Musicology Hostel, Bogotá – Do Hostels Make Good Family Accommodation?

Musicology Hostel, Bogotá

Musicology Hostel, Bogotá

La Candelaria, Bogotá’s brightly-painted colonial district, is peppered with budget hostels and as a family of four travelling for an extended period, we aimed to keep our costs down.

Though most of the other guests were from the young international backpacker crowd, hostels, with their multi-bed dorms, can make good, cheap family accommodation.

To be clear, hostels are not four-star hotels, or even hotels at all. They are an affordable way of travelling for longer periods and, if approached in the right spirit, can be fun.

First inner courtyard

First inner courtyard

The Musicology hostel on Calle 9 (http://www.musicologyhostel.com/) offers dorms from four to ten beds.

The entrance is through double, locked security doors leading to two colourful, hammock-strewn inner courtyards, with the dorms off the courtyards.

We stayed in a four-bedroomed dorm and, at 27,000 Colombian pesos (less than £10) per person per night including breakfast and dinner (price at time of writing), this was excellent value. It included a private bathroom for an extra 2,000 (around 60p) and was the most expensive option at the hostel, but it was worth splashing out to be able to half sleep-walk to the well-pressured shower in the morning and immerse oneself in piping hot water.

Second inner courtyard

Second inner courtyard

Guests are issued with worn but clean bedding on check-in and make their own beds. The lumpy pancake pillows are easily augmented with an inflatable travel pillow, and the cold Bogotá night air combated with a jumper and socks in addition to the bedding supplied.

The beds and chairs are made from re-used timber and have a reassuringly solid feel. The recycling bins are another sign of environmental awareness.

All meals are served in the bar-restaurant on the upper floor. Some were uninspiring but the ajiaco, a potato soup/stew that is a bogotano speciality, and tamales, a rice based mixture wrapped in banana leaves, were excellent.

Our four-bedroomed dorm room

Our four-bedroomed dorm room

The reception staff varied from approachable and helpful to paralytic, but most were prepared to assist to the extent they were able; and Diego the barman was particularly friendly and welcoming.

We were the only family staying here and whilst some of our fellow guests were affable, others seemed to view us with consternation. Perhaps these young backpackers had come to exert their independence, escape parents and do ‘young people things’ but here we were: an uncomfortable reminder of their not too distant childhoods; or maybe they were a little shy on what might have been their first solo trip.

A testament to the honesty of our fellow travellers was that our Guide book was still where we left it after a week’s excursion to another part of the country.

One of the hostel's main attractions for the children

One of the hostel’s main attractions for the children

With a laundry service, electrical sockets in the rooms, under-bed lockers and Wi-Fi, as well as a couple of internet terminals just off the reception, the hostel is well-equipped to fulfil the needs of its clientele.

Our children enjoyed Musicology’s pet dogs as well as its Wi-Fi and hammocks.

Though we did not partake, the hostel runs trips on the ‘Crazy Turtle Party Bus’ for those seeking revelry, as well as Spanish and salsa classes.

The Musicology hostel is not the height of luxury, but it is well-situated, clean and excellent value for money. I would recommend it to those looking for inexpensive hostel accommodation in Bogotá.

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Bogotá for Children

IMG_3842 tweaked

Llama rides in the Plaza de Bolívar

Travelling with children in Colombia is a delight, and Bogotá is no exception. Colombians generally love children and make them welcome. There’s plenty for kids to do and see in the Capital, whatever their ages. Older children might enjoy a tour of the city’s impressive graffiti (http://bogotagraffiti.com/) or a bike tour (http://www.bogotabiketours.com/), whilst youngsters may prefer the llama rides on offer in the Plaza de Bolívar. 

There are many museums to explore: Maloka (http://www.maloka.org/) is an interactive science museum with a 3D cinema dome and the Gold Museum (http://www.banrepcultural.org/gold-museum), with its massive collection of pre-Colombian gold, is unmissable.

Gold Museum

Gold Museum

The Museo de los Niños (Children’s Museum) is also hands on and has an old Avianca plane to climb around. The sculptures and paintings of chubby figures in the Botero Museum (http://www.banrepcultural.org/museo-botero) are fun for kids too. These are just a few of the many museums, galleries, theatres and music events that might appeal to children.

Botero Museum

Botero Museum

The brightly painted houses and green figures looking down from rooftops in La Candelaria belong in a children’s book and lend a magical air to the old district.

Green figures made from recycled material can be seen on rooftops

Green figures made from recycled material can be seen on rooftops

The José Celestino Mutis botanical garden offers flora from all over Colombia, from the towering wax palm (the National Tree of Colombia) to the giant Victoria Regia water-lily pads of the Amazon region.

