El Dorado: Week 259

Gold artifacts on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

The legend of El Dorado originated an hour and a half north of Bogota. Many explorers lost their lives in search of wealth beyond all measure; I caught a bus with tasseled curtains for 8,000 pesos. What difference a few hundred years makes.

The indigenous Muisca believed that gold was the vital energy of the Sun Father while lakes were the womb of the Earth Mother. By offering gold to Lake Guatavita they were ensuring the continuity of life and maintaining equilibrium.

One of the best accounts of the ‘El Dorado’ ceremony was published in 1636 by Juan Rodriguez Freyle. While his original account is available online in Spanish, the BBC has a more succinct summary.

Gold 'El Dorado' ceremony raft on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

“When a leader died within Muisca society the process of succession for the chosen ‘golden one’ would unfold. The selected new leader of the community, commonly the nephew of the previous chief, would go through a long initiation process culminating in the final act of paddling out on a raft onto a sacred lake, such as Lake Guatavita in Central Colombia.

Surrounded by the four highest priests adorned with feathers, gold crowns and body ornaments, the leader, naked but for a covering of gold dust, would set out to make an offering of gold objects, emeralds and other precious objects to the gods by throwing them into the lake.

The shores of the circular lake were filled with richly adorned spectators playing musical instruments and burning fires that almost blocked out the daylight from this crucible-like lake basin. The raft itself had four burning fires on it throwing up plumes of incense into the sky.

When at the very centre of the lake, the priest would raise a flag to draw silence from the crowd. This moment would mark the point at which the crowds would commit allegiance to their new leader by shouting their approval from the lakeshore.”

Gold human-shaped poporo artifact on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

The Spanish, or any other explorers for that matter, were obsessed with El Dorado. The more gold they ‘casually saw’ in the villages, the stronger they believed that El Dorado was the secret stash house of immeasurable wealth.

After all, if I was impressed by the collection at the Museo del Oro in Bogotá (which are the artifacts that weren’t melted and exported), imagine what the Europeans came across!

Although the Legend of El Dorado also came to represent a mythical golden city, the Spanish did eventually locate and try to drain Lake Guatavita in 1545. Gold was found along the bank but they never reached the supposed wealth in the middle of the lake.

Jaguar-influenced pottery on display at the Museo del Oro: Bogota, Colombia

Unfortunately, when Jess and I were nearing Lake Guatavita, the bus conductor told us we would not be able to visit. Even if we hadn’t seen the white smoke billowing off the surrounding hills it would’ve been impossible to avoid the acrid scent. Local fires combined with pollution meant the lake was temporarily closed for tourism.

Public plaza at Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Suddenly without a destination we decided to visit the nearest town, which was named Guatavita. It was built in 1967 when the old town was intentionally flooded during the construction of a reservoir.

The moment Jess and I stepped into the plaza, I felt like I’d gone back in time or at least like I had walked into my friend’s 1970s condo before she remodeled it. Guatavita was not the historical town I was expecting; it was a quiet, faux-colonial master planned community.

Just off the main plaza was a small two-story museum about Lake Guatavita and the history of the town. There were a few market stalls, a big dessert stall, several restaurants, a dark church, and a bullfighting ring.

Inside the Catholic church at Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

City map on display at the local museum in Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Wooden door of a public theater in Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

Instead of Lake Guatavita I saw the Tominé Reservoir. While historically less important, it had a pretty view and it was a short stroll away from hot coffee and a cup of strawberries and cream. That was as close to gold as we were going to get.

Tomine Reservoir next to Guatavita: near Bogota, Colombia

How to get to the Museo del Oro: Carerra 6A and Calle 16, Bogotá

How to get to Guatavita: Catch a Transmilenio Bus to Portal del Norte Station (you will need to purchase a fair card). At the station, transfer to the ‘Buses Intermunicipales’ platform and catch a bus to Guatavita. If Lake Guatavita is open, ask to conductor to drop you off at the entrance. It is a two hour walk between the lake and Guatavita.

About: El Dorado

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Día de las Velitas: Week 248

Dia de las Velitas celebration in Buga, Colombia

Día de las Velitas, Day of the Candles, is an important holiday in Colombia that celebrates the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. While some cities like Medellin and Villa de Leyva hold massive public displays, it is the kind of holiday that is best enjoyed in the barrios far away from the commercial centers.

While in Buga, Barret and I were invited to a family event in Divino Niño, a working-class neighborhood with pink and yellow candy-striped curbs. It was the eve of Día de las Velitas, which officially is December 7th, but the night before is often when the largest neighborhood celebrations take place.

The small candle shop across the road was doing business long into the night. The store to the right was closed, but the shopkeeper sat outside with his family and the stereo equipment he had bought for his wife.

He’d had been so proud of the present he’d given that it was played at full volume for two straight days. It drove the neighbors crazy but they reluctantly endured it. After an hour of sitting across the road, my ears were ringing.

