Bogota: On the trail of El Dorado

By Sarah Marshall

A lake may hold the golden secret that eluded the conquistadors, dreams Sarah Marshall.
Historic sites can be found in Bogota's La Candelaria area in Colombia. Photo / 123RF
Historic sites can be found in Bogota's La Candelaria area in Colombia. Photo / 123RF

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 76,600ha, butterfly-shaped park in the Orinoco River basin, home to jaguars, spectacled bears and more than 200 recorded bird species. The Chuza dam provides Bogota with much of its drinking water, making Chingaza a beating heart for Colombia's thriving capital.

I've come to hike along one of the many trails in a park 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 park is also home to eight types of peat moss, forming velvet drapes across rocks and paths.

The other-planetary eco-system is surprisingly only a three-hour drive from Bogota.

This thin, meandering, mountain-backed metropolis has drastically changed its image in the past 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. Bars, restaurants and designer shops in the trendy Zona Rosa and Zona G districts could belong in Madrid or London.

Most historic 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.

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 pieces on display, highlights include face masks with mouth coverings to purify words spoken to the gods, tweezers used by chiefs to pluck eyebrows during celebrations, and prized golden raft, the Balsa Muisca. The famous votive depicts a ceremony linked to the legend of El Dorado ("the golden one"), which took place at nearby Lake Guatavita.

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 chief would be launched on a raft into the lake and showered with jewellery and trinkets by worshippers.

I marvel at how many priceless finds might be lurking below the water. 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 displays and fancy architectural facades, there's clearly much more to discover in and around Bogota.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
LAN Chile flies from Auckland to Santiago, with onward connections to Bogota, Colombia. latam.com

- AAP

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