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Downtown Santa Fe de Bogotá

Downtown Santa Fe de Bogotá
Annie Taylor

The blood of revolutionaries that once trickled in little rivers between the cobblestones of La Candelaria, Santa Fe de Bogotá’s 16th century historical centre, has long ago dried up.

The executions in Plaza Bolivar of artists, during the revolution of the Comuneros, have stopped. No longer do women in period-dress sit at their window boxes, holding handkerchiefs to their lips, as they witness the daily violence below them on the street that the revolution brought with in. The violence of the revolution began to seep into a new cause, that of independence from Spain. Secret lovers from opposing houses were forced to leap from one balcony to another in fear of discovery. No longer does the darkness set over the Andean town on heavy hearts filled with the dread of tomorrow.

Today a few Presidential soldiers in green army dress patrol the backstreets of Bogotá’s old city, while tourists feed the pigeons in Bolivar Plaza, marvelling at the wondrous architecture of their surroundings. To the north, tall rugged mountains, their green tops adorned with virgins and churches that guard the city day and night. To the east, the large white marble columns of a long stone building support the mayoral offices. To the west is the Congress, a chain of beautifully sculptured buildings, with gargoyles over 400 years old, windows closed to shield it against the pollution and the cold Bogotá winter. The Justice Palace, lies to the south. A modern building rebuilt after its destruction by the M19 Marxists in the 1970s. This is nothing amazing until you see it next to the image of an old church that rises against the mountains as if to meet the blue heavens. It's steeple holds an old brass bell that chimes every day at 7:00 for morning mass. In its gothic towers, monks walk on slippered feet and sit silently in confined confessionals all day, listening to the sins of the locals. The first Cathedral of Colombia - is steeped in history. El Padre Margallo, an infamous priest cursed the city, dooming it forever; Simon Bolivar, Colombia’s liberator and first president made his speeches from the engraved wooden pulpit at the heart of the Cathedral.

If only those stone walls could talk, I couldn't imagine what they would have to say - stories of shadowed ghosts who walk the chamber stairs each night, when the sun has finally sunk behind the Andes; stories of exorcisms, and perhaps even the murderer of Gaitan, Colombia’s first popular leader whose death on April 9th 1948 caused partial destruction of the city.

Like the church, the small streets and alley ways around La Candelaria are filled with history; romantic, but also bloody murder. Small cafes and houses, now mostly the studios of artists or theatres with walls made from Muiscan gold. Each holds its own individual story.

El Teatro de Colon or Columbus Theatre is probably one of the most beautiful theatres in the world - it's circular ceiling is painted with elaborate murals and each compartment hemmed with red velvet curtains and ancient wooden chairs. Naked mermaids hold delicate dripping chandeliers and on the deep stage, the shadows of players dance lightly across the polished floor.

For a sixteen year old, I’ve certainly had my fair share of strange cultures. I’ve strolled on the Great Wall of China, bought a mask on Venice’s Rialto, seen the Lochness Monster, danced on the sands of Galway Bay, followed the routes of the Vikings, and heard the ancestors as they whisper to each other at Uluru. Yet I’ve grown to love this quirky culture as much as my own. And here in the back streets of La Candelaria Colombia’s culture is at its strongest. I love to come here, to this sanctuary in the midst of an expanding city, just to walk in silence, stop every-so-often for a cup of Colombian coffee. Maybe it’s the history that speaks to you, or the crowds who walk through this area, the painters, writers and actors, the visitors from other cities and far away countries, walking in awe. It might be the music that pours from every passing car and taxi, the crooning Vallenato and the quick Salsa beats that trip up many feet.

Contrary to popular opinion, the streets are relatively quiet. Surely this is not the war-ridden country we read about in the papers every Sunday? The army being funded by the North Americans is really a bunch of young boys just turned 18 who didn’t have enough money to pay their way out of military service. They stand by the side of the road, guarding four-wheel-drives and talk among themselves. Where are the bombs? The bleeding children? Their crying mothers? I don’t deny their existence for I too watch the national news, but here in Colombia’s capital, today in La Candelaria, everything and everyone seems so peaceful.

Santa Fe de Bogotá began to write it's name into history with each new bloody revolution. It started with the conquistadores and from there came the revolt of the Communes, the fight for independence, the battle of Boyaca when Bolivar’s army defeated the Spaniards and most recently the thousand-day-war that ended in 1902.

And here in La Candelaria one finds the historic background to it all. Here in La Candelaria where the bells of the first church ever built in Bogotá, force it's population to grind into gear each morning; where at night, if you listen carefully, you may still hear the shouts of independence; and here where the enormous statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe perches high above the city, guarding it day and night.

Colombia’s Bogota is a place you can’t die without experiencing, and once you have experienced it, the place will never leave your heart.

© Annie Taylor February 2006
beatlebea@hotmail.com

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