Colombia: A Colonial Wonderland in High Relief

Sandra Bertrand




If you’re conjuring up images of drug kingpins, bloody revolutions, or simply decades of civil unrest that might make you think twice about hopping the next plane to Colombia, you’re not completely off the mark.  But setting your feet down in the modern capital city of Bogota, your fears will quickly evaporate.  Ringed by a verdant, mountainous landscape, the mists part to reveal a striking colonial city of 8 million inhabitants.  If its grandeur almost leaves you speechless, it’s not surprising—at an altitude of 10,407 feet at the highest point, you will need to catch your breath at regular intervals.


And if any jitters remain about your safety, after a long history of Communist-inspired guerilla uprisings, an accord was finally struck on November 3, 2016 between Juan Manuel Santo’s governing coalition and the Revolutionary Armed Forces rebels (FARC).  Whether this will usher in a long overdue period of peace is anyone’s guess.  For now, we are intent on enjoying the sights and sounds of what has remained the capital since its 1819 independence. 


Within minutes of our arrival from Panama City on Avianca Air, we were in the chokehold of a midday traffic jam. Nowhere in evidence was the laidback languor I’d witnessed in Panama.  These were pedestrians with a purpose, seemingly invigorated by the thin air itself.  In the heart of Bogota’s historic Candelaria District and within a block of Hotel De La Opera, we decided to abandon our taxi, walking our luggage the rest of the way.  Conveniently situated next door to the Cristóbal Colón Theatre and only blocks from the majestic Bolivar Square and the Botero Museum, our hotel seemed the perfect choice.

Intent on devouring as much of the world as our credit cards would allow, splurging for once on lodgings seemed reasonable enough.  We had chosen an upper floor in the art deco wing of a colonial-style converted mansion, with a marvelous view over the terra cotta rooftops and bell towers of the National Cathedral.  A quick glance through our thinly-draped windows confirmed our decision--we could as easily have been plunked down amidst the warm russets and golds of a Florentine landscape.   

The first order of the day was lunch in the covered hotel courtyard, followed by a refill of Colombia’s famed brew.  A serious look at the country’s most famous artist and his universe was next, even if Fernando Botero’s bloated populace encouraged us to cut back on the calories!  The surprising aspect of the Bank of the Republic’s museum, opened in 2000 after Botero donated 123 of his own works, are the additional 85 works by international artists that he bestowed to the Bank.  This artistic panorama spans from the mid-19th century up to the end of the 20th century and includes a rich trove of Impressionist works—Sisley, Renoir, Monet, they’re all here.  Then, advancing room to room chronologically the visitor arrives at the Surrealists.  Ernst, Dali, and Miro are hung alongside cubist works by Leger, Braque, and Picasso.  The generosity of Botero’s gift to Bogota is stunning and not to be missed, even if his birth city of Medellin is rightly jealous. One can also encounter master canvases by Obregon and Jaramillo, whose combined impact is unmistakable.  The most harrowing is a painting by Alejandro Obregon--Violencia (1962) is an unforgettable depiction of a pregnant woman felled by war.



Botero’s own vision of overblown humanity is an acquired taste, but even for the critic who finds his fleshy, rotund figures—whether painted in oil or cast in bronze—too stylized, they hold an unmistakable power when confronted head-on.  Their innocuous facial expressions give little away, but within the giant canvases, their form becomes everything.  From celebrities to the common man, whether in the bath, smoking on a street corner or cast in a social milieu, they are impossible to ignore. 

For the so inclined, the Museo de Moneda or the Coin Museum is both enticing and educational.  Civil wars brought with each leader’s rise and fall new pressings and the resultant exhibits are meticulously presented.  There are a few examples of paper money and my favorite was the adorable depiction of a leader’s favorite pooch. 

 A late afternoon snack at Patagonia, conveniently situated around the corner from our hotel, provided all the local color any curious turista could hope to find.  Circumventing a customer’s motorcycle parked three-quarters inside the door, we encountered bullfighting posters, rustic workmen’s tables crowded with midday diners and a narrow bar where we opted for a plate of grilled chorizo and a popular Colonial beer. 



It would have been shameful to miss the opulence of the Colon Opera house, and we were lucky enough to grab the last two seats in the third tier for ten dollars apiece.  On the bill that night was a performance by Puerta Candelaria, an energetic young ensemble with a jumbled mix of jazz, hip-hop and folk tunes from the highlands.  Joanne and I found ourselves in adjoining boxes, so could only communicate by precariously craning our necks around the rim of wall dividing us.  Arriving a few minutes early we wondered at the gorgeous Belle Epoque interior from our seats. Such musings were quickly abandoned, when the teenaged girls who requisitioned the first row of seats in my friend’s box arose in unison—swaying and sashaying non-stop, shaking hair and body parts with total abandon.  Maybe it wasn’t such a bargain after all.

Back at the hotel bar, nestled in a tiny enclave off the main hallway, we were grateful for the quiet and solitude—at first unaware of how long we sat waiting for service.  When the bartender finally strolled in, no apologies were given.  We ordered an aguardiente, an anise-flavored spirit favored by Colombians, and watched as he disappeared yet again.  Joanne’s command of Spanish had proven itself enough times throughout Central and South American forays, but this bartender gave new meaning to mixed up signals and orders.  Seltzer replaced wine, while he chatted away in his native tongue, oblivious to our confusion.  On another visit, returning from a chilly highlands evening, we warmed up with two Jack Daniels which showed up at checkout as six bottles of the favored bourbon consumed! Hard to say what the fate of our on-again, off-again bartender was to be, but be forewarned to keep a hawk-eye here on late-evening nightcaps. 

