The last leg of our world tour! Arrive here after a pretty poor flight on Avianca, the pride of Colombia – they don’t even serve tea. It’s a grey morning here but luckily our room is ready at 7 am and we manage a kip before venturing out to explore Candelaria, the colonial quarter of Bogota, a city of over 9 million people.
The highlight is our visit to the Fernando Botero museum, whose personal collection of Toulouse Lautrec, Leger, Beckmann, Bonnard, Picasso, Chagall, Renoir, Henry Moore and many more, plus his knowledge of the Renaissance artists, influenced his own gigantic work. Its fascinating to trace the homages in his work in this extraordinary display – as in the Max BeckmannMadonna below.
More classically inspired paintings by Botero
We also visit Bogotá’s oldest restaurant, the Puerta Falsa, where we sample a hearty chicken, corn and potato soup – ajiaco. Once is enough! The cathedral square with its government buildings and presidential palace are impressive, but full of beggars and Venezuelan refugees. It’s sobering that in Columbia, one of the world’s poorest countries and in the top four for disparities between rich and poor, there are even more wretched people. We are to see Venezuelans on the roadsides, even in Candelaria, on our travels, with only the possessions they can carry, groups of single men, lone women, families with wretched children, the odd dog – people without hope.
The following day we are joined by our university friends, John and Hilary, and we have a walking tour with Ingrid, a feisty Samba (half black and half Indian) woman whose mantra is that, however poor, Colombians give you what they have – their hearts and their smiles. The streets are rich in street art, reflecting the struggles and their Colombian spirit.
We learn much from her about the status quo: how the average wage is $200 per month but Universities are charging $40,000 a year, and student accommodation can be as much as $300 per month. She dispels our starry-eyed admiration of Bolivar, the national hero, whose grand vision of a united greater Colombia, involving conquering neighbouring countries, merely transformed him into a murderous, slave-keeping dictator and a tyrant – not unlike the Spanish he had overthrown.
Millions were made homeless by FARC and pro-government militias who simply grabbed their land. The peace treaty with FARC is popular among the poor but not among those who only saw FARC through sensationalised television. One of the problems is that the FARC MPs are paid over $10,000 per month; the current resurgence is because they realise that narcotics is more profitable than peace. Meanwhile the new President has inherited a bankrupt country and taxes are rising and universities are being privatised. It’s a sorry state of affairs if you’re poor. Colombia generously opened their borders to millions of Venezuelan refugees but cannot support them – hence the tragedy on the roads.
This is the country whose Indian culture produced some of the most astonishing gold artefacts, before they were wiped out by the Conquistadores who melted the gold down to make ingots and altars. The Musée del Oro bears testimony to this genocide.
We see more of the Indian culture when we travel to Villa de Leyva, centre of the Muisca people. We stop off at Zipaquira, the Salt Cathedral hewn out of old mines, where local wedding photo shoots desecrate the stations of the cross that it is famed for. The countryside changes to rich agricultural with fields of potatoes, onions and plastic cities of tomatoes which are cultivated for 3-4 years and left to rot. Conservation and eco has not arrived in Colombia – a sign of its poverty
Hilary and I explore the area around Villa de Leyva on horseback and are shown a stone ‘calendar’ over 2000 years old, where the months are shown by the angle of the sun on dolmens, burial chambers and huge ‘pipis’ as our guide Raoul (a real horse-whisperer who whistles instructions to our steeds – and they obey) that represent the bridge between male sun and female earth.
We also take in the fossil museum with some unique fossilised ichthyosaur and plesiosaurus skeletons. A wonderful day for us both, but saddle sore by the end and more than relieved that our horses operate on ‘autopilot’ for all activities – trotting, cantering and parking!
The men have been much more adventurous going on an 8 hour trek to Iquaque (3800m), the birth of civilisation according to the Muisca. They see some great birds with their enthusiastic guide, as they do a couple of days later on another more energetic hike on the royal Path to Cabrera. See Ross’s write up here for photos.
Villa de Leyva is an old colonial town, with a gigantic central square and popular with Bogota weekenders as well as a venue for jazz, film, astronomical and kite-flying festivals. We love lounging around drinking the odd beer and soaking up the atmosphere.
It nestles at the bottom of some high hills and there are sumptuous villas that rent for as much as $1000 per night. It is also host to the largest terracotta house in the world, a beautiful project that took 20 years to construct out of fired clay sausages, just how we made our first pots in school.
Four hours drive further north takes us to Barichara, the most perfectly preserved colonial village in Colombia. Like Villa de Leyva and Candelaria it is built on a grid system, with low white-washed houses with green-painted skirts. Bougainvillea tumbles over walls and there is a huge golden church dominating its square. Our posada is heavenly – only us staying and our rooms look out over the town and provide a perfect bird-watching hide for the twitchers among us.
Hilary and I are not up to macho walks so we do our own version of the royal road, but down hill to the ancient Indian settlement of Guane. Our guide, Gabriel speaks excellent English and has a gorgeous terrier cross, Buddy, who bounds along beside us.
The path is steep in places and consists of stones/rocks which have been overlaid on the ancient route by a mad German in the 19th century who was forced to use prisoners to persue his dream. Hard on my legs! It’s hot but we enjoy the great vistas over the canyon floor and over towards the mountains opposite the river Soares.
In the evening the restaurants and miradors offer stunning views for beers and cocktails.
Here we have the first bit of bad luck on our journey – there has been a landslide which has closed the road we need to take us to the airport to get us to Tayrona on the coast. So with a heavy heart we have a 4.30 am start to take us back to Bogota to catch a flight from there. It’s pretty magical to see the dawn breaking over the mountains and misty valley; as it’s a Sunday the traffic is light and we make good time, despite encountering a coupe of serious accidents – the overtaking is pretty crazy on these windy roads – and a road closure for a fun-run and cycle tour on the outskirts of Bogota.
So here we are in Tayrona, staying in a unique hotel, the Finca Barlovento, on the edge of the national park. The views are stunning, waves breaking on the shores of a tranquil lagoon rich with bird life and basking iguanas.
We cleverly jump the four-hour queues to get into the National park by getting our driver to do the queuing for the tickets, pick us up and deliver us, all of 20 minutes rather than several hours! It is hot and humid and we join the throngs who are marching solidly towards the final destination (the park has been closed for two months for maintenance, and this is only the second day of opening). After two hours and 7kms or so, we give up and flop in the scant shade at Piscina which is the only swimmable beach: warnings of 100 drownings ‘don’t be one of them’. The walk back is challenging in the heat.
The beach below our hotel is full of local activity – Football, surfing, fishing and us, enjoying the sunset.
Our stay coincides with the ninth anniversary of Louise’s death and it is good to spend it with dear friends who knew her from birth to adulthood. We drink cocktails and remember her with love. Here she is as we remember her, feisty and full of character. The hammocks particularly represent her spirit.