A Saturday in Bogota

by Jennifer Bryce

I arrived in Bogota on a Wednesday and was thrown straight into a work schedule. Then came the weekend – a chance to relax. If there had been an obvious tourist centre with bus trips to the Salt Cathedral or surrounding countryside I would have taken one.  Failing this, I decided to explore Monserrate, a 3160 metre peak that towers over the city with its church and 1650s statue of the Fallen Christ.

According to the Lonely Planet guide you can reach the peak by cable car or funicular. It was an easy walk to the tourist area at the foot of the mountain. Then I looked for signs to the funicular. I couldn’t find it. There were lots of visitors, so I followed them. Surely they would be going to the funicular. I tried to ask for directions, but no one seemed to understand ‘funicular’. So I kept walking along with the other visitors.

We were climbing a bit – I assumed to the funicular. I did think that the path would be very demanding for disabled people. We kept walking. There were stalls selling bottles of water at the side of the track. I bought one. Every-so-often a group of people would come thundering down the track – in the opposite direction to us. Ultimately I recognised an American accent and I was able to have my suspicions confirmed. I was indeed climbing Monserrate and by now I was probably a quarter of the way up.

I stopped and pondered my situation. I was wearing a coat and carrying a bag with more in it than I would have taken on a vigorous climb. The Lonely Planet Guide had advised against walking up the mountain except with pilgrims on a Sunday (this was a Saturday): ‘you’ll be a prime target for thieves who prowl the mountainside’. Also, Bogota itself is at a high altitude and some visitors are affected by the depleted oxygen. I had not seemed to be affected, but climbing to a higher altitude might be asking for trouble. On the other hand, I had already covered a fair bit of the distance and there seemed to be plenty of people around, including Tourist Police who did not speak English – I had already tried to ask them the way to the funicular.

So I decided to keep climbing. If I started to feel faint from lack of oxygen, I would turn around immediately. It would be stupid to faint on the mountainside with thieves wandering around! I tried to stay close to other people (I noticed now that most were young men wearing track suits and runners) and even they had to stop to catch their breath . Whenever I sat down to rest—and as we neared the top I had to do this more and more frequently – I made sure that I was in sight of some Tourist Police. There were little stalls from time to time selling delicious-looking tropical fruit juices and slices of pineapple, but I decided it was best to keep to bottled water. The view was utterly magnificent and the vegetation seemed to me not unlike Australian plants. I was certainly puffing as I neared the top, buoyed on by some kind of private heroics. My coat was tied around my waist and I was sweating profusely. It couldn’t be far now – there were stalls selling trinkets – replicas of the cathedral and the Fallen Christ. I rounded a corner – it must be the final stretch . . .  and . . .   I was hit by the stench of boiling offal! It was so overwhelming and repugnant that I felt I had to beat my way through it although I had practically no reserves left. Somehow I covered the last few metres and tottered up a flight of white stone steps to the cathedral where I joined the crowds and gave thanks, sitting up the back, panting and marvelling at the crystal chandeliers.

I think I bought some post cards at one of the many stalls set up for tourists, then I went to what is probably the best restaurant, sat at a table with a magnificent view and ate a beautifully baked fish. From the restaurant I could see the funicular – and that’s how I descended Monserrate.  It took about 5 minutes.