An amazing trip to Colombia. Part 1: Bogotá

 Colombian flag

Colombian flag

I recently had the very good fortune to take a trip to Colombia. I hesitate to call it the “trip of a lifetime,” both because I’ve been lucky to have other wonderful trips, and because I hope to go back to Colombia again, but I have to say this trip will stay alive in my memory forever as one of the best. So what, you say, does this have to do with dogs? Well, it’s easy to relate it. Two years ago, I hired a dog walking service when Moki was having some trouble acclimating to New York City. Andrés, the dog walker assigned to Moki, is a Colombian musician, born in Bogotá, living in New York. We found we had a lot to talk about—dogs, music, our former lives in Boston, and so on. So that is where this jumps off. When he realized I played the harp, Andrés introduced me to the Colombian llanera harp, introduced me to his friend Nico (who has since become my llanera harp teacher), and last but not least, really changed Moki in an incredibly positive way.

 Dog at Guatavita

Dog at Guatavita

So, I come to writing about this in my “Dog Blog,” Perhaps it’s a stretch to concatenate the two things, but in reality, Colombia is a “land of dogs.” Everywhere I went (and I was all over the country), I met dogs of all different shapes and sizes. And because the climate in Colombia is either temperate or semi-tropical, many of those dogs were living happily outdoors, either connected to a human owner or not, looking healthy and well fed.

I arrived first in Bogotá, the capital and largest city in Colombia, having been invited by Andres’s parents, Fernando and Katty, whom I had met in New York, to spend a few days with them. For some reason, I’ve had Colombian friends for many years. I met my first Colombians in Boston when I lived there, and since moving to NYC, the number has increased. There is something about the culture, the music, the art, the ethos of the country that completely enchants me, and the people I’ve had the good fortune to become friends with are warm, inclusive, and incredibly charming, in a completely sincere way. 

 Looking down to the lagoon at Guatavita

Looking down to the lagoon at Guatavita

When I arrived in Bogotá, everyone warned me about altitude sickness. Bogotá is 2,640 meters (8,660 feet) above sea level. “No problemo!” said I, when my hosts took me to Guatavita, a town outside Bogotá settled by the Muisca indigenous people centuries ago. The Muisca mined the plentiful gold and threw it into Lake Guatavita to appease a god they felt lived under the water. When the Spanish invaded in 1545, their lust for gold impelled them to try to drain Lake Guatavita. They lowered the level of the lake and split the mountain in two, but were never able to retrieve all the gold at the bottom. To reach a vista where one can look down at the lake, it’s necessary to climb more than 250 narrow steps, up and around the side of the mountain. About 50 steps into it, I discovered that I did indeed feel the effects of the altitude. My hosts chugged up the mountain like nobody’s business, but they were very accommodating of my breathlessness and encouraged me to stop whenever I needed to. At the top, I was thrilled I did it, because the view is incredible. The lagoon where the Spaniards tried to find their “El Dorado” is an amazing sight, and, well, I was proud of myself that I’d had to fortitude to complete the climb.

 Not a dog, but a frog

Not a dog, but a frog

When I said “adios” to Fernando and Katty, I knew I would never forget their extraordinary kindness and willingness to show me “their” Bogotá. I feel as if I now have friends for life in a far-away city, which makes the experience even more amazing and Bogotá extremely special to me. Then I joined the tour I’d signed up for and set out on the rest of the journey. We stayed in a hotel in La Candelaria, which is a historic neighborhood in downtown, noted for its colorful Spanish colonial architecture as well as its funky shops, and universities, libraries, art centers, and museums. Along the cobbled streets, there is some of the most intricate and interesting graffiti I’ve ever seen. There are many animals depicted in the graffiti. The Muisca considered frogs to be a symbol of fertility, water, and renewal.

 Salt Cathedral

Salt Cathedral

Next, we traveled outside of Bogotá to the little town of Zipaquirá to explore the Salt Cathedral, a Catholic Church built in the tunnels of a salt mine 220 yards underground. Colombia is a strongly Catholic country, and even the smallest towns seem to have beautiful churches. But El Catedral de Sal is one of the most notable. It depicts the Stations of the Cross, each with its cross carved out of or into the salt to depict what Christ was going through at that point in his final journey. It ends in a sanctuary where masses are held for the public. The engineering involved in building this is unbelievable, and it requires constant maintenance and upkeep.

 View of Bogotá from funicular up Monserrate

View of Bogotá from funicular up Monserrate

Our final destination in Bogotá was Monserrate, the mountain that rises over the city center of Bogotá. At 10,300 feet above sea level, the mountain was considered sacred by the Muisca who lived there in the pre-Columbian era. After the Spanish conquest, the indigenous people’s temples were replaced by Catholic Churches. The large church at the top of Monserrate has an area where pilgrims have left their crutches and walking sticks after seeking healing. We were told that each pilgrim was asked to carry a brick up the mountain, and those bricks were used to build the church. Luckily, no one asked us to climb to the top of Monserrate! We took the funicular up the mountain, which allowed stunning views from all sides.

 Dog relaxing at the top of Monserrate Hill.

Dog relaxing at the top of Monserrate Hill.

At the top of the hill outside the church, a very contented dog was sunning himself. He looked extremely relaxed in the warm mid-day weather. We all wondered whether he’d climbed up the mountain on his own, or had taken the lazy-dog’s funicular, as we had.

Standing at the top of Monserrate and looking across the way, there is another hill, Guadalupe Hill, 10,800 feet above sea level, which also houses a church and a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Guadalupe Hill was also an important sacred site for the Muisca. Prominent there is a 49-foot tall statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, built in 1945 by the sculptor Gustavo Arcila Uribe, which opens its arms to the city below.

Chao bogota.jpg

Although I was certainly excited to be en route to seeing the rest of Colombia, I admit I was sad to leave Bogotá. I’m not sure whether it is the fact that I have friends there, or whether it was the diversity, friendliness, and warmth of the city that so grabbed me. I just know that as I sat on the plane, ready for the short flight to Armenia, in the Quindío Department in the heart of the coffee growing area, I felt very sad. I know that I will return to Bogotá. The city affected me deeply. It will remain in my heart.

The next installment of this blog will be about my trip to the pueblo of Salento, and then the travel to the Antioquia Department, where I visited the beautiful pueblo of Jardin, and the city of Medellin, which has had an extraordinary renaissance over the past decades.