Larger than New York’s Central Park, the Simón Bolívar Park has walkways, cycle paths and lakes where you can hire rowing boats. It’s a great spot for kite-flying or picnicking, and younger children will enjoy a ride on the Transmilenio public transport system to reach it.

Gardens at the Quinta de Bolívar

Gardens at the Quinta de Bolívar

 

The Quinta de Bolívar, one-time residence of the man who led the fight for liberation from Spanish rule, is a taste of history and an oasis of tranquillity in the city. Its garden offers a sample of Andean nature, with hummingbirds darting around brightly-coloured flowers.

Click here to read my blog about the Quinta de Bolívar.

Another slice of nature can be found at the Cerro de Monserrate, one of the high Andean peaks that tower over the city. The cable car and funicular ride up the mountain to the sanctuary at the top are part of the fun. At the top, there are fantastic views of the city, a craft market and plenty of places to eat.

Cable car ride up the Cerro de Monserrate is part of the fun

Cable car ride up the Cerro de Monserrate is part of the fun

Enjoying the spectacular views from the top of the Cerro de Monserrate

Enjoying the spectacular views from the top of the Cerro de Monserrate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here to read my blog about the Cerro de Monserrate.

Salt cathedral

Salt cathedral

An easy Transmilenio and bus ride from Bogotá gets you to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Illuminated by ever changing coloured lights, the spectacular beauty of ‘Colombia’s First Wonder’ appeals to visitors of all ages.

send your kids down the salt mine!

Send your kids down the salt mine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climbing wall at Zipaquirá

Climbing wall at Zipaquirá

 

 

If that’s not enough, give your kids a hard hat and pick axe and send them down the salt mines. After that, they might have enough energy left to scale the ceiba-shaped climbing wall outside.

Click here to read my blog about the Salt Cathedral and Mines of Zipaquirá.

Feeding pigeons in the Plaza de Bolívar

Feeding pigeons in the Plaza de Bolívar

 

 

 

My children also enjoyed the simple pleasure of feeding pigeons in the Plaza de Bolívar. Vendors sell packets of pigeon food that had birds hopping all over them in no time!

Mr Tiger enjoys an arepita

Mr Tiger enjoys an arepita

 

 

 

Relaxing after a busy day

Relaxing after a busy day

 

 

 

 

In Bogotá, the problem is what to leave out, especially if you only have a few days. My ten-year-old’s verdict:

‘It’s exciting and there’s lots to do.’

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Salt Cathedral and Mines of Zipaquirá – Syncretismo, Salvation and Claustrophobia

IMG_4028250 million years ago, an inland sea covered the area of the high Andean plain – the Altiplano Cundiboyacense – on which the old colonial town of Zipaquirá stands. As the eastern cordillera of the Andes formed, the sea dried up leaving huge salt deposits which the pre-Colombian Muisca civilisation mined and traded from the 5th century BC, helping to make them one of the most prosperous peoples in pre-Colombian America. The town derives its name from the Muisca chiefs, or zipas, who once ruled the area.

Within the mines, they built shrines dedicated to the Lady of the Cave for protection during their difficult and dangerous work.

Mining continued after the Spanish conquest and later contributed to financing the war for independence in the early 1800s. In 1932 miners carved a sanctuary in the mine and dedicated it to La Virgen del Rosario de Guasá, an act of syncretismo conglomerating Christianity and the Muisca Lady of the Cave (Guasá meaning ‘cave’ in the Muisca Chibchan language).

IMG_3889The first salt cathedral was completed in 1954 but closed in 1990 for structural reasons. I visited this earlier cathedral in 1986. My memory is of an impressive structure, though smaller than today’s.

The present salt cathedral opened in 1995 and was declared ‘Colombia’s First Wonder’ in 2007. It’s 180 metres deep and 250,000 tonnes of rock salt were extracted to build it. There are a number of different attractions including a museum, a miner’s route and a climbing wall, as well as the cathedral itself.

We descended through an illuminated tunnel into the calm, dark interior and sulphuric smell of the salt mountain’s crystalline walls. It was not long before my ill health prevented me from keeping up with the guide and the rest of his party, but no guide – no problem: although you must enter the museum with a guide, there’s no obligation to stick with him once inside.

IMG_3902A series of chambers cut into the rock salt house minimalist scenes of the viacrusis. Monolithic crosses illuminated by colour-changing lights create a peaceful ambiance that can be appreciated whilst standing or from one of the kneeling stations demarked by small slabs.

The cross at the eighth station occupies negative space: it’s carved into the rock to symbolise the transformation of the physical into the spiritual, while the cross of light at the ninth station represents the resurrection.

IMG_3927From a balcony, a trumpeting Gabriel heralds a first glimpse of the 75m long central nave with its 16m high cross glowing at the far end; and the earthly and heavenly conjoin under a celestial blue dome.

