Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Team Sara(h) is Go!

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Sarah R, Sarah G and Sara-Ann were having a 2-week holiday here in Colombia, with about 6 days together with me (yey!). We’d soon be reunited as Team Sara(h) – a very exclusive club, known to cause much hilarity with those we meet along the way!

We’d all meet up that evening in Bogotá, so for now I had my flight to catch and a day of sightseeing in Colombia’s capital city ahead of me. Unfortunately the night before I’d got a bad dose of food poisoning courtesy of some dodgy sushi (I’d just been so happy to have something different to eat for a change and had thrown a little too much caution to the wind). Having been sick all night, I managed to haul myself out of bed. The road up to Medellín’s airport wound tightly through the mountains. Feeling decidedly ropey, the only thing I was grateful for was that for once, I wasn’t out there taking on the mountain along with all the local guys on their road bikes.

Museo del Oro

My first stop in Bogotá was the superb Gold Museum. It’s Colombia’s most famous museum and holds over 55,000 pieces of pre-Hispanic gold. The collections inside will blow your mind. The museum is also well laid out and explained in both English and Spanish, which makes a refreshing change as far as South American museums go. I spent most of my time on the first floor, where they walked through the various methods of gold-working used by the pre-Colombians and Incans, and explained how these techniques had developed over time. A highlight was a video by current artisans, demonstrating how their ancestors would have worked the gold in centuries gone by.

Here are just a few of my favourite pieces:

This is a huge early pendant, made by beating the gold into a sheet and then giving it a high polish. The artisan would have had to be extremely talented to prevent a sheet of gold this big from splitting.

This next piece would have been made using an old ‘lost wax’ method. First the piece would have been modelled very delicately from wax, which would then have been covered in clay or similar to form a mould. A couple of holes would have been made in the clay, reaching down to the wax inside, through which the molten gold would be poured. As the gold ran through the mould, it would melt the wax which would then float to the top and be removed. Once the gold had cooled and set, the mould would be cracked open. As each mould was destroyed to release the gold work within, every piece made using this method is unique. Finally, the gold piece would be brushed and polished.

A piece made using the lost wax method – I love the expressions and poses put on these figurines.

This piece would have been made by beating the gold panel, then etching and embossing the design onto the sheet before giving it a final polish.

These intricate pieces used many of the techniques above, along with cutting sections out of the gold

These face masks were made to cover the face of a corpse in its tomb. The more important the person, the bigger and heavier the mask. The were quite an intimidating sight!

These frogs were again made using the lost wax process. They were found together and demonstrate the skill of the gold worker – to be able to create so many individual moulds that all appear to be the same.

With the remaining pieces in their collection, the museum had made a stunning light show, which began in the pitch black and gradually showed off the gold as the lights came up. Really quite something to see!

Downtown Bogotá and La Candelaria

My next stop was a free walking tour in the centre of Bogotá. I always love these just for orienting myself in the city and because the guides are usually very enthusiastic and interesting (they have to be I guess, given they work only for tips). I was feeling rather lacklustre by now with no food in my system, but I figured I’d persevere and could hop off the tour at any point if I needed to. It would be a shame to miss out given the preciously short time I had here.

Much of the centre of Bogotá is now multi-storey office blocks, as the main central streets were burnt down during a huge protest (known as El Bogotazo) in 1948 when the leader of the popular socialist opposition party Gaitán was assassinated in the street. He had been expected to win the upcoming election with 70%+ of the vote, and so there was a huge public revolt. Over a hundred buildings in the centre were burnt to the ground. Before this time, these central streets would have had a very colonial feel, with wooden balconies and low-storied wood and adobe buildings. Many have since unfortunately been hurriedly replaced with some pretty unattractive concrete blocks.

