I am here in Colombia primarily to make a documentary and for ease, safety and financial reasons, I am basing it in Bogota and Cartagena but if I had the resources and time I would love to travel more of this fascinating country. Unfortunately my budget doesn´t stretch too far and I am really travelling Colombia on a bit of a shoestring.
But in light of working hard all week, setting up interviews and securing access to the foundations and people we want to speak to, Tatiana (my friend, host, translator and fixer) and I decided we were in need of some well deserved tourist time.
So this weekend we met up with two of Tati´s friends and marched our way up to Monserrate, basically a church on top of a mountain. But this church dominates the Bogota skyline and as soon as I saw it I said to Tati we must find time to visit it.
The mountain rises to 3,152 metres above the sea level, which is actually higher than where I lived in a ski resort in France for six months. The church (built in the 17th century) sits quaintly on top and is a shrine, devoted to “El Señor Caído” (Fallen Lord). This too is also a location of pilgrimage and can be reached by an incredibly steep cable car, a rather disconcerting aerial tramway or by walking, the preferred way of pilgrims.
On arrival to the top, the views were nothing short of impressive and we strolled around posing for photos and taking in the views of the city.
We then found our way into the church where they were in the middle of a classic Catholic mass service. Apparantly, these go on all day, every day. Those priests must have lots of stamina I think.
This clearly is a place of homage, judging by the sheer numbers of people who flock to the church, either as tourists or pilgrims but both appreciating the significance of this iconic Colombian location. Tati tells me that her sister and brother-in-law got engaged here at one of the mountain side restaurants. I imagine the beautiful romantic sunset that they must have witnessed over the city.
“I am not a Catholic but I believe in God” said Jose, a teacher I interviewed today for my documentary and this sentiment rang true for myself on top of Monserrate. In some ways I felt slightly out of place during a Catholic church service in Spanish but still I felt a certain peace and understanding stood among many faithful, even as a foreigner. That is the beauty of faith, (not religion)- you can be any creed, colour or culture and you can be accepted and loved.
The service proceeded to bless the masses by sprinkling water onto the congregation and whilst I was glad to be showered with holy water I was slightly concerned for the health of my camera at the same time.
The priest and congregation then continued to say prayers in Spanish, as I joined in with the final word, Ame´n and then they took communion. I wasn´t convinced it was right for me to join in with this part of the service, not being Catholic, I think I would have felt like a fraud so I decidedly stepped away and made my way towards the exit. Colombia is a very catholic country.
It almost felt like we were at a fast food restaurant but the religious kind, where the service was like being stood in a fast moving queue and feeling instantly gratified. But unlike McDonalds I did not feel guilty and unsatisfied afterwards. Morelike, contented and peaceful.
On our way snaking down the mountain we stopped off at the Quinta de Bolivar, which is the colonial house and gardens that served as a residence to Simon Bolivar, in Bogota after the war of independence. It is now used as a museum dedicated to Bolivar’s life.
Bolivar was a Venezuelan military and political leader and is seen as hero, liberator and revolutionary who played a key role in Hispanic America´s struggle for independence from the Spanish empire, and is today considered one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Americas.
Following the triumph over the Spanish monarchy, Bolívar participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Hispanic-America, a republic, which was named Gran Colombia, of which he was president from 1819 to 1830. During his lifetime, he led Venezuela, Colombia (including Panama at the time), Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia to independence, and helped lay the foundations for democracy in much of Latin America, with Colombia having the longest standing democratic government in the whole of South America.
I find this very interesting as I read in The City Paper (the only English newspaper in Bogota) that the government are in peace talks with the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) after four decades of conflict and terror between the revolutionaries and the government.
President Juan Manuel Santos is respected by many Colombians for his international exposure as an economist, with foreign investment at an all time high under his presidency and many admire him for his social vision. His next challenge then will be to sit down with the FARC and have an honest and frank conversation to calm a very old conflict.
We stop off for a quick refreshment, Lulo juice and Limonade de Coco drink, both of which use natural Colombian juices which are truely divine and appreciate Chorro (the oldest part of Bogota) with old colonial buildings and decor.
There are street musicians and comedians here, entertaining visitors and providing a very warm and friendly atmosphere to where apparantly hoards of youths flock. It is the coolest part of Bogota I have seen so far.
We also head to the El Museo del Oro (The Museum of Gold) where I find out all about the ancient hispanic culture. Interestingly, ancient South America was dominated by Shamans and chiefs who were adorned with golden armour and accessories that reflected the sun which was seen as a God. The shamans also wore the jewellery to transform into animals. They believed they were actually Jaguars and would often attack villagers who lived in fear of them. Luckily for me this was thousands of years ago.
Our museum tour guide also showed us some of the main attractions at the museum, a pear shaped type urn that is symbolic of the female body and he said which represented femininity. I asked if women were seen as equals back in ancient times and he said that in fact there were a lot of priestesses and queens thousands of years ago and they actually wielded a lot of power and respect, a fact I found fascinating.
Juan (our trusty bilingual museum guide) then told us about the raft. Apparantly people come to the museum just to see the raft which in my mind was being painted as a huge impressive ornament. It was hugely impressive but it certainly wasn´t huge as I soon realised when we headed into the next room.
The tiny raft approximately 10cm by 15cm sat in a blacked out room and so was illuminated by it´s golden brightness. It symbolises the offerings of gold and emeralds that the people used to drop into the river for the Gods, to maintain a prosperous year ahead.
After we were led into another blacked out room but this time sealed off and our guide politely asked if we were claustrophobic. “A little” I told him, when suddenly I heard ghostly chanting echoing around the room and lights illuminating the gold jewellery encased in the walls and below our feet on the floor. I wasn´t expecting this but it was a welcomed and very authentic experience of hearing the old shamans chant.
On our way back to our friends house we walked around the equivalent of Colombia´s parliament square, with the presidents house, and the equivalent of the house of commons in the centre. Here I felt like a proper tourist!
Finally, our new friends, Sean and Amilkar, decided we had to go to La Calera to see the sights of the city at night on top of the mountain. This sounded a little more scary than our escapade to the top of Monserrate during the day. But when we arrived it was simply better.
A small shacked out cafe perched on the side of the road/clifftop sat there welcoming us to come and try some hot canelaso (a local alcoholic herbal drink which smells a bit funny but tastes great!) A couple of sips later and lots of laughs after, we headed home for an early night.
I never knew how much sight seeing took it out of me.