Monday, August 31, 2009

Villa de Leyva y Tunja

From Bogotá we headed north, to the architecturally-pure colonial town of Villa de Leyva. We have seen a lot whitewashed adobe walls and red tile roofs now and they continue to appeal. We camped on the grassy grounds of Hostel Rinacer, a little way outside of town. It's a lovely hostel with an outdoor communal kitchen and we chatted for the evening with a big group of Belgians, a Colombiana, a Frenchman and a guy from Nottingham who had taught English in Bogotá. Mike said he would love to stumble on the enclave of Bogotanos speaking English with a Nottingham accent. Our friend for the evening didn't see the humor.

In the morning we rented bikes from the hostel and after the few false starts inherent in using minimally-maintained rental gear rode down the hill and through town. There was a kite festival starting up in the central plaza. (Kite in Spanish is cometa.) We walked our bikes over the cobblestone streets and then rode into the hills. We stopped first at the Pozos Azules, or Blue Holes. They're really more green and the beagle puppy was, as Mike said, worth the price of admission.

From the green pools we biked on to El Fósil and a museum devoted to the fossilized bones of an immense sea creature found in the area, a kronosaurus. A little boy breezed past us through the exhibit, trailing his parents and proclaiming all the exhibits "the same." The myriad examples of spiral shell fossils did support his position but the kronosaurus display was mightily impressive, especially when taken in conjunction with the imaginary and ferocious depictions of the beast.

From the Fossil we rode on to seek out a local archeological site, stone pillars set up by pre-Columbian people and used to identify the changing seasons through the length of the shadows they cast. These pre-Columbians also set up a good many giant stone phalluses, not apparently related to timekeeping. Why the phallic shadows could not be used is lost to history.

We stopped on our way back to town at a little vineyard and sampled their white wines. We did not buy a bottle but agreed that the driest was OK.

Back in town the kite festival was winding up with the emcee showing no inclination to give up his mic. We ate in a local parrilla, excellent beef cut from a slab pinioned at the firey mouth of a brick oven, and made our way slowly back up the hill to our hostel and cozy tent.

The next day we took a bus to Tunja, just an hour away and the only place to get a bus on to our next stop, Parque Nacional Natural Cocuy.

Monday, August 24, 2009


We expected to be in Bogotá for a few days and ended up staying a week. This was partly due to the unexpected grandeur of Bogotá, partly due to a quick stomach flu, but mostly due to the warm welcome and hospitality of our friend Mark. Mark, who ate sautéed dandelion flower sandwiches with Tom Winkler in nursery school (apparently these things help forge a strong bond), furnished us with our own quiet room in his comfortable apartment and didn't mind us hanging around despite doing most of his work at home. Mark is in Bogotá co-founding Frogtek, a company that is trying to help small business owners improve their business through applications they are building for the new Google phone. Business with a social conscience. Thumbs up.

Bogotá has some beautiful colonial sections, including La Candelaria which reminded us of Boca in Buenos Aires for its vivid colors. It also has several fancy neighborhoods with upscale malls full of yuppies, rivaling those in the U.S. in their trendiness. This meant that we got to have some decent sushi after all this time. Thanks for the tip Mark! Bogotá also has some excellent museums. Some were better than others. The Donación Botero, el Museo de Oro (Gold Museum), and the Colombian National Museum were great. The Modern Art Museum (nicknamed MAMBO) was pretty sparse. The Police Museum required a guide, which was good for practicing Spanish, but two hours was a little longer than I wanted to spend on Colombian police history, despite its operatic intensity. Also, trying to take interesting pictures of Pablo Escobar's bloody jacket or a glass case full of Uzis proved to be too much for me. They did have two police badges from New Haven, Connecticut which made me think of my friends Jeff and Dave, and excellent views of the city from the roof.

On our second day in town we took the TransMilenio (a sort of poor man's subway--it's above ground, like Quito's) and a bus out to the town of Zipaquirá to visit the famous Salt Cathedral. Lonely Planet calls it "one of Colombia's most fascinating attractions" and "hauntingly beautiful." I have a feeling the writer might have been indulging in one of Colombia's other, more illicit attractions. We found it more along the lines of the Mitad del Mundo (see the last Quito post)-style tourist trap. I'll admit the size of the place, part of a huge mine dug out of a mountain of salt, is impressive, but the bizarre lighting, the new age music, the baptismal font that looked like the bridge from the Starship Enterprise, the relentless commercialism (gift and coffee shops inside--what would Jesus say?), our friendly but goofy guide who pronounced "God" as "Got" as in "This giant pillar represents the power of GOT!" and the spectacularly dull 3D movie narrated by an absurd Transformer made out of salt made it all pretty hard to take seriously. Maybe worth pulling off the interstate for, not worth 3 hours on buses. The town of Zipaquirá was pleasant, though.

The first museum we visited was the Donación Botero, dedicated to Colombia's famous and wonderfully wacky artist who paints and sculpts fat people, animals, and objects. The museum also included some work from other artists, presumably from Botero's collection.

The Museo de Oro had a huge and beautiful collection of pre-Columbian art objects, most made from gold. It made me wonder what would be there if the Spanish hadn't melted most of it down and sent it back to Spain in bars. Our Spanish is getting better but not good enough to read all the signs in a large museum in under 15 hours. So we often make up our own explanations for some of the things we see. Using this method, we discovered that one Colombian tribe worshiped a flute playing space monkey.

The Colombian National History Museum starts with tribal pottery, goes through endless portraits of glowering independence leaders, to modern times. We kind of rushed through some of the exhibits because most of our time was spent talking to intensely friendly security guards. The image of Galán was ubiquitous throughout Bogotá during our stay. Through more traditional methods, we learned that he was an important left-leaning politician who ran for mayor of Bogotá and president twice and was assassinated by Pablo Escobar. Through our new method (henceforth known as de-reconstructionism) we learned that Simón Bolivar and Danny Devito teamed up to liberate Colombia from the hated gold-melters.

Our last night was spent rather oddly. We met up with our friend, John, who we met in Sevilla, at his Christian radio station where he is news director. He had us sit on his Friday staff meeting where we were expected to join in commenting on a long Biblically-inspired passage he read aloud. I managed to pick up on a theme of social change and violence and managed to say a few words about Martin Luther King which seemed to fly. Later he took us to the largest mall I've ever set foot in for coffee at Juan Valdez (yes, the guy with the mustache and the donkey) which is almost identical to Starbucks. Finally we got back to Mark's and we all went out for food (sushi again!) and drink.

The next day after savoring some leisurely coffee and homey talk (can't get that in a hostel, thanks Mark!), we climbed back on a bus to Villa de Leyva, passing a mysterious complex of bulbous Russian Orthodox style buildings. We'll let you know more when de-reconstructionism supplies the answer.