So here we are, our final new city in South America, the capital, Bogota. Colombia’s largest city now with over 8 million people, that should make for some interesting challenges but I guess we are used to it now, the odd stare and gringo comment has just become the norm.
We stayed in La Candelaria which is the main area in the historic centre and also the main place where tourists stay, so Frida made her way up the narrow street as far as she could before we were dropped off. La Candelaria is seen as one of the best preserved major historical centres in Latin America, hence why it has attracted artists and writers, and the area is littered with theatres.
Graffiti tour in the rain
Graffiti is massive in Bogota and the legal artists no longer have to feel afraid to paint freely, they just need to get the owners permission, as a result there are some amazing pieces out there, by some of the best crews in Bogota. The graffiti tour is popular so we had to book in advance and thankfully we did so we could learn the stories and techniques behind some of these fantastic pieces. The rain pouring down didn’t put the gringos off.
Our guide, Ray, started to explain about certain artists styles so we could spot them on our way round, in particular he paid attention to Stinkfish, a very successful artists in the area and his unique style of painting human faces bright yellow. APC are a crew who paint chunky looking styles and finally Rodez, who draws animals with many eyes, some say this is what you see if you take the hallucinogenic substance of ayahuasca. Either way it looks pretty cool, he has also recently started doing projects with his two sons and there are a few pieces around the streets, family portraits, again also pretty cool.
We came across a two week old piece which was absolutely stunning, it was of an indigenous old woman and it looked so fresh and had so much detail in it, it was like a photo. This piece was a request of the shop owner, apparently that is common, instead of shops just getting messy tags and doddles on, they employ an artists to do a piece so then it is kept clean. It is rare for other artists to go over other pieces but when this does the artist will come back and reclaim his patch. Ray, went on to explain the different mediums which are used such as acrylics, spray paints, semi permanent transfers, paper mashe and long rollers with paint, which when you look closer at the work you can see the differences. He continued on to outline the different styles such as portraits, animals and lettering, pretty much everything you can think of and some have political connotations, some not. It was literally endless. It was a long tour but definitely worth it, just a shame the weather was rubbish but the pictures came out great.
We had heard of a walking tour starting in the usual place of Simon Bolivar plaza, before we set off, outside the main cathedral there were hundreds of pigeons, it reminded me very much of Trafalgar Square before the clear up. You could buy bird seeds and literally get covered, a poor girl got flocked and nearly knocked over. I managed to get one pigeon on my arm and Stu one on his back. I wasn’t too keen to be covered in Pigeon pooh for the rest of the day.
The tour began and our guide informed us about the four main buildings alining the square, these being the Capitolio Nacional which had a troubled history in its building but now home to the Supreme Court and Congress. The Alcaldia Mayor, is Bogota’s city hall which is decorated in a French style with shops running throughout the bottom floor. The Palacios de Justicia building was badly damaged when the guerrilla group M19 tried to take it over in 1985 which caused a chaos and several people were killed in the process when the Army regained control. Finally, the Catedral Primada which has a traditional looking front but a spacious interior in cream and gold, definitely not what you’d expect.
Next was the Iglesia Santa Clara, which used to be a nuns convent and preserved very much as it was in the 17th century, now it has an extensive art collection. Tim said it was amazing inside, we will have to take his word on that. Next was the Presidential palace, Palacio de Nariño, where we had to be searched before entering the sidewalk and could only walk on the right hand side, not the left. Here you could also have your photograph taken with the guards, just like in London, yet there uniforms are not as extravagant.
Our guide then told us a story about the Colombian 5000 peso note and the poet who is on it, José Asunción Silva. He fell in love with his sister and on the back of the note is a ghostly portrait of Elvira and a segment of his poem “Nocturno.” Elvira tragically died so José turned to alcohol that ultimately contributed to his death, if the note is folded in on itself then you can see a chalice. Finally, if the note is folded end to end this shows a heart with two quills in, a young man dying of a broken heart. There is a statue opposite the Presidential palace in memory of José Asunción Silva.
We continued on, passing many churches and cloisters until we reached our final stop, Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Márquez. This place was obviously named after the Nobel prize winner and very famous Colombian novelist, the cultural centre was designed in a circular shape so if you stood in the centre and just spoke normally your voice would be echoing back at a much higher volume just like in an amphitheatre, it was weird to here your own voice shouting back at you.
As the tour finished at 5pm many of the museums were closing but the Police museum was still open and recommended by our guide as a good, free stop. We got there and immediately got an English speaking guide Diego, who was actually on his mandatory military service and posted out to the museum. He took us around explaining the history of the Colombian police and it’s development, showing us the different uniforms and badges from around the world, the different teams they have, the arms room which Stu loved and the list of narcotic criminals they had caught, including the big successes. Obviously, they had a room dedicated to their biggest capture and kill, Pablo Escobar. In here you could see the plottings of Pablo’s last movements, his jacket which he always wore, some of his belongings which were on him at the time of death like his Rolex and Ray Ban sunglasses. There was even a blood stained tile. Another great piece was a Harley Davidson, this was a gift from Pablo to his cousin, it was confiscated when Pablo’s cousin was arrested and jailed for being pat of the drugs cartel. He has now served his time and is living in Spain, he is allowed to reclaim his gold and silver plated Harley Davidson but he must pay for it and it is worth 90 times the standard price from the bike, so the museum are pretty confident the bike will be there for sometime.
