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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Two Kinds of Andrés: Week 244

Rural road outside of VIlla Maria: Manizales, Colombia

We were walking through a rural town when a boy named Andrés stopped us. It was a Wednesday afternoon and he and his friends were on their way home from school.

While his friends giggled, Andrés invited us to inspect the nest he had found and the two listless birds inside. He questioned us for a few minutes, before deciding that the nest was suddenly a burden and thrust it into my hands. “Could you put it back?”

Andres holding the bird nest he found: Manizales, Colombia

I lifted up my sunglasses to get a better look at my new responsibility. Just then, Andrés saw the color of my eyes and shouted ¡Oh! ¡Tus ojos! He sounded like a chef who had just stuck his hand in something and wasn’t quite sure if he should lick his fingers.

My friends with the bird nest we were given: Manizales, Colombia

My friends and I agreed to stick the nest somewhere and said goodbye. A few minutes later we heard the pitter patter of someone running down the street. It was Andrés. He had suddenly needed to visit his godfather who happened to live in the same direction we were walking. Whatever the excuse, I was happy to talk.

Andrés’ informed us that his godfather had a 3,000 strong pig farm. Despite such an important connection to the pork industry, Andrés was adamant that he preferred chicken. He then began telling another story a little bit too quickly for me to follow.

When he finished my friend Favi turned to me with cocked eyebrow. “Did you get that?”

“No,” I replied. “What did he say?”

“He said that if the pigs get too aggressive they push them into a wall so they’ll have a heart attack because they’re so fat.”

“Oh.”

Dog on a quiet dirt road outside Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

Eventually we came to a fork in the road and we went right and Andrés left. We waved him goodbye and thanked him for his company. At the end of the bumpy dirt road was a B&B named the Secret Garden where our lunch was waiting for us. We ate on the patio and soaked in the peaceful rolling countryside.

Patio of the Secret Garden Hostel outside Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

About an hour outside of Bogotá, in Chía, is a famous restaurant-night club called Andrés Carne de Res. It’s the kind of place that’s in all the guidebooks and rounds off every Bogotá bucket list.

There is a second location in the heart of the Zona Rosa, but it’s not the original, so it’s not the most recommended. The problem was that I didn’t realize Chía was an hour away from our hostel, which had already been a nine-hour journey from Manizales. On top of that, the trip was punctuated with car sickness. The proper word for this situation is bolso!

Lucha Libre on the dance floor of Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

When the four of us eventually arrived at Andrés Carne de Res, we were feeling a bit low-key. The restaurant, on the other hand, was a massive rabbit warren of hyperactivity. Not only were the decorations a lot to take in, but the scale of the venue and the whole customer experience was not something we were quite prepared for.

Ticket for Andres Carnes de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

Because it was after 7pm on a Saturday, we each had to pay a $15,000 peso entry fee. This was in addition to the cost of the food, which by Colombian standards was pricey. After we were led to a table, we were handed a 80 page menu. It had its own index!

Once we ordered, we finally had some time to digest our surroundings. I’m not sure what the restaurant looked like when it opened in 1982, but the feeling I got when I arrived was that it was the lovechild of Etsy and Instagram. Everything just felt so curated.

Bottle of still water at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

There were employees that performed little skits throughout the dining area. A lucha libre match was being televised from another part of the restaurant. The tap water arrived in specially made bottles with decorative string around the neck. The ice chests had murals painted on them and the cups were branded. And I haven’t even begun to describe the decor surrounding our table and the ceiling.

Ceiling decorations at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

It took awhile for the food to come out, but when it did it was delicious. I had been a little worried because a big menu usually means there’s just a lot of average food, but thankfully this wasn’t the case. Barret’s lomo, which was beef tenderloin encrusted with black pepper, was absolutely stunning and the salad we shared was a good companion.

When we paid our bill, a mariachi quartet stopped by our table to shower us in confetti, hang sashes around our necks, and pass out little bags of candy. The whole venue was building up to a crescendo, but we were ready to wind down for the night. Andrés Carne de Res was an interesting experience, but it’s definitely somewhere you need to be ready to commit the whole night and a lot of energy.

Mural at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

How to get to Andrés Carne de Res in Chía: From Chapinero, Bogotá the taxi costs $80,000 pesos.

How to get to The Secret Garden: Take the cable car to Villa Maria. From the park outside the terminal, catch a chiva (an old, brightly painted silver bus) and get off when the road changes from paved to gravel.

Cable car station at Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

Mi Tierra & The Botero Museum: Week 224

Entrance to Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Mi Tierra is reached via a long hall lined with vintage posters and punctuated with a neon sign. Unlike the bars on the other side of the church square, there was no one waiting outside to hustle you in. And unless you knew about the bar, the inability to see into the venue from the sidewalk might be a bit dissuasive.

Luckily Tiffany, one of my colleagues, was in the know. She rounded up a large group of people from our training program and we set out on foot for the Chapinero venue. It was about ten o’clock when we arrived only to discover a metal gate blocking the entrance. Our hearts sank.

Someone rattled the gate and called down the hall. A minute or two passed without a sign of movement and then we heard footsteps approaching. It was Arturo, the owner.

