Colombia

JOURNEY TO THE EMERALD CITY (LAGUNA GUATAVITA) AND THE CATEDRAL DE SAL

FOLLOWING THE “YELLOW” BRICK ROAD

One of the most adventurous experiences we had while staying in Bogotá was a trip with Luisa to the Laguna Guatavita, the new town of Guatavita, and the Catedral de Sal. It was an excursion that was not previously in our itinerary, but when Luisa suggested the trip we jumped at the opportunity. It ended up being a supremely entertaining, exciting, and informative experience. The beauty we saw was unimaginable and we became wholly enlightened by the innovative and resilient nature of the Colombian people.

We woke up very early on a cloudy Sunday morning to accompany Luisa and her friends Nicole and Orlando to the Laguna Guatavita. The laguna is one of the most famous historical sites in Colombia and is the origin of the Colombian El Dorado legend. We already covered the details of the legend in our previous blog post but here is an excerpt to refresh your memory.

“Long, long ago, when the Muisca tribes of the region that now makes up the country of Colombia needed a new Chieftain or leader (zipa), they would choose a young man of nine years old. He would then be brought to a small hut near Guatavita and trained by shamans for nine long years. He would not be allowed to leave the hut, was rigorously trained, and finally given the ultimate test. He would be left alone for an entire night with the most beautiful women of the tribe. If he remained pure and did not touch any of the women (not one failed ever) he would then, in the morning, cover himself in honey and gold dust. He and the shamans would board a raft made of gold with many golden offerings created by the tribe’s craftsmen, and paddle to the middle of the lagoon. He would throw the immense bounty of golden treasures into the lagoon as an offering to the Gautavita goddess and then the shamans would toss him in too. If the goddess was appeased properly and she felt that the young man was worthy of becoming the new zipa, she would allow him to float and he would become the new Chieftain. As far as we were told, no man ever failed the task.

Now, over the thousands of years that this ritual took place, many, many tons of golden objects were thrown into the lagoon, and when the Spanish asked for a city of gold, this was the only place of which the Muisca could think would appease their insatiable lust for gold. So off the Spanish went, over many, many years, looking for the legendary gold but it was never found. For the lagoon was fed by an underground spring, high up in the mountains and the bottom was unreachable. Many died by rockslides, falling down the mountain, and even drowning. As recently as a few hundred years ago, the British, Germans, and Spanish renewed the search for the legendary gold and used dynamite to literally blow up one side of the mountain, draining the lake of thousands of gallons of water but they still had no luck. In an effort to preserve the lagoon and help teach the newer generations the El Dorado legend, the modern Colombians created a sanctuary that we visited. In their creation of paths and small tourist buildings, they found much of the gold that is now housed in the Museo del Oro. At long last, some of the gold of El Dorado was found.”

Crammed in Luisa’s small Nissan March, we traveled approximately two hours north of Bogotá. It was a beautiful drive through the countryside and, as we neared our destination, we began to climb high in the mountains along dusty, bumpy dirt roads. We had no idea what to expect upon our arrival to the laguna so the anticipation was mounting rapidly. Finally, cramped and stiff-legged, we pulled into a small, empty parking lot. We were the first to arrive for the day and we had to wait, huddled under a canopy in the cold mountain rain, for the park to open. Finally, at 9:00 am we paid $12,000 COP (Luisa purchased all the tickets so we were able to pay the Colombiano price) and joined the first tour group of the day. Unfortunately for Sally, the whole tour was in Spanish and it was very hard for her to understand everything that was said. Joe did his best to translate but the tour guide had much information to convey in a very short time.

We began our tour down a slippery brick path that led to a replica of a traditional Muisca hut, filled with pieces of artwork. Our tour guide explained a bit about the construction, including the palm thatched roof and how the floor was traditionally just mud, before we moved on to our next stop.

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Traditional Muisca hut

We then were treated to a bit of information about the local flora. Many of the plants that she showed us were indigenous to this region of Colombia and are found nowhere else on Earth. There was the endangered Frailejón, a plant that lives for hundreds of years and grows only a few centimeters per year. Water from cloud vapor is absorbed through its spongy trunk and redistributed into the ground through its roots.

