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

The Goodlands Release: Week 257

Illustration for the graphic novel.

What would it be like if people never died?

I realized it was not a new theme in literature, especially in romance, but it still got me thinking. How would the government work? What would motivate people? Would culture be identified by nationality, by epoch, or both?

What about despotic rulers like Hitler or babies that never stopped crying? Even if people never aged, would they slowly be worn down by natural elements? Not even mountains can escape this.

From my ideas I began to weave a story that explored the intricacies and darkest corners of eternity. The only problem was that the only way I could imagine presenting the story was in a graphic novel format.

I’d gone to school for photography and done some drawing on the side, but I wasn’t entirely convinced I could pull the art off. I went as far as to buy a pad of drawing paper and after completing page one I realized I would be 80 by the time I finished.

The idea was shelved for a few years until I stumbled across it again while living in Australia. The big difference being that now I knew a very good artist – Barret Thomson.

After discussing the storyline over numerous flat whites, we were excited to get started. I spent evenings at the NSW State Library, researching character backgrounds. Barret bought anthologies of historical costumes and began designing clothing and environments.

The more time we spent, the more time we realized was needed. In the end, we decided to take a sabbatical in Colombia so we would have more time to dedicate to getting the project off the ground. Not only has it been cost effective to live n Colombia, but it has also helped inspire the art.

The Goodlands is still a work in progress, but we are excited to say that we have finally launched chapter one and from here on out there will be an update every Thursday.

Happy reading!

The Goodlands Comic

For comic updates: The Goodlands Comic

For development blog updates: Tumblr

Quindío Botanic Garden: Week 256

Aerial view of the butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

The butterfly-shaped mariposario is the most iconic building at the Quindío Botanic Garden, but it is just one of many sights to see. The 10 hectares of subandean forest is located in Calarcá and is easily reached by bus or taxi from the bus terminal in Armenia.

It’s not possible to walk through the gardens on your own as several of the buildings are only accessible with a guide. Therefore, the 20,000 peso entrance fee includes a 2.5 hour guided tour.

We began in the palm garden where Laura, our guide, pointed out several native palms and their uses. One had a tangle of above-ground roots that she said were perfect for catching unfaithful men in the night.

Mother-in-Law's Hug parasitic tree at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Another tree on the tour was predatory and grew around an established tree until it smothered it and cut off its nutrient access. After Laura pointed out the dead trunk squished in the middle, like a layer of cake frosting, she laughed. “I don’t know why, but it’s also called mother-in-law’s hug.” (abrazo de suegra)

Suspension bride at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

On that note, we crossed a suspension bridge to a viewing hut behind a two-way mirror. We saw a humming bird singing, another one fighting itself in the mirror, and a small mammal whose name I promptly forgot. Colombia is celebrated for the diversity of its bird life. So while there were many signs with bird names, the furry little vertebrates don’t often get a mention.

Small vertebrate at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

We went back over the bridge and climbed up an observation tower. It was a nice view, but I could feel the structure sway quite a bit at the top and that was when I decided it was a good time to make haste.

Learning center and cafe at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

There were two coffee shops at the botanic gardens. One was at the entrance and the other was by the bathroom and learning center. There were interesting displays on palm fiber art and a cactus garden with hummingbird feeders.

Palm root chairs at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

I also saw an interesting sort of organic chair that is made after a palm tree has been cut down. The remaining stump and roots are pulled out of the earth and resemble, on their own accord, the kind of chair that Beetlejuice would have liked.

After a short break, we learned about a civil engineering project that is connecting two sides of the Cordillera Mountains. Then we wound our way into an insect display where Laura pointed out a type of ant that was traditionally used for punishments. Imagine putting on gloves filled venomous ants!

Butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

The very last stop on the tour was the butterfly enclosure. Two professional photographers followed us around and took photos that were later displayed when we returned to the info center. I was terrible at convincing butterflies to rest on my finger, but one of the photographers rounded one up and stuck it on my nose.

Photographer inside the butterfly garden at the Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Most people probably consider the mariposario to be the highlight of the Quindío Botanic Garden, but for me it was the tour itself. The guides were friendly, the information was interesting, and it was great for Spanish practice too.

About: Quindío Botanic Garden

Close up texture of a spiky palm tree at Quindio Botanic Garden: Calarca, Colombia

Cartagena: Week 255

Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena de Indias is a very hot Caribbean destination in Colombia filled with beautiful architecture and great restaurants. It was founded in the 1500s by the Spanish to protect their access and interests in the Americas.

When it was constructed, the fortified island was divided into an inner city for the wealthier class and an outer city for the artisan classes.

