Book Travel

BACKPACKER CONFESSIONS: GIRL VS SOUTH AMERICA — PART 30 COLOMBIA – BOGOTA TO MANIZALES

Bogota

Bogota is rough around the edges certainly, I think Plaza de Bolivar would sigh if it were to speak, after all the things that it has seen. However, La Candelaria district is a place to be. Lovely cafes, museums and cobbled streets make it an enjoyable place for travellers to spend time and money.

I do know people who’ve been robbed in this capital as barrios surround the centre so it is still worth being careful. It isn’t quite in the same league as Quito in terms of danger, but still. The city has a good transport system called the Transmilenio bus system which makes it easy to get around.

The famous Museo del Oro (gold museum) is heralded as the best museum in South America, not that there is that much in the way of competition but it is very good. I think the fact that it displays gold instead of bits of old rocks probably gives it an edge over some of the others. 

Some of this gold is in the form of tunjos (offerings) that were thrown into Laguna de Guatavita. Apparently, pure gold cannot be carbon-dated unless it contains other elements but I’m sure science will change this. Either way, take your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled.

I went on a day trip to Zipaquira where there is the Catedral de Sal which is a Roman Catholic Cathedral built out of salt underground. It is reachable via two buses, one to portal del Notre and then onwards to Zipaquira. Apparently, it has no bishop so is not officially a cathedral at all. It exists in the Halite salt mines and the old cathedral was built for miners as they would not surprisingly would pray for protection. The new cathedral was built in the 1990s. 

I have visited the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland but this one was different, it was much bigger, more intriguing and darker which is true for South America in general compared to Europe. 

The tour guide took a shine to me and wanted to go out afterwards. He went to great pains to explain all the salty facts to me when we were underground. As the single lone female on the tour, he took the opportunity that he felt that it presented – that I needed a man. I ummed and ahhed over his proposition but really I wanted to get back to Bogota before dark. I also didn’t really know Zipaquira or the tram schedules so it was less risky to give it a miss. I went back to the hostel to plot the next stop on my trip.

A few years ago, I read that the citizens of Bogota marched to celebrate their freedom, and I really felt for them. Peace is absolutely top of the agenda for the people of Colombia and it makes me emotional to think of it.

Medellin

Medellin (pronounced in many different ways – I went for Medeyin) was dubbed the ‘most dangerous city in the world’ in 1988 due to the drug cartels operating here. Escobar used to recruit his runners from the suburb of Comuna 1. He also put money into the suburbs.

As a tourist, Fernando Botero was the thing that I took away with me. He is famous for voluptuous sculptures of people and was born in Medellin hence his generosity towards this troubled place. In 1995, a FARC bomb killed 23 people and broke off parts of a bronze bird in Plaza de San Antonio. It is now a ‘homage to the barbarians’. In 2000 Botero made another intact bird sculpture as a symbol of peace, five years on. 

There is a lovely café which is more expensive than others but looks out onto Plaza Botero and you can see his statues of a man, woman, a cat and a Roman soldier. Medellin is also famed for its museums and is becoming an increasingly innovative city. This is a city that we need to watch, and finally, for good reasons.

Popayan

Popayan is situated in the Valle de Pubenza and it is known as the La Ciudad Blanca (the White City). It is an enjoyable place to walk around, with cobbled streets, leafy parks and pavement cafes. My bus dropped me here very early in the morning so I had to wake the hostel woman up which I felt bad about.

I ate a tamale in a café off the main square and it was delicious. Tamales are a historically rich dish across Latin America as the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas all ate different versions of this meal, usually prepared by women for the men who went out to fight. The Aztecs ate frog and flamingo in their tamales and the Mayas enjoyed fish and iguana. These corn dough treats are still enjoyed mixed with meats, vegetables or seasonings and wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaf. 

Popayan is the gateway for buses to San Agustin and that was where I was headed. The bus station has buses coming in at all hours for the journey along rough roads to San Agustin or to the border with Ecuador. 

