Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Back in Bolivia…someone turn the heat on, it’s bloody freezing

I’m not kidding. After three months lounging around warmer climates next the the ocean, returning to the Bolivian highlands in winter is a shock to the system. We arrived in Copacabana, Bolivia after four days of fairly relentless travel, tired but happy to be back. The sky was bright blue, the sun shining and the air temperature barely above zero. When the sun went down the temperature plunged and we had to put all our clothes on.

Don’t even get me started on the effect of suddenly being back at 3850 metres in altitude again. Let’s just say that viewed from the other side of a splitting head the following day, those two celebratory pisco sours were a serious mistake.

Rewinding a few days…we left Cartagena, Colombia at midnight and the temperature was hot and humid. An hour or so later we arrived in Bogota airport where we were going to have to spend an uncomfortable night waiting for the 5.30am flight to Lima. Its been a long time since I spent a night in an airport, I can’t recommend it.

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

Time to say goodbye to Colombia. The streets of Cartagena, Colombia

At least our flight to Lima was on time. The second I was in my seat I was asleep. I woke three hours later just as we were descending over the magnificent Cordillera Blanca towards Lima airport. Lima was covered in dense fog, something that happens often, and you could barely see the tops of buildings.

Avianca, Colombia's national airline

Avianca, Colombia’s national airline

Negotiating Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, and wishing I was anywhere else but Lima’s notorious rush hour traffic, we eventually arrived at our B&B. Luckily it had a room available there-and-then. We woke up around seven hours later, and if we hadn’t been hungry we’d have put in another seven hour sleep shift. What was left of the day was all the time we had in Lima – we were heading to the Bolivian border as quickly as possible.

As a resident of Bolivia you acquire a peculiar status…the Bolivian authorities don’t like you leaving the country. Perhaps they think you might have more fun in a neighbouring country and won’t come back…a sort of Shirley Valentine romance with an entire country. Whatever it is, they make you pay to leave Bolivia (tourists go free) and you can only leave for a period of three months in any calendar year. We had to be back in Bolivia before the 90 day limit.

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Cruz del Sur bus, Peru

Meanwhile in Lima, we had a bus to catch. The great thing about Peruvian buses is that for US$70 you get a seat that would put first class airplane seats to shame…they also serve meals and have video on demand! Despite that, I wasn’t looking forward to a 17 hour overnight bus from Lima to Arequipa. The bus was great, but 17 hours on a bus is probably a human rights violation. We arrived in Arequipa fairly bedraggled, but determined to push on.

A quick check of bus companies unearthed a Puno-bound bus leaving 15 minutes later. Just enough time to brush our teeth and grab some water and bananas. Seven hours later we arrived in Puno where we decided enough was enough. We took a taxi to a hotel and collapsed onto the bed. Sadly, we were up early the next morning to catch the bus to Copacabana. Time was ticking away and we wanted to be back in Bolivia a day before our deadline, just in case…

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

Back in Bolivia. Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real, both icons of Bolivia

So here we are in Copacabana, only three weeks of our adventure left and soaking up some of that famous Lake Titicaca high-altitude atmosphere…that is, barely able to breath in an atmosphere of 3850 metres above sea level. It may be time to stock up on some llama wool items before we go anywhere else…it is bloody freezing here.

A lazy day on the Rio Magdalena

A visit to Mompox wouldn’t be complete without spending some time exploring the Rio Magdalena, the river that made Mompox rich and famous and, later, reduced it to a sleepy backwater. Luckily, finding a small motor boat and a willing captain isn’t too difficult in a town this size. We also found some other tourists wanting to do the trip which meant the price was very reasonable.

As you set off from the bank of the river you get excellent views of the waterfront in Mompox before motoring slowly down the river spotting birds and iguanas as you go. If you had the inclination and time, it would be possible to float all the way down the Rio Magdalena to the Caribbean. You’d finally emerge somewhere near the industrial city of Barranquilla on the coast.

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

This section of the river seems to flow very slowly, at times is doesn’t seem to move at all. An optical illusion that lends weight to the timeless nature of the river and the communities that lie along its banks. Much of the surrounding countryside is farmland so the chances of seeing a lot of wildlife aren’t great, but the landscapes and waterscapes are really beautiful.

