Christmas in Colombia

20 – 27 December 2011

We began our Colombian trip in the country’s capital, Bogota. With a population of around 10 million people, this was the biggest city of our trip so far but, despite some of the negative press the city receives, we felt relaxed and quite safe during our time there. In fact the city seems to go out of its way for tourists, providing free walking tours and offering free entrance to several sites.

Given the timing of our visit, we were fortunate enough to be able to soak up the festive atmosphere of the city. It seemed as though every square and park was decked out in Christmas lights and the streets were full of people, out doing last minute Christmas shopping or simply enjoying the ambiance. On our first evening there, we strolled around the Candelaria neighbourhood where we were staying and visited the Plaza Simon Bolivar, which boasted a beautiful Christmas tree and many wonderfully lit buildings. Here we indulged in a delicious treat known as ‘oblea’ – a thin wafer sandwich with an array of different fillings on offer. Not knowing what filling would be the best, we went for the works – caramel, jam, cheese, condensed milk – so tasty!!

We dedicated the next day to some intensive sightseeing. First, we visited the Botero museum where many of this famous Colombian artist’s works are displayed. If you don’t recognise the name, you will probably recognise his distinctive style which kept us enthralled and amused for some time.

Next, we went to the city’s gold museum – one of the largest in the world. It was fascinating and gave a detailed account of the history of metallurgy in Latin America. (I pointed out a few items -gold crowns, jewelled earrings, ornate breastplates etc- to Neal as potential Christmas gifts but I’m not sure he took the hint!)

Our next stop was the National Police museum – a quirky establishment which we were shown around by a young guy working as a guide as part of his national service. He explained that he had chosen this option as it paid better than the army and he got to stay at home with his parents (a pretty sensible choice I think). Aside from a room full of guns and an exhibit of a shotgun-guitar (??) the main focus of the tour was the Pablo Escobar room. Here numberous artefacts related to the infamous drug lord – confiscated gold-plated Harley Davidson, blood spattered roof tile – as well as some unconvincing dummies of Escobar are displayed. Strange, but weirdly fascinating.

In the evening, we caught the cable car up to the Santuario de Monserrate, a17th century church situated high on the hill overlooking Bogota. We arrived shortly before sunset so we had great views right across the city. Once daylight faded, the Christmas lights were turned on – illuminating the whole hill. It was quite beautiful and we left feeling suitably festive.

We continued our sightseeing the following day with a tour around the Candelaria neighbourhood and a trip out to see more festive lights, this time in the Parque de Independencia.

Christmas lights Parque de Independencia

We also squeezed in a trip to one of the shopping malls (Christmas gifts) and were stopped by the Policia Nacional and photographed next to a Ferrari that was confiscated from another drug lord. The Colombian police are on Facebook, so you can check out the photo they took of us!

On our final day in Bogota, we caught a bus to Zipaquira to visit the famous salt cathedral. The town is home to a huge salt mine which is still being actively worked. On the lowest level of the mine is a cathedral and a series of representations of Christ’s death and resurrection which the miners carved. The structures were impressive and beautiful, if a little eery.

Salt Cathedral Zipaquira

Walls of salt mines

The next day was Christmas Eve, which we spent on the bus from Bogota to Cali. Despite being on a luxury bus (the only one that wasnt fully booked weeks in advance) it was a long journey of over 11 hours through windy mountain roads, which made us a little queasy. Still, we arrived safely in Cali late that evening.

We spent an unconventional Christmas Day in a nice hostel in the Bellavista neighbourhood of Cali. Dinner was a four course meal prepared by a former Michelin chef from Barcelona washed down with lots of cheap local Champagne. The rest of the day was spent lazing by the pool and enjoying a steam room and sauna (yes our hostel had a pool, sauna, chef etc – quite unbelievable!) We missed celebrating Christmas with family, but at least we had Skype as a substitute.

Christmas Cake

Lazing in hammock on Christmas Day

The rest of our time in Cali was spent rather lazily. We had planned to hike up to see the Three Crosses on the hill over the city but a combination of poor directions and suggestions that it wasn’t safe led us to abandon this plan. Instead we wandered round the San Antonio neighbourhood and checked out the Las Lomas artisanal market and the many feline sculptures along the river.

El Gato, Cali

Our time in Cali coincided with the city’s festival, and although we didn’t make it to any of the formal parades, we were able to catch a few performances in the squares around the Canchas Panamericanas. The streets were full of people and there were salsa and reggaeton concerts taking place all over the city. Although we didn’t make it to the concerts, we thought it would be shameful to leave the salsa capital of the world without getting involved in some way. So, on our final afternoon in the city, we found ourselves at a salsa class at Jovita’s hostel  run by the famous Son de Luz school. For an hour, our instructor put us through our paces, showing us salsa and merengue moves and demonstrating some very fast footwork! I think this might have been the most energetic and sweatiest thing we have done all trip – but it was also one of the most fun. Happily exhausted, it was then time to head for the airport to catch our flight to Peru.

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