San Agustin

In the area of San Agustin in the municipality of San Jose de Isnos, there is an archaeological park which is home to a variety of statues that depict pre-Hispanic Andean culture for several centuries, with sculptures dating from the first, up until the eighth century. The site is 2000km² and the main historical sites are Alto de Los Idolos and the smaller Alto de Las Piedras which lie on each side of the Magdalena river.

The area is of great archaeological interest as there is much evidence of Andean ancestry.  This includes tracks, field boundaries, drainage ditches, artificial platforms and funerary monuments such as the prolific stone statues, hence the reason why the area was declared a World Heritage Site. The stone guards, that were placed outside the tombs can be up to 4m in height and can weigh several tonnes, as they were carved from tuff igneous and volcanic rock.

Inside the main park, you can find Las Mesitas, an area that is like an open-air museum that contains artificial mounds, terraces, funerary structures and stone statuary. I really liked the Fuente de Lavapatas which is a romantically carved stone stream bed, and my personal favourite which was the Bosque de Las Estatuas. I enjoyed the forest of the statues as it was a lovely winding forest path punctuated by the carved stones. It reminded me of an eccentrics back garden except with actual historical significance.

Despite all the big stone clues that they left behind, little is known about the culture apart from the obvious examples of stone technology for which they used basalt chips and it is thought that they lived on wild berries. This was in the pre-Agricultural period from c3300 to c600BC, so it is unknown whether they also hunted for food, as it was such a rudimentary culture it means that little has been discovered about social politics. It is believed that it was a settlement of kinship which would be very civilised indeed.

A more modern people arrived and brought agricultural and pottery making practices with them in the 7th century, it is thought that social order brought by chiefs meant that manpower was allocated to carve the stone statues and the temple-like architecture suggest a spiritual belief in religion and in magic. There were various settlers and the last of them were the Amazonian Andakis tribe in the 17th century. The colonial settlement of San Agustin by the Spaniards began in 1608-12 when a religious centre for indoctrination was founded by the colonists for the indigenous people.

From San Agustin, it is two buses and about half a day’s travel to get to Tierradentro.

Tierradentro

I liked Tierradentro as it is a bit more off the beaten track than San Agustin and seeing underground tombs is pretty cool. The people that worked there were really nice and leant me torches for the tombs that weren’t lit so I would able to see them. There are around 100 of these interesting funeral temples and this is the only place in the whole of the Americas where they are found. The different sites are along a beautiful uphill walk and the road and village settlement runs through the middle of it.

The town is called San Andres de Pisimbala and the people there are crazy nice, apart from the one women at the hospedaje that I stayed in. People also open their living rooms as spare bedrooms and will make you breakfast or tea whenever you want it.

The tombs were made by scooping out the soft volcanic rock and there are five different sites you visit as well as two museums. The paintings inside the tombs are black and red with white backgrounds. Well worth a visit for the intrigue factor as I have not been anywhere like that since.

Manizales

The zona cafetera of Colombia is beautiful. Green and mountainous and in Colombia. Perfecto. There are various towns to stay in this region and I opted for Manizales, the centre of the district. 

The bus station is at the bottom so you need to be prepared to trek up the mountainside to get to your accommodation and to see the sights. The online encyclopaedia entry describes it as having ‘abrupt topography’ which is absolutely correct.

Manizales was voted the best city in Colombia to live in, partly due to the optimism rating of its residents. Another fun fact is that they have a Miss International Queen of Coffee Pageant. Progressive. Also unnecessary as walking down the street in Colombia is a beauty pageant in itself. 

There are many coffee fincas in the area, but the hostel recommended Hacienda Guayabal. I got the two buses and ended up going past the finca and wandering around the Colombian countryside. I was pointed back in the opposite direction and I managed to find the farm. The Colombian family that I was sharing a room with were there so we went on a tour together,  it was in Spanish but I could just about understand it.

The coffee machinery/plants speak for themselves anyway. The views were spectacular, coffee plants and palm trees lining every hill. Hopefully it will stay that way, but coffee is vulnerable to climate change so the areas where it grows may change depending on the global temperature rise. Nonetheless, a recommended part of any Colombia visit.

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