Bogota- I didn't really know what to expect- would it be a modern metropolis, a colonial gem or a dirty developing sprawl? The answer is probably all three and its all the better for its diversity and bagfulls or character. The Lonely Planet describes the city as having every modern western convenience and every 3rd world problem and I couldn't put it better (obviously, otherwise I'd be getting paid for writing about this trip!).
We are staying in a hostel called Platypus in the Candelaria district which is the old part of town. The hostel is run by a Colombian ex-backpacker called Billy who is the friendliest, most helpful guy you could ever hope to meet, and who has used his experience travelling to ensure his hostel meets the backpacker's every need- he knows his city and country inside out, has info about everywhere, has pens to write on your CDs (of photos- its the little things that make the difference), has internet phone for cheap calls home... its not a palace and not perfect but its the kind of place you can feel at home.
Matt (my brother) was supposed to arrive on the 14th but his flight London-Madrid was late and he missed the connection to Bogota so we spent our first day here strolling and enjoying the city. The main sqaure, Plaza Bolivar is stunning, surrounded by the Parliament building, the City hall, and the court building which is newish as the pervious one was burnt down in 1984 after it was taken by guerillas. I very much like the engraving above its portal: Colombians, weapons have given you independance, laws will give you freedom.
Behind the parliament building is the President's house which is also very attractive but I was quickly warned off taking a picture of it by one of the many soldiers guarding it.
We visited a museaum full of works by Botero donated to the city, as well as a number of paintings and sculptures by artists such as Picasso, Monet, Pisarro, Freud... The museum, in a beautifully maintained colonial building, is free to visit and as well as a display of coins and notes throughout the history of Colombia, also houses in its basement a couple of stunning religious pieces from the days of the Spanish conquest which were used by the Spanish to convert the indigenous peoples to
Catholicism. They are golden crosses topped with sun shapes and encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and other precious stones. Photography was forbidden- these pieces are invaluable and part of Colombia's national treasure. We would have missed them had we not bumped into a member of the tourist police who was showing his father around the museum and stopped us as we were about to leave, asking if we had seen the 'custodias', apparently like us many people leave without seeing them as they are not advertised- we were lucky he took us there and explained about them as they were the jewel in the crown of the exhibits (no pun intended!!).
It is lovely to now have Matt here- absence makes the heart grow fonder apparently- long may it continue. A group of us went on a day trip from Bogota to a town called Zipaquira where salt is mined. Into one of the redundant caverns and cathedral has been carved which is breathtaking in its dimensions. In order to get there we had to take buses- the first two being Bogota's version of a metro- the TransMillenio bus system, unsurprisingly inaugurated in 2000. The buses have dedicated lanes and stations which are just as confusing as a tube station, and the buses get just as rammed as the tube in rush hour, still it gets you where you want to go cheaply and relatively quickly. The Cathedral itself is a consecrated church and indeed weddings are sometimes held there which would be quite an experience. They also hold services for tourists and concerts and the acoustics are reported to be good. The architect designed 14 small side chapels for the 14 stations of the cross, all very symbolic although as a non-Catholic I probably didn't appreciate all the symbolism fully. Zipaquira is definitely worth a visit, as much for the chance to get out of the hubbub of the city and see a small town as for the Cathedral itself.
Back in Bogota today we climbed the Montserrat which is a hill overlooking the city and where a church has been built. Warned not to walk up, for fear of being robbed and obviously not because it is a bloody steep climb, we got the cable car which does also give great views over the city. Or at least it would but as we began to go up the skies chose to cloud over and threaten rain, which arrived at the top pretty much at the same time we did. Big fat drops of rain that seemed to fall so slowly and so far apart you could almost dodge between them- almost but not quite and one of those suckers got you surprisingly wet. Still as tough northern Englanders we were obviously undaunted by a couple of drops of rain and continued to stroll around the cobbled paths and had a look round the ornate church. As many of you will bear witness to I am actually lacking in the alleged northern English imperviousness to cold and I was feeling pretty chilly by the time we got back down. Bogota, although warm in the daytime sunshine has been cold at night and when the skies and although its nice to be able to sleep without a fan and not have to worry about mosquitoes I wasn't expecting to have to dig out my fleece and woolly hat at this stage of the proceedings. The altitude is of course to blame- also to blame for struggling to walk up a small hill and for getting tipsy on 2 bottles of beer- or at least that's what Matt claims...
Never mind, tomorrow we're off to finally start our Spanish immersion classes. Hopefully we will also get some good practice speaking to the natives.