Gold, Tayrona Park, Salsa, and Playing with Explosives
I came to Colombia on the recommendation of pretty much everyone I met further south in South America. Whenever the topic of people’s favorite countries came up, Colombia was always raved about. There are a number of activities I’ve done recently in this amazing country that are worth mentioning. The best part of Colombia has been the people. They are lively, friendly, and eager to engage in conversation or offer a helping hand. Ordering a burrito from a taco stand can turn into a lengthy and pleasant conversation filled with laughter and helpful tips, such as the places in each city Colombians are proud to show off and cultural things to do.
El Museo de Oro
The biggest collection of pre-Hispanic gold in the world is displayed at the Gold Museum in Bogota. Many of the intricate pieces on display were originally worn by shamans or chieftains to show the power status in the community. Shamans had huge masks that they wore in the shape of different animals in order to harness that animal’s power. The jaguar is a common symbol for the ancient indigenous communities as well as the condor.
The indigenous people used to create molds, pour the gold inside, and then offer the completed work to the gods in special locations like caves. The most famous work in the museum, the Muisca Raft, was found inside of a cave and depicts an ancient ceremony that helped create the legend of El Dorado. On the raft are many shamans and the Muisca chief who would raft to the center of Lake Guatavita. The heir to become the next chief covered his body in gold dust and jumped into the lake along with gold and emerald offerings for prosperity for his people.
Tejo is the explosive national game of Colombia. Given Colombia’s history of violence, although that stigma doesn’t apply nearly as much currently, it seems appropriate that the game involves explosives. The game is played similar to Cornhole in the US. Players throw a heavy circular stone, the tejo, at an inclined box filled with clay. Inside the clay is a circle lined with explosives. The idea is to try to land your tejo inside the circle (worth 6 points), hit an explosive (worth 3 points), achieve both (extremely hard and worth 9 points), or be the closest to the center (worth 1 point).
We gathered together a group from the Alegria Hostel in Bogota and headed to the tejo courts, a dungy, dusty complex with the men’s urinal trough smack dab in the center of the right hand side wall. Explosives and beer go hand in hand so the complex offers all you can drink for a very nominal price. We set up a tournament with teams of 3 pitted against one another. I proved to be a natural, getting better with each beer, scoring all but one of my team’s points the first round (games are to 21 points) and eventually winning the whole tournament. There is no more satisfying sound than the instantaneous explosion reverberating against the walls as your tejo strikes the bright red triangular explosives. Usually 4 explosives are used to line the outer circle, but we decided to be overachievers, or cheaters, and fit as many explosives into the circle as we could. Because we could.
Tayrona National Park is the most famous park in Colombia. Situated along the Caribbean coast, less than an hour’s drive from Santa Marta, it offers a great place to slow your roll and enjoy nature. I spent 4 days in the park, joined by many others at the campsite of Cabo San Juan. You can rent tents or a hammock for sleeping but since I have my own hammock I made camp between some trees on a rock outcropping extending into the ocean. The sunrise acts as a natural alarm clock, greeting you along with the cooling spray from the crashing waves.
From the campsite there is a trail that leads to Pueblito, an ancient village. The hike up involves a lot of climbing over boulders and offers some great views that can be a challenge to reach. Pueblito itself is very small with a series of circular clearings where huts were built. The different tiers of clearings create the impression of a hierarchy, with the best views coming from the highest. My favorite location is a series of over 200 rocks planted in a giant circle around a proud standing tree. Gatherings and celebrations were held inside of the sacred circle. I can only imagine a scene similar to Avatar at one of those gatherings.
Salsa is one of the first things that comes to mind when you hear the word Colombia. It is the salsa capital of the world and the locals love nothing more than to strut their stuff out on the dance floor. Incredibly fast and articulate footwork is coupled by twists and dips. There are a number of sala bars and discotecs dedicated to the fast paced dance. One night in Bogota I went out with two fellow Americans who happen to be dance teachers. They taught me the basics as we moved around the dance floor, filled with locals whose skills vastly surpass my own.
The music is infectious as older men dressed in suits play a variety of instruments with many layers of percussion and string instruments highlighted by lyrics telling love stories. It is important in salsa to be confident and maintain eye contact with your partner. This makes the dance more intimate, more natural, than staring at your feet worrying about where to step. In order to get that confidence a tequila shot or two never hurts. When you go out for some salsa expect a late night as your hips probably won’t stop moving until the bar closes. At which point the dancing moves to the sidewalks as you shimmy your way back home.