Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Green Hills of Bogota

We left early Saturday morning on a mostly empty Avianca flight from Cartagena to Bogota. As we taxied out to the runway, Aysha had made a mess and I was sent to ask for a napkin. The attendant replied, “Not on national flights, only international.” I guess that’s how they manage to fly with planes that are mostly empty. We touched down in the cool Colombian capital an hour later. A quick call to our hotel produced a promise of a ride in 30 minutes. Sixty minutes later, the car arrived, delayed by traffic. We did manage to fit four adult, two kids, the driver and all our luggage, including a stroller and baby backpack into the car, which amazed me every time we did it.

We rode down a big divided highway towards the hotel. In between lanes there was a wide green space with a bike path down the centre. Bogota is very different from Cartagena. Our little city is hot and full of stone and cement buildings crowded around the ocean front. We have a sidewalk system that seems to be voluntary; each building installs its own piece of sidewalk so that it is rare that you see a stretch of sidewalk that continues at the same height, width or distance from traffic for more than one or two lots. Bogota has consistent, smooth(ish) sidewalks that are even accompanied by bike paths along major roads.

The Hotel Marbore was small and very friendly. We checked into our rooms and caught a taxi downtown. We stopped for a vegetarian lunch. Bogota, the big capital, manages to be cheaper than “tourist-friendly” Cartagena. Our first visit was the Gold Museum, which was full of funerary decorations: gold masks, bracelets, belts and other decorations, and gold statues that the indigenous peoples dropped into lakes as thanks to the Gods for their successes.

Next we walked along busy city streets down to the old city. It looked a lot like Cartagena’s old town, except in Cartagena the old town is surrounded by fortified walls and in Bogota it is surrounded by busy city streets and impressive, more recent public buildings.

The Alcantaras in Bogota
Here we are stopping for a rest in Bogota on the main sqare.

Bogota man

Just a guy who walked by

We found the Botero museum which features the works of Colombia’s most distinctive artist. He paints and sculpts fat things – people, animals, objects. By this time the kids were getting tired of the museum visits. Karla and I sped through the museum while Tony and Diana had to work harder to keep two year old Julian busy. Aysha was restless in her stroller if we stopped, but still too small to be really intolerant of the museum. The highlight of the museum was a Chagall, who is still my favorite. We returned to the hotel and spent the night resting up for the next day’s trip.

Villa de Leyva morning
Here's a shot from the quiet morning in Villa de Leyva

Villa de Leyva is two bus rides away from Bogota over twisty mountainous road. We pulled into town just as it started raining. The town of 6000 has maintained their original cobblestone roads. The roads are made of uncut stones that may once have been mortared into a fairly smooth surface, but now are lacking any sort of joining substance leaving a surface that makes pushing a carriage nearly impossible and carrying a child or suitcase precarious. We were all pretty wet by the time we made it four blocks to the hotel.
That afternoon we wandered around to check out the quaint little streets full of restaurants and shops. Villa de Leyva gets a lot of weekend visitors from the capital and has a thriving artistic community. It didn’t suffer from “Cartagena Syndrome” – shops that all sell the same cheap looking stuff that you don’t really want to buy anyway.

Green countryside
In Villa de Leyva

Monkey on my Back

Monday we walked back to the bus station to find a taxi to take us around to see the sights. The Lonely Planet said that the ride should cost $20, but when we talked to the taxi driver, he offered to do it for less. After a few minutes, when I had asked about the price in every way I could, I had to conclude that it wasn't a trick and he was actually asking for less than we had expected. Our first stop was El Fossil, a nearly complete large aquatic dinosaur. The land around Villa de Leyva was a lakebed and is covered with fossils that are often incorporated into the stone buildings. Next we stopped at El Inferntio (the small hell), that was a religious site and calendar for the indigenous people. It earned its name from the Spaniards who misinterpreted the phallic stones that cover the site. We made out way from there to Ecce Homo, a monastery built with fossils. It was a beautiful site. We ended our trip with a visit to the local winery for a sample of their products.

El Infernito

By the Well

Here we are in Ecce Homo

Julian and Aysha

The next day, we planned to take a taxi to Raquira, a nearby town famous for its pottery. We started the day at the French bakery, but before we had finished our quiche and coffee, we had met Carlos, a friendly Colombian, and Sylvia, his 18 month old daughter.

Julian, Aysha and Sylvia - It's hard to get a shot of three young kids all looking the same way at the same time!

He invited us up to meet his wife, Monique, and parents-in-law just outside of town. His parents-in-law had built a house and organic garden on the side of a previously barren hillside. Their beautiful house was in a tiny jungle populated by parrots and chickens, and a cat and dog. It reminded me a bit of my sister and Dave's place outside of Nelson. After a refreshing morning in the hills, we headed back to town for lunch. That afternoon, we went to see Carlos’s parents who had a weekend house a little further outside of town. We spent the afternoon with the proud grandparents. They had build a little park, playhouse (with running water and electricity), lake with boat, and basketball court in expectation of more grandchildren to follow their two granddaughters.

Villa de Leyva Locals
Here is a group of traditionally dressed people waiting for a bus at a town outside of Villa de Leyva

The next day we went to Raquira with Luis, Carlos’s father. He picked us up in a huge van (with room for at least 10 grandchildren in the back). We all picked up a few things in Raquira, a village that for two blocks becomes a shopping mall. On the way home, we drove through a downpour.

Thursday we rose, grabbed breakfast at the Posada de Los Angeles, the little hotel we wished we had stayed at, and returned to Bogota, which almost exhausted us. All along the way, the road was littered with rockfall, the result of the previous day's rain. We checked back into our hotel and then went for lunch in a huge, trying-too-hard-to-be-chic restaurant that left us entertaining kids for 40 minutes while waiting our food. The lunch finished exhausting us. We spent the evening in our hotel watching movies on TV.

Church on the Hill in the Clouds

Friday was Good Friday and we set out to see Montserrate, a church on one of the mountain tops around Bogota. When we arrived, we were behind about a million people waiting for a ride up on the gondola. We decided not to wait for a ride up, but entertained ourselves other ways.

Aysha on an Alpaca
How could we let an opportunity like this go by?

We gave up and found a park on the map to take the kids to. One of the best things about Bogota was the abundance of parks - one every few blocks, and they were full of slides and swings for the wee ones. Even amid blocks of tall apartments, there were green spaces.

Aysha on a Swing

She likes the park

At the first park there were a dozen or so parents and kids around speaking different languages. They apologized to us for the weather, but we were grateful to be cool. When it stated raining we had a bite to eat and took the kids to a mall that had a play area. We were lucky that the streets of Bogota were quiet and nearly empty due to the holiday. It made the centre of town much quieter and more peaceful than if everyone had been there hurrying around in cars and buses.

Aysha at Play

That evening we caught an evening flight home. When we stepped off the plane, Cartagena didn't feel as hot as I'd remembered it.

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