Catchy title? I hope so, but I’m going to ask your help to make sense out of it. We’ll share the task. You tell me – whether you’ve been to Colombia or not – why you think Colombia rocks, in a figurative sense. That is, what do like about it (by hearsay, even) and why is it cool? Use the “Leave Comment” section, below to tell us. And, I’ll tell you about rocks (those hard ones that form much of the earth) in Colombia. Why? Because the unifying feature of the places I visited on recent trip (see my earlier blogs, and photos) is the ubiquity of rocks and the minerals and elements that they consist of.
Around Bogota, two examples:
- El Museo del Oro – the Gold Museum in Bogota, one of those must-sees in the capital city. (In fact, it’s one of the relatively few tourist attractions there.) It houses the largest pre-Hispanic goldwork collection in the world, including some amazing pieces such as a Muisca (indigenous peoples living in pre-colonial central Colombia) raft portraying the indigenous chief, covered in gold powder, engaged in a ceremonial offering of gold ornaments into the lake. The chief was known as El Dorado, and the legend about El Dorado, the lost city of gold, is based upon the rituals he carried out. (The museum is excellent – modern, full of history and geography, info on metallurgy, and amazing gold works.)
- La Catedral de Sal – the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá, about 30 miles from Bogota. It’s hard to imagine if no one tells you what to expect. I thought it might be a huge Gaudi-like cathedral, like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, made of out salt. But, I wondered, how could it withstand be eroded away every time it rains? It turns out that La Catedral de Sal is underground. There’s no exterior. It’s a huge cavern 200 meters down, carved out an old salt mine, and consisting of a long walkway that passes the 14 stations of the cross, each with its own cross (carved out of salt) and a central cathedral with three naves. It’s dark and cool, and smells like sulfur. And, it’s busy – one of Colombia’s major tourist (including local tourists!) attractions.
Near Villa de Leyva, a colonial town (and National Monument) 110 miles north of Bogota:
- First, there’s the main square, La Plaza Mayor. It’s huge – 14,000 square feet – and empty, surrounded by the requisite church and tile-roofed stores and restaurants. The only thing that you see are the stones it’s paved with: thousands of cobblestones. There’s no asphalt, at least not now. I’m told that it had been paved for many years but was restored to its original form in the 1950s. The nice thing is that the square and the side streets coming off of it (also cobblestoned) are closed to cars. The not so nice thing is that the surface is so uneven, you need to walk with your nose to the ground. Oh well… It’s quaint….
- Then, there are the various attractions around the town. El Fósil is a 7-meter long rock that takes the shape of a bony crocodile missing one leg and its tail. Rather, it’s the fossil of a kronosaurus, a marine reptile (not a dinosaur, but related to lizards) that lived 120-million years ago. When found, it was left where it was, and now there’s a museum built around it. Other “rocks” in glass cases nearby include ammonites, coprolites (Know what they are? Think scat), fish fossils and petrified wood. Pretty cool, I’d say.
- There’s the Estación Astronómica Muisca, also called El Infiernito (“little hell,” the Spanish name): a field of funny-looking (and that’s putting it nicely!) rocks. It served as an observatory for the indigenous Muisca in the first or second century AD. One area has two rows of equally spaced stones – kind of like gravestones – used to determine the time and seasons. Nearby is a lawn populated with tall stones with rounded tops and a ring carved around them. If you look at the photo, you’ll see why I called them “funny-looking.” (I won’t say more…) A guide told me that they were placed in various places around the countryside to ensure a fertile crop.
- Even the Convento del Santo Ecce Homo, a Dominica convent founded in 1620, is full of rocks. It’s a beautiful old colonial-style building with a large flower-filled courtyard in the middle. Visitors can tour the rooms to learn about the life of the monks and how they interacted with the Muisca, and to view colonial period art. But to me the neatest part was examining the walls of the place. They were made of trilobites, ammonites, and other creatures from the deep past.
In the north, on the Caribbean coastal plain, rocks are everywhere:
- Tayrona National Park, one of Colombia’s most visited parks, consists of rainforest and gorgeous beaches that front up to the Caribbean Sea. It’s the beaches that are the draw, but it’s not a figurative walk in the park (!) to get to them. You hike through the lush forest, climbing up and over rocks to get to the first beach, where swimming is prohibited because of dangerous currents, and then clamber along a boulder-filled trail to subsequent beaches where heaven exists in the form of fine-grained rocks and silica minerals – i.e., sand. I’m told that if you hike inland and up the steep hillsides, you’ll find ancient terraces built long ago by Tayrona peoples. What are they made of? Rocks, of course!
- Further inland towards the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, is the town of Minca, with a population of 600. Music blasts at full volume from the pool hall on one side of the bridge and from restaurant just a few meters away on the other side. No, they’re not synchronized by any means… Most of the people, however, can be found in the river, on the rocks, jumping off them, and wading between them. My favorite use of the river rocks was as a restaurant. It seems everyone drags their plastic chairs and tables into the river to keep cool while eating their hot soups and tamales. There’s no shortage of rock surface to balance furniture on and as long as there’s beer to hold the lightweight plastic down, no one worries.
- El Dorado Bird Preserve, a private nature reserve with nearly 20 endemic bird species, sits on the edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range (the tallest coastal mountain range in the world). You can’t possibly miss the presence of rocks there. From the second you get into a vehicle to go there, you’re feeling their jarring effects. The dirt road to and through the reserve – and, the best place to birdwatch from – is not really a dirt road. It’s a rock road, full of boulders and ruts. So, hold onto those door handles. Throughout the forests of the Sierra Nevada you find rocks, some of which were strategically placed by ancient cultures 1200 or so years ago to create terraces and roads. And, metamorphic rock is the basis for Picos Colón and Bolívar, the fifth most prominent – i.e., having the greatest relative height – mountains in the world. (How’s that statistic for good use of Wikipedia!!)
You get the picture… I don’t know whether my observations have rocked your boat, but I’m ready for yours (see above) to rock mine. Bring on your comments about how Colombia rocks! And, if you don’t have any right now, maybe you’ll need to consider joining me there for an ecotour next February. What do you think?