From Villa de Leyva we headed to Zipaquira en route to Bogotá. One of the most popular day trips from Bogotá is to visit the Salt Cathedral here, so rather than go to Bogotá and backtrack, we stopped on the way.
The cathedral is carved out of the tunnels of an excavated cavern of a working salt mine. Mine workers first created a religious sanctuary here in the early 1930s. In the 1950s a much bigger ‘cathedral’ was carved out. It suffered structural problems due to vibration from the mining work still going on around it, and was closed to the public in 1992. A new and even bigger ‘cathedral’ was completed in a different part of the mine in 1995.
The cathedral is big – 76 metres long with a 20 metre high ceiling. And due to a clever carving technique and innovative lighting, the cross at the back of the altar seems to hang suspended in mid air when in fact it is carved into the back wall.
Up to 3,000 people attend mass here on Sundays, so it is definitely a working church. But in truth it’s not a cathedral since it doesn’t have a bishop.
Entrance is via a long tunnel along which are niches for the Stations of the Cross, but each just contains a plain carved cross, not a depiction of the event represented by the station. The cathedral itself is very plain and most of the statues and columns are stone, purportedly because salt is too soft to be intricately carved. Really? Tell that to the miners who created Wieliczka Salt Cathedral in Poland. Perhaps it’s different strength salt.
So – it isn’t old, it is a commissioned structure designed by an engineer not a devotional creation of working miners, the decorative features are not carved from salt, and the whole space is really very plain. It gets rave reviews by a lot of visitors, but we just didn’t get it. We thought it was one of the lamest sites we’ve visited.
Bogotá proved a much more interesting place. It’s a city of amazing contrasts.
Most of the historic sights are near Candelaria, a colonial-era barrio with a mix of restored houses and dilapidated buildings, spreading around Plaza Bolivar.
The neoclassical Catedral Primada stands on the site which may – or may not, depending on who you believe – have been where the first Mass was celebrated in Bogotá, in a thatched roofed chapel in 1538. A more permanent church was built later but collapsed. Its replacement was destroyed by an earthquake. In a case of third time lucky, the current structure, completed in the early 1800s, is still standing. It’s Bogotá’s largest church.
Also facing the plaza is Casa de Nariño, the Presidential Palace named after one of Colombia’s independence leaders from the colonial era.
On the opposite side of the square is the more modern Palace of Justice housing the Supreme Court.
In November 1985, guerillas of the M-19 revolutionary movement stormed the building, killing two security guards and the building manager and taking 300 people hostage. Others hid in empty rooms. A few hours later, the army rescued 200 hostages. The following day the army stormed the building and more than 100 people were killed, including guerillas, soldiers, civilian hostages and 11 Supreme Court judges. More than 6,000 legal documents were lost in a fire that took two days to extinguish. Forensic investigations indicate the fire was likely caused by an exploding army rocket, although the government asserted the guerillas burned the documents at the behest of Pablo Escobar to destroy evidence which may have facilitated the extradition of his henchmen to the United States.
It was one of the most deadly attacks in Colombia’s long-running war with Leftist rebels. Five of M-19’s leaders died and the group was seriously weakened, not least because the army then engaged in an illicit campaign to ‘disappear’ suspected members.
M-19 eventually signed a peace treaty with the government in 1990. No guerillas were ever prosecuted over the attack, nor were army or government officials held to account for their role in the loss of life or the reprisals that followed. It remains a source of grievance for the families of innocent victims.
Museo Botero contains a large collection of the works of Colombia’s most internationally famous artist, Fernando Botero. He is best known for his paintings and bronze sculptures of people and animals with chubby bodies and whimsical faces.
The museum also has a credible collection of Impressionist paintings and is co-located with Casa de Moneda, the national Museum of Money, so there’s plenty to see.
Bogotá’s most famous museum is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) with over 55,000 objects from pre-colonial cultures in Colombia. Naturally, the focus is on gold – what wasn’t stolen by the conquistadors and either melted down or shipped to the Old World. There are trinkets, masks, amulets, jewellery and even full body regalia.
Every visitor to Bogotá really should take the Breaking Borders tour. This outstanding initiative has seen Bogotá’s Externado University and a local NGO collaborate with the leaders of one of the gangs to conduct tours of no-go Barrio Egipto.
Barrio Egipto is one of Bogotá’s oldest neighbourhoods and from the 1980s was riddled with gang violence. More than 1,200 murders took place in the 1990s alone as gangs warred to control drugs and organised crime. It remains a divided neighbourhood, with four explicit zones each controlled by different gangs.
The University sponsors former members of the La 10ma gang through classes in tourism to equip them with skills as guides and a means of earning an income lawfully. The Breaking Borders tour enable visitors with a guide from the University and the neighbourhood, to walk through this part of the barrio safely, and hear about the history of the area, the stories of locals and the initiatives being taken to try and move to a sustainable, legitimate livelihood for all.
Within this gang’s section of the barrio, things have improved, but it’s still only safe to go with the sanctioned guide. The dividing lines between the different gang areas are invisible but well known to locals. No one crosses them, and guided visitors are told, in effect, ‘if we went beyond that street, we could not protect you or ourselves’.
The area has the most spectacular murals. Some reference Colombia’s natural and pre-colonial heritage.
We loved this one of a crocodile and rabbit playing rock-paper-scissors.
Many contain references to the barrio’s harsh history.
This one was painted in memory of a young boy who was gunned down by a rival gang while playing soccer.
The gentleman on the left of this next one is a shop owner who was the first person in the community to have a (land line) telephone, which he let others use as a community resource.
