Cristo Rey was completed during a tumultuous period in Colombia known as ‘La Violencia’. La Violencia began with the assassination of Bogotá’s socialist mayor in 1948 and plagued the next decade with acts of domestic terrorism, murder, and the destruction of property.
I couldn’t find any information on how Belalcazar was affected by such a tumultuous period. However, the same friend who first told me about the statue also ominously mentioned the bodies that once floated down the rivers in the valley below.
It was in this environment that Father Antonio José Valencia Murillo designed Cristo Rey – as a symbol of protection for the region and as a symbol of peace.
Belalcazar is not the kind of place that often shows up in Colombian guidebooks. The tiny little town, which is located on the ridge of a mountain, is firmly off the tourist trail. Cristo Rey is its only claim to fame. Including pedestals, Cristo Rey is 7.5m taller than Christ the Redeemer in Rio.
The journey to Belalcazar was an hour and a half ride past fincas and the kind of small water parks that proliferate in the hot Colombian countryside. Two young sisters sat down in front of us and couldn’t stop staring through the cracks in the seat. Finally, in a surprisingly good accent, the oldest daughter said, “Hello. What is your name?”
Once we entered the town, we walked up the one main street lined with colorful, old buildings. My friends and I stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a balcony that overlooked the massive valley below. It was a sunny day, but there was also a white haze that smudged the edges of the valley.
Our waitress handed us each a business card with an exceptionally bloody Jesus. At first I thought she wanted to convert us and then I realized it was the promotional material for the upcoming Semana Santa.
The walk up the hill to Cristo Rey was lined with the snack and souvenir vendors. A chapel sat in the base of the statue and across from that was a restaurant. Two narrow staircases lead from the ground to the second level. From there, my friends and I paid 3,000 pesos to ascend 154 steps to the crow’s nest in Jesus’ head.
The interior of Jesus’ head was very small, circular, and echo-y. We climbed three rungs to enter by a hole in the floor. Once we were up, we had to carefully sidestep the hole or risk falling back down.
The walls were painted black and covered with scratched initials. I squatted down to peer out through Jesus’ nostrils and felt a gentle breeze. It was a little ironic that the highest point didn’t have the best view.
How to get to Belalcazar: numerous buses depart from the Pereira Bus Terminal hourly. The 1.5 hour journey costs 5,000 pesos.