“The Canadian Platinum Ticket” – Welcome to Colombia.
Canadians are now the only country that need to pay a fee on arrival to Colombia. That’s right, at the airport there is a massive line for international arrivals and then a sign that with a Canadian flag pointed to an empty line with a single desk at the end. There, they collect the 160,000 Colombian Peso (approx 80$) reciprocity fee for Canadians. The fee is as of December 1, 2014 and came as a complete shock to us. Reciprocity due to the Biometric fee demanded by the Canadian government to Colombian nationals to get a visa to enter Canada.
We arrived in Bogota late Wednesday night with hopes that stores and restaurants would be open Thursday and we could stock up before Easter weekend. No such luck: supposedly Thursday is a holiday too. The week before Easter is Holy Week and everyone seems to take the holidays off. Given no one is working, there are hundreds of thousands of locals swarming the local churches and tourist attractions (the few that remain open – with limited hours) while the normally crowded streets are empty and many are closed to pedestrians only. Needless to say, we didn’t quite get the Bogota experience we were hoping for.
Forewarned of the crowds we set out to visit La Candelaria, Bogota’s historic downtown neighborhood. Our first stop was Juan Valdez Cafe – a Colombian coffee chain that was said to serve excellent coffee. The reviews we had heard turned out to be true and we finally had some amazing coffee! One of the most famous tourist attractions is the Monserrate, a mountain in the city centre (3152m) with a 17th-century church at the top. Turns out the hill is also a pilgrim destination. The church can be accessed by a cable car, train or walking up. The path to the Monserrate is packed with pilgrims (restricted access) during Easter. When we arrived our jaws dropped at the size of the lines for both the cable car and train. The cable car took approximately 5 mins and held no more than 30 people and there were hundreds of people in line. Similarly so for the train. Not willing to stand in line for what would likely be hours we skipped this popular attraction.
Plaza Bolivar is located in the heart of La Candelaria: to the north of the square is the Palace of Justice where the Supreme Court is housed; to the south is the National Capitol which is the seat of Colombian Congress; to the west is the Lievano building which is the seat of Bogota’s Mayor and to the east is the Primary Cathedral of Bogota built in the early 1800’s. Of course, the Roman-Catholic Primary Cathedral which is the largest in Colombia and one of the largest in South America, was packed to its max with people inside and out. We managed to squeeze inside the church but didn’t want to disturb anyone and stayed near the back – close enough to grasp the vastness of the church and the crowds of people. Outside the cathedral there was a full band stationed outside although we had no idea when they were going to play and unfortunately never heard them.
Lining the streets leading to Plaza Bolivar and throughout the plaza itself, there was a strong police and military presence. While it’s sad to think that someone might terrorize the plaza or church during Easter, it definitely felt safer given Colombia’s rocky past.
Bogota’s vibrant street art scene is now so popular you can partake in a “Graffiti & Street Art Tour” of the city. We didn’t take the tour but the colourful and beautifully painted art covering many of the city’s walls and buildings was easy to spot while walking around exploring the city ourselves. Unfortunately, there is an equal amount of thoughtless ‘tag’ graffiti in the city which takes away from the creativeness of the street art.
The one tourist attraction we managed to visit in Bogota (which was also completely packed) was the Gold Museum, El Museo del Oro. The museum has the largest collection of Pre-Hispanic gold work in the world and also displays pottery, rock geologystone, shell, wood and textile archaeological objects. The museum explains the significance of gold and precious metals in ancient society and its relation to the people. One quote stood out because it seems so far from the reality today: “Miners were respected specialists who were held in high esteem because they knew the secrets of the earth and how to extract metals from it. Goldsmiths also held a dual status, since they combined technical and supernatural knowledge in their work: many of them were religious and political leaders.” The gold jewelry and decorative body pieces worn by the elite in society was displayed on shadowed bodies and is unimaginable how they were in the slightest comfortable.
Cathedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral) is a famous underground Roman Catholic church built within the tunnels of an abandoned salt mine in Halite mountain near Zipaquira, a town about an hour outside of Bogota. Our adventure to the Cathedral de Sal involved an unplanned stop at Minas de Sal another 30 minutes further. We partially blame Google Maps for this as it labelled the cathedral “Minas del Sal” and when we asked for directions to there we were directed to the actual “Minas del Sal” – Salt Mine. When we arrived and bought our tickets we were given a slip for hard hats and knew we were in the wrong place; however, we were there and decided to partake in the tour of the mine. The tour was interesting (although we couldn’t understand much) — a separate blog post identifying and explaining the different ways of mining salt in South America will be posted next. Once the tour finished we went straight back to the town of Zipaquira and found the actual Salt Cathedral (by following the hoards of people heading in the same direction).
The Cathedral de Sal, recognized as one of the most notable achievements of Colombian architecture, receives as many as 3000 visitors on a regular Sunday and this Easter Friday was crammed pack. Luckily, it is a huge (although not well-lit) space and we didn’t have to wait long to enter. The Cathedral consists of a series of large crosses carved from the solid rock of the mine’s existing walls leading to the main hall. The Cathedral covers two floors and the bottom floor is split into three sections, repressing the birth, life and death of Jesus. It was at times difficult to enjoy the Salt Cathedral due to the constant push and shove of the surrounding crowds and the experience we had is likely quite different than the one we would have had if it had been any other week of the year.
*Note: we would not recommend doing both the Salt Cathedral and the Salt Mine – they are way too similar.
Travelling Colombia? – Travel with VIVA Colombia.
For 35 CAD per person (including one checked bag fee) we flew from Bogota to Medellin – equivalent distance to flying from Vancouver to Kelowna which costs well over a couple hundred dollars. Makes you wonder what they’re really charging you for in Canada.