festival complete with Father Christmas, singing choir and full band.
We leave the crowds behind and walk up a street with small 2 story restaurants all trying to entice us to come into theirs. Picking one at random, we go upstairs but it is so steaming hot up there for some reason that we come back down again! As we had not yet tried it, we opt for a traditional Sancocho, a soup filled with huge pieces of beef, corn on the cob, potato, plantain and tomato which is delicious.
Next stop, the Colombian coffee region!