I’ve been to Bogota more times than I care to count, so many times that when traveling in Colombia these days I’m doing my best to avoid it. It’s not that I don’t like Bogota, I just don’t particularly like it either.
For me, Bogota, with a population of over 8 million people, is just another big, sprawling, traffic congested city without the eclectic, defining charm of a metropolis that lures international tourism – say a San Francisco, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, La Paz, New York or Medellin. I’m not saying it’s a city without a wide array of merits. I do like its wonderful museums.
There are fans who say Bogota is one of the most exciting capitals in Latin America – full of hidden adventures, fine dining and nightlife. I just can’t sign off on it. And I’ve met many Colombians who think like I do. I put Bogota right there with other Central and South American capitals like San Jose, Managua and even Mexico City and Quito- places I really don’t want to spend anymore than a day or two.
Back in the day, going to or through Colombia made it next to impossible to avoid Bogota. Located in the center of the country, all international flights stopped at the El Dorado airport. Going to the Amazon – you have to leave from Bogota, southern Colombia – you pass through Bogota, connecting flights to anywhere – Bogota.
But these days economical international flights land and take off from Cartagena and Medellin (currently my favorite city in the country). And for a few extra dollars one can land at any local airport in Colombia on a transfer from airports in Panama City or Quito.
One no longer needs to land in Bogota, go to the city center, spend a cold, expensive night in the city only to make the long trip to the airport the next day disappointed over a lost vacation day. On my last bus trip from Villa de Leyva to Cali, I passed through Bogota only using the Bogota bus terminal for a transfer ride. Still, Bogota being the traffic clogged sprawling giant that it is, it still took me half a day to get in and out.
When I stay in Bogota I usually stay in the old city center called La Candelaria where many of the houses are well preserved in colonial style. Here there are the best museums, the famous Gold Museum of Bogota, the Botero Museum, the Casa de Mondeda (the mint) Plaza Bolivar and many more. From here one can explore the downtown area, the north of the city with its bars, restaurants and nightclubs and go by funicular to hilltop of Monserrate for a good view of the city.
Zipaquira’: day trips – places to see & things to do around Bogota
Just 25 miles north of Bogota is one of Colombia’s main’s tourist sites, a symbol of Colombia’s cultural and religious patrimony. The Cathedral of Salt is an underground church built inside of a salt mine 600 feet below the surface. It’s an interesting destination for pilgrimage and religious tourism boasting the largest cross ever built in an underground church. Everyone comes to see the cathedral in the salt mine which is just part of a larger complex called the ‘Parque de Sal’ or the Salt Park where there is also a museum of mining, mineralogy and geology along with zip lines and rock climbing walls.
Salt has been mined in the area since the pre-Colombian Muisca culture going back to the 5th century B.C. The Spaniards established the town of Zipaquira back in 1606. Since, miles and miles of tunnels have been dug in and around the town which still churns out 40% of Colombia’s salt.
A religious shrine was carved in the salt cave by miners, as a place for their daily prayers, long before the original cathedral was inaugurated in 1954.
There are guided tours continuously taking groups into the mine on hour long walking tours of the 14 stations of the cross while offering valuable insights into the history of the salt mining. Each station has a lighted cross made of salt 16 feet high. At the end of the cave is a huge dome carved out of salt measuring 360 feet long and 66 feet high. The cathedral can hold 8,000 people. An impressive 48 foot tall, salt carved cross is the dome’s centerpiece. There is a mass in the cathedral every Sunday at 1 p.m. for 3,000 visitors. But tickets must be purchased in advance.
The town of Zipaquira’, commonly called Zipa, is an interesting and accommodating little town with a nice central plaza, plenty of hotels and restaurants.
Admission for just the Salt Cathedral is $18 (the other museums and activities cost extra). This is not cheap by Colombian standards or even international museum standards.
The cathedral has always been widely promoted as a ‘must-see’ tourist site in Colombia. I can’t say it’s a ‘must see’, unless, of course, religious tourism is significant to you. But if you’re on tight schedule and debating about whether to see it or not, I’d have to go with don’t waste your time. But if you are in Bogota for a week and are looking for a destination outside of the city – the town of Zipa and the Salt Cathedral are an interesting escape.
The insatiable thirst for Gold
Other day trip destinations outside of Bogota would be the town of Guatavita, 35 miles from the capital. A lake by the town is where the legend of El Dorado and the secret treasures originated. The legend of El Dorado refers to a lost city of gold, believed to exist somewhere in South American El Dorado in Spanish means ‘the golden one’. It was a term used to describe an annual custom of the Muisca native people where the king would cover himself in gold dust and then dive into the lake and emerge cleansed of the gold. Other offerings of gold, emeralds and precious offerings were thrown in the lake every year.
The Spaniards believed Lake Guatavita was the site of the ritual. The legend was dismissed as a myth by the 19th century. But over the years, the lake has been dredged and drained and the story verified by the discovery of small gold wire raft that now sits in exhibit at Bogota’s Museum de Oro.
The town of Guatavita is a modern town built in the colonial style when the old town of Guatavita was submerged by the reservoir.
Honda is 16 miles upriver from La Dorada. It’s a pleasant, old colonial town founded in 1539 with many interesting colonial buildings, a covered market and many old bridges spanning the Rio Magdalena and the Rio Guali.
For more on cities in Colombia see the articles:
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