The colonial streets of El Centro: Cartagena, Colombia

A couple walking past street art in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

La Matuna and Getsemaní comprise the outer city. They are not as developed as the inner city, but Getsemaní especially has a lot of good restaurants (Cafe Lunático and Oh La La come to mind). The nightlife and open air dining in La Trinidad Square feels authentic and less contrived than some of the more expensive counterparts in the Inner City. The area also has some interesting street art.

Most of the budget hostels are located on Calle de la Media Luna, which is a bit rough around the edges, but the area is undergoing gentrification.

Gold figure from the Museo de Oro Zenu: Cartagena, ColombiaCeramic figure from the Museo de Oro Zenu: Cartagena, Colombia

El Centro and San Diego, inside the inner city, have the lion’s share of historical sights, churches, museums, and government buildings. These areas are more expensive and filled with a lot more vendors, hustlers, and street performers. If rapping for tips makes one person money, soon enough there is a whole group of kids doing it. We were approached on two separate occasions by aspiring rappers and both name dropped Harry Potter when trying to describe Barret.Polaroid of a band performing in Bolivar Park: Cartagena, Colombia

One evening, after several bottles of wine and amazing seafood at El Boliche Cebicheria, we decided to have one last drink in the Santo Domingo Square. Some restaurants were starting to pull their tables in, but there was still a fair amount of people about.

As we relaxing an older guy stopped by with a polaroid around his neck and a metal box with two jump rope-like leads. Grant and the waitress each grabbed a lead while he cranked a handle. Each turn produced a higher and higher voltage until the waitress shrieked and let go.

Because we were shaping up to be the last customers of the night, the electric shock vendor asked 10,000 pesos for the experience. Of course I said no and instead we bargained over the cost of a Polaroid photo. It was a deal after adding a stray dog and the opportunity to shock both of my travel companions.

Polaroid of an electric shock vendor: Cartagena, Colombia

Bocagrande is a peninsula just outside the walled city that is filled with high-rise developments and casinos. The coastline looks like a watercress sandwich with bite marks and on a sunny day the beach is swarming with families, umbrellas, and hawkers. The most aggressive sells in town are on the Bocagrande Beaches.

The options were limitless: wooden ships, lobster magnets, soda, cigarettes, airbrush tattoos, jet ski rides. Then there were the massage ladies. They carried little footstools and plastic pails filled with massage oils. The lower the sun sank the more aggressive they became and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

One woman squirted aloe onto her hand and started rubbing my neck. No thanks. No. No thank you. I said no thank you!

Ten minutes later another woman squatted in front of me and rubbed the top of my feet. The cool lotion actually did feel good mixed with the fine gritty sand, but I felt that if I said yes, I’d be taken for a ride. No thank you! No. Really- no thank you!

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

The biggest mistake we made was putting too much confidence in the bottled water. At least that’s the best explanation we came up with. Maybe it was bottled city water or maybe it was over-chlorinated. The only thing for certain is that we were feeling good after our big night out until we opened a new gallon of water. In Grant’s words, it was Superbowel Sunday.

There were a few false starts before we finally left the apartment later that afternoon for the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Its placement just outside the city was strategic as it guarded the bay and the gate entrance to Getsemaní.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

It was a steep walk up the fortress in the scorching sun and it was only when we’d made it to the top that we realized we didn’t have a map. Normally I’d head back down, but I was feeling a little weak and dehydrated.

Detail of construction materials at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

Without any sort of guide, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at, but there were a lot of dark tunnels to walk through and the texture of the construction material was quite beautiful.

Detail of construction materials at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

After poking around for two hours, I wasn’t the only one who needed the bathroom. Grant and I looked for the most fortified building we could find and ended up in front of the old hospital. “Even better!”

Unfortunately, the hospital was only a theater with a historical documentary on loop. We walked in on the scene where the Spanish colonists were bayoneting the English; it was the perfect metaphor for my stomach.

About: the food and nightlife in Cartagena

About: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

How to get to the Museo del Oro Zenú: Centro, Cra 4, 33-26, Plaza de Bolivar, Cartagena

How to get to El Boliche Cebicheria: San Diego, Calle Cochera del Hobo #38-17, Cartagena

Street art mural near the cathedral: Cartagena, Colombia

Mompós: Week 254

Weathered Colonial architecture and motorcyclist in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

The first thing people tell you about Mompós (or Mompox), is that it’s beautiful. The second thing they tell you is that it is difficult to reach. Difficult is even the name of a little vereda you pass through on the way to Mompós.

The Magdalena River that created Mompós in the mid-1500s was also the cause of the wealthy town’s downfall. The river that once brought economy to the inland island began silting up in the 1800s and forced large boats to divert their routes. The town was forgotten and later off-limits to tourists because of narco-terrorism.