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The endangered Frailejón

There was also the Brugmansia or Trompeta de Ángel, which you may know as the Angel’s Trumpet flower. The seeds of this plant have a unique property. They contain scopolamine, known in Colombia as escopolamina or the devil’s breath, and the effects of ingesting this can cause paralysis, confusion, tachycardia, visual hallucinations, and death. This substance is very popular among Colombian criminals who use it to induce a hypnotic state in which their victims lose their memory and free will, allowing them to be easily manipulated. A person under the influence can be made to empty their bank accounts, give up all of their valuables, and do just about anything without having any recollection afterwards.

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Trompeta de Ángel

Our last stop before climbing the mountain was the valley created by the Europeans with dynamite. The goal was to drain the laguna in order to finally be able to reach the bottom and recover the legendary lost gold. We were blown away by the vast chasm they had created. Not only did they suffer significant casualties, they once again came up empty-handed.

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And so we began our climb. The views from the mountain were extraordinary with green and black fields for miles on end, mountain peaks covered by a cloudy mist, and small farms with animals grazing the fields. We heard the sounds of local farmers singing and laughing carried by the gentle breeze. As we climbed, the landscape changed from cloud forest to that of the Andean páramo. The trees disappeared and we became surrounded by many different wildflowers and a native variety of rosemary.

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Rosemary

At last we reached to top and looked out over the beautiful, emerald green laguna. It was immense, impressive, and very tranquil. The view was spectacular. We spent quite a bit of time at the top of the mountain basking in the beauty that surrounded us.

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Finally, it was time to go. After a much quicker walk down the mountain and a crazy ride on a mini bus, we were back at the parking lot ready for our next adventure.

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On the minibus

THE EMERALD CITY (THE VILLAGE OF GAUTAVITA)

Luisa next took us to the village of Guatavita for a traditional Colombian almuerzo. The original town was the religious capital of the Muisca and the center of their fine gold-work. But as the years went on, the town declined and so did the opportunities for its people. It was no longer a tourist center nor was there much gold-work produced. In the 1960’s, the Colombian government decided to build a large dam, flood the town, and create the Tominé Reservoir to produce electricity for Bogotá. Although we were initially devastated that the original town was no longer around, we were delighted to find that the new town and its people were now thriving and had even revived many of their ancient traditions. The results were truly spectacular.

We didn’t have much time in the town to explore any museums or peruse any of the gift shops but we were able to spend some time wandering around the downtown area, taking pictures. The town was incredibly whitewashed, each building had a beautiful terracotta tiled roof, the streets were impeccably clean, the people were very hospitable and patient, and even though it was busy with tourists, we did not feel overwhelmed or crowded in any way.

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New Guatavita
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Plaza in Guatavita

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For lunch, rather than going to an expensive tourist restaurant, Luisa took us to what we can only describe as a giant, circular food court with several families cooking out of small kitchens on the perimeter with tables, bars, and benches filling the center. It seemed that it was designed more for the locals than for the tourists. Honestly, we were completely confused as to what was happening most of the time. As we entered, several people bombarded us with their menus, desperately trying to persuade us to eat at their kitchen. Luisa seemed much more comfortable with this situation and quickly took charge. She chose a vendor, we sat at a bar near their kitchen and were given a small menu from which to choose our lunches. Nicole and Orlando chose one of the most famous dishes in Colombia, Ajiaco (see our previous posts for a description). Joe chose churrasco, which was a beautifully grilled steak that was tender enough to melt in your mouth, and Sally chose lomo de cerdo, which was an incredibly tender, mouthwateringly juicy cut of pork. Luisa topped us all by choosing a traditional meal, which included just about every part of the cow. It consisted of a Colombian style blood sausage (delicious!), a dish comprised of tripe, intestines, rice and vegetables, and lastly, chunks of grilled steak.

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Tradtional-style “food court”

During our meal we were treated to some wonderful dinner guests, all being of the fluffy and tail-wagging variety. One in particular was the favorite of ours and we were happy to share our leftovers with him. Another caught the eye of Luisa and she made sure the adorable pooch cleaned her plate.

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Our new friend we met at the food court

After our meal, we returned to the car and headed out of town to our next destination, the Catedral de Sal in Zipaquirá.

THE WIZARD OF OZ OR THE CATEDRAL DE SAL

After a long, meandering drive through the beautiful and bucolic countryside north of Bogotá, we finally arrived at Zipaquirá, Colombia, home of the spectacular Catedral de Sal. Through the town we drove, slowly climbing the mountain that housed the unique cathedral. We left Nicole and Orlando in the parking lot to fend for themselves. Nicole had already visited the catedral and had a few errands to run in town. So, we agreed to meet them in a few hours and off we went to purchase our tickets.