The walking tour took us to another are called La Candelaria, a short walk up the road from downtown. Here many of the colonial-era buildings have been preserved, and it’s now a combination of hip (as a major student hangout area) and tourist trap. The central plaza in La Candelaria is said to be where the city was originally founded, with the construction of 12 small hut houses and a little church. This area is thankfully a little more photogenic so here are a few pictures:

Looking down the streets of Candelaria towards central Bogotá

A very pretty square surrounded by the colonial style balconies that used to be present in the city centre

Looking down another street towards Teatro Colón (on the right hand side)

The Palacio de San Carlos now houses Colombia’s Foreign Office but was originally built by Simon Bolivar (South America’s most known ‘liberator’) as his presidential headquarters. From here he planned to govern the newly independent South American countries. The building is beautiful and ornate, and I’m guessing by this stage Bolivar was getting a bit big for his boots and attracting a few local enemies. A plaque marks this window, from which Bolivar escaped in 1828 during a failed assassination attempt. It is said however that it was pouring with rain that night, and whilst he was running through the streets trying to find safe shelter, Bolivar caught pneumonia. He died 3 years later of the ongoing chest infections and illnesses that plagued him from that night onwards.

The window from which Simon Bolivar escaped a failed assassination attempt

Fast forwarding to this decade….Ever since Justin Bieber drew the Canadian flat inside a cannabis leaf on his way to Bogota airport (classy…), graffiti has been legalised in Bogotá. Sadly this followed the death beforehand of a not-so-prominent 16 year old, who was shot in the back by police for drawing graffiti on a wall (or so I was told). There was a huge public outcry at the disproportionate treatment of the crime. Having said all that, I really liked these pieces, I assume by the same artist, and a few others which popped up in the streets of La Candelaria.

Street art reflecting indigenous culture in the streets of La Candelaria

After a lot of running around on very little energy for my first day in Bogotá, I finally met up with the ladies at our hotel later that evening. We were all pretty zonked so had dinner nearby with another good friend from Bogotá (more on that below), and hit the hay ready to explore the following day.

The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá

For our first morning together, we headed out of town to visit the Salt Cathedral. On the site of a (still working) salt mine, the cathedral was built by the miners to give thanks and pray for their ongoing health and safety. The original cathedral was built in the 1950s but had to be closed as it was unstable. This new mine was built as recently as the 1990s, and work is ongoing to keep improving it today.

The cathedral is underground and is apparently one of only three of its kind in the world. I found it to be a pretty odd place. The miners carved out 14 relatively simply chapels that you go past as you descend further and further below ground, until you reach the main nave which is a huge, huge cavern with a very large cross carved out at the back. Throughout the cathedral, light displays are used to highlight the patterns in the rocks and the cross formations carved away in each chapel. These lights give the whole place a rather odd kitch feel, in particular when combined with some of the other adornments. It was interesting to see but I think safe to say it’s not what you’d expect of a regular cathedral!

Team Sara(h) enjoying some sunshine before heading down into the dark tunnels of the Salt Cathedral

Individual chapels and crosses carved out of the salt rock

Some of the lighting patterns were more subtle than others…

Looking down onto the huge nave. There were beautiful patterns in the rock on the walls and ceiling, but I thought the light shows detracted from the natural beauty. The huge cross at the back is actually carved out of the rock (not placed in front as it may appear, which is due to a 3D trick of the light). The light show had a bleeding heart pulsing on the centre of the cross.

Some of the individual sculptures made by the salt miners were still very impressive. Some were still ongoing work in progress.

Some rather kitsch newly-installed light fittings illuminate rock patterns on the ceilings.

Hungry from our morning tour, we stopped at this fantastic (and also very kitsch, but in this case that was the intention!) restaurant on the way back into Bogotá. A good opportunity for everyone to try arepas – a very traditional and popular Colombian corn-based snack. These ones were piled high with fillings. I made my re-entry into the world of food with some not-so-exciting corn soup (although it actually tasted pretty good!).

Museo Botero

Back in Bogota and we made a quick pit stop in the Botero Museum. Famous for his paintings and statues of ‘plump’ men and women, his art work is also a lot of fun. I soon stood corrected though, when I was told that Botero objected to people saying that he drew ‘fat’ people. He said that the individuals and his models definitely weren’t fat, but rather he was playing with the sense of proportion, which would also bring the sense of fun to his work.

We only had this one full day in Bogotá before heading back to Medellín together. There was one final very important thing to do, which was to meet up with Andres – a friend of Sara-Ann and I from business school. After he’d managed to battle the infamous Bogotá traffic to meet us in Candelaria for a tasty dinner, Andres and his girlfriend Paula took us to a fantastic salsa club with some of their friends. A fantastic way to end our (too short) visit to Bogotá!

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