A trip to the Museo de Oro was another must, worth every step on our stroll from the old Candelaria section.  Public art proliferates—every citizen it would seem is a muralist.  Grafitti hardly defines an art to stun the eye at every turn.  From rooftops lifesize sculptures hang precariously, mangled human forms that startle in their suddenness upon the landscape.  Perhaps the frustration of years of civil unrest has found expression in the populace. Whatever the reason, the urge to create has found a way.


Arriving at the Parque de Santender that fronts the Gold Museum, we confronted throngs of visitors lined up to get their fix of bling.  This is the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold ornaments, 55,000 pieces strong, with a panoply of animals—jaguars, birds and bats, for example—representing the shamans that took on such forms to enter the spirit world.  Only the Peruvian collections in the Larco Museum in Lima can compete with the lavishness of these exhibits.  A wealth of information is readily available on the lost wax method and the dazzling results.  On the top floor, we were herded into a darkened circular room where shamanic chanting accompanies a gradual change in the lighting, revealing hundreds of gold ornaments twinkling from the walls and floor beneath our feet.

Outside again, hawkers with their llamas in tow encourage snapshots but with an angry yank, move the animals quickly away if you raise your iphone camera for a freebie.  Packed throngs for such a national museum are not surprising--Bogota like any bustling metropolis attracts but can play it close to the vest.  A distanced formal politeness reigns in shopkeepers, waiters, and hotel concierges with a look that seems to say, take it or leave it.

Some places are made for lifting the spirits, literally and figuratively, and a Sunday morning atop Montserrate is no exception. The history of Monserrate can be considered to begin around 1620 to 1630, when the Brotherhood of Vera Cruz began using the Monserrate's hilltop for religious celebrations. The retreat was named for the Morena Virgin, whose sanctuary was located near Barcelona, Spain.  Later, a statue of the Christ, after being taken down from the cross, was placed inside the resident chapel and El Senor caido, or the Fallen Lord became the star attraction. 

The truly devout still make the climb to the top on foot, but for most of us the funicular was undoubtedly the best option.  Emerging from a dark tunnel in the side of the mountain, we were suddenly rising into the skies above Bogota.  It was as if all humanity had been scooped up and laid gently down across this broad expanse of green. 



Of course, even the most spiritually-inclined would find it hard to resist a culinary visit to Casa Santa Clara on the sanctuary grounds.  A memorable chicken soup with sides of capers and rich cream satisfied my more basic hunger, while all the while we were serenaded by the rustling of breezes outside the latticed windows, coral-colored hummingbirds flitting from bush to bush.  Once a private home transported from the town of Usaquen to the mountain top, the restaurant is a highlight not to be missed.

Back on terra firma, we added the International Emerald Museum to our list of must-sees.   Located up on the 23rd floor of the Avianca Building and conveniently close to the Gold Museum, a showroom with hundreds of emeralds await the visitor.  Uncut crystals, stunning trapiche stones and even a Coca Cola bottle festooned from the precious green rocks are for ogling to your heart’s content.  But first, a fee of 5,000 pesos is required, followed by a guided tour through a short tunnel meant to recreate a typical Colombian emerald mine.  Thankfully, this is a relatively short excursion, more to the interests of a pre-teen audience with an overactive imagination.  Our preference was the aerial view out the expansive showroom windows toward Bolivar Square—a bit anticlimactic after Monserrate but worth a couple of snapshots nevertheless.

One last irresistible journey awaited us before our departure from Bogota – a day’s excursion to Lake Guatavita, the site of the famous El Dorado legend.  Approximately two hours from the city, we would discover a perfect circle of water, where the Muiscas, the native inhabitants of Bogota, were believed to have sent their chief.  Covered in gold dust, their great leader would jump from his raft at the lake’s center, releasing into the water not only his own offerings but other precious treasures to their gods.   Later, the Spanish conquistadors would search in vain for the celebrated spoils. 

After a precipitous ascent by car—our guide Miguel showing off his race car driving aspirations en route, we arrived at the starting point of our walking tour. We were a small group, replete with a couple of youngsters with the agility of billy goats. And it wasn’t long before the seniors became winded from the zig-zag climb.  I was simply thankful that the guide had the patience to save his colorful commentary for the stragglers like myself.

Was it worth the ascent to get a glimpse of this famed body of water?  Formed by either a volcano’s eruption or a meteor’s impact, did this mountaintop pool disappoint?  Staring through a fine drizzle, across the still expanse of that green mirror with its reflection of passing clouds, it’s impossible not to conjure up the legend itself.  A bit of advice: A stirring of the imagination, if not reverence itself, can heighten the experience. Reaching El Dorado was no exception. 

We could hardly expect Bogota to give up all its secrets.  The gods had been more than generous, and Cartagena—the land of 16th century pirates--awaited.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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Sandra Bertrand; Pedro Szeleky (wikipedia commons); Creative Commons
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