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Saturday, 16 January 2016 08:32

BOGOTA--Sun Bay Voyagers Featured

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The past three months has been a busy time for our traveling Publisher, Carl Conley. During this time period he’s visited Las Vegas twice to cover the Republican Debates at the Venetian and the new security protocols at Hoover Dam; went to Costa Rica twice, once to visit a local who runs a bed and breakfast in the Osa Peninsula, once to New Orleans for a jazz festival and, most recently, just returned from Bogota, Colombia in South America where he saw first-hand the rapid growth of a remarkable country that is climbing out of despair and drug violence to emerge as a vital, reenergized nation, with people eager to welcome visitors from the U.S.

According to Wikipedia and collaborated by a Bogota court official it was just 30 years ago, on November 6, 1985 that guerillas, hired by Narco-traffickers, “stormed the Colombian Palace of Justice and held the Supreme Court magistrates hostage, intending to put then president Betancur on trial. In the ensuing crossfire that followed the military's reaction, some 120 people lost their lives, as did most of the guerrillas, including several high-ranking operatives and 12 Supreme Court Judges.” These actions known as “La Violencia” or The Violence was partially the result of attempts to extradite Pablo Escobar the infamous head of the Medellin Cartel. In the end, the government had to storm its own buildings with troops and helicopters to rescue the remaining “diputados and magistratos.” The armed men operated just steps from the Presidential Palace, Colombia’s version of the US’s White House.
Today, these same streets in this city of over 8 million is teeming with cultural and commercial life. To be sure there are still armed guards all around the President’s residence but the streets are open and visitors can walk right up to the gates. There are even scheduled tours to go inside. Nearby, the Gold Museum, a Police Museum and the Botero Museum are thriving with people all over the world enjoying the city.
The Colombian people are absolutely delightful. Courteous and warm with smiles evident everywhere they welcome Americans; if fact they admire America. No playing with socialism here; Colombians are dyed-in-the-wool Capitalists and small restaurants and street vendors abound. To the delight of our publisher, there were also quite a few musicians on the “calles” including two excellent saxophonists.
The Publisher only had eight days to see a large and diverse country so choices had to be made. For traditional and interesting attractions, Conley visited the Zona Rosa, Monserrate, Zipaquira Salt Mine and the Museum of Gold. To get a feel for the city, he ate at street side restaurants, rode all over the city with local chauffeur Jorge Rodriguez and travelled several days with Elizabeth “Eliza” Lopez, a Colombiana who has worked in the anti-extortion courts for the government of Colombia over 22 years. Even though Conley speaks conversational Spanish, her knowledge of recent history about her country and meaningful contacts in the higher level of government made Conley’s trip especially insightful.
First thing that must be mentioned if you plan to travel to Bogota is the altitude. The City is located over 6 thousand feet in the Andes mountains and if you are not accustomed to living at that altitude you will need a day or two to get used to the thinner air. Drink plenty of water and avoid over strenuous activity until you feel adjusted.
Landing at the airport was like arriving at any modern destination in the US. Efficient and quite new, arrivals are quickly processed through Customs and Immigration and baggage pickup is convenient and easy. Within thirty minutes of exiting his flight, Conley was in a taxi and on his way to the Marriott located in the Business District of Bogota where he arrived fifteen minutes later.
The hotel was his first taste of hospitality in Colombia. Sandra, who greeted him at check in was proficient in English and very friendly and the overall hotel staff, from the time of arrival to check-out were just super. “If I go again, and I probably will, the Marriott would be at the top of my list of places to stay because it has a great gym and swimming pool and is located just a twenty minute walk from the Grand Estacion, a mall with over fifty restaurant choices and a full cinema showing first-run American and Spanish films,” he said. he added, “The Marriott was a bit pricey – running close to two hundred dollars per night – but I have a Platinum membership so that included breakfast and dinner in the Executive Lounge every day and an upgrade to a large suite, so I do want to mention that in the Zona Rosa there are several other really nice hotels that would put you in a great walking area but you won’t get to swim as there are only a few hotels in Bogota with pools.”
After relaxing around the hotel and getting a few workouts in the well-equipped gym complete with swims and a steam room, Conley went out for his first excursion; it turned out to be the most over-the-top sight he experienced the entire trip.
Zipaquiera, located about an hour and ten minute drive from the City is an operational salt mine with a history going back to pre-Conquistador times. The mine is incredibly huge. Spanning four levels, the Catholic influence in Colombia is evident everywhere. After paying a modest seven dollar admission, visitors enter the mines and begin the “Walk of Jesus” that takes one through the crucifixion of Christ represented by carving out of solid rock in a long mine shaft leading to the main salt deposits. There are crosses everywhere leading to the Nave at the end of the “Walk” where the largest underground cross in the world can be seen up close.
There were also sculptures of animals, nativity scenes, God at the creation with Adam and many more absolutely stunning and incredible figures carved from solid rock.
The mine itself is still in operation, but the salt is no longer obtained by pick and shovel or even mechanized means with miners. Now, water is injected into deep chambers and pumped back out as brine where the salt is extracted through a drying process. These chambers are below the first three levels open to the tour but there are a couple of places where you can see some of the pools of brine reflecting like mirrors because of the intensely high salt content in the water. All in all, Zipaquira is one of the wonders of the world and has to be seen to be truly appreciated. It was one of the highlights on the trip.