Mi amor,” he affectionately called out to Tiffany. “¿Cómo estás?

Stuffed dog decoration inside Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Of course the bar was open. Come in, come in. I wasn’t quite sure if they had opened up just for us, or if they just kept the gate closed when the venue wasn’t busy. It kind of seemed like in Bogotá, if there were enough people, anything could be reopened.

Interior of Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

During the day, Mi Tierra was an antique shop. There were no windows, so the musty smell of second hand goods filled the room. Some of the items were displayed while the rest were pushed aside to make space for the small dance floor and six tables. The most accessible items around the dance floor were wigs, hats, instruments, a wheelchair, and a small crocodile statue.

A crocodile statue and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Props and the dance floor at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

We sat down at the largest table, the one with a vintage hairdryer, and began ordering drinks. Many bars rush you to order, but it almost felt like it was an afterthought for Arturo. “Tranquila,” he advised me when I wasn’t sure what I wanted or even how to say it. Take it easy.

Ordering drinks at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

Out of nowhere a birthday cake appeared for Arturo’s partner. We all sang happy birthday in English and then in Spanish. After the candles were blown out, Arturo grabbed the microphone for a heartfelt serenade.

A birthday celebration at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

The fact that such a large group of foreigners were invited in for a small birthday celebration just goes to show how friendly everyone was. While I had met a lot of nice people so far, it was the first time I felt such a generous ‘welcome’ in Colombia. If I’m ever back in Bogotá, you know where I will be.

The bar at Mi Tierra: Bogotá, Colombia

On my last day in Bogotá, three colleagues and I went to the touristy neighborhood of La Candelaria. It is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city and many of the buildings are beautifully preserved.

Our first stop was at the Plaza de Bolívar. It dates back to 1539 when it was first called the Plaza Mayor. Nowadays, it is a massive paved area that fronts the Catedral Primada and the Capitolio Nacional (Nation’s Capital). The plaza usually attracts more people on the weekend, but this Saturday it had two strikes against it: it was raining and Colombia was set to play that afternoon in the Copa América.

El Presidente, 1997: Botero Museum, Bogotá

El Presidente, 1997

Just down the street was the Botero Museum. It was founded in 2000 with the donation of 203 artworks from Fernando Botero himself. More than half of the art was his own work, while the rest was that of international artists like Calder and Bacon. Not only was it a priceless collection, but it was also free to the public.

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Mujer delante de una ventana, 1990

While the international art collection was great, I was really there for Botero. His inflated figures are both fascinating in form and grotesque for the greed they represent.  Their fleshy figures devour their clothing and their small eyes sink into their faces, like raisins in pudding.

I could have spent all day La Candelaria looking at national treasures. However, some of the most important Colombian things can’t be found in a museum; they can only be found on a big screen TV. It was time to head back to the hotel to watch the Copa América.

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Guerrilla de Eliseo Velásquez, 1988

How to get to Mi Tierra: Calle 63 #11-47 (In front of Parque Lourdes), Chapinero, Bogotá

How to get to the Botero Museum: Calle 11 #4-41, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro: Botero Museum, Bogotá

Hombre con Perro, 1989

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá: Week 223

Inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I spent my first two weeks in Colombia at a teacher’s orientation in Bogotá. Monday to Friday was filled with activities- from teaching methods to applying for national ID cards. Most of it went smoothly and most of it required being up early in the morning.

By the time the first weekend rolled around, I was more than ready for some sightseeing. I was also feeling a bit lazy, so when the program coordinators announced that they had chartered a bus to Zipaquirá, I was happy I didn’t have to plan anything.

Zipaquirá is a small town about an hour outside of Bogotá and it is famous for the Salt Cathedral. The Catholic cathedral was opened to the public in 1995 and, as its name suggests, it was built inside an underground salt mine.

Two women praying inside the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I have been to an underground church in the past, so I thought I had an idea of what it might look like- the passageways would be dim and the walls would be roughly hewn. However, that was about where the similarities ended.

Main nave of the underground Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

For starters, the scale of Salt Cathedral was massive. I had been satisfied with the first few rooms I saw and it took awhile for me to realize that those were only the Stations of the Cross. We hadn’t even gotten to the main nave! If only my Spanish were better, I might have been able to relay some of the interesting facts that I’m sure we were told.

The gift shops at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

The other thing that surprised me the most though was the shopping arcade. There were tons of emerald shops, booths that sold religious salt figurines, and anything else that could benefit from the addition of a little Virgin Mary.

It was going to be awhile till I got my first paycheck, so I decided to save my money and instead purchase an arepa from the underground cafe- La Tienda del Minero. The restaurant was decorated like a 1970s living room and had the lighting of a TV sitcom. I kicked back with a few other teachers and just absorbed the surroundings.

The underground cafe at the Salt Cathedral: Zipaquira, Colombia

I hadn’t arrived in Bogotá with high expectations of the capital city. Everyone I had spoken to had told me to get out as soon as I could. However, after a week in the city, I realized I was actually enjoying it. I was glad I’d eventually be living in Manizales, but for now I was in a nice dark salt mine, surrounded by good company and Catholic guilt, and eating a delicious arepa. You can’t ask for anything more than that.

About: The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

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