Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A city within a city and salt, lots and lots of salt

All good things must come to an end and so too must our trip to Colombia. We’ve had a great time, saw some fantastic sights and met some incredible people but we’re definitely in wind down mode now.
We flew out of Santa Marta yesterday and arrived in Bogotá after a 90 minute uneventful flight with LAN airlines. I played major tourist and booked us into a really nice hotel and made arrangements for a car and driver to pick us up at the airport. It was more than a taxi but still really reasonable by our standards and was a welcome change from the chaotic scramble for a taxi.

And here I have to apologize for my earlier comments vis-à-vis Bogota. The city is huge and as much as I thought we’d seen a large part of it when we spent the day visiting four credit unions when we first arrived, apparently we didn’t even scratch the surface. Our hotel is in a VERY nice area in the north end of the city. It’s not the actual Zona Rosa - and truth be told I’m not exactly sure where we are in relation to down town - but it’s an area of low rises and businesses that reminds us of the West End in Vancouver as much as anything else. There’s hardly any graffiti, it’s clean and orderly and if we’d stayed here instead of the La Candelaria district my description of Bogota would have been very different.

And I don’t think I’ve mentioned the most amazing thing yet - Medellin may have its Metro but Bogota is just as rightfully proud of its Transmillenio; a bus system unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It seems a few years back the city planners decided to build a large metro system, not unlike Medellin, to augment and replace a lot of the existing city busses. They designed a system that would run dedicated rail lines between existing roads and highways and went so far as to designate the right-of-ways and start the construction. And then, like so many good intentions, things fell off the rails so to speak during their financial crisis in the 90‘s at the height of the war against Pablo Escobar. But rather than let a good idea lie dormant they simply changed things up a bit to live within their means. And what a job they did! Rather than light rail the new Transmillenio is a system of dedicated intra-city bus lines using bus-only road and highway lanes and utilizing literally thousands of double and triple articulated high-end busses. There are raised pedestrian walkways giving safe access and the terminals to get on and off look more like a subway stop than a bus stop. And all the secondary bus lines feed into a Transmillenio station so it’s easy to get anywhere in the city safely and inexpensively. For all intents and purposes they’ve built a light rail system without the light rail. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. We could learn a lot from the ingenuity of Latin America.

And now the hotel. Hotels in general in Colombia are more expensive than what we expected but at the higher end (for Colombia) we’ve found much more value and this hotel is no exception.

Our room is absolutely amazing although room hardly seems an adequate description for a four-room, 500 square foot suite, complete with a full separate kitchen and a large outdoor patio with two seating areas and patio tables to seat eight. It’s an old hotel from the (40’s?) that has been wonderfully preserved - it’s almost like staying in a museum or visiting a vintage building as part of a tour. All the original doors, trim and furniture are original Art Deco and still in place. The staff are all in uniforms or in grey or black business suits with white gloves and in the bar there’s a piano player and a bar tender wearing a white shirt and bow tie. The bar is open 24/7, as is room service and the included breakfast buffet, complete with waiter and chef in white shirt and bow tie, was a deluxe spread of fruit, breads, waffles, eggs cooked to order and local juices coffee and hot chocolate.

When we checked in a bellman whisked our bags away and installed them on a trolley to take to our room and while we taking care of the check-in process he quietly attached new name tags with the hotels logo to all our bags. He showed us to our room and gave us a tour reminiscent of a movie from the 30’s or 40’s and we then had a complimentary glass of wine while the piano player serenaded us in the bar prior to us taking our early dinner in the dining room set with sparkling china and beautiful linens. It’s definitely not as modern as the Diez in Medellin but I can’t remember when I’ve felt so welcomed in a hotel. All the staff now greet us by name and it’s truly an amazing experience. Muy Bueno - such is life in Colombia!

This afternoon we took in a sight that I’m not sure how to describe. I know the pictures I took will be woefully inadequate and I’m afraid any mental picture I attempt to paint will be just as poor.


There’s a small town an hour outside of Bogota where there used to be a large salt mine deep in the surrounding mountains. Apparently in the 30’s when it was actively being mined the miners carved chapels, naves and alters out of the rock so they could offer their daily prayers for their safe return when they started work each day. These were eventually enlarged and further developed until there was a very large cathedral carved out of the rock and salt deposits 200 meters underground. Then in 1990 the entire site was abandoned because it was geologically unstable and considered a safety hazard.

The government of Bogota with assistance from the Colombian government both felt that this was a site that should be reopened and preserved so they held a national competition for an architectural design for a new facility and the results are beyond amazing. The new “Salt Cathedral” is a complex of interconnected tunnels and huge amphitheatres carved out of solid rock 800 feet below the surface. There are three large “Cathedrals” that are used as places of worship on Sundays that can accommodate as many as 7,000 parishioners and the entire experience has become a pilgrimage for local Catholics. Rosi and I aren’t religious but it’s had to argue with the sense of peace and tranquility that seems to exude from the very rock walls themselves as you descend deep into the mountain and the feeling off spirituality that engulfs you as you listen to music playing softly in the background. The tunnels are softly backlit with subdued indirect lighting and they interconnect through hidden stairways and wide ramps all leading deeper into the mine. The chapels themselves are huge naves the size of an airplane hanger carved out of solid rock with large rock alters illuminated with hidden spot lights - and the overall experience is beyond amazing.

Today is our last day in Colombia and this will be my last entry. Tomorrow we fly to Toronto where we overnight before completing the journey home via Vancouver. It’s been an incredible trip and I can’t think of a better way to finish it than the visit today to the Catedral de Sal.


Dale and Rosi

Safe and Sound in Colombia

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