Bogota, Colombia –
A sensational stimuli bombardment! From early morning until late in the evening, the “pedestrian only” Carrera 7 (7th Street) swarms with so many jostling bodies we often just stand back and watch the activity. The flavour is one we quickly identify with this metropolis of eight million; people are focused on their particular mission, all ages and from all walks of life, from the extremely wealthy to those whose home is the street. In the mix are cleaners fighting a loosing battle to keep up with the litter on the grungy sidewalks. Carts laden with street food and sidewalk vendors selling clothing and notions compete for business with restaurants and shops. This popular La Candelaria area street with its old-world-appearance is handy to our Hotel Augusta, which is always a pleasure to come home to. Its pampering and superb services are topped with a view from our window of Monserrate and Guadalupe, the mountains that border Bogota.
One day our walk takes us to Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of Bogota. It is pigeon paradise – a fountain for them to quench their thirst, and plenty of people buying bags of corn to feed them. If stirred up they turn into low-flying missiles just missing our heads. Protestors have overtaken the centre of the square. Their tents circle a bon-fire which I’m sure is stoked up at night when the cool sunny days morph into cold nights with the high elevation of Bogota. Someone has pulled a T-shirt over the torso of the statue of Simeon Bolívar; this hero of the independence movement from Spanish rule is no doubt displaying the current sentiments on the shirt’s logo. In a small cabana petition sheets are being signed; the protest involves the current mayor of Bogota, the particular issues are unclear to us.
Seeing the giant doors of the Capilla (chapel) del Sagrario open (the only colonial structure in the square), we relish in the elaborate interior. The adjoining cathedral is startling in its immensity and is the oldest in Bogota, built in 1823. I imagine the strains of the gigantic organ resounding off the cavernous ceiling. Rick’s standard comment is apropos for each South American country we visit, “Those Spanish sure knew how to build a church!” Other edifices in the square, The Capitolio Nacional (the seat of congress), the Palacio de Justicia (Supreme Court), and the Alcaldia (mayor’s office) are equally as monumental.
All over Bogota we are drawn to the amazing street art (with some plain old graffiti in the mix). The bridges and many walls are ablaze with pictorial political sentiments and cool abstract designs just for the sheer joy of artistic expression. We are also stopped in our tracks by musical talent along the streets, from super-octane teens drumming, to catchy ethnic melodies. Buskers hope for a few pesos from passers-by. Rick drops some coins in the robot’s can, for some action.
Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) of Bogota
A staggering 34,000 pieces of gold from 13 pre-Hispanic societies is ours to behold!
Symbolic offerings fashioned in gold for the gods stun us in their beauty and intricacy. Nose and earring decorations vary, according to rank in these ancient caste societies. Gold masks and plates covering various body parts were sported by the elite, and buried with them. The small gold statues of chieftains (believed to be the descendants of the gods) are depicted as half human and half animal, often a jaguar. We see gold birds used by Shaman as part of their transcendental ritual, their spirits soaring between the ether and earth.
The famed El Dorado comes to life in a circular room. Upon entering the lights fade into total darkness. Music begins to play and the 360 degree walls light up revealing thousands of gold and stone works. The centre of the floor becomes a luminous lake of treasures! My mind swirls with the legend of El Dorado. In the Musica culture a ceremony honouring the goddess Chia was performed, wherein the tribal Chief was taken in a raft by four priests to the middle of Guatavita Lake. His body was doused in gold dust and laden with gold treasures, after which he was submerged in the water as a sacrificial offering to Mother Earth. Based on this legend the Spanish conquistadors spent much resources and time fielding expeditions to find these riches – which they never found. They could have saved themselves the trouble if they had heeded the legend’s summation of the treasures being forever hidden. The most prized gold piece in the museum is the extraordinarily designed 10-inch raft, discovered in 1856, that symbolizes the mythical El Dorado ceremony.
My anthropological passion flares as we move down into the depths of the museum to see the temporary exhibition of Mummy Pishbo. Found by peasants south of Bogota, it is believed to stem from Muisca culture. I gaze upon the mummified body thought to be a male of approximately 30-years-of age. His volumes of hair and his fingers with long nails are highly defined, as are his facial features. His hands are bound at the wrists and are placed as if holding up his chin toward the heavens. He was no doubt an important person, as this mummification using heat, then a wrapping of blankets, nets and skins before being placed in caves was reserved for dignitaries. Carbon-14 dates the time of Mummy Pishbo’s death circa 1520 AD. Being the early colonial era and with Spanish priest’s condemning this custom, these ritual burials continued for a time in secret.
We leave this museum applauding the presentations throughout being as brilliant as the sacred metal of the ancients.
By the time we are ready to leave Bogota we wish we’d had a pedometer to gauge our chalked-up miles. The small number of European and North American visitors on the streets of Bogota is evidence of Colombia being unknown territory to most travellers, due to its reputation of being dangerous. The Cocaine cartels are still carrying on a brisk underground business, and guerrilla insurgents are out there somewhere, but they have no quarrel with travellers who are here to see the sites. With our modus operandi of sticking to the crowded streets, and with the high level of military/police presence, we soon loose our initial paranoia about safety, yet keeping “street smarts” in our upper-mind awareness, as we do in any large city.
Cartagena de Indias, Columbia seaside haven!
The blast of warm, humid air as we deplane is delightfully delicious! The laid-back atmosphere is immediately apparent! A lady with our names on a sign is waiting to tuck us into a car to whisk us to the Stil Hotel, which at 141,500 pesos ($75US) a night first rattled our value-for-money chain! The Stil is tired looking – the only renos we see are a swipe of recent stark white paint. They are upfront about never any hot water, but hey, on the positive side, the mirrors never fog up after a shower, and the hotel is clean with helpful staff. Our later sleuthing reveals prices range upward into the hundreds per night in this resort city, especially at high season!
