Monday, March 15, 2010

Visit to the Salt Caves of Colombia, the Country with the El Dorado Obsession

(from Chris Brogan's blog)

Included in my 1960s jaunts to South America was Bogota, Colombia. Although labeled today as a dangerous destination, there was no cocaine trafficking or guerilla threats at that time. Bogota sits as high as Mexico City at the elevation of 2,600 meters and has a population of close to 8 million, competing as the 5th largest city with Lima, Peru. By coincidence, I saw the latest bird's eye photo of Bogota taken from Montserrate by Chris Brogan, an American social media promoter, whose blogs I've followed for some time. He challenged readers that "most everything you know about Bogota is outdated. It's a city on the rise. The streets are filled with people pursuing their dreams." Yes, certainly, that's the hope of all young people around the world including Asians; youths of India, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc. The digital world has inspired the hopes and dreams of what comes next, creative people working hard, while we remember the stereotypes of the past. This is the time Colombians can break the spell and get freed from the long gold obsession, as well as severing themselves from the cocaine business.

My Japanese Colombian friend accompanied me to a deep salt cave one weekend, together with another visitor from the NTT, about 50 kilometers north of Bogota, called Zipaquira. The salt mines date back to the Muisca period (700-1600) and have been extensively exploited, but they still contain vast reserves. They tap into virtually huge mountains of rock salt. In the heart of the mountain, an underground salt cathedral has been carved out and was opened to the public in 1954. When we visited, the cave was 5,500 square meters wide (2 acres) and had the capacity of accommodating 8,000 people. I heard that a new cathedral was built 60 meters deeper below the old one and reopened in the mid-1990s with high tech lighting and acoustics.

I remember the wall glittered, reflecting the salt crystal (85 percent sodium chloride and 15 percent carbonized), which gave us an austere sensation. It was a surreal and amazing experience. The photo shows the new cathedral with a cross.

We didn't make it to Laguna de Guatavita, a meteor created circular lake, 70 km northeast of Bogota. I think we were very close to this sacred lake from Zipaquira. The lake was one of the ritual centers of the Muisca Indians. Like the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico, the Incas in Peru, the Aymaras in Bolivia, the Muiscas thrived in the Colombian highland savannahs and cultivated Muisca or Chibchan culture before the Spaniards conquered them. The Muisca culture is regarded as the most advanced pre-Colombian civilizations. The Muiscas used "Queske" (estolicas or sharpened wooden darts) as their primary weapon against the enemy. It seems they preferred throwing darts to using bows and arrows. The internal troubles among the Muiscas aided the Conquistadores.There is a legend that the Spaniards saw the ritual at this lake where the Muiscas offered gold, emeralds and foods into the lake in their prayers to ensure abundant crops and God's protection against misfortunes. Muiscas interpreted the meteor as the arrival of god, living there at the bottom of the lake. This legend motivated many goldmongers to hunt El Dorado, the buried treasures in the lake. There were many attempts reported of digging, draining, pumping, siphoning and even diving since the 16th century, which included efforts by Colombians, British-Colombians, US-Colombians, but to no avail. Upon the failure of the US-Colombian project in the 1960s, the government finally banned further exploration and the laguna has remained in peace. Some pieces of gold were found, the most famous being the Balsa (raft) Muisca, found in 1856 and is now displayed at the Bogota Gold Museum.
I understand that the Muisca Indians used coca leaves as an all-around medicine, as pain relievers, anti-inflammation lotions, revitalizing and rehydrating drinks, etc. I found it surprising that coca leaves were sold legitimately in the pharmacies in Bogota until the mid-20th century. I wonder if the Colombians inherited the custom of the Muisca's?

Lastly, re Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the Godfather Liberator of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Panama from Spain. He said: "Colombians! my last wishes are for the welfare of the fatherland. If my death contributes to the cessation of party strife, and to the consolidation of the Union, I shall descend in peace to the grave." He had a special attachment to Colombians.

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