In the Chamber of Life in the central nave, the huge illuminated cross looms over a circular marble floor sculpture of Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Man’.

To one side, the Chamber of Birth contains a carved nativity and a salt water font – salt water must be used as fresh water dissolves rock salt – in front of a foaming halite waterfall.

IMG_3951To the other side, a tomb-like cavern houses the Chamber of Death.

Further on, a small display depicting a group of ancient Muisca people marks the indigenous heritage of the area. There’s also an audiovisual cinema that shows a film of the history of salt mining in the area and an underground café that serves delicious and reasonably priced palos de queso (cheese sticks), as well as a gift shop.

IMG_3967 A pool with perfectly still water only visible with the agitation of a breath evokes the underworld. By reflecting the cave ceiling, it appears much deeper than it is – but, like the negative space crosses, it’s another optical illusion.

We continued to the miner’s route, which is more of a mining experience. Not for the claustrophobic, a guide leads a group through cramped and low-ceilinged mining tunnels in pitch darkness. Though no problem for me – my pre-illness SCUBA diving involved many ventures into shipwrecks; my normally feisty and courageous elder daughter whimpered and clung to my arm as we groped our way along the walls. We all have our foibles and hers is claustrophobia.

IMG_3983In a strange way this was a levelling experience – I’m not claustrophobic in the usual sense so the cramped underground blackness didn’t bother me and it forced everyone to slow down to my pace. The kind of claustrophobia that frightens me is being entombed at home or in bed by illness.

The children loved hacking at the rock salt with pickaxes, and we got to keep a few nuggets as souvenirs.

IMG_4000Our guide built expectation before the simulated explosion. I don’t know what I was expecting – of course they weren’t going to set real charges underground! It was just a recording. I’ve laid explosives myself (on an underwater explosives course, not for any illegitimate purpose, you understand) so I can imagine how terrifying and dangerous the real thing must’ve been for the miners, and why they needed shrines.

Outside, the children enjoyed the ceiba-tree-shaped climbing wall.

The trip took me many hours more than a healthy person; we barely fitted it into a day. But by adjusting expectations – accepting the pain and slow pace my illness imposes – I was able to enjoy the ethereal serenity of the salt cathedral.

Click here:

Salt cathedral, Zipaquirá, Colombia

to see more of my photos of the Salt Cathedral and Mines of Zipaquirá and here:

to see my video.

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Bogotá to Zipaquirá, How Colombians Treat Foreigners and an Unexpected Refuge

Though illness deprived me of a good night’s sleep, I was pleased to have made it to Colombia and been able to see some of Bogotá. I hoped I’d be well enough to travel to Zipaquirá to see the salt cathedral.

Dawn broke.

Some hours later, the rest of the family began to stir and I creaked towards the shower in pain and silence. The warm water eased my discomfort enough for me to shuffle to breakfast feeling a little better.

Transmilenio bus

Transmilenio bus

We took the Transmilenio to the north of Bogotá. The above-ground stations of the city’s rapid transport system were far easier for me than the steps and tunnels of the London Underground, which I’ve been unable to tackle since my illness began. Though it feels like a metro, the Transmilenio runs at street level using bendy buses in dedicated bus lanes. A Transmilenio station can be seen in the video below. 

A brief pause at the barrier instigated a flood of assistance from people showing us how to get through – very similar to the London Underground Oyster card system. In a few paces we were aboard and heading north.

At the Terminal del Norte, we had only to cross the platform to reach the Zipaquirá bus.

Here’s a short videocito to give a flavour of the journey:

As we approached Zipaquirá, a woman sitting near us asked if we were going to the salt cathedral. When I confirmed that we were, she asked the bus driver to stop the bus.

Approaching Zipaquirá

Approaching Zipaquirá

She led us through the streets, slowing to my pace, instinctively understanding that I could not walk quickly. A left turn here, a right turn there, over a railway track through a supermarket and out the other side, past the meat grill restaurants to the entrance to the salt cathedral. She shook our hands and wished us well, her smile beaming beneath rosy cheeks framed by dark, curly hair.

After she’d gone, we looked at each other hardly believing the kindness and helpfulness she’d shown us. I’m ashamed to say I doubt foreigners would be shown such consideration in my native UK.

Zipaquirá’s picturesque town square reveals its colonial heritage

Zipaquirá’s picturesque town square reveals its colonial heritage

The walk took its toll – by the time we stood at the ticket booth the various permutations of entrance tickets swam before my eyes. If it was simply a matter of asking for the different activities and classifications for each person – child, adult, with/without climbing wall, cathedral, salt mine, museum – I might have managed. But my headache was too intense to successfully convert the information to package A3, A5 etc. as was displayed on the board. I ended up ordering the wrong combinations.

