We had found El Dorado.
The legend of a hidden golden city that drove Conquistadores to madness lives on in Bogotá.
First, in El Dorado International Airport. The world-class hub processes the most cargo and the third number of passengers in the entire Latin American continent.
That was the first clue that we were in a Big Apple.
Amazingly, this town of almost 8 million souls sits at 8,660 feet above sea level, making it the third-highest capital in South America and the world, after Quito and La Paz.
We stayed at the Hotel Casa Medina in Chapinero. The building, dating from 1946, has lovely beamed ceilings, hand-carved antique wooden furnishings and columns rescued from a Colonial Spanish convent.
It also houses the Spanish Mediterranean-style restaurant Castanyoles with its signature greenhouse atrium and lovely tapas.
After the food, it was time for sightseeing. Plaza de Bolívar, or Bolívar Square. Bogotá’s central plaza, where the Palace of Justice and other historical buildings are located, was only a 25-minute walk from the hotel.
We endeavored the journey earnestly without accounting for the town’s altitude, which after 10 minutes or so, resulted in sudden light-headedness and dehydration due to a decrease in oxygen levels.
This megalopolis lacks a metro or subway, although they have a bus rapid transit system (TransMilenio). Taxis are cheap but hard to come by. When we finally hopped on one, we experienced Bogotá’s infamous heavy traffic.
Plaza de Bolívar has been the historical site of many political and social demonstrations, including the 1948 destruction of the adjacent Palace of Justice during the infamous social unrest known as El Bogotazo.
In 1985, it was under siege by the guerrilla group M-19, which stormed the building and took 300 hostages demanding a trial against President Belisario Betancur.
The battered building sits on the north side of the plaza. To the west: Palacio Liévano (City Hall). To the south: the Capitolio Nacional.
They surround a statue of Simón Bolívar, made by Italian architect Pietro Tenerani and installed in 1847.
Filled with artisans, street vendors and performers, Plaza de Bolívar is also where I saw a llama for the first time.
We stopped by El Chato, a contemporary bistro that offers the best local dishes skillfully crafted by chef Álvaro Clavijo with techniques he learned in New York, Paris and Copenhagen.
The gourmet-style grandma’s consomé, gambas and ceviche curado were most memorable.
Another unmissable spot: El Museo Nacional. The biggest and oldest museum in Colombia served as a prison until 1946.
And it shows: its fortress-type structure, built in stone and brick, includes a wall facade, arches, domes and columns.
Restored in 1975, the 100+ former prison cells held many political prisoners.
They now exhibit over 20 thousand art pieces, from archeology samples to colonial iconography to 20th-century indigenous and Afro-Colombian art.
On the skirts of mount Monserrate rests the Quinta de Bolívar, a colonial house where the Libertador lived briefly after the war of independence.
Initially built in the 17th century as the country home of Spanish merchant Antonio Portocarreño, the house fell in hard times after the owner’s death. The newly independent government bought it and restored it in the 1820s.
Since then, it’s been a brewery, tannery, and girls’ school. In 1919, the Colombian Historical Society bought it.
Today, it exhibits various artifacts that belonged to El Libertador—including the bed he used shortly before his 1830 death in the Colombian coastal town of Santa Marta.
And finally, the myth of El Dorado materialized in front of our eyes at Museo del Oro.
Averaging half a million visitors a year, the museum displays a collection of over 50 thousand pre-Columbian gold artifacts and other precious metals.
The main piece, the famous Muisca golden raft, depicts the ceremony of inauguration of the Muisca chief, who covered his body with gold dust and jumped into the lake along with gold and emeralds as an offering to the gods.
It is believed to be the basis of the famous myth.
In pre-Columbian America, gold was seen as spiritual instead of merely a material signifier of wealth.
The sacred material was a means of ongoing connection with the mystical world (particularly the sun), as demonstrated by the appreciation of its reflective properties and the ancient custom of leaving objects outside to “recharge” their generative power.
So, El Dorado might mean different things to different people. For me, it meant digging deeper into my parents’ land and learning about its long road to peace and redemption.
I also realize that history isn’t linear and that the pockets of progress and stability are fragile and prone to be disrupted by the next gold rush.