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

After motoring up the main river we forked off down a smaller tributary towards a couple of huge inland lakes that form part of the vast waterway system of this region. Eventually we stopped at a small village on one of the lakes and had a walk around the streets much to the amusement of the many small children living there. Gringos are still a rare commodity here.

As we made our way back to the boat the sun started to set and the combination of vast sky and still water created magnificent, luminous reflections. It was truly beautiful, especially viewed from the boat in the middle of the lake. We motored back towards Mompox and rejoined the Rio Magdalena in time to enjoy a spectacular river sunset.

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Arriving back in Mompox after dark we were greeted by a town vividly illuminated and reflected in the sleepy river – truly beautiful.

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

An improbable town called Mompox

Mompox (full name Santa Cruz de Mompox) may not actually be the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town of Macondo, made famous in his surrealist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it has all the ingredients of the Macondo that he paints such a vivid picture of in his best known work. Plus, Mompox isn’t too far from where García Márquez grew up.

Mompox was virtually unheard of until the Spanish built a canal between Cartagena and the Rio Magdalena. Based at a strategic point on the river, Mompox suddenly found itself at the epicentre of Spanish trade in Colombia and flourished. In the late nineteenth century trade switched to a different branch of the Rio Magdalena, and Mompox’s rapid decline back to a sleepy backwater barely acknowledged by the outside world was complete.

The parallels with Macondo are all there.

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

A trip to Mompox today is a fascinating peak back in time. The town sits on the slow-flowing Rio Magdalena, which alone gives it a timeless air, and nothing seems to happen with much urgency, either on the river or in the town. It isn’t quite as isolated today as it used to be, and tourism is slowly making inroads into the town’s historic detachment from the rest of the world.

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mind you, it can still be a struggle to get there. We arrived from Barichara, changing buses in San Gill and again in Bucaramanga. The final bus between Bucaramanga and El Banco (where we would pick up a share taxi to Mompox) was supposed to take 9 – 12 hours. Regardless, we’d be arriving in El Banco in the wee hours of the morning and would have to wait for the share taxis to start running.

As it turned out, the bus to El Banco took 6 hours and we arrived just after 10pm. Something of a dilemma: wait 6 hours through the night in a town with nothing to entertain us until the first share taxi left at 4am, or try to find a hotel? We found a hotel. For the princely sum of US$18 we spent the night in a dirty room, full of mosquitoes, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a prison. Not a great night’s sleep.

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox was far more delightful when we finally arrived the next day. Founded in 1537, the town’s importance as a centre for trade between the Caribbean and the interior of Colombia meant it grew wealthy. At one time the town minted coins for the Spanish colony. Today that means you can find magnificent colonial churches dating from the sixteenth century, streets lined with colonial mansions and, a hangover from the days of the mint, silver work in the form of filigree.

Mompox is surrounded by wetlands and being low lying is extremely hot and humid. Made worse when we visited by the onset of the rainy season. It is the sort of heat and humidity that literally sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling vaguely hopeless. Even though it sits on the banks of a wide river, there was no breeze at all. Is it any wonder that a lot of residents seem to spend their days sitting in the shade drinking cold beer?

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

The town’s history extends beyond the Spanish colony. It is proud of the role it played in the liberation of Colombia from colonial rule. Simón Bolívar recruited a large number of men from Mompox to fight for Colombia’s independence from Spain, and they formed the core of his victorious armies. Today there are numerous statues, plazas and shops dotted around town that are named after Latin America’s most famous independence hero.

While Mompox isn’t quite as isolated and insular as our guidebook suggested, it is an extraordinary place to wash up and really has to be seen to be believed. While it is much easier to reach it from the Caribbean coast than from the south, the effort is definitely worth it.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Walking the Royal Road to Guane

If the sights and sounds of peaceful Barichara are all a bit too much for you, don’t despair. A glorious 10km hike along the historic El Camino Real, or Royal Road, brings you to the picture-perfect and pocket-sized hamlet of Guane – a quintessential colonial village where you really can leave the world behind.

The hike itself is spectacular. It starts on the edge of the escarpment where Barichara ends, drops down the escarpment into the valley floor and undulates through beautiful countryside, offering fabulous views down the length of the valley, before finally arriving in tranquil Guane. The route is predominantly downwards and even on a hottish day is very enjoyable. You also have the knowledge that you’re passing along an historic route used for hundreds of years.

