Trip report pt.2: Colombia January 2013

I neglected to mention that Mr. F-I is also contributing to the trip reports. However, I’m responsible for any oversights because he’s not seeing them until they’re published. The other thing specific to this entry is that my photos of the mentioned places went *poof* so any photos are lifted from the sites I linked to (apologies all around). Okay, that out of the way, onto part two in continuation of the first.

As I mentioned yesterday, we hired a guide (Hernando) to drive us each day, taking us to recommended places around Bogota. If you have more money than time, this is a great solution. Fees can vary quite a bit. We found our guy at the airport (or rather, he found us); he wanted $110 per day. In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t bargain the fee because I got a quote from another service (after the fact, they responded late) that was significantly more; $110 for one person for 5 hours and $75 for each additional person (there were 3 in my party).

Places to go:
thanks_to_emerald_museumIn Bogota we went several places, first was the Gold Museum which had a stunning array of pre-Colombian artifacts. By the way, there is a good place to exchange currency off to the side in the same building. At least our guide said as much, we got there too late. They do charge a fee to enter but I guess it is free on Sundays which is when we went. Afterwards we walked catty-corner over to the Emerald Museum which was closed at the time. However, our guide, being an employee of the tourist ministry, arranged a private tour for us. Pretty amazing, no? We felt like VIPs. That said, the museum seemed a bit commercial and indeed, it was a partnership with the department of Tourism and a private collector -who, conveniently enough, had emerald jewelry for sale. Everyone (not just at the museum) knows more about the geology and extraction of emeralds than one would have expected. We certainly learned a lot -supposedly, Colombian emeralds are the finest in the world. I wanted one of those rings but the ones I liked ranged in price between $7,000 and $15,000.

monserrate_wiki_imageAnother place we went was Monserrate (also). Technically, Monserrate is a mountain 10,000 feet in elevation above the city but most refer to the sanctuary at its peak. To ascend the mountain, one can take the stairs (usually pilgrims), the aerial tram or even the funicular. Until this visit, I didn’t know the word “funicular” much less what it means. We took the latter, it was pretty scary! I mean, the steep ascent was scary; the vehicle itself seemed safe enough. It was fun though.

We also went to the Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira which is about 50 km north of Bogota. Salt mining was an integral part of the economy well before the Spaniards arrived. This is a popular destination for many but I didn’t enjoy it as much, probably because I’ve been spoiled by a visit to another salt mine in Salzburg. I was expecting the kid-thrill of climbing into miner’s gear and gleefully slide down three levels of very steep slides to reach the bottom. But there was none of that. It was cool though (literally and figuratively). It’s another place for pilgrims; they hold baptisms and scheduled services in the mine’s cathedral every week.

candelaria_thanks_wikipediaWe also visited the historic district (Candelaria) and the Plaza Bolivar. Candelaria is the original town center, it seems to be surprisingly under-appreciated. Perhaps they are just at the point where money can come in for restoration? The area is popular with young people, we found the largest concentration of back packers from around the world hanging out there. There are a lot of hostels there too. It is a neat area and would be a fun place to stay for younger people traveling on the cheap. The Plaza Bolivar was a bit sad, there was a lot of graffiti. It just seemed so disrespectful. Simon Bolivar remains a hero in five countries for having liberated Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia (named after him), Peru and Ecuador from colonial Spanish rule. I truly cannot fathom why people -here too- are so destructive. Mr. F-I suggests that protestors should use water soluble chalk. I suspect our monuments aren’t as disrespected not because our youth are so much better but because we have more security to prevent it.

More shopping:
We went shopping for artisan goods at stores our guide took us to (we suspect he probably gets a percentage) but most items were too commercial for our tastes, designed for tourists. For example, some of the weavings were nice but probably not artisanal, produced on commercial looms with “Colombia” woven across the tops of them. I can’t speak for you but as desperate as I may be to preserve the fiction, I draw the line at anything that is marked “insert country”. That said and as I mentioned yesterday, one must temper disappointment with reality. It is only once a nation reaches a certain standard of living that traditional craft is respected. That is true in the U.S. too; in poverty pockets, commercial goods have more prestige while handmade items can be a source of embarrassment. I think artisan goods are probably more accessible in smaller towns, closer to the source.

If you go, keep in mind that Colombians walk in crowds the same way they drive: there is no attempt to follow rules like “keep to the right”, but nobody gets very upset, either. Colombians were generally very nice, considerate, helpful, and not deserving of their violent reputation, though there does seem to be concern about continuing corruption. Also, the level of poverty in both Bogota and Medellin was clear. However, begging is very low in comparison to what one would have expected given the poverty.

Tomorrow I’ll continue on with Medellin.

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  1. Miguel says:

    A wierd tangent (counterpoint?) to your focus on artisan craft, I’ve never entirely understood the fascination with (read expense of) nature emeralds. Extracting them is very dangerous and environmentally unfriendly while their price is astronomical. Lab-grown gems, OTOH, are chemically and mechanically identical, flawless (for better or worse), easier to obtain, relatively environmentally friendly and cost a tiny fraction of what natural stones do. Those inclusions, while interesting, are mighty expensive; without them you could probably afford the jewelery you saw.

  2. Bente says:

    Artisan good and tourists is a tricky thing. Some tourist stores are full of cheap mass produced items to the point it is ridiculous to even sell it in a souvenir store. But it happens everywhere.
    I agree that a smaller town away from tourists are probably where you find the real stuff; woven baskets, textiles and wood carvings; all the things the people there still uses.
    Once I was in the Panamanian jungle towards Columbia where few tourist find their way. Going there we passed a town where you could find a local market with some artisan products as well as the Chinese grocery store :)

  3. Grace says:

    LACMA, LA County Museum of Art, recently had a exhibition of exquisite molas–the kind that is not made for the tourist trade. The pieces were incredibly intricate and time consuming. I’d never seen anything like it outside of art books.

    The Fowler museum (on the UCLA campus) has one of the largest textile collections in the world. It’s a cultural/anthropological museum and they collect textiles as a way to get closer to women. That is, they say they are looking for textiles, when they actually want to interview the women making the textiles. Along the way, they have amassed an amazing collection of global textiles, which they rotate. Museum entry is free and parking at a nearby garage is reasonable.

    BTW, Mark and I will be visiting ABQ in mid April. Perhaps we can get together?

  4. Isabella says:

    You should come to Cartagena next time! It is very different to Medellin and Bogota, and there is a big artisan culture present although it really depends on knowing where to look as in any place.

  5. Trish says:

    I have only flown in and out of Cartagena but I spent two different weeks in Medellin. I loved it. The weather, the flowers, the fabulous restaurants….. just wonderful. I was there for a fashion design competition in Medellin. I was a judge and the competitors were apparel manufacturers from all over South America, they just had to use textiles from Colombia to be able to compete. I did not get much time in Bogota but it was gorgeous from the air, LOL. Enjoy your travels.

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