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A Loop Through Andian Colonial Towns NE of Bogota

COLOMBIA | Saturday, 4 December 2021 | Views [57]

Mongui Bolivar Square

Mongui Bolivar Square

A Loop Through Andian Colonial Towns Northeast of Bogota

 In the early morning I met my local guide, Jorge, and driver, Mario, for a loop trip of a few Colonial towns in the Andes northeast of Bogota. Normally I would either rent a car or take public transportation when I am in countries that use scripts I can read, but for the places I want to go on this trip through Columbia, neither option would have been good.  COVID has also severely impacted the tourist industry and I felt it was my responsibility to support locals when I have the privilege to travel. Knowledgeable locals can also provide much more information that I can glean from books. Jorge is proving to be a knowledgeable guide.

Leaving Bogota we passed through some very expensive areas of the city. He informed me that the city is divided into six economic levels, with the poorest areas in the south with increasingly wealthy areas moving north. Shakira has an apartment in one of the most elite areas. He also told me that some of the wall murals I had been admiring in the city were painted by some rather well known artists, including Banksy. No wonder I was impressed….

Our first stop was to Jorge’s hometown, Zipaquirá, which is known for its salt mines and Salt Cathedral. There is a large Madonna statue in front of a small church on a hill overlooking the town and surrounding valley. The main square was in the process of getting ready for Christmas and the artificial pine tree was already in place between the palm trees. Zipaquirá was an important center for the Muisca people prior to the arrival of the Spanish as they used the salt from the water for trade.  They didn’t mine the salt, as the mining industry didn’t arrive until Alexander von Humboldt brought the technique to the region in the early 1800s. The Muisca knew that salt was in the area though, because of the taste of the water. They boiled the water and sifted out the salt that became one of their main sources of income. When the Spanish arrived, and settled in the area a year after the founding of Bogota, i.e., in 1539, they developed the salt trade and much later the mining industry took off, not just for salt, but also for gold and emeralds, which the Muisca had also found. As mining is a dangerous enterprise, the people who worked in the mines were deeply religious. In Austria and elsewhere in Europe, St. Barbara is the saint who protects miners along with the Virgin Mary and, of course, Jesus. In Columbia, Carmen often replaces Barbara in the people’s prayers, but in Zipaquirá, it is Virgin of the Salty Water, Guasa. There is an image of her in the famous Salt Cathedral, for which Zipaquirá is now known.

 The Salt Cathedral one visits today is the second version. The miners built the first in the mine itself on rock stilts, but over time the stilts shifted, and the structure became insecure. The new Cathedral, which is huge, was opened in 1995. It took three years to build and at the deepest level it is 180m underground. The path winds through a cavernous passage chiseled out of the rock. After a few minutes one comes to the first of the Stations of the Cross, which are unlike anywhere else. The crosses are carved from the salt rock walls and are singularly plain without images, but with subtle rock carved symbols. Veronica’s shawl, for example, is indicated by soft vertical ripples in the stone surrounding the flat surface cross. The three times Jesus falls are indicated by placing the cross in increasingly deeper cut levels. The visual representations of Stations are accompanied by Gregorian Chants and an Ave Maria beautifully sung by I believe Bocelli and I’m not sure who the soprano was, but she had a gorgeous voice.  Going further and deeper one finally enters the Cathedral itself with a 16m high 10m wide cross in the center. It is supposed to be the world’s largest.  In front of the altar there is a hollowed-out oval in which a marble adaption of Michelangelo’s Creation is laid. In this version, God is not visible, only his hand which touches Adam’s. There is a purposeful crack between the hands indicating the separation of the divine from the human world. The Cathedral’s floor is laid out into three separate sections representing hell, purgatory, and heaven. The stark architecture of the Cathedral and the subtle symbols foster a deep sense of spirituality in the heart of mother earth and in the still active mine.

From Zipaquirá we drove to Raquirá, which is known for its pottery.  The main square is lined with statues representing potters and the pottery process. The church, as elsewhere was closed as it wasn’t time for mass.  This appears to be something of a national occurrence; the churches are only open on a very limited basis. On the other hand, the main shopping street was filled with people going about their commercial activities in uniquely vibrantly painted houses. On the way to Valle de Leyva, we made a short stop in Tagua to visit a tagua craftsman shop. I wasn’t familiar with the word and had asked what it was, so Jorge kindly decided to show me what was made from this seed. The artisan was the third generation of  his family to carve all kinds of figures out of this hard tree seed. He demonstrated the difference in color and weight of the seeds and how each makes a different visual impression.  His pride and joy, however, was the creation of the world’s smallest chess set. The figures were carved on top of an avocado sized seed and were less than a centimeter in height.  It was a phenomenal achievement.

