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After 32 hours of economy class travel I was delighted to arrive in Bogotá last night though I admit that I was apprehensive after reading the Wikitravel site! I pre-arranged through my hotel for a car to pick me up from the airport and if it wasn’t for that I may have curled into a ball in the arrivals hall and wished I was back in my eminently safe home city. My driver was charming and a gentleman and very forgiving of my broken Spanish and has equally broken English. We got along so well and enjoyed practising each others languages that I asked if he would take me on a city tour the next day. I had deliberately arrived in Bogotá earlier than needed so that I could see something of the city but the Wikitravel advice gave me watery bowels at the thought of a million dollar cab ride so this was the perfect solution!
After a good night’s sleep I set off this morning feeling slightly bewildered because my body clock was crying that it’s 1am at home but I was determined to have a full day of exposure to sunlight to help diminish jet lag. My strongest impression of Bogotá is of a city of extreme differences in wealth. We saw many homeless people and beggars with various deformities, crumbling buildings (one in the city centre has grass growing from the roof), broken roads with enormous pot-holes even in the city centre, juxtaposed against glossy new high rise buildings (especially in the financial district).
Cerro de Monserrate is a sanctuary that is perched on top of one of the mountains that fit snugly around Bogotá. It’s possible to either walk to the top of the mountain or catch a funicular or cable car. We took the funicular up and the cable car down to save time. Because it’s Sunday there was a huge number of people doing all 3 options and by chance Sunday is the cheapest day to ride the train and cable car. The view from the top is spectacular despite the cloud! A cathedral is the main feature of the site and while we were there a mass was underway and, although it’s enormous, it was so full that people were standing outside craning for a view. At the back of the church, in a special chapel, is the famous sculpture of Jesus Christ fallen to the ground and covered with marks from flogging. The chapel at the back of the cathedral contains beautiful stained glass windows that are different to any I’ve seen elsewhere. I was mildly embarrassed when my guide took me through the cathedral as the priest shook water as a benediction onto the waiting masses of people. The guide lifted his hand to get the attention of the priest who in response shook a lot of warm water on us. It’s the first time that’s happened to me and I let out a small squeal of surprise.
At the Cerro de Monserrate, on the way up and back down, in the city and museums, many many people followed me with their eyes to the extent that the driver said that I was the main attraction. I’m friendly so I smiled to everyone who caught my eye and in some cases the person would giggle and turn to evidently chat with their friend about me. It’s the most attention I’ve received since I was in Thailand as a blonde teenager. Almost without exception the people have treated me with friendliness and kindness and I’m very impressed by the warmth of the people of Bogotá . The only exception was amongst the diligent policeman who stood at their posts in the heavy rain this afternoon but even some of them smiled to me. The people who I’ve spoken with have been courteous and wished me an enjoyable stay in Bogotá , each of them was surprised to find that I’m travelling alone so perhaps solo female tourists are infrequent here.
The old town of Bogotá is called Candelaria and has plenty of lovely old architecture and brightly painted façades, although many would benefit from a bit more care. As you can see in the photo below graffiti is a common form of expression in Bogotá .
The Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) is stupendous in the gorgeous modernity of the building and must have cost a fortune to build. It is well lit and has diverse exhibition spaces, some of which are shaped like a half cylinder creating the illusion of privacy and another is like an auditorium in that it’s circular and one waits for a ‘show’ and enters in the dark to discover a monumental number of gold objects around the circular walls and in a mirror bottomed well in the centre of the room. The show is very interesting and involves shifting lights of different intensities and sounds.
The museum contains the largest collection in the world of handcrafted gold pieces and takes one on an adventure through the history of Colombia, which has been inhabited since at least 10,550BC. The objects have rich symbolism and were used in ceremonies to mimic the gorgeous jaguar or create a show of light and sound, by wealthy lords, or buried with the dead. I was particularly interested by the similarities between some of the pieces created in Colombia over 2000 years ago and those made in Afghanistan at around the same time that I saw in Brisbane in October. Perhaps because gold is such a delightfully lustrous and malleable metal it lends itself to such fine work and many civilisations concurrently developed similar goldsmithing techniques? I suppose that a challenge for the Museo del Oro was to find a way to display so many thousands of pieces of gold without making the exhibition monotonous and I feel that the museum succeeded in this. Seeing the sheer number of pieces in this museum, it’s no wonder that the Spaniards went gold crazy when they arrived! I’m deeply impressed by the museum and as an aside I was pleased that it has free entry on Sunday which left me with enough money to buy a delicious hot lunch of the local soup ajiaco at the museum restaurant.
When we were finishing at the Museo del Oro there was a downpour and the streets turned to churning streams that we ran through to get the the Plaza de Bolivar which celebrates the day of Independence of Colombia (July 20th, 1810). My guide said that the rain is very common in Bogota and it’s the one bad thing about the city. When I told him how little rain we get in my city he was envious but I actually miss the verdant fecundity of the tropics!