Travel Well Traveled
'Take off your pants and stay awhile'
What would you say if I told you that besides drug runners and hot TV women and coffee, Columbia has quite a few other things going for it, too? You'd probably say 'of course' because we live in the 21st century with the internet and smart phones so there's no real excuse to be holding to old stereotypes.
How about this then? What if I told you there was an entire cathedral, carved out of stone and salt, and it was all a quarter mile below the earth? I'm thinking that now I might have your attention. Well, read on, and let ol' Excogitate Jack tell you a little bit about this great wander. (as in 'wander around').
What to Do
Well, for starters, find the right bus leaving Bogota to get there. Jack's own experiences with that are highlighted in this issue's essay. After you're there, take a silly photo with the giant, metal miner (Jack suggests pretending you're being impaled by a giant with a pickaxe, that's a crowd pleaser).
After you’re inside and on your tour, listen to the history, but wait on your photos (unless you want others to take photos of you). After the tour, you'll have uncrowded shots of the various spots. Don't use a flash! A tripod is highly recommended to capturing the ambiance of the cave without ruining the lighting with a flash or being so blurry it looks like you're after an underground Sasquatch.
Spend some time walking off the beaten path, watching the lights, and doing so subterranean soul searching. But cool photos will be a top priority! You will come away with some new profile pics, to be sure!
Turning the Tour
For me, the Catedral has the best of both worlds when it comes to the tour. On one hand, you get the tour experience with a guide explaining things and other folk to take your picture. But then, after the tour is over, they just let you roam around on your own recognizance for as long as you want and that is just right up my alley.
The feeling of exploring the long tunnels and vast rooms of the Catedral is heightened when you're doing it on your own. Likewise, being able to find a quiet spot to meditate/pray or just enjoy the salt-scented silence and distant echoes will help bring your whole day into focus.
You don't have a choice about whether or not you do the tour, but you should absolutely budget in at least an extra hour beyond that to experience the Catedral on your own (trust me, most places like this will hustle you in and out in record time, so take advantage of their generosity).
But Is It Safe?
Bogota is one of those places with a reputation of being a little bit dicey when it comes to traveler safety. Getting to the cathedral will take some bus travel that may sometimes feel like they're kidnapping you, but it's a major tourist attraction mostly full of pilgrims and school children. It's totally safe, just make sure you head back to the city before dark. Just to be careful.
In a church? You heathen. While Jack does not recommend desecrating a holy place, there are plenty of of unfinished halls, nooks and crannies so that an amorous couple could find their faith and offer up some prayers.
While throwing a rave down in the salt mine would be incredible, this is a church so that's not going to happen anytime soon.
This wasn't a particularly pricey attraction. Bring some extra cash in case you want to do some shopping or eat nearby, but the bus there and back is cheap, too. Considering other underground churches, this place is an amazing bargain!
Jack went strolling off the beaten path, to passages they hadn't finished with yet and ended up in a neat dead end with the beginnings of some sort of tree sculpture carved out of the salt on the wall. Pretty cool. Also, make sure you go searching and go to the potty underground!
Quite a few middle school girls and mothers with kids wanted to take their pictures with Jack. If you got blue eyes and some blond hair, get used to being in a lot of strangers' photos. If you speak Spanish better than Jack (which isn't saying much), you can make new friends quickly.
The Seal Club
If you find yourself in Bogota you should absolutely go here. It was Jack's favorite day trip in Columbia and his favorite underground cathedral that he's ever seen (yep he's seen more than a few).
If you're in Columbia, this is a must see!
Travel tip #10: Never turn down an opportunity to do karaoke on foreign soil!
Travel Well Traveled Ensayo
The Highs and Lows of the Modern Stagecoach
Once you leave the comfort zone of the States and our essentially 'car or plane only' travel restrictions, you're going to either fall in love with buses or curse them until the day you draw your last, ragged breath (probably stuck in the back of a bus packed full of farmers with live chickens, no one wearing deodorant, and screaming children, no doubt).
Actually the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two ideals. If you travel long enough, you'll have some stellar bus experiences and others that will make you vow to invest in learning how to construct and fly your own light aircraft. For this little essay, let's focus on two great bus trips and two disastrous ones.
Our first positive is actually my crazy, absurd, untenable-long bus trip from Cuzco all the way back to Lima. In an attempt to save a hunk of change, I only flew into Cuzco, but decided to take a nearly 24 hour bus ride back. Why? I'm stupid. Actually, I'm a thrifty travel who fancies himself crafty and wanted to see some countryside on my way back. While there was plenty of countryside, I mostly just chatted up these nice Brazilian brothers I'd met at Machu Picchu, caught up on my Community, and slept. For just a little bit of money you can live like a king in these buses and if you're an avid reader, it is nearly paradise having that much time to read and occasionally glance out the window for scenery.