Cathedral of Salt Zipaquiera Colombia
The next day, Conley, with Jorge and Elizabeth, went over 3 thousand feet higher into the Andes to see the famed church of Monserrate. Accessible by either train-tram or cable car – they took the later – Monserrate provides a breathtaking view of Bogota. It is best to go near dusk, so you can have a great vista going up the mountain from the “canasta” or cable car “basket” when the sun is up and then coming down see the City with all its splendid lights including a few skyscrapers with digital light shows that could give Times Square a run for its money.
Several special treat awaits visitors who make it up the mountain; one, is the architecturally rich “iglessia” built by the Catholic Church as a retreat for meditation and penance. Of course there is some commercialism to be found and in the small market, street vendors sell “coca tea” made from the leaves of cocaine. It is not really a drug but locals insist it helps one adjust to the altitude better and there is scientific and historical proof that this is true. Native Indians, for centuries used a tonic made from a natural infusion of coca leaves or outright chewed the leaves to energize them in the dizzy heights of the Andes Mountains.
As it turned nighttime, the church was awash with lights that changed colors in an illuminating display; it was magical to say the least.

Though Conley, Jorge and Elizabeth didn’t eat at Monserrate they did take the nickel tour of the elegant restaurant located on top of the mountain. To eat the famed Italian food here and sit in one of the window seats is to enjoy one of the best views and ambiance to be found anywhere – it was truly gorgeous – a one-of-a-kind dining location.
The next day was reserved for a visit to the Zona Rosa where the Colombians go when they want to “put on the Ritz.” The Zona Rosa is an eight to ten block area with internationally known brand name shops and restaurants ranging from Burger King to top of the line exclusive reservations only dining. Conley described his experience.
“We had dinner at Iosola, an Italian eatery that was a bit more reserved and quiet than many of the other on the block where it was located. We almost went into the Irish Pub next door as it seemed to be the liveliest but it and the restaurant on the other side of Iosola was a bit loud and the crowds seemed to never abate enough to make it comfortable to get into. All the places o this had street side European style seating and other, less accessible seating inside. We were happy with our choice as my eggplant parmigiana was excellent and Senorita Lopez’s libido (steak) was cooked to perfection. (I had to steal a bite of her steak as it just simply looked to good.)”

saxophone player on the street in the Zona Rosa in Bogota Colombia
After the pair had dined they walked around shopping for a while listening to the street musicians and viewing the art jewelry and other wares displayed by street vendors on the open ground. Conley bought several Mochila Wayuu’s, or brightly colored fabric purses woven by indigenous people on their reserves and brought into the city to be sold. Colombia has 710 “resguardos,” or reservations for “Indio’s” and they are respected and given latitude on the reserves to live in their traditional ways.
The original indigenous peoples of Colombia, or Native Colombians, are ethnic groups who lived in Colombia prior to the Europeans in the early 16th century. Known as pueblos indígenas in Spanish, they comprise 3.4% of the country's population and belong to 87 different tribes.[1]Approximately 80% of the indigenous peoples of Colombia live in the La Guajira, Cauca, and Nariño Departments. While the Amazonian region of Colombia is sparsely populated, it is home to over 70 different indigenous ethnic groups. {Source: Wikipedia and Museo D’Oro}
To better understand the history of the original tribes that comprised early Colombian history, Conley and Jorge visited the Museo D’Oro on the following day. Located in La Candelaria, the gold museum takes visitors on a journey back to the earliest discovered civilizations in Colombia, tribes that migrated from the north to settle in the mineral rich regions of Colombia’s coastal plains and mountain savannahs.
Early gold, as later seen by the Spanish Conquistadors, was everywhere to be found, much of it right on the ground. The indigenous peoples developed incredibly diverse metallurgical skills and their creations are on display in the museum. Walking through the displays is a condensed lesson about the diverse and myriad settlers in pre-Hispanic Colombia and provides interesting and meaningful insights into life before technology. There are far more artifacts than just gold, including pottery, weaving and religious accouterments that provide a composite of life from a time gone by. The museum was very crowded with mostly Colombian locals who highly appreciate culture, history and education; a national trait not lost on Conley.
It is important for the rest of the world to know that Colombia is ready to offer travelers a safe, fun and enjoyable place to see a part of the world that seemed too dangerous to visit just a few short years ago.
“The Colombian people make this country what it is. They are warm, friendly and eager to show the progress this fantastic South American country has made to recover from the ravages of both guerrilla warfare fought by FARC and the inestimable damage done to the reputation of Colombia by the cocaine cartels so prevalent and widespread in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s true that Bogota is still one of the most dangerous cities in the world but now most of that danger is confined to specific areas where drug usage and poverty make it so. There are so many other places to go and the vast majority of Colombian people will bend over backwards to help you avoid the bad and see the good. I felt privileged to get to know so many fine Colombians and look forward to returning for my third visit next year (I had previously been in Cartagena as part of a Panama Canal Cruise) to see Medellin and Cali. It my opinion the prices are fantastic, the people unbeatable and the scenery just stunning and I’m sure this country is ready to explode with tourism much like Costa Rica was twenty five years ago.

Read 3761 times Last modified on Saturday, 16 January 2016 09:11

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