Weathered Colonial architecture and paint detail in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

At a Brasilia bus station in Ciénaga, a small town just outside Santa Marta, we talked to the ticket agent about the best way to get to Mompós. After a few phone calls (Oye – I’ve got some foreigners…), the ticket agent passed me a slip of paper with the name Fabien written across it. “Get off the bus at Bosconia and Fabien will drive you to Mompós.”

Good on his word, Fabien rushed us off the bus in Bosconia and began the long drive deep into the country. The dry fields were periodically striped with green grass. The communities were collections of dusty one-room houses with thatched roofs. Fabien took corners like he wasn’t anticipating any other traffic.

When we arrived at the Magdalena River, Fabien repeatedly honked his horn at the ferry. The ferry was large enough for only one normal-sized vehicle, and someone else had beat us to the punch. They slowly putted across the river on a platform made from welded metal plates and powered by a motorized canoe attached to the right.

Colonial architecture and main street in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

It took about 25 minutes, but we finally crossed the river alongside a motorcycle carrying a family of five.  It was only ten minutes more till we reached the center of town. Mompós only receives a handful of tourists, so it very much felt like a sleepy, parched, riverine outpost forgotten by time.

View of canoes on the Magdelena River in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

In the morning, we walked along the albarradas – the brick barricades that protect the city from flooding. Men in blue canoes were in the middle of the Magdalena River, singing, calling out to each other, and bobbing in and out of the water.

I asked an older women what they were doing, and she told me they were panning for gold. She pinched her fingers together to demonstrate the size of the tiny flakes. Then she shook my hand and wished me well.

The afternoon heat was intense and sent most people indoors. Barret and I continued on in search of the Museo Cultura de Arte Religioso. It was closed, so instead we headed to the cemetery. The heat radiated off the bright surfaces and we began to wilt in the sun. The languid chapel cats had the right idea; it was time to find somewhere shady.

Stray cats lounging the in cemetery chapel in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Detail of a memorial plaque in the town cemetery of Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Mompós is a UNESCO listed site because of the preservation of the buildings and that fact that most are still used for their original purpose.

Detail of Colonial architecture in Mompos. Entrance door: Mompox, Colombia

In the morning, if the shutters of the residential homes swung open, Barret and I peeked in. Through the decoratively barred windows and the cracked doors (and even the keyholes if one were so inclined) were glimpses of massive entrance rooms and sunny courtyards.

Weathered Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

The furniture floated in the middle of the tiled room, like a dinghy lost at sea. Family portraits and religious paintings hung at eye-level and exaggerated the height of the ceiling even more.

Mustard yellow Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Patio of Colonial houses in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

In the evening, people moved their chairs out onto the brick sidewalks. There were lots of mosquitoes, but they seemed to only be bothering me. Bats swooped overhead and attended the evening service at Iglesia de Santa Bárbara.

Iglesia de Santa Barbara in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Eventually the time came to leave Mompós. True to its reputation, it was a bit of a challenge. After our taxi ride ended at an unexpected picket line, we gathered all our luggage and walked around the wood, used car tires, and picketers blocking the road. We weren’t the only ones doing this, but we definitely stood out the most.

On the other side we each jumped on the back of a motorcycle and flew the rest of the way to the docks at Bodega. With the two backpacks he was carrying, Barret looked like a turtle wearing safety pads.

Motorcyclist riding near Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Of course no one had helmets, so the early morning breeze felt fantastic blowing through my hair. Even though I was wearing a dress, it never occurred to me to sit side saddle. In my attempt at modesty when getting off the bike, I burnt my calf on the exhaust.

At the dock we were handed life vests with the number 17 on the back before the little fiberglass boat jetted to Magangué. From there we boarded a collectivo door-to-door van service. These, of course, do not leave until they are full. So while we waited, I watched the busy intersection – the street touts and the horse driven carts carrying massive soda step pyramids.

Many hours later we made it to Cartagena. Our trip had been delayed by engine problems and Barret suffered the brunt of this because he was seated in the back without any AC. Along the way, the woman next to him grabbed his knee in a weird fit before passing out on her daughter’s shoulder.

I, on the other hand, sat in the passenger seat. The driver and I exchanged stories, shared snacks, and he reenacted a near collision he once had. I don’t think anyone in the van noticed the point in the story where we drove on the other side of the road.

It wasn’t the smoothest journey we’ve been on, but it was one of the most memorable and Mompós is definitely worth the trouble.

About: Mompós UNESCO inclusion

About: Mompós

Weathered Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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