Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No, It's Not Dangerous

Cuba was so amazing it was going to be hard to match, but from everything I heard Colombia was up to the challenge.

Yes, everyone thinks drug cartels, cocaine, danger. Some think Romancing the Stone (I still question the use of that brain space!) What you should be thinking--- when can I go?

I arrived in Bogota late, which is maybe not the best time to arrive since it all seemed a little shady. For example, on the way to La Candelaria (the colonial barrio) I saw what I assume were a prostitute’s breasts, the taxi driver leaned over and locked my door and once we arrived the driver and a local would not let me walk across Plazoleta del Chorro Quevedo (maybe the site of Bogota’s founding) without someone from Casa Bellavista meeting me.

In daylight all those precautions seemed totally unnece- ssary. Of course, I didn’t really do much that day while waiting for Evaline to arrive from Chicago. I just hung around chatting with the super nice guys working at Casa Bellavista, with a quick walk in the rain to get Thai (how authentic!).

Evaline arrived late, but in time for a Costena (my fav beer after testing them all) and pizza at a cute, tiny spot on the square.

The next morning we roamed about town checking out the sites.

The best- Museo del Oro, the gold museum that houses over 55,000 pieces from all the pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. It was extremely impressive and very well displayed, except the secret room with the light show illuminating a ton of gold pieces-- it was odd, I think they just needed something to do with all the leftover gold.

The Plaza de Bolivar is inte- restingly surrounded by buildings of various styles, with only the Capilla del Sagrario dating from Spanish times. The Cathedral Primada is nothing special, but maybe that is not a surprise since it needed to be rebuilt four times due to poor foundations, earthquakes and riots. Of course the Palacio de Justicia hasn’t fared well either, having recently been reconstructed after being gutted during a 28-hour battle with M-19 guerrillas in 1985. The French style mayor’s office and neoclassical capital building were probably the nicest buildings on the Plaza.

Bogota, and Colombia in general, is crazy about their local artist Fernando Botero. The Museo Botero and Casa Moneda museums are a maze of interesting art, including room after room of plumpness. Botero paints things in chubby form: oranges, hands, horses, religious people, even Pablo Escobar. I definitely would not want him doing my portrait!

The end of our self-made walking tour, past a palace Simon Bolivar narrowly escaped assass- ination, was supposed to lead us to the changing of the guard (complete with band!) at the presidential palace, Casa de Narino. The guards didn’t seem to know what was going on, but there was no President Uribe or changing guards--- just a quick lowered of the flag.

Although the guys at Bellavista nicely built us a new makeshift private room, we had a much better offer.

Liz and Kim (the Kiwi’s from Bolivia) were in town staying with an American family near Zona T, the area in the north chock full of fancy restaurants, shops, etc. It felt a lot like home with Spanish speakers.

Graciously Carol and Tim extended an invite for us to stay in their guest room--- what a great way to experience both sides of Bogota, the colonial part and now where real people live (or at least people like us), plus it was fabulous to see Liz and Kim again! Many thanks to Carol and Time!!!!

Carol nicely drove us the 50km north to Zipaquira and the Salt Cathedral. I wasn’t really dying to see more salt, but everyone else was keen so I went along. I'm still not sure what to think of it? It was really odd! 250,000 tons of salt were removed to build an underground complex complete with the Stations of the Cross and a cathedral 190m below ground. Apparently there were originally alters in the salt mines since it is dangerous work, but this seemed more manufactured for tourists. The tour guide did explain a little about salt mining, but what I could understand was all the ways we could die down there- fumes, collapse, etc.

Since we survived the salt it made sense to celebrate at Bogota’s famous Andres Carne de Res steakhouse. Not healthy, but very tasty and as promised the décor and antics surrounding us were stimulating.

After much debate we decided on a destination and headed for the bus station. Uh, which station? Lonely Planet claimed there is only one, but our cab driver seemed to know of three. In my terrible Spanish we agreed to go to the closest one. The driver left us in the taxi while he found the right bus and then walked us to a good one that would take us to Tunja, where we would connect to Villa de Leyva. So sweet! Everyone in Colombia is so helpful.

Villa de Leyva is described as one of the most beautiful colonial villages in Colombia, a “city frozen in time” and a national monument. Like many of the other colonial towns I have seen recently, it is cute with whitewashed buildings and cobblestone streets. The town has long been a relaxing destination for Colombians, starting with the military officers, clergy and nobility of the 1500’s and now the country’s wealthy.

Lonely Planet claimed it would be “crammed with day-trippers” on the weekend, but when we arrived on a Friday we found it serene; we even had it practically to ourselves when trapped in Plaza Mayor (one of the largest in the Americas) avoiding the downpour that created rivers in the streets (we should have accepted the Poker beer from the random men on the corner and made a day of it ;-)

The six colonial museums didn’t interest us much, so we instead opted to shop, eat (best chicken sandwich ever, okay, in a long time), eat (yummy French patisserie), eat (mmm, middle eastern) and take a long bike ride.

The bike ride started off a little rocky (both literally and figur- atively). We biked up the wrong way for a bit, I was chased by barking dogs nipping at my pedaling feet, and then we seemed to approach the green lagoon by a different route than expected. Green lagoon guy was very concerned about giving us directions, but we again ignored them and went off track a bit at which point I was splattered with mud (there was one slow motion moment where I nearly went head first into a mud pool) and ready to quit.

I am really glad we didn’t quit since it was really pretty once we got on track—it did indeed look a little like Tuscany as Kim and Liz mentioned. I am not sure it was “muy facil” as the bike rental woman said, but it was cool to bike to El Fosil, a 120-million-year-old baby kronosaurus, and El Infiernito, a Muisca observatory we snuck into while they were on lunch break. The countryside is lovely!

Upon returning to town it was indeed packed, just like Lonely Planet said.

This is also the town where we first noticed how Colombians buy small bottles of liquor in bars instead of cocktails. I can’t imagine the couple that was served a bottle of tequila, a salt shaker and a plate of sliced lime felt very good the next morning. I bet they didn’t rise early to get the bus to San Gil!

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