El Camino Real in Barichara, Colombia

El Camino Real in Barichara, Colombia

A shrine at the start of El Camino Real, Barichara, Colombia

A shrine at the start of El Camino Real, Barichara, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

Except for a lot of birds and butterflies, the only animals you’re likely to see in this farming country are cows and goats, but the peace and quiet of the route make it all worth while. We passed only three or four other people along the whole route.

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

El Camino Real between Barichara and Guane, Colombia

Arriving in Guane is like time-travelling back into history. The day we arrived there weren’t any vehicles, a young boy was driving cows down a cobbled street and a few people hung around the main square chatting. That’s pretty much it as far as sights are concerned, but the village is absolutely beautiful – more cobbled streets, whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs and a lovely plaza sporting a colonial-era church.

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

We sat in the plaza and had a drink while watching nothing-much happen. There is a bus service between Barichara and Guane and we’d arrived with just enough time to rest our weary legs and have a cold beer before hopping on the bus for the short journey back to Barichara – which suddenly seemed cosmopolitan by comparison.

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombi

Guane, Colombia

Guane, Colombia

However, just as we were about to get on the bus we noticed a small shop on one corner of the village square. The shop wasn’t open so I couldn’t investigate the validity of their advertising claims, but I thought people might have some insight into them?

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Extolling the virtues of goats milk, Guane, Colombia

Whether goat’s milk is the new, natural viagra or not I can’t tell you, plus I’m unlikely to ever find out – I hate goat’s milk.

Stepping back through history, the delights of colonial Barichara

Barichara has a dream-like quality – a fabulously preserved colonial village that feels about a thousand years away from the hustle and bustle of Bogota. A few days spent eating delicious pastries and sipping good coffee on the tranquil plaza, visiting colonial churches and wandering down peaceful cobbled streets is a real pleasure. Spend too much time here and it may be difficult to tell dreams from reality.

The modern world hasn’t passed Barichara by, although its not so intrusive that you’d really notice. It has a number of lovely hotels in old colonial buildings predominately catering to wealthy Colombians, who come here from Bogota for the peace and refreshing climate.

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

It really is like stepping back in time. So well preserved is the village that it has been the film set for numerous Spanish-language films and soap operas, although thankfully there were no telenovela histrionics while we were there. The colonial charm of the village is not the only thing that is special about Barichara; it is located on the top of an escarpment that has magnificent views over the vast valley below, where you can watch eagles and vultures soaring.

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Tradition is big in Barichara. Life revolves around the beautiful main plaza, which features the splendid Catedral de Inmaculada Concepcion – a church that couldn’t be more Spanish on the outside if it was actually in Spain. Leading off in every direction from the plaza are lovely cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs.

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Wandering the streets is a pleasant way to get to know the geography of the town. Before too long you’ll have managed to find your way to two or three other colonial-era churches and the fascinating and atmospheric cemetery. The view over the village from near the Iglesia de Santa Barbara is spectacular.

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

Barichara has good restaurants, although most were closed when we were there – the one downside of a small village in the middle of the week in the off season. The village is also the centre of a disturbing culinary tradition, the eating of a local delicacy – large brown ants. We decided we’d try the ants, when in Rome etc, but they are only in season in the Spring so we were spared an ant taste test. Although we did see them on sale along the roadside when we were on the bus.

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

At night there is little to do but have an early dinner then sit around in one of the several shops that are on the plaza…which also double as drinking dens…pull up a seat and watch the world not go by in the plaza.

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Colombia’s Cathedral del Sal, the saltiest church in the world

It has to count as one of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen. A cathedral sitting 180 metres underground in the hollowed-out remains of a vast salt mine that has been in use since pre-Hispanic times. As you make your way underground, ethereal music reverberates throughout the interior of the former salt mine, while mood enhancing lighting illuminates the stations of the cross and huge chambers where the salt was once mined.

Salt and multi-coloured lighting rather than smoke and mirrors?

Entrance to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance tunnel to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Entrance tunnel to the Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

It is both spectacular and the height of kitsch at the same time. Only in Colombia, you may ponder silently (except there’s an even bigger one in Poland). While services are held in the cathedral, it has no actual status as a cathedral within the Catholic Church – judging by the reverence some people exhibit en route down into the bowels of the salt mine, that doesn’t worry too many people.