My knight in shining armour was a lady in the queue. Assuming I was having language difficulties, she intervened on my behalf and sorted out the problem. It then occurred to me that I could hide behind a second language when in reality I was struggling through illness. It seems more acceptable to flounder because of language than illness. You feel less odd, less different. Many people struggle in a foreign language – that is acceptable, but being ill is not comfortable in societies where health and fitness are not just valued, but idolised. Illness is not talked about. Even the dying are praised for sparing the living from their suffering: ‘s/he never complained’, ‘you wouldn’t know s/he was ill’. There are strict unspoken guidelines on how illness is handled – the more invisibly the better.

I sat on a low wall to rest and recover for a while before entering the cathedral. I thought of how helpful Colombians are to foreigners – the people showing us how to use our Transmilenio tickets, the lady on the bus and the lady in the queue. Their kindness and compassion stayed with me and inspired me. We Europeans have much to learn.

I thought also of my new-found refuge in the Spanish language – an unexpected but welcome bonus, and one that I would continue to shamelessly exploit for the rest of the trip.

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Justin Bieber’s Bogotá Graffiti Provokes Urban Art Revolution in Colombia

Bogotá grafitti

Graffiti in Bogotá

Like most cities, Bogotá has its share of graffiti. Hurried scrawls – ‘tombos no tienen alma’ (‘cops have no conscience’), ‘duele la ironía del Estado’ (’the State’s irony hurts’) – express political discontent, while huge murals bursting with colour brighten the city. There is even an organised tour of Bogotá’s extensive urban art, such are its merits as a tourist attraction.

Colombian graffiti artists take great risks to create their art. Many wear masks to hide their identity. Confiscation of spray cans, hassle from the police and arrest go with the territory. But on 19 August 2011 police killed unarmed sixteen-year-old grafitero Diego Felipe Becerra while he was spraying graffiti on a wall on the Avenida de Boyacá. Post mortem examination revealed he was shot in the back at close range. Whether you view graffiti as vandalism or legitimate art form, few would consider it warranted summary execution.

So when Canadian tween sensation Justin Bieber went on an aerosol spree in Bogotá earlier this month, was he taking a huge risk? Not at all – Bogotá police provided him with an escort, even closing off part of the road on Calle 26 so he would not be disturbed while he painted a wall on the edge of an underpass.

Bieber’s police protection for the very same act for which Becerra was executed provoked outrage and indignation among Colombian grafiteros. Last weekend, Bogotá graffiti artists took part in a spontaneous twenty-four hour graffiti-thon protest creating more than seven hundred new works around the city.

Similar protests spread to Medellín and Cali and more are planned for other parts of the country. Bieber unwittingly provoked a ‘graffiti revolution’ – Colombian newspaper El Espectador likened his actions to the breaking of the Llorente vase that sparked the revolution for independence from Spanish rule in 1810.

Bogotá graffiti

Bogotá graffiti commemorating the the thousands of trade unionists and members of the Unión Patriotica (a political party annihilated by political genocide) assassinated with almost total impunity

The graffiti protests raise several questions. They seek to change the way society views graffiti, demanding it be recognised as a true and valid art form. The protesters argue that because most graffiti artists are disillusioned youths, their work is generally dismissed as vandalism.

Initiatives aimed at urban youths are often organised around sports. But not everyone likes sport or considers it a form of self-expression. And when the same demographic groups at whom sports initiatives are aimed express themselves through graffiti, their art is criminalised. While sports initiatives are lauded, graffiti is damned.

We accept the constant presence of advertisement hoardings, creating desires we never knew we had, urging us to consume more and keeping our attention focused on the shallow, yet graffiti that is often beautiful and/or carries a deeper message is outlawed. For society in general and the world around us, which is truly more damaging?

Bogotá police - graffiti

Raging inequality: a Bogotá police officer executed graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra but the same police force protected Justin Bieber during his sortie with a spray can

Becerra’s execution is an example of the Colombian police’s use of an outrageous level of disproportionate force. A culture of impunity breeds extreme aggression among the state security forces; but, after initial attempts at a cover-up, international pressure eventually prompted an investigation into the execution.

The Bieber incident raises issues of gross inequality. The contrast in the treatment metered out to a wealthy foreign celebrity and home-grown urban youth is as stark as it gets.

How much thought do we give to our privileged position as foreigners when travelling? What are our responsibilities to speak out about issues and atrocities abroad, especially where the repercussions for local journalists can be severe? To what extent do we see the world as our playground without thought to human rights and environmental abuses in places we visit?

Click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/105153060@N03/sets/72157638115642773/ to see more of my Bogotá graffiti photos.

Link to article in El Espectador (in Spanish): http://www.elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/justin-bieber-quebro-el-florero-de-llorente-articulo-456578

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