Yesterday, May 6th, we got into Bogotá in the afternoon, and met our tour leader for an introductory walk around our hotel area. Everything looks very clean and orderly, and the colonial architecture is very nicely restored. Even the dogs do their part with recycling!
Today, May 7th, we had our first full day in Bogotá, Colombia. It was a very full day! First, we had a tour briefing with our very fun and youthful tour leader, Ernesto.
We then went on a walking tour of the old town area in which we are staying called Candelaria, where most of the government buildings and old colonial architecture is located. We walked over to the Múseo de Oro (Gold Museum), which is entirely devoted to pre-Columbian art of the various tribes that inhabited Colombia. I have to say that we’ve been to various gold museums before, but the scope and depth of this display is mind-boggling!
Next, we went on a walking tour of the downtown area, and walked past the Presidential place. we stopped to talk to some young soldiers about life in the military. All of them were just 19, and they were very friendly. For the most part, service in the Colombian military is compulsory for most young men over age 18, and they must serve one year.
Right across the street from the palace is the former cloister of Santa Clara, which dates back to the early 17th century, and is incredibly Baroque. Everywhere we walked, we noticed people staring at us (and some of them were pointing). Our tour leader explained that tourists are very rare in Colombia because of the former crime and political upheaval problems. In fact, as recently as 2002, the Presidential palace was shelled by rebel fighters only about 6 blocks away, but since then, the government has cracked down on those challenges, and the rebels (known as FARC) have dwindled in numbers from 60,000 fighter then to about 6,000 today. They have also been driven to the far south of the country, so they pose no threats to the major cities or to tourists today, and the Colombian economy is booming. We had lunch in a traditional restaurant with a lovely interior patio in the Ciudad Viejo, and then left for our next activity, which was a ride up to the top of Monserrate Hill.
Monserrate Hill offers fabulous 180 degree views of the city of Bogotá, and sits above 10,000 feet elevation. There is a large church at the top of the hill which is one of the most visited sites in Bogotá. We took a teleférico (cable car) to the top of the hill over very lush forests. The top of the hill offers many attractions in additon to the church, such as cafes and snack shops and an artisan village. Our tour leader introduced us to some local Colombian treats, including panela, which is cakes of dried cane sugar. Colombians drink it dissolved in hot water, and it is reputedly even more popular than the famous Colombian coffee. We tried it in the national drink called cane laso, which consists of the panela in hot water, with a shot of the the national liquor called aguardiente (a distillate of cane sugar with a hint of anise flavoring), topped with cinnamon. Since it was pretty cold on top of the hill, the drink tasted pretty good, and the panela tamed the taste of the anise. While most of the group went to tour the interior of the church, I wandered around taking pictures. Bogotá has its own, smaller, version of the Christ the redeemer statue, which is located on a peak directly across from Montserrate Hill.
Having finished our planned activities for the day, our intrepid tour leader, Ernesto, offered two additional optional activities. The first involved going to a local beer hall and learning how to play the game called Tejo. Tejo involves dividing into two teams and taking turns throwing a lead weight weighing about 4-5 pounds (the tejo) at least 30 feet into a bed of clay, trying to hit a circle of packets of gunpowder in the center of the clay field. If you hit the gunpowder packet and it explodes, your team wins 3 points. If everyone fails to explode the gunpowder, the person who sticks his or her tejo the closest to a gunpowder packet wines one point for their team. The team that wins 10 points first wins the game. Needless to say, Jim and I were the first to volunteer. Inexplicably, only 5 members of our tour were interested in this optional activity, but off we went with Ernesto. There is no charge to play the game , but you must buy (and consume) beers while playing the game. The tejo hall we visited had 6 alleys of tejo courts, each about 8 feet wide. However, there were only about three feet between each alley. The teams playing at the alley next to ours ordered a case of beer when they came in. Am I the only one who sees the myriad opportunities for accidental maimings from being hit by lead missiles or exploding gunpowder, or both?!!!
Since everyone in the hall other than us were pretty competent at this game, the sound of gunpowder exploding happened about every five minutes. Wow, was it loud. One of our gang actually managed to hit the gunpowder once, and I thought she was going to have a heart attack at the sound of the explosion. Can you see this game being approved in the United States?! Neither do I, but it sure was FUN!
At this late point in the afternoon, we had about two hours before our second optional activity (more on that later), but Jim and I decided to use part of the time to go see the Botero museum close to our hotel. Hey! I just thought I’d try to live up to my nickname as “Our Lady of the Aggressive Schedule”! Fernando Botero is one of the most famous and commercially successful Latin American artists. He is a Colombian (from MedellÍn), and he created this museum as a way of giving back to his country since admission is free. The exhibit contains a large number of his own works, as well as his collection of the works of other famous artists.
For those of you who knew my mom (or had heard me talk about her), you know she was a huge fan of Latin American art, and she loved the works of Botero. You probably know him as the artist who creates absurdly rotund figures (even his animals and inanimate objects are rotund), with small mouths and somewhat peeved expressions. I really wished I could have told her about this great exhibit, because not only is Botero a master of many artistic mediums (including painting, bronze sculpture, and pastel and pencil drawings), he imparts a totally whimsical air to all his works, and this was a great sampling of all of them. I’m really looking forward to seeing the other main Botero museum as part of our tour of Medellín.
For our second optional activity, Ernesto had found out that the National Symphony of Colombia was doing a performance at the Opera House tonight right next door to our hotel. Tonight’s performance was billed as featuring a wunderkind violinist from Japan performing a solo performance as part of the orchestra’s presentation of Sibellius’ work entitled Perdition and Salvation in a Violin. The orchestra was also performing Brahms’ 4th Concerto, and tickets in the orchestra section were less than $15 a piece. How could we miss out on this opportunity?!!! Afterwards, we had a light dinner of one of the national Columbian favorites; a comfort-food soup with chicken and potatoes called ajiaco. Then, straight to bed for us.