Once considered a no-go zone, Colombia’s capital has changed significantly in the last two decades. Sarah Marshall unearths Bogota’s hidden treasures.
There’s a 10 per cent chance of sunshine in Colombia’s Chingaza National Park. So when rays briefly break through a heavy veil of cloud shrouding high-altitude bogs and grassland, I bask like the succulent plants around me, spiralling their leaves longingly skyward.
Damp weather is usually welcome in the 76,600-hectare, butterfly-shaped park, located in the Orinoco River basin and home to jaguars, spectacled bears and more than 200 bird species. The Chuza dam provides Bogota with 80 per cent of its drinking water, making Chingaza a beating heart for Colombia’s thriving capital.
Escaping the busy city for a day, I’ve come to hike along one of the many trails in a park that’s managed by the government but cared for by farming families who live on its fringes.
Smudges of endemic frailejones define the landscape, like dots on a pointillist painting, their thick, waterlogged trunks supporting a crown of furry leaves.
The other-planetary eco-system is surprisingly only a three-hour drive from Bogota – almost the same journey time required to travel from one end of the traffic-clogged city to the other.
Once considered to be one of the most dangerous urban destinations in the world, this thin, meandering, mountain-backed metropolis has drastically changed its image in the last 20 years.
Now tourists can comfortably visit museums housing ancient treasures, wander through streets of crumbling colonial architecture, or dip into a fashionable nightlife scene. Most historical sites can be found downtown in La Candelaria. In Plaza Bolivar, dominated by a statue of Simon Bolivar, architect of Colombia’s independence from Spanish rule, I shudder at the number of political executions that have taken place here.
Some of the most scenic 16th century buildings are close to the Palace of San Carlos on Calle 10, not far from the excellent Gold Museum, one of the finest collections of pre-Colombian artefacts in South America. Of the 55,000 exquisite pieces on display, highlights include facemasks with mouth coverings to purify words spoken to the gods and tweezers used by chiefs to pluck eyebrows during celebrations.
I drive north of the city for two hours to the green-hued crater-lake in the forest reserve of Cacique Guatavita. The indigenous Muisca people, whose presence in Colombia dates back to 5500 BC, used the sacred spot to celebrate the election of new chiefs. After being bathed in honey and gold dust, the Zipa would be launched on a raft into the lake and showered with jewellery and trinkets by worshippers.
As a bird skims across the water’s surface, I marvel at how many priceless finds might be lurking below. In 1545, Spanish conquistadors attempted to drain the lake in their search for the mythical “city of gold” although they never quite reached the bottom.
Beyond sparkling museum display cabinets and fancy architectural facades, there’s clearly still much more to discover in and around Bogota.
Where to stay...
Hotel B3 Virrey (hotelesb3.com). Concealed behind a living wall of plants, this 128-room eco-friendly design hotel is located close to Bogota’s trendy Zona Rosa neighbourhood. Facilities include a fitness centre and buzzy modern bar where breakfast is served. Rooms from £41 per night.
What to see...
Zipaquira Salt Cathedral (catedraldesal.gov.co/en). This extraordinary church has been carved from salt in mines 200m below a mountain in the town of Zipaquira, 30 miles from Bogota. Stations of the Cross are located along a network of tunnels leading to a central nave with an altar and 16m cross, both made from salt. Entry costs £5 per person.
Botero Museum (banrepcultural.org/museo-botero). Exhibited in this colonial house is a collection of Fernando Botero’s sculptures and paintings. Also on display are items gifted from the artist’s personal collection, including works by Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Matisse, Monet and Giacometti. Entry is free.
Where to eat...
Criterion (criterion.com.co). Regularly featured in Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list, this gourmet dining experience is run by celebrity chefs Mark and Jorge Rausch, who worked with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of HighLives Travel (020 8835 7034, highlives.co.uk) which offers a four-night tour of Bogota and Villa de Leyva from £850pp (two sharing). Includes visits to Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, the Ecce Homo convent and the Fossil Museum and Infiernito archaeological site in Villa de Leyva.