The location of the Stil is in the midst of the local shopping area, and with Christmas several days away it is merry with shoppers. Right outside our hotel is a small restaurant bar, with dozens of plastic chairs on which mostly men sit with cold cervasas. No more than a stone throw away is the daily hot-spot for the best running shoe display ever spread on concrete – knock-offs of every major brand. And onward for blocks the sidewalks are filled with electronics, the latest Hollywood blockbuster DVD’s, plastic toys, etc, etc…with fresh fruit carts and street-food items to feed the masses of hungry shoppers. We become daily consumers of Arepas con Queso, delectable fried cakes of ground maize stuffed with melted salty cheese chunks…until we note our middles are becoming Santa-rotund, and make the difficult decision to only succumb to this delight every 2nd or 3rd day.
A few blocks away is Cartagena’s wonder – the Old Town surrounded by thick walls. Inside along the narrow streets and many squares are fine old colonial houses and buildings in gold, yellows and blues with arches and balconies adorned with a profusion of flowers. After Cartagena was founded in 1533, it swiftly became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. It was the place where treasure plundered from the indigenous people was stored until galleons could ship it back to Spain. These treasures made this port a target for British and French pirates, hence after several sieges the elaborate walls went up, most of which are still intact today.
Outside the Old Town not many North American or European travellers are milling about, BUT the moment we step through the Old Town’s stately Puerta de Reloj (Clock Gate) it is like a gathering of the United Nations. Cruise ships come into port daily, and passengers are transported by bus or taxi to this enclave to spend the day. Great business opportunities for the locals! When in the outdoor restaurants we learn to say “no gracious” while chewing, with continual approach of itinerates selling hats, T-shirts, cigars, jewellery, and such – at the same time wishing we could buy from all with this difficult way to make a living. Entertainers, such as acrobats perform by the tables, and then pass a hat around for pesos. And this juggler – instead of tossing up balls, oranges or bowling pins… check this out! Only in Colombia, you might say.
The Old Town is rife with Emerald shops – emeralds from Colombia are known to be the best in the world! I visit a small shop where Muriel, a staff member, graciously shows me unpolished emeralds and photos of where the gems are mined – in one of the photos a workman shovels a heap of emeralds reaching his waist. I follow Muriel up small winding stairs to see artist Lauro setting the polished brilliant green stone into a gold casing – a piece to be envied!
We spend many a day in the Old Town absorbing its history. The Plaza de los Coches, was once used as a slave market; Cartagena being one of two port cities (the other being Veracruz, Mexico) authorized to trade African slaves in the Spanish colonies. Further along is San Pedro Claver Square, with a church and convent dedicated to Jesuit monk Pedro Claver, who spent his life helping the slaves. I am mesmerized by his remains kept in a glass coffin in the altar of the church.
The green space in the middle of the Old Town is Plaza de Bolívar – a fine place to sit for awhile on a bench in the shade. The Palacio de la Inquisición (Palace of the Inquisition) towards the back of the square was once the prison and torture chambers used for those convicted of heresy against the Catholic faith. It is under renovations, so we’re not privy to its gory devices to squeeze confessions out of those accused.
Cartagena has its own Gold Museum (Museo del Oro y Arqueologia) and with Sunday’s free entry we dip inside. It showcases gold and pottery from the Sinú culture, the area’s indigenous people. As in the Gold Museum of Bogota, the gold objects are awesome; for instance, there is no mistaking the form being a caiman, dated between 120BC to 40AD. The Sinú also buried these objects with the dead, believing they would come back to claim them.
Outside the nearby cathedral no one misses a gander at the female form lounging on her side, donated by world-renowned artist/sculptor Fernando Botero. He is known for his voluminous exaggerated human forms that represent political criticism or humour depending on the piece. My favourite Botero painting is that of a familiar (yet at first puzzling) face. After a moment, the light bulb goes on – it’s an ample Mona Lisa, and we totally understand if this is from too many Arepas con Queso.
Cartagena is a city in which to walk everywhere! By noon each day the temperature reaches between 30 to 35 degrees Celsius with 70% humidity, and just when we feel its lethargic effect, a heavenly breeze blows off the Caribbean in the early afternoons until late in the evenings. One day we venture to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the huge stone fortress built by the Spanish in 1639 and re-built and added to many times after several attacks. The complex system of tunnels is intriguing. As we make our way through inclines and declines, around corners and under archways, we learn these passageways once used to bring in supplies and for troop changes had additional purposes – the echo of the chambers were geared to hearing the footsteps of the enemy and some passages ended in a stone wall as a trap. This fortress, together with the Old Town, were designated a UNESCO world-heritage site in 1984.
We take a day to play on the beaches of the Bocagrande area with its towering hotels. Stone breakwater every 180m slow down the thrashing waves, making for a pleasant swim in the tepid aqua waters of the Caribbean. Another day we hike in the opposite direction to check out the real estate in the wealthy residential area, stopping for lunch in the air conditioned Caribe Plaza that caters to those with “mucho dolares”.
Our last night before leaving Cartagena we watch a fireworks display out our lofty hotel window, an extravaganza which as well as ringing in the New Year, we consider this to be our farewell send-off! We are feeling we could not have picked a better place to spend the Yuletide Season!
Our thoughts on Colombia are how its natural beauty, turbulent history, and palette of ethnic blends hold us captive. From the mega city feel of Bogota, to the relaxed flow of Cartagena, and our encounters with so many hospitable, spirited people left us glad we experienced Colombia.
Santa Domingo Taller Joyeria Emerald Shop
Cartagena – Calle Santa Domingo No 3-34
Thanks Muriel, Lauro and Candido for your shop tour!