From our curbside couch, Barret and I watched families stroll up and down the streets and motorcyclists dodge fireworks as they wound through the neighborhood. All the sidewalks for miles around were lined with faroles, paper lanterns.

Culebra firework being set off on Dia de las Velitas: Buga, Colombia

The BBQ in front of us was roasting up the last of the chicken when a culebra was rolled out in the middle of the road. The firework is named after a snake because it’s a long string of explosives that happens to begin very loudly and finish even louder. The anticipation of the finale chased most sensible people inside.

At the end of the night Barret and I caught a taxi back to Buga Hostel. The closer we got to the center of town and the basilica, the fewer decorations there were. By the time we stepped out of the taxi, the neighborhood was silent. If there hadn’t been a few burnt out faroles on the sidewalk, the few other travelers in the hostel would have thought that I’d just made up the whole holiday.

About: Día de las Velitas

Faroles lining the streets for Dia de las Velitas: Buga, Colombia

Thanksgiving in Manizales: Week 246

Brownie ice cream popsicle dipped in dark chocolate from Pop Shop: Manizales, Colombia

Colombia has so many holidays that people sometimes forget the reason they don’t have to go to work. Because I’m distracted by the profusion of holidays here, I often forget to celebrate, let alone remember, holidays in the US.

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that tends to slip under my radar, but it didn’t this year because one of my friends hosted a party. I really enjoyed cooking some traditional food and sharing it with people who were experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time.

In honor of the holiday, I decided to make a list of things I am thankful to have in Manizales:

– Friends: They’re awesome.

– Students: They keep my life interesting.

– Granadillas: My favorite tropical fruit.

– Arepas de choclo: The US equivalent would be a sweet cornbread in the shape of a pancake.

– Chuzos: My favorite late night grill in Cable.

– The view from my apartment: Love my volcano vista!

– Netflix: It works in Colombia and the Spanish shows are great language practice.

– Edilberto: The elderly neighborhood watchman always greets me by saying, “Mi preciosa, como amaneciste?” And then he kisses my cheek.

– Pop Shop: Last, but not least, I am thankful that a delicious ice cream shop opened up near my house in Cable. Lulu! Cocolimonada! Chocolate en chocolate! Yum!

Cocolimonada popsicle from Pop Shop: Manizales, Colombia

About: Pop Shop

About: Chuzos

Yipao Parade: Week 239

Yipao-Parade-Jeeps-with-Furniture: Armenia, Colombia

Parades are the kind of public events that often sound promising, but can easily turn into masochistic affairs. There are many ways this can happen- perhaps there are too many people, or the traffic is horrible, or it is absolutely impossible to see the parade.

Perhaps you find a good spot, but just before the floats pass, a few hundred late arrivals rush out in front of you. Of course these latecomers are all armed with massive iPads which not only block your view, but are also filming videos that no one will ever watch.

And on top of all that, your legs are probably tired because the parade is running late and you are roasting under the sun. This has happened so many times to Barret and I that when I told him about the Yipao Parade in Armenia he looked quite skeptical. “You sure you want to go? You know what parades are like.”

Yipao-Parade-Jeep Festical Driver-with Dog and Furniture: Armenia, Colombia

Truthfully I wasn’t expecting too much either, but I had seen some beautiful photos of the traditional “Willys” Jeeps overloaded with household furniture and I was a little bit enchanted. Barret and I finally decided to catch an early morning bus to Armenia. From there we took a taxi directly to Parque Aborigenes, which is the starting point of the parade.

It turned out to be the best decision we could have made because not only did we get there right when the parade began at 1pm, but we were in the shade of a cluster of trees and there was hardly anyone around. We could take as many photos and get as close to the Willys as we wanted.

Yipao-Parade-Jeeps loaded with plantains: Armenia, Colombia

These antique jeeps arrived in Colombia during WWII and were very popular in the mountainous coffee-growing regions because of their handling and cargo capabilities. Since then, they have become an endearing icon that is celebrated every October in Armenia.

Although, the Yipao Parade is just one part of Armenia’s week-long annual celebration (called the Cuyabras Festivals). There were many other events that took place that Saturday such as a massive artisanal market, a beer and gastronomy festival, and a book fair. All of the events took place in different locations, so after receiving multiple bad directions, we found taxis were the best way to go.

Of all the events though, the Yipao Parade was the big attraction of the day. There were four principal categories, with one of my favorites being the Trasteo Típico.

Yipao-Parade-Jeeps piled high with antique furniture: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Jeeps piled high with furniture. The driver-and- his family: Armenia, Colombia

This is the category where, traditionally, families moving from one finca to another would pile all their possessions onto a jeep. Everything from furniture, to paintings, to bedpans, to plates and dishes were elaborately stacked and tied to the jeep. Cages filled with chickens, ducks and pigs were tied just above the rear fender.