Villa de Leyva is a former colonial capital city and as such is laid out in a grid the way Bogota is. The main square is the largest in colonial style in Columbia and one of the largest in South America.  The city was founded in 1572 by de Leyva, a Spanish nobleman and first president of Nuevo Granada. Today it is one of the main tourist areas of the country and weekend getaway for people from Bogota. The square and surrounding cobblestoned streets are lined with one-story white colonial buildings that house numerous hotels, hostals and restaurants. The square comes alive at night with street musicians, artists, and large bubble blowers to the great amusement of the children.  On the square across from the church, which was surprisingly open as they were just getting ready for mass, is the town museum.  It is housed in the former residence of Luis Albert Acuña, a painter who chose to live here after studying in Paris and Mexico. He dedicated his life to painting pictures that represented the myths of the surrounding forests. They are reminiscent of those in the French primitive movement. The museum has some of his murals as well as some Colonial and indigenous antiquities.  There are two other museums outside of town, one dedicated to geology, and the other to paleontology. We visited the latter.  A number of reptilian land and water fossils have been found in Villa de Leyva.  This entire area, including Bogota, was once part of the oceans. When the Andes rose, the waters receded, but there still remain lots of underground springs and water sources. The fossils in the small museum/laboratory include those from 300 million, 120 million, and 10 million years ago – all found when people were building houses or roads within the past three decades.

About a half to three quarters of an hour outside of Leyva is the small village of Gachantiva. The people in this area are trying to develop eco-tourism to promote their region and towns. In the past few years, they have worked to restore some of the ancient pre-Colonial walkways, among them “El Camino del los Tibas”, the way of the grandfathers, which leads to a large waterfall down a deep canyon. The walk was beautiful with amazing views across the valleys and hills of the region. The entrance to the Toucanes Waterfall is at the Natural Reserve del los Yantas, a type of Toucan. A little white dog accompanied us on the walk down and up. The puppy left far fewer imprints in the at times ankle deep clayish mud on the rather steep path. There were sections that had stairs cut out of the rock and one very steep interval had a wooden staircase to assist visitors. It had rained the day before and the waterfall was in full glory. The surrounding high rainforest vegetation only let in streaks of light, but enough to play games through the trees, on the cascades, and on the serene river water’s surface. It is a stunningly beautiful site. On the way back of the 11 km loop is a laguna, a rather large pond. The story we were told by the guide for the walk/hike was that the area used to be completely dry, and potatoes were grown here. The farmer nearby had two daughters with very rosy cheeks. They were nicknamed, Las Coloritas. One year torrential rains came that flooded everything.  The girls were drown (or left, there are two versions of the story), and the people of the neighboring town named the laguna/pond after them.  There are a couple of paddle boats available for use and a restaurant by the road to the laguna from town. It seems this is an attractive picnic spot for the locals. On the return to Gachantiva, we passed by hillsides dotted with greenhouses. These are recent developments by people from elsewhere, who are producing tomatoes for national and international markets. The problem with this, according to the locals, is that they are using chemical fertilizers and the chemicals leak into the ground water, polluting this very beautiful and pristine environment. The local communities are banding together to see what they can do to preserve their region, hence the interest in developing eco-tourism.

From Villa de Leyva we headed on to Mongui and then to Lago de Tota, the largest lake in Columbia.  On the way, we made a short stop in Tunja, the provincial capital. Tunja is a major city with a number of universities. The main square is a mixture of colonial and modern architecture.  Next to the Colonial era Cathedral is the former residence of Captain Gonzalo Suarez Rendón, which is now a museum. It was given to him by Charles I of Spain, aka Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The Colonial house has two courtyards, one for visitors near the front of the building and one for private use in the back. Both are filled with blooming trees and flowers. In the second garden one of the walls has a gold-toned modern relief with figures representing some of the major myths of the country and region, including La Llorana, which I had thought was only in Mexico. It turns out she is also part of Columbian lore.  Pachamama, Mother Earth, is known in this region as Bachue. For the Muisca, the sun was Xue and the moon Chia. The founding family were devout Catholics, and they had the first image of the Virgin of Chiquinquira painted above the entrance to the second floor living areas. She is the one revered by pilgrims from around the country at her site in Chiquinquira.  The ceilings of a couple of the rooms have been renovated and display religious and secular symbols. The rest of the museum displays colonial furniture, paintings and tapestries.

It takes about an hour and a half to get from Tunja to Mongui, which is one of the highest Colonial towns at 3,200m.  Mongui is renown throughout Columbia for its soccer ball production.  This rather small town of perhaps 5,000 people was my absolute favorite of the colonial sites we had seen.  The Cathedral bf the Virgin of Mongui is reputed to be an excellent example of Nuevo Granadan architecture and is magnificent. The main Bolivar square has large garden sections and is surrounded by beautifully kept colonial style houses. On the square, next to the Cathedral, is a coffee shop that had the best cappuccino I have had in a long time.

The road from Mongui to Lago de Tota is good and we were soon there. This is the largest lake in Columbia; it is 18km long, 4km wide and 40m deep. (Wikipedia gives other dimensions, the ones quoted here are from the locals.)  The water is cold year-round. There were a few ominous looking clouds in the distance, but they didn’t stop us from enjoying a boat ride around a large island. The water was fairly choppy so we all got soaked, but it was a lot of fun. The lake reminds me of the Attersee in the Salzkammergut, which is about the same size, yet also has somewhat of the feel of Nahuel Huapi near Bariloche, Argentina.

This trip has been a wonderful introduction into some of the Andian Colonial towns and landscapes. Tomorrow I head back to Bogota for a quick visit to the Botero Museum before catching a flight to San Agustin the next day.

Tags: colonial towns and andian landscapes

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