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

The former salt mines are located close to the town of Zipaquira. Once an important Spanish colonial settlement, it still has a beautiful main square flanked by a vast church that could have been transported directly from Spain and which physically dominates the city. The salt itself has been mined since the fifth century BC by the Musica, the indigenous group who inhabited this region. Salt is still being mined today and is used throughout Colombia.

Zipaquira, Colombia

Zipaquira, Colombia

Main plaza with church, Zipaquira, Colombia

Main plaza with church, Zipaquira, Colombia

Although Zipaquira sits in a prosperous agricultural valley, the real money earner is the salt cathedral. The cathedral open to the public today is the second cathedral to have been built in the salt mines. The first one started to collapse and had to be abandoned, but public pressure on the mining company to continue the lucrative tourist/pilgrimage trade ensured a second cathedral was constructed – there are trinket shops aplenty in the town should you wish to take home a salty souvenir.

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

A small chapel next to the cathedral, Catedral del Sal, Colombia

A small chapel next to the cathedral, Catedral del Sal, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Its easy to reach the salt cathedral, its only an hour if you take a tour or cab from Bogota. We chose to negotiate our way there on public transport and caught Bogota’s version of a metro, the TransMilenio, to somewhere in the north of the city where we were told could get a bus to Zipaquira. Remarkably we managed to get there the same day – actually, it was surprisingly easy to arrange and cost a quarter of the price of a cab.

Angel, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Angel, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Station of the Cross, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Nativity scene, Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

The cathedral draws hundreds of thousands of tourists/pilgrims every year, but visit on a weekday at the start of the rainy season and there aren’t too many people around to spoil the silence and tranquility of being 180 metres below the earth. It is a peculiar experience all the same. Despite the vast open spaces of the mine, the atmosphere is airless, strangely humid and oppressive.

It is quite a relief to emerge into the sunlight back at the entrance, from where you can stroll down the hill into Zipaquira for a spot of lunch – although not before you pass an array of concession stands and trinket shops just outside the mine.

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Cathedral del Sal, Zipaquira, Colombia

Bogota’s Museo del Oro, the best museum in Latin America?

The Museo del Oro in Bogota is a magical place. It boasts a wealth of gold objects and other artefacts made from precious metals, sea shells and jade, as well as a number of fantastic pottery pieces. If its amazing that the gold pieces have survived the onslaught of several centuries of European greed in the Americas, the survival of clay pieces is almost as wondrous.

Its not just the brilliance of the items on display, or the fact that there are over fifty thousand of them; its not just that the displays are inventive and beautifully presented, or that the information that accompanies them is intriguing and informative. It is the combination of all of this that brings pre-Hispanic history and culture alive and makes Bogota’s Museo del Oro one of the finest, if not the finest, museum in the Americas.

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

I doubt there is a museum anywhere on the continent that can boast such a wealth of artefacts and information on the pre-Hispanic cultures that existed before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The most fascinating part was the direct connection between the artefacts and the belief systems of the indigenous tribes that they represent. I’ve not come across such a comprehensive description of pre-Hispanic cultures before.

The tribes that lived in this part of the Americas held the natural world in awe. There was a strong belief in the ability of transformations or transmutations into beings that were part animal and part human. In part this was achieved through hallucinogens that induced a trance-like state, but also by the use of gold ornaments with images of animals on them.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Decorating yourself in these ornaments helped you observe the world through the eyes of the jaguar, crocodile, bat, bird, spirits or ancestors. Essentially, society for Amerindians is viewed as being united with nature – plants, animals, spirits and humans all forming a cosmic society split into three tiers. Birds represent the upper world; humans, jaguars and deer represent the intermediate world; while bats, snakes and crocodiles represent the lower world.

The upper and lower worlds have opposing but complementary elements: light and dark, dry and wet, male and female. The intermediate world where humans live combines elements of both. Gods, dead ancestors and spirits inhabit both the upper and lower worlds.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One gallery deals with the role that powerful hallucinogens played in aiding transformations between the human and animal realms. An hallucinogenic powder called Yopo was frequently used for religious rites and was inhaled using a a small spoon or through the bones of small birds. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much really.