During our tour Diego asked where we were from, so I said Sheffield, near Manchester because I have come to learn everyone seems to know Manchester United. To Diego’s shock and mine more when he said that is one place in the world he wanted to visit because his favorite band is from there, me thinking Arctic Monkeys as he is young… wrong, Def Leppard of course! To end our tour we were given a coffee and whist we were on the top floor, a function began with the Chief/Mayor of the station, who once he saw us left his function and came over for a chat. He made one of the hostesses give us the entres they were handing out, warm cheese balls which were delicious. He thanked us for visiting and thanked our great county because if it wasn’t for our fathers, fathers, fathers, the world would not have Liberty. What a brilliant way to end our very busy day in the Capital.
Plaza del Mercado de Paloquemao was our first stop for the next day, there is an enormous market selling fruit, vegetables, meats and flowers. We had read that the best time to visit to see the flowers in full flow was between 0500 and 1000. We decided to walk which didn’t look too difficult on the map, how wrong were we. We set off following the Calle and then the Carrera until we realised we were looping around and around again, every street seemed to be 22, another block over again 22. Despair was slowly setting in so we headed for the main road to try and figure this mess out and in doing so we found the market, finally. If they were going to renumber the road why don’t they take the old signs down, South America for you.
The fruit and veg stalls were all immaculately assembled, the infusion of colours was brilliant and the food looked delicious, the sellers were happy for photos which was good because I could tell Stu was dying to get the camera out. The fish section absolutely stank so we only brief whizzed through there. Finally on our way out we found the follow market in the car park. Luckily we just got there before 10am so got to see some of the amazing flowers on sale. Endless amounts of roses, every colour you could think of and luminous Lillie’s and daisies, bright pinks, greens and yellows. I had never seen anything like them, the daisies were definitely my favourite.
We had been recommended to go and see the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá just outside Bogota. There are only two in the world the other being in Poland and apparently should not be missed. Obviously, we added this to the list and jumped on the TransMilenio all the way to the opposite end of town. Getting on public transport anywhere is always a little fun and a little stressful, yet this bus journey wasn’t too bad. After seeing what felt like the entire city, we swapped onto a small minibus heading for “Zipa.” The conductor guy, well that’s what I’ll call him, told us we were at Zipa and off we got. After a quick coffee we started the 20 minute walk up to the famous salt rock mine.
Salt has been mined here since the 15th century, long before the Spanish came and established Zipaquirá in 1606. Many kilometres of tunnels have been excavated since then. The original salt cathedral started to deteriorate and became unsafe so was closed in 1990. The new cathedral was begun in 1991 and completed 1995, it is 500m from and 58m below the old cathedral. As part of our ticket we got a guide who only spoke Spanish, which was pretty useless to us but it meant otherwise hanging around for another hour for an English tour to start. There was a section before the main part of the cathedral which consisted of the 14 stations of the cross. Each of the stations has a 4m high cross which is subtly lit and actually made for a great photo.
At the end were three incredibly large caves, the centre cave had a 16m high cross at one end and rows of pews leading back. There was choir music playing whilst we sat in here which I thought gave a real eerie feel to it.
The guided section ended after we had gone through what seemed like an entire cave full of tourist rubbish, it was a bizarre thing to see underground. We had two more things on our ticket, the light show, which was a series of lights whizzing around in patterns, such as flowers, words and butterflies all to dance music and a 3D video on the history to present day of the salt mine. Both again very bizarre to have in a mine but pretty cool at the same time.
We wanted to get back to Bogota to try and get into the gold museum, so quickly headed back for the buses. Now being rush hour, the TransMilenio was getting manic, after a bit of faffing, trying to find the right bus, we got sat down and headed all the way back to La Candelaria. The best part was watching people trying to get on and off, people queuing do not move from the front even if they don’t want that bus so people are pushing and shoving on and off, I have no idea how no one is pushed under the bus. The worse part was knowing we would have to get off at some point. Our stop came and Stu pushed forward whilst grabbing my arms, a random man was pushing into my chest trying to get on and I was just the rag doll between them. Eventually I got off to the amusement of everyone around and the tourist police, only in South America.
We made the executive decision that we wouldn’t make the gold museum which closed at 6pm and by now it was 5.59pm, so the next on the list was the Museo Botero. I really liked this museum, but then again I like his work, there were three rooms filled with his painting and sculptures, the original Monalisa hung as fat as ever in one of the first rooms, I think this and the bird sculpture are my favourite two pieces. There was also an impressive collection of other artists such as Picasso, Dali and Monet. It was a more relaxing way to end our hectic, busy day. It always happens that we have so much to do in what feels like so little time that we are out for 12 hours a day, so what a better way to finish off than with a mojito and bed with our alarm set for 5.30am!