Hikes, Taj Mahal replicas, spectacled bears: five of the best escapes from the city.
Getting around a city where the public transportation can literally make you cry can be an exhausting experience. But just beyond the mountains—and a little further—there are plenty of ways to escape the madness. From tranquil nature walks to a bizarre amusement park with an actual-size Taj Mahal, here are five of the best breaks from the city.
The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá
In 1810, Alexander Von Humboldt, a German scientist, led an expedition to explore the salt mines in the town of Zipaquirá, about 26 miles north of Bogotá. The purpose of Humboldt’s expedition was to help build the ‘New Republic:” Colombia––then called Nueva Granada––had declared independence from Spain that year. The local indigenous community, the Muisca, had been working these mines since since the 1600s, using the mineral for pots and fabrics. Humboldt modernized the mine’s excavation techniques, and in just a few years Zipaquirá become an important mining town. Over the years, the miners built a sanctuary inside the tunnels, where they prayed for protection from the saints before descending. Then they went one better, and carved a cathedral 220 yards down into the mine, which opened in 1953. In the early 90s it was shut down due to structural concerns, and a new one was constructed, 100 feet deeper than the original. The new cathedral opened in 1995, with a nave, dome, pews, and a capacity of 8,000.
To be clear, it’s not a cathedral made of salt. Nor is it technically a cathedral under Catholic law, because it doesn’t have a bishop. But it is a functioning church, with up to 3,000 people attending Sunday services, and it remains an important pilgrimage site for Colombians. The large, illuminated cross is a pretty impressive sight, and the cathedral is part of a larger salt theme-park, with a museum, zip-lining, and a climbing wall.
There are three ways to get there. The first and easiest one is by car. The cheapest is to take the TransMilenio––the city’s Bus Rapid Transit system—all the way to Portal del Norte, where you can take a intermunicipal bus that goes to Zipaquirá. Or you can take the Bogotá Savannah train. This train has two stops inside Bogotá: The La Sabana station, downtown, and Usaquén Station in the north. This train, however, only works on the weekends and holidays. It takes almost three hours to get from downtown Bogotá to Zipaquirá by train, but you’ll see nice landscapes, get delicious breakfast, and even experience some live music.
Quebrada La Vieja: Hiking, views, and environmental activism
There are some great hikes in the “cerros orientales”, the eastern mountains that flank Bogotá). One of them is through Quebrada La Vieja, up the mountain near Calle 72, right in the heart of the city’s financial district. The hiking path is open weekdays from 5-10 a.m. and weekends from 5-8 a.m, but make sure it’s open before you head over there—sometimes the times are cut short to allow the mountain to recover.
Bring water and comfortable clothing. Walk up Calle 72 until you reach “Carrera 2 Este” (on Circunvalar Avenue) where you will find the path’s tree-lined entrance. It will take you about an hour to get to the top of the mountain, and the views are totally worth it. If you’d like to support local environmental causes, connect with “Amigos de la montaña” (Friends of the Mountain), a group that organizes regular hikes. My favorites are the Las Delicias and Monserrate paths, and the wetlands of Córdoba, Santa María del Lago, and La Conejera.
Guatavita: A sacred lake, gold, and a water sports, weekend escape
Before the Spanish conquest, Lake Guatavita was a sacred place, where the heir to the Muisca throne would go to pay tribute to the gods, covering himself in golden powder and circumnavigating the lake on a golden raft, casting offerings of great value into the water. This old Muisca ritual, historians believe, was the origin of the legend of El Dorado—a mythical lost city of immense wealth that drew hopeful European explorers to the region for centuries (and inspired some ill-fated attempts to drain the lake).
The town of Guatavita is about 26 miles north of Bogota. To visit the lake, you can take the TransMilenio to Portal el Norte, and then take a bus there, but know that if you’re coming from that route, the lake is not in the town but about 10 minutes before, so make sure to tell the driver that you are going to the “Laguna de Guatavita” and not to the “Pueblo de Guatavita”. The town is also surrounded by the Embalse de Tominé (the Tominé dam, which people often confuse with the lake) where you can sail, waterski, and boat race. After visiting the lake and enjoying the reservoir you can end your trip by walking around town, visiting the Indigenous Museum, and hitting the market for souvenirs.
Jaime Duque Park
Bogotános who grew up in the 1980s or 90s will tell you not to miss Jaime Duque Park, a bizarre but beloved amusement park. It may not be the most modern, or the largest, but we have fond memories of going there, when it was the quintessential family trip in the final decades of the 20th century. What’s special about this park is that it’s mash-up of elements found in other theme parks, resulting in a weird but wonderful spectacle. It has the DisneyWorld Epcot vibe (its greatest attraction is a true-size replica of the Taj Mahal, but there are also recreations of the other six Seven Wonders of the World), but it’s also educational, featuring an enormous relief map of Colombia, complete with 3-D mountains. There is also a Museum of Mankind, a theater, a zoo, an aviary, and a concert venue that has hosted Guns N’ Roses, The Killers, Garbage, and Kylie Minogue, among others.
If you don’t have a car, there are two other options. You can take the TransMilenio to Portal del Norte, exit the station and walk towards the entrance of the Éxito supermarket, and from there grab a bus heading to Briceño; you can tell the driver to make a stop in the Jaime Duque Park. The second is to go to the TransMilenio station located after the Portal Norte called “Terminal,” exit the station and go to the Northern Bus Terminal––which is right outside––and take a bus directly to Jaime Duque Park. With the latter option, it may be easier to get a seat, which you should, because it takes almost an hour to get there.
Páramo de Sumapaz: Rural Bogotá, biodiversity, bears
Sumapaz national park, which covers the area of Sumapaz—Bogotá’s only rural district—as well as a big chunk of the surrounding Cundinamarca department, is considered one of the largest and most diverse páramos (an ecosystem roughly equivalent to a moorland) in the world. There are countless lakes and the distinctive frailejón trees (which look, roughly, like a cross between a palm tree and agave plant), and it’s the source of many Colombian rivers, including the Tunjuelo, Ariari, Guapi, and Duda. But perhaps the best part is that it’s home to some of the most interesting animals in Colombia, including condors, eagles, reindeers and, best of all, the Andean bear (or “oso de anteojos”, which translates as “spectacled bear”).
To visit the páramo, you have to get up early, put on warm and waterproof clothing, and take a TransMilenio to Portal Usme, then take the connecting TransMilenio feeder bus “10-03 Usme Centro,” and get out on the Alcaldía stop. There you can take a bus to Sumapaz, which will cost you around 7,000 Colombian pesos (US$2.50). Once you get there, considering its size, you should plan ahead on what to see. My top picks are the Allar Pasquilla Lagoon, located in the Pasquilla area, considered a frailejones sanctuary; the water bodies of Los Tunjos, which have easy access for viewing lagoons and cliffs, and and the ruins of a jail that housed opposition leaders during the four-year dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.
Bonus: La Calera BBQ joints
The town of La Calera is only nine miles from Bogotá. It is famous for sightseeing and excellent views over the city, but also for its many BBQ restaurants. On the weekends, many Colombian families go there to escape the chaos and feast on fritanga—assorted grilled meats and vegetables. Check out El Tambor, Humo y Sabor, and El Chorote for your meat fix.
[Header image by F. A. Alba/Shutterstock.com]