Yipao-Parade-Jeeps-with-caged-animals-on-the-back--Armenia,-Colombia

Yipao-Parade-jeeps piled high with furniture. View from the back with a little piglet: Armenia, Colombia

I couldn’t figure out why this was the preferred location until I realized that if the animals went to the bathroom, their waste would just drop onto the ground. Good idea.

Yipao-Parade-Hood-Ornaments on a Willys: Armenia, Colombia

Another category with just as much creative decoration was the Categoría Libre. In this group Willys were decorated with everything from recycled bits of plastic to dioramas of traditional industries.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated for coffee roasting: Armenia, Colombia

And the dioramas weren’t just static either. The coffee roasting jeep was actually roasting some small batches out back. There was another jeep that had some sort of volcano on the roof, and that too was smoking as it drove past.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated for coffee roasting: Armenia, Colombia

There were brick-making, basket-weaving, fruit and vegetable displays. Some were very professional and others were just lucky their car was even operating under that much weight.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated with produce: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated for brick-making: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated for basket making: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade decorated Willys Jeep: Armenia, Colombia

The word yipao specifically refers to the competition where Willys are loaded with as much cargo as possible. So the third category, Productos Agrícolas, is perhaps one of the most important for the parade. This is the group that loads as much weight as they possibly can onto their jeeps. The types of individual cargo categories could be things like coffee, plantains, or yucca.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeeps loaded with plantains and potatoes: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep popping a willy and loaded with cargo: Armenia, Colombia

The most impressive jeeps were the ones that spent the most time on two wheels. Sometimes the weight was so much though that the passengers had to get out and sit on the front fender so that the jeep could drive in a straight line. One driver had even modified his jeep so that his chair was where the roof should have been.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep popping a willy and loaded with cargo: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep decorated with KFC sponsorship: Armenia, Colombia

Of course there were also sponsored Willys that passed out freebies to the crowd. Cristal, a brand of aguardiente, was pouring free shots to people who ran up to their float. I thought this was particularly interesting as the floats that followed were in the most dangerous group – Piques.

These jeeps in Piques were loaded with just enough weight to make acrobatic feats possible. At first I thought the jeeps just spun in circles, but then I realized that the driver actually got out of the car.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep in the acrobatic group with driving jumping out: Armenia, Colombia

Just imagine a crowd of people surrounding a spinning car (with corporate sponsorship) and no protective barrier between them. Then, in the middle of the spin, the driver gets out and jumps onto the front bumper. He leans back and scrapes his machete along the ground. It was absolutely nuts.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep in the acrobatic group and driver hanging off the front bumper: Armenia, Colombia

It was also totally captivating. Confetti and scratched roads were left in the wake of the acrobatic jeeps.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep in the acrobatic group and driver hanging off the front bumper: Armenia, Colombia

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep in the acrobatic group and driver back in the car adjusting his gloves: Armenia, Colombia

Barret and I actually ended up following the slow-moving parade along its route just so we could see some of the jeeps again. The nice part was that even in the busier parts of the route, it was still easy to get around and find a good view.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep loaded with furniture and a sleeping child: Armenia, Colombia

The Yipao Parade was definitely the best parade I have ever seen.

Yipao-Parade-Willys Jeep loaded with fruit and people in traditional costumes: Armenia, Colombia

About: The Yipao Parade and Festival Program 2015

About: Armenia

El Día de Amor y Amistad: Week 236

Entrance to the restaurant Masala for el Dia de Amor y Amistad: Manizales, Colombia

For the last few weeks I’d been noticing an accumulation of heart-shaped chocolate boxes in the supermarket. I hadn’t known the reason until Barret and I were invited to a special dinner for el Día de Amor y Amistad.

El Día de Amor y Amistad (Love and Friendship Day) took place on a Friday and the main thoroughfare of Santander was packed. Since the holiday is also a celebration of friendship, there were tons of couples and groups of friends.

Every restaurant along Santander had some sort of decoration, even the little arepa shops. Barret and I caught a taxi from the main street and headed to Milan. Although it’s a much quieter neighborhood than Cable, it is known for its number of restaurants.

Masala is my favorite restaurant in Milan and it is also the only Nepali/Thai restaurant in all of Manizales. It’s delicious on an ordinary evening, but it’s even better during special events. The reason being is that Samata, the owner and chef, creates special menus that are only feasible for large numbers of customers.

While Barret and I nibbled on watermelon and mint salad, a musician in a red suit strolled between the tables with a saxophone. Celine Dion was on heavy rotation.

I also came to realize that el Día de Amor y Amistad was not just for lovers and friends, but for entrepreneurs. DSLR digital cameras are not a common sight in Colombia, so special events are perfect for photographers who want to earn some money. There were two different couples that came into Masala to take photos of the ambiance and of anyone who tipped a few bucks and wrote down their email address.

After our delicious candlelit dinner, Barret and I slipped out and met a friend for a coffee. Celebrating love and friendship- what a good start to the weekend.

How to get to Masala: Calle 77 #19A-18, Milan

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