Bogota, Colombia

This is the last entry in our Colombia blog. To read from the start of our Colombia travel journal, click here

Bogota was the first city I was really bricking it about since Lima. Sure, the rest of Colombia had been wonderful and friendly and surprisingly safe, but there was something about the busy, sketchy city that filled me with apprehension.

I’m happy to say that our time there did nothing to confirm these fears, although they were lurking at the back of my mind the whole time. On the day we arrived, our area of the city, La Candelaria, seemed nice enough – a busy bohemian square with teens sitting around playing music, some guys smoking weed, lots of fast food places… all innocent enough.

We were checked into the second building of our hostel which was alarmingly opposite a dealer house (there was a guy pushing notes through a hole in the front door when we arrived!) which made me a bit uneasy, but the ladies that ran our hostel were wonderful and reassuring, and told us where to avoid (i.e. where the barrios meet the old town) and where not to go at night.

All the same, we laid low for our few days in Bogota, only going out on one night – Saturday – when we planned to go to a big famous party at a steakhouse 20km out of town, but the party bus was cancelled due to lack of interest. Heartbreaking, as we’d come to Bogota on a Saturday just for this night! However, we soldiered on and met some cool people in a nearby hostel and hit some salsa clubs together instead, resulting in a truly gruelling hangover that had us bedridden and pathetically knocking together a veggie pasta at a snail-like pace.

The next day, we got out of the city on a day trip to the nearby ‘Salt Cathedral’ in Zipaquira, which was a really unique place. As it says on the tin, this is a huge underground cathedral built into a salt mine. We took the Spanish tour due to timings, which was pretty hilarious, and walked around the mine, past huge beautifully up-lit crosses that step-by-step detailed the story of the crucifixion, with each cross moving the story along, eventually revealing a few stunning enclaves where rows of pews and huge carved crosses made up the ‘cathedrals’, or chapels, themselves. ‘Ave Maria’ played in the background to add to the haunting ambience.

We lolled our way round the tour at our lack of understanding, and made lots of childish probably inappropriate jokes to ourselves, then after the tour, visited the in-house (or in-mine) cinema (!) to see a 3D animation movie that explained the history of the mine and its excavation, proudly mentioning that the Cathedral is up for consideration as one of the next ‘Wonders of the World!’ Gotta love Colombian pride.

Afterwards, we were on our way back to the cute local town centre when a guy stopped us to tell us that the ‘Colombian Tour de France’ would soon be taking place on the very hill we were standing on! We’d noticed a mad amount of sponsorship stuff – balloons, inflatables – on our way up the hill to the mines, and this explained it!

We waited excitedly perched on the hill with a load of grinning local families and policemen, and sure enough, 15 minutes later, up zoomed over a hundred pro cyclers, bookended by police cars, press, and excitable supporters. It was pretty cool to be part of such a big local event, and to see Colombian pride fit to burst. We were also joined coincidentally by some of our buddies from Saturday night which was a nice surprise.

On our final day in Bogota we had a lie-in (our room had a SUPER comfy bed, and given the chill in high-altitude Bogota, we were finding it harder to get up!) then hit up a couple of museums, one of which was the absolute highlight of our time there.
But firstly, I was given the fright of my life when Sam popped out to get some cash from an ATM (for the first time alone: normally we always went together but I was busily preparing lunch) and didn’t return for FORTY-FIVE minutes. The ATM was about 10 minutes away, and after 20 minutes I was frantically pacing the hostel, driving myself mad thinking he had become victim of the infamous kidnapping ‘millionaire’s ride’. After 45 minutes I was all ready to go out and pound the streets when he knocked on the door! Turns out the ATM just felt a bit dodgy to him as the normal police presence wasn’t there, so he’d been circling town looking for other options. GAH.

Anyway, so after the drama had subsided, we had lunch and headed out to the ‘Historia de Policia’ museum, which was absolutely outstanding. Not only were we given a private tour of the place (in English) by a charming, hilarious young police officer, but it was also free, and we also saw some AMAZING things. For example, Pablo Escobar’s motorbike from a failed escape mission (complete with gold plated, adorned wing mirrors); a roof tile from when he was shot complete with his blood; a desk where he stashed cocaine in a hidden compartment; his raybans; his massive old 80s mobile; and a certificate from the USA for finally gunning him down.

We learnt about Escobar, his cronies, the other major players in the cartel, and all of their demises. We learnt about one cartel member so crazy he burnt his finger tips off with acid and got plastic surgery on his face to avoid identification, but was eventually identified by his voice. We learnt about those who dismembered their enemies. We learnt about how Escobar kept his supremacy and power, and his clever tricks for warding off police, like covering his drug stashes in lion’s urine (he had a zoo) so police dogs would be scared off their scent.

The officer also told us about the history and weaponry of Colombia’s police force – a force that has historically dealt with so much, from fighting the FARCs in the jungle, to the cartel on the streets. He said for him, it’s so much safer to be a cop now than for even his father’s generation. He told us about the sweet benefits that cops get, from free housing, to private education for their kids, to private healthcare and holiday homes. We saw some gnarly nail bombs used by the FARCs, including one that shoots out faeces after the nails, to immediately infect the wounded cop. How fucked up is that?! We also saw some pretty cool guns, including one the size of a biro, for super discreet shootings.

After that incredible tour, we headed to the Museu de Oro – the most famous gold museum in all of South America, where we saw hundreds of intricate glimmering gold artefacts from hundreds of years of indigenous settlers. The recurring symbolism – from birds to frogs to snakes – tied together tribes from different eras and geographical locations, and tells us about shamanic rituals. About the ‘flight’ or ascendance of the shaman during mind-altering states. I immediately thought back to ayahuasca and tripping balls!

We saw elaborate funerary wear that depicted tribesmen’s statuses, and learnt about how the incredibly intricate pieces of jewellery were made, with such grassroots instruments but incredible precision. And seeing them up close, it was hard to fathom how they could have achieved such skill before even the days of the magnifying glass.

At the end of the exhibition, we went into a dark cave-like place where the doors closed and the museum artificially created a shamanic ritual: a booming backing track played and the room glowed dark, then light, reflecting off the hundreds of gold artefacts hanging from the walls and ceiling. Very trippy, and all too much for our hungover brains to bare, we soon scarpered home for one final dinner in South America: a huge tower of home-made pancakes (by moi) with dulce de leche and sliced bananas. Heavenly! Hello diabetes.

And so, we wrapped up our 8 wonderful months in South America, and the next day we boarded what would be a 40+ hours journey to our second continent, Asia…