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One of the final displays is like being in an immersion tank: you enter a darkened circular room, the doors close around you and music starts to play. As the music peaks and troughs sections of the walls, floor and ceiling are illuminated to highlight huge displays of golden objects. It is an impressive way to end your time in the museum, and it highlights again just how much cultural heritage has been lost since Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Super-size me, the strange and beautiful art of Fernando Botero

We first came across the extraordinary work of Fernando Botero in the centre of Medellin, where his huge gordo sculptures add some much needed glamour to an otherwise dreary city centre. Botero is a Medellin native, but it is in Bogota that they have created an entire museum to celebrate Colombia’s most famous contemporary artist. Not only is it housed in a beautiful colonial building, its free.

A giant hand greets you as you enter the Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

A giant hand greets you as you enter the Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Walking through the door you’re immediately greeted by a giant bronze statue of a hand. Unmistakably Botero, and, if I’m not reading too much into it, the bottom of the palm is, well, bottom-like. The Botero Museum is packed with paintings and sculptures by Botero, but is also home to lots of other famous artists. It includes works by Henry Moore, Picasso, Dali, Degas, Miro and many others. You could easily spend several hours wandering the galleries.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Despite the galaxy of artistic superstars on show, it was really Botero’s work we wanted to see. While many of his works are humorous – often satires on the work of others – walking through the galleries the great depth to his work is what struck me. That is something easy to overlook when confronted with so many exaggerated, oversized gordo and gorda men, women, children, animals and still life.

Giant bananas, Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Giant bananas, Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Many of the paintings feel extremely personal, almost perversely so, like you are staring into the most intimate parts of someone’s life. They are tinged with sadness, some feel tragic, even while being comedic at the same time, and some are out-and-out creepy. What is for sure, Botero captures humanity in all its raw, and frequently naked, forms – the man loves a female nude, no doubt about it.

For most of his life Botero mainly stuck to traditional topics. More recently he has courted controversy with a series of works dealing with the drug cartels, the FARC revolutionaries and, in 2004 and 2005, a series of hard hitting paintings on the torture and humiliation inflicted on prisoners in Abu Ghraib – although the latter aren’t in the museum.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

A recurring theme in his paintings is that the artist appears in the paintings, sometimes more subtlety than others. It is like a voyeur peeking through the window into a room that they shouldn’t look into.

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Botero Museum, Bogota, Colombia

Getting high in Bogota

First of all, apologies for the unnecessarily juvenile title. Just because Bogota is Colombia’s capital city and Colombia has been synonymous with the international cocaine trade for several decades, there is no justification for such a childish title.

That said, if you want to see Bogota in all its glory you really have to get high. The city has a location as dramatic as most I’ve seen – La Paz may just nudge it into second place. Bogota was a subdued backwater for a long time after it was founded in 1538. Not any more. It seemingly spreads out for ever across a long and broad valley, and is buttressed on its eastern side by high Andean peaks, including the 3152m Cerro Monserrate which can be reached by cable car.

The best place to start your arial overview of the city is from the 48th floor of a downtown office block which is home to the Mirador Torre Colpatria. The mirador offers incredible 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains, including some of the less salubrious and secure neighbourhoods to the south that are crawling their way inexorably up the mountainside.

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View toward Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View of the bullring from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

What is so striking about the city, is the contrast between the skyscrapers, and the upmarket residential districts that stretch to the north, compared to the poor barrios spreading up the hills to the south. At ground level one day, I found myself wandering by accident into one such barrio only for a police motorcycle to come whizzing up to me to warn me away. A shame, there seemed to be a nice colonial church nestling in the barrio but it didn’t seem advisable to risk it.

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

View over Bogota from Mirador Torre Colpatria, Bogota, Colombia

After that introduction to Bogota-from-above, it was time to walk over to the cable car station that would carry us to the top of Cerro Monserrate. Home to a church containing an important ‘fallen Christ’ statue that is subject to devout pilgrimages. On the top of the mountain we watched the sun set and the lights of Bogota spring into life.

It was an extraordinary sight. Roads suddenly became serpent-like, snaking their way through the city, office blocks were illuminated and changed colour and the city seemed to stretch to the horizon.

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The cable car to Cerro Monserrate, Bogota, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

The church on Cerro Monserrate with Bogota in the background, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia

Bogota illuminated, seen from Cerro Monserrate, Colombia