The woman on the right is a nurse who came to live in Barrio Egipto in her early 20s after being forced to flee her own town due to violence. She spent the next 50+ years providing nursing services as the community had none. Many times this involved tending to gang members with bullet wounds who couldn’t risk arrest by going to a hospital.
We even met her. She no longer works as a nurse as she’s almost blind. Sadly, she still lives in total poverty. The mural is a remarkably accurate portrait.
The murals are colourful and uplifting, but there is no denying this is a desperately poor community.
But this is not ‘slum tourism’. It isn’t about ogling poverty or getting bragging rights for having visited a danger zone. It is about learning something of the history and social barriers that trap people and communities in poverty and crime, and the grassroots initiatives that can help break that cycle. It’s a tour you won’t soon forget.
Across the whole city, Bogotá is known for its street art. Just walking around the streets, we saw a lot of good street art and building art.
When it comes to general sightseeing we aren’t really ‘tour’ people. But we’d read good things about a graffiti tour in downtown Bogotá, so we thought we’d check it out. It was set up in 2011 by an expat Aussie and expat Canadian to showcase local graffiti, and now involves a group of local graffiti artists who guide the tours. The tour is free but donations are expected at the end, and the money goes into helping graffiti artists with their works.
Graffiti has long been a means of peaceful protest and social comment in Colombia, but was a criminal offence until 2011. That year, police shot and killed a 16 year old boy, Diego Becerra, who was tagging a bridge, then planted drugs on him and asserted they were attempting to arrest him as a drug dealer. The incident sparked massive protests and eventually, under sustained pressure, the government passed legislation decriminalising graffiti. Graffitists can still be fined but the amounts are small, no one is jailed and generally the sanction is that the graffitist must remove their handiwork.
There’s an alternative story that decriminalisation occurred because Justin Bieber was allowed to graffiti a building when visiting Bogotá, leading to backlash about the rich/celebrities getting preferential treatment. It isn’t true! Bieber did graffiti a building, while his police escort stood by. He wasn’t sanctioned and the fact that he was treated differently to locals did cause local outrage. But it wasn’t the catalyst for the law being changed.
Our guide explained that recently she had been a beneficiary of the legal changes. She and a friend were painting the below mural one evening when they were caught by police. They were taken to the station and their details recorded, but they were let off with only a warning that if they returned to complete the work they would be prosecuted. So it remains unfinished.
The tour was really interesting. There were some that were just fun, like this one which is a collaboration by many different graffiti artists commissioned by the building owner for their cafe, Dos Gatos y Simone (Two Cats and Simone).
We saw lots of works which reference pre-Colombian mysticism.
Our guide was a pretty radical, young graffiti artist who was both totally enthusiastic about the art and passionately political. She gave a lot of information about works with a political perspective.
This one depicts the various groups facing disadvantage in modern Colombia – farmers, factory workers, women, the indigenous etc.
This next one is one of four pieces commissioned by the Red Cross referring to the lack of accounting for the people who were ‘disappeared’ during the years of conflict between the government and the Marxists. It depicts one of the mothers and translates “the anguish does not let me sleep”. The creator, who goes by the name Toxicómano (Spanish for ‘drug addict’) explained its meaning as “we take it for granted that everything is fine because peace was signed, but in reality there is much to be done and it is necessary that this be seen as yesterday’s news”.
Since November, Colombia has experienced three national strikes and ongoing mass protests against austerity measures and human rights repression. The government responded with night curfews in Bogotá, and the deployment of both police and military forces using tear gas and mass arrests to quell demonstrations.
On 24 November 2019, 250,000 people marched in Bogotá, the biggest protest march in Colombia’s history. 18 year old high school student, Dilan Cruz, died of head injuries sustained when he was hit in the head with a projectile fired by an officer. In a matter of days, his name was memorialised on the street corner where he died.
We are conflicted about non-commissioned graffiti. It is, after all, vandalism. But in a country where other means of peaceful protest can be deadly, and being visibly socially active can come at a high personal cost, we can see the argument in favour of it.
Ok, to end on a more uplifting note, let’s talk about a local gastronomic delicacy, hormigas culonas. Hormigas is Spanish for ants, and culo is Spanish for ass. Yes, literally, ‘big ass ants’. They are the female of a particular species of winged leaf-cutter ant – atta laevigata – collected in the spring. We’ve read conflicting information as to whether the female ants just have a naturally big butt or whether it is enlarged with larvae. We kinda hope it’s the first. Eating ants is bad enough. Somehow eating unborn ant larvae seems even worse.
The ants are a delicacy for the indigenous Guane people of central Colombia and are collected only in the province of Santander around San Gil and Barichara. The ants are hand collected by workers wearing tall rubber boots and working fast, as soldier ants with a nasty bite will deploy to try and protect the females. The harvested ants are dry roasted over a fire (sometimes boiled first). They crisp up and the wings and most of the legs fall off. They are then ready to eat.
We’d heard of the ants but not seen any for sale in the highlands where they are harvested, so when we saw a street vendor with a basket of them in Bogotá, we knew what we had to do.
The taste has been described as ‘crunchy dirt mixed with old coffee grounds’. Really? Who’s tried that to know what it would taste like? Other descriptions include ‘kind of like popcorn, with an after-taste reminiscent of roast chicken flavoured potato chips’, ‘a bit like bacon’ and ‘smoky with a hint of pork skins’.
What did we think? To us they had an acrid taste a bit like burned coffee and a texture something like the skins that come off roasted peanuts only firmer, with a definite crunchiness at the bulbous end. They were more flavoursome than the dried, roasted grasshoppers we had in Mexico a few years ago, but like the grasshoppers, we are pretty confident they aren’t going to take market share from potato crisps or peanuts as a beer snack any time soon.