The cathedral was one of the most expensive places we visited during our stay in Bogotá. For tourists to Colombia, the price was 50,000 COP and for nationals it was 30,000 COP. So, after paying our 100,000 COP, we wandered to the entrance of the catedral where we waited 30 minutes for the next English language tour. Luisa explained to us that the English tours tended to be better than the ones in Spanish as they are less scripted, we would get more information, and that we would be harassed less by vendors trying to sell us souvenirs or pictures; therefore we did not mind waiting the extra time.

Salt mining in this region of Colombia is not a new concept. There is evidence of mining by the Muisca in this area as early as the 5th century BC. Salt mining was entwined with the lives of the Muisca and now with the modern Colombians. Much of the salt you will find on your table in Colombia was most likely mined just a few hours away. The construction of the original Catedral de Sal was started in the early 1930’s as a way for the miners to worship, asking for protection from the dangers of mining. The catedral that we visited was much more detailed than the original and construction of this more modern church began in the 1990’s. Although it bears the name Catedral de Sal, it has no official cathedral status as it does not have a bishop nor does it have an affiliation with the Vatican. The builders and miners themselves did not want to pay the extraordinarily large amount of money to the Vatican but rather to use any money raised by tours or souvenirs to help the mining families. One wonderful story our tour guide recounted was that of a tragedy that occurred the previous year. Seven mining families lost their loved ones and the Catedral de Sal donated a significant amount of money to the families so that they did not have to worry about the lost income. The support that they provided was integral in the healing of the family unit.

The Catedral de Sal was entirely hand-carved by the miners themselves. They lacked most of the tools and techniques that modern architects and building companies employ, making its construction a mind-boggling feat of human ingenuity. There are three different areas of the church. First, we were led down several hundred feet beneath the mountain to the Stations of the Cross. Here there were 14 different, small chapels dedicated to each of the different stations of Jesus’ last journey. Each of these was beautiful and meticulously carved with incredible detail.

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Next we were led even deeper into the catedral to the dome. The dome was incredible, perfectly constructed, and vaguely reminiscent of the moon’s surface. Here is where the cross chambers, the balcony and the Narthex are located.

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Top of the dome

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Deeper and deeper we descended into the mountain. Here we found the three naves, each with its own purpose, symbolizing the life, death, resurrection of Jesus. The naves were filled with beautiful sculptures portraying the birth of Adam, the nativity, and the four pillars of the Evangelists.

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Lastly, we were led to the largest souvenir shop we had ever seen. Here, we bypassed the stands that were selling everything from religious artifacts to emerald jewelry to find two delights. First was the Espejo de Agua (Mirror of Water). This was an incredible pool of densely salted mine water. The concentration of salt is even greater than that of the Dead Sea. The resulting optical illusion was breathtaking. It initially appeared that there was no water at all but instead was just a deep chasm until our tour guide tossed a pebble in. When we saw the ripples that were produced we were astonished. It was quite the sight.

Next we were treated to the largest salt sculpture in the world. Recently carved, we were extremely lucky as this intricate sculpture was only revealed to the public within the last year. This work of art depicted the life of a traditional Muisca, incorporating animals and insects typically found in the region.

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World’s largest salt sculpture (just a portion of it)

By this time we were a full six stories deep inside the mountain and significantly late in meeting Nicole and Orlando. We quickly began our ascent and we stumbled upon the baptismal font hidden in a corner that was not covered by the tour. After a quick photo, we hurried back to the surface to find that the sun had set and it was time to find our dinner.

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Baptismal font

ONLY THREE MORE CLICKS OF THE HEELS HOME

Our very last stop of the evening was Andrés Carne de Res, a very popular restaurant in Colombia and a must see stop for any tourist. It can only be described as the Ground Round, Applebee’s, and TGIFriday’s combined with the addition of musicians, magicians, and incredibly expensive, delicious food. The menu was enormous and overwhelming, featuring dozens of pages of traditional Colombian dishes as well as dishes from around the world. We did not want to spend too much money there but we did treat ourselves to a few small dishes that we enjoyed immensely. Although we were initially very hesitant since we try to avoid traditional tourist attractions, we were very glad to have experienced this Colombian favorite.

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We were inducted into the Andrés Carne de Res tradition

Finally, the day was done. We were exhausted and blissfully happy. The day was filled with magnificent sights, delightful experiences and delicious food. Trust us when we say that we slept incredibly well that night.

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