Our first negative would have to be taking the bus from the Baltics to Krakow. The ride itself was cramped; I was sandwiched between two large men with walrus mustaches and an apparent love of eating only garlic and/or fish-based food. Once we arrived, the torrential downpour outside made it quite an experience trying to get the luggage out of the back. One of the porters had stamped over my luggage receipt (so it showed only one bag instead of my two) and wouldn't let me get my other bag off the bus. The one that contained all my clothes. It was something of a tense situation until I found our bus stewardess and got her to go talk to him (also flat-out refusing to let the bus leave helped).
Coming up on the other negative side would be the bus ride I took from Sofia, Bulgaria down to Athens, Greece. The entire way down the driver and most of the old men passengers chain smoked foul smelling cigars and laughed gutturally. No sleep for me. Then, I don't know who it was, but one of the old men had the worst BO I've ever smelled. Ever. Trapped in a tin can with that smell for another 6 hours was not one my more pleasant experiences. Ol Jack greatly contemplated making a leap through an open window. You better believe his first stop upon finding his Athens hostel was a long, hot shower. Yuck.
Rounding off our positive experiences is a misadventure, really. Trying to find a bus out of Bogota to the Catedral del Sol was a little rough. It turns out that studying public school Spanish doesn't quite prepare you for trying to ask Colombians which bus you need to take. After some basic Espanol and much pantomiming, I finally got on this little bus that was nearly a van. As we'd slow down to pick up prospective passengers one of the workers (driver's assistant?) would hop out and jog along so the bus never really came to a stop. When people would get on, the guy would jump back up and away we'd go. Well, this was obviously a recipe for disaster (or comic greatness).
On one little stop, as the bus pulled away from the gravel on the side of the road, the hop-on hop-off guy made his little jump to get back into the stairwell and promptly slipped in the gravel. Then he's being dragged through he gravel while he's holding on to the bus for dear life, the bus driver (his friend) totally oblivious and preparing to merge back onto the highway.
Other people on the bus were shouting at him to stop and everything was soon sorted out, but I'll never forget the surreal experience of watching this happen and thinking 'uh, doesn't this happen like every other day? Isn't there a better system?' Granted, it would have been considerably less funny if the guy had gotten run over, but it honestly reminded me of two drunk rednecks screwing around till someone nearly gets plowed into the rocks, and it's a great example of how haphazard South America can be sometimes.
Anyway, nothing profound in this essay, if there ever is. Just thinking about buses and all the time you'll spend traveling on them when you're out having your own adventures. Unless you're rich and can fly everywhere (screw you, pal).
Buses are just like people, really. Sometimes you'll love them and have a great time, sometimes they'll be bland and forgettable, and sometimes they'll smell like Satan's butthole. Now that's profound.
Travel Tip # 76: An offer for free airport pickup/dropoff can totally make an accommodation worth it in some places.
Stations of the Cross
Unfortunately I did not make a note of the order so these are just here as they appear in the picture folder. The rough-hewn stone of the kneelers and the dim, somber lighting really adds to the effect that these are a line of suffering. As you follow the stations, you walk deeper and deeper into the mine.
Bus Ride & The Town
The bus ride form Bogota wasn't too long, though the scenery wasn't any great shakes, either. Still, I found some cute stray dogs and a few interesting sights in the nearby town. I didn't stay long, though, as I had no idea when the strange, low-rent bus service back to my city stopped.
Catedral del Sal
You've seen plenty of hints of the grandeur of the cathedral, but these pictures will put it into better focus. Once you finish the somewhat narrow passage containing the stations of the cross, the mine suddenly opens into into a few vast rooms. One has an enormous cross and a lit-up carving from the Sistene Chapel ceiling. Another is a cathedral that is so huge the carved pillars are easily fifty feet around!
The Salty Cathedral
In case you can't tell, ExJack was quite enamored with this underground cathedral. The air is thick with salt, the lights are muted but brilliant in the darkness, and the quiet is only broken by soft talking or soft music.
It was a great respite from the hustle and bustle of Bogota and you should definitely make a trip if you're feeling even a little adventurous. For you non-christians, the Catedral is still a sight and still totally worthwhile (you can ignore the descriptions of the stations and all that).
If you travel there as a couple you can eat a fairly expensive lunch underground at a little cafe near an artificial reflecting lake. If I ever return to Colombia I will go back with a nicer camera and my tripod for some more serene photography.