The second day of our visit in Bogota started with a very steep hiking up Mount Monserrate, 3152 m, one of Bogota’s symbols.
In the early years of the 17th century the mountain becomes a favorite place for pilgrimage for devout Catholics and in 1650 begins the building of a temple, which still receives hundreds of pilgrims and visitors each day.
Besides the 3-kiometer pedestrian path, there is a cable car to the top, for those who cannot make the journey by foot, as walking up Monserrate is a very physically-challenging tradition. There are sportsmen running up, pilgrims crawling on their knees and visitors like us walking slowly and resting every now and then. It’s a popular thing to do for locals and tourists any day of the week. To visit Bogota and not climb Monserrate is like visiting Paris and not going up the Eifel Tower.
After two hours of sweating and heart-pounding climb we finally got to the top of Monserrate. We promised ourselves we would never do it again. The altitude change is 500 meters and even though there is a paved path with steps (and we love hiking up mountains) this was one of the most tiring and difficult “walks” ever. But it was rewarding too. From the top the capital in our feet looked like an endless lake of tiled roofs spilled among the slopes of the surrounding mountains.
Besides the church, there is a nice restaurant among gardens with mountain flowers and old trees, with a terrace and stunning view of the city, where we had traditional hot chocolate.
The walk down was as painful for our muscles and joints, but faster and without as many rest-stops, so we were back in Bogota, back in the city traffic and crowds by noon. And even though our legs hurt, after a short lunch break in a small restaurant where we enjoyed a traditional Ajiaco soup, we found some more energy and visited another stunning site.
Once upon a time, deep in the mountains of an unknown faraway land, in a temple built in the middle of a big city, there lived the son of a powerful ruler. He possessed the sight of the bat and the wisdom of the eagle. In his veins the strength of the jaguar was flowing.
The day of his transformation approached. Secluded in the dark belly of a sacred cave for many days, days that appeared like an endless night without the light of the sun, without salt in his food and without a woman at his side, the prince was getting ready for the transformation.
In the day of the ceremony, the shamans of the big city gathered near the sacred lake without bottom- the portal to the Lower World ruled by the goddess of the waters. They made fires of wood and tree sap whose blood-red smoke consumed the sky and sun. They placed on a big raft made of trees and decorated with feathers of all colors and jewels, the most intricate objects made of gold. They painted the naked body of the cave-prince with gold dust, from head to toes.
They placed the golden prince on the raft and in his feet they put the objects made of gold and emeralds- offerings for the underwater lake-goddess of the Lower World. The four most distinguished shamans were also on the raft standing in its four corners, wearing heavy crowns, earrings, bracelets and necklaces of pure gold. When the raft reached the center of the lake, silence fell. The golden prince began throwing one by one the rich offerings in the lake- the portal to the underworld, and the shamans did the same.
When the raft came back to shore the prince entered the waters of the lake and washed the gold off his body. He was greeted by all with songs, music and dancing. He was the new ruler of the people. He was El Dorado.
The tale of the golden prince and the lake full of precious gold offerings gave birth to the legend of El Dorado- a city of gold full of unimaginable riches hidden deep in the jungles of the unexplored New World, a city so many conquistadors searched for in vain in the 16th and 17th centuries. And even though the City of Gold was never found and remained just a legend, the sacred lake where the Muisca people from the high Andine plateau near today’s Bogota performed the ritual of the initiation of their new ruler does exist. The high mountain lake Guatavita at 3100 meters is round and resembles a crater with 1.5 km in diameter and about 25-30 meters deep. Today it is a major tourist attraction not far from the capital of Colombia.
After a few failed attempts in the past to drain the lake and find the gold on its bottom, the lake has been declared National Patrimony and today it is forbidden to swim, dive or excavate it.
Museum of Gold
But instead of climbing another mountain, tired from our hike to Monserrate, we decided to look for gold in another place, where we knew we would find hips of it – the Museum of Gold.
The museum has displays on 3 floors and its collection of 55 thousand gold and other pre-Colombian objects is the biggest in the world. It is the most famous museum in Colombia and one of the most impressive museums in all of Latin America. The entrance fee is 3000 pesos (less than $1.5) for adults and free for children.
We were absolutely amazed by the scale of the museum, by its rich gold collection separated by time periods and regions of the findings, by the intricate work of the gold objects, some so miniature they were placed under magnifying glass, by the style, complexity and beauty of the ancient art.
We watched a film about ancient metals and how they influenced different cultures around the world, we learned about the life and culture of the pre-Hispanic peoples of Colombia from miniature models depicting scenes of their daily lives: agriculture, burial rituals, crafts, building of houses etc. Maya loved these small scale models as they resemble little toys and dolls.
But what impressed us the most were the figurines of mixed animals and people: the jaguar-frog, the eagle-man, the bird-woman, the vampire-man, the snake-shaman, as well as the golden treys used in rituals involving hallucinogenic plant-powders made from coca leaves and from Yopo collected from the Anadenanthera tree, which the shamans inhaled using a small spoon or a hollow bird bone from treys depicting animals and conjured up images of the transformations that were experienced.
“When the shaman was under the effects of plants that gave him power, he connected the various worlds. He journeyed through the middle, upper and lower worlds, linking all their beings.”
On the third floor we entered the Offering room. Darkness fell upon us and we heard the sounds of water and faraway songs of shamans. When the faint flickering light came back we saw hundreds of golden objects floating in a glass round lake in the middle of the room and all around us. The singing got louder. We found ourselves in a whirlpool of gold, a glittering distant unreality…
We spent the entire afternoon in the Museum of Gold, captivated by the beauty of the craft of the ancient civilizations inhabiting these lands before Columbus. We learned Fascinating details about their culture and history, their life and rituals.
Extremely exhausted we returned to our little hostel, where a private room was vacant for us. Instead of sleeping in the dorm with 6 beds we got a room to ourselves with one double bed and one bunk-bed, with a TV set and hot-water shower! Plus, the nice little lady at the reception agreed to rent it to us for $30 per night.
But this room too didn’t have any windows. Why, we asked with curiosity. “Ah, The story of this building is long. It was built in the 17th century and was the house of a general. Then it became a convent, then a school, and finally, before the present owner bought it and made it to a hostel and before the digital era, it was a photo studio with dark rooms, where they used to develop films. That’s why- no windows.”
We took a hot shower and fell under the blankets. We slept like dead not knowing if it was dark or light outside, in our room without windows, in the small hostel in the center of the city. We still had one more day in Bogota ahead of us, another day filled with discoveries and adventures before we would go back to our boat in the heat of Santa Marta.
* Read Visit to Bogota Part One and find out about La Candelaria, Botero Museum and the Bogota Cathedral.