La Candelaria, the heart of Bogotá

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 60 of the June 2012 issue.
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by Julie Skurdenis

La Candelaria, one of Bogotá’s oldest neighborhoods — some of it dating back to the 16th century — is so full of interesting colonial-era churches and houses as well as museums that a visitor could easily spend an entire week there without straying much beyond.

This is exactly what my husband, Paul, and I did on our visit in March 2011. La Candelaria became the focus of our visit to Colombia’s capital, set high on a plateau at an altitude of over 8,500 feet and dramatically surrounded by mountains.

Heart of Bogotá

At La Candelaria’s center is Plaza de Bolívar. It is there that the civil and the religious meet. This enormous plaza is enclosed on three sides by massive government buildings: the Congress, Supreme Court and Alcadía (Mayor’s Office). In the middle is a statue of Simón Bolívar, honored as the liberator of much of Spanish-dominated South America, including Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Sauntering down a street in Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood. Photo: Skurdenis

On the fourth side is the Cathedral. The original chapel on this site was built in 1538 when the city was founded. The present-day Cathedral is 200 years old and replaces a late-16th-century church destroyed by an earthquake in 1785. In a side chapel inside is the tomb of Bogotá’s founder, the conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada.

Adjacent to the Cathedral is the Sagrario, a small chapel with half a dozen huge somber paintings by Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638-1711), one of Colombia’s foremost painters. On weekends, the plaza is crowded with Bogotános meeting friends, posing their children for photos on llamas and buying sweets and cotton candy.

A wealth of museums

A 5-minute stroll from the plaza, behind Congress, is the 17th-century Church of Santa Clara, now a museum. Its exterior is unprepossessing, but the interior is stunning, with a huge gilt altar and a barrel-vaulted ceiling studded with golden petals. You’ll need a sunny day to appreciate all this gold because the lighting inside the church is very dim.

Santa Clara was only the first of many museums we visited in La Candelaria. Our favorites included the Museum of Colonial Art, housed in a 17th-century Jesuit college built around an arcaded courtyard. It displays more of Gregorio Vásquez’s paintings.

A few blocks away is the Archaeological Museum, with ceramics from Colombia’s many pre-Columbian Indian groups. This museum, too, is housed in a beautiful 17th-century colonial building.

Across from Casa de Nariño, the Presidential Palace that is minutes from Plaza de Bolívar, we came across an exhibit on the pre-Columbian Tumaco Indians of southwestern Colombia in a university building housing half a dozen mini-museums around a courtyard.

Best of all, and one of the prime reasons we visited Bogotá in the first place, was the superb Botero Museum, displaying the sculpture and paintings of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s best-known contemporary artist. Besides an impressive selection of Boteros, the museum also houses works by Henry Moore, Chagall, Monet, Renoir, Dalí, Sisley and Picasso, plus many others, all the gift of Botero.

Wonderful as these museums are, what we most enjoyed in La Candelaria was strolling the cobbled streets lined with old, colonial-era buildings, some beautifully restored and painted in vibrant shades of blue, green and red, with others slowly decaying, hopefully to be rescued and restored, themselves, one day.

The streets east of Plaza de Bolívar are among the most interesting to stroll along. (Stroll during daytime hours, not after dark. There is a strong police presence in the area because of the Presidential Palace and all the government buildings, but it’s still best to be cautious.)

Beyond La Candelaria, there are three superb museums to visit: the incomparable Gold Museum, with jewelry and figurines from all of the major pre-Columbian groups in Colombia, including the Sinú, Tayrona, Calima, Tumaco and Muisca (this last a group that lived in the vicinity of Bogotá); the National Museum, with both an archaeology collection and Botero paintings, including some painted when he was in his 20s and 30s (he’s now 80), and the Quinta de Bolívar, where Simón Bolívar once lived and where his furnishings and personal items are displayed. This house was given to Bolívar by the Colombian government. A guide told us that Bolívar lived there only about 400 days, not all of them continuously.

If you want to add one more church to your Bogotá collection, stop by San Francisco, Bogotá’s oldest church, to see its splendid 17th-century gilt altarpiece, considered a masterpiece.

Beyond Bogotá

As for easy excursions, I recommend two: Monserrate and the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá.

Card tricks in Bogotá

We never did figure out why, but our cell phone using a SIM card purchased in Bogotá did not work at all. There were, however, many small, very inexpensive Internet cafés within a few blocks of our hotel, which anyone who needed to keep in touch could use.

We also had trouble using our ATM cards — something that’s happened infrequently on other trips. We tried at least a dozen times at different banks and succeeded only twice at withdrawing cash. Again, we don’t know why and no one was able to tell us why.

It is wise to carry US dollars with you to change into Colombian pesos at a cambio on arrival, in case you run into a similar problem. — J.S.

At over 10,000 feet above sea level, Monserrate and the white church atop it tower over the city. The views of Bogotá from the top are spectacular. A funicular runs in the mornings, a cable car in the afternoons and evenings. Try to arrange going up in the morning and coming down after noon in order to experience both.

The Salt Cathedral in the town of Zipaquirá, about 30 miles north of Bogotá, is on most visitors’ must-see lists. The enormous underground cathedral is carved out of salt and is dramatically lit inside. Although I’m glad I visited, I would not rate it as highly as the guidebooks do.

Our hotel arranged for a private car service to take us to the Salt Cathedral and back and give us 90 minutes inside. The trip cost us $100.

If you go…

In La Candelaria, we stayed at Hotel Casa de la Botica (Calle 9, No. 6-45, Bogotá, Colombia; phone 57 1 2 810 811), a block from Plaza de Bolívar. The beautiful, small, colonial-style hotel occupies a 400-year-old building with guest rooms surrounding a courtyard with a shallow, oblong ornamental pool.

Rooms 1, 5 and 6 have working wood-burning fireplaces. Rooms 2 and 3 overlook both the courtyard and a small garden in back. Our room, No. 1, was a suite with living and dining areas, bedroom, fireplace, ancient wooden beams overhead and a view of a rock garden, plus lots of character.

Newer rooms, in a recently completed second courtyard, were not nearly as nice. Most were minuscule and without charm or character.

Rates for rooms in the first courtyard cost from $100 to $175, depending on day of week and size of room. Those surrounding the second courtyard were slightly less in price.

For shoppers, the museum shop at the Gold Museum sells gold-plated jewelry, much of it replicas of pre-Columbian items. It has one of the best selections I have ever seen anywhere. The shop is worth a visit in itself, even without the spectacular museum it is part of.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Julie Skurdenis

La Candelaria, one of Bogotá’s oldest neighborhoods — some of it dating back to the 16th century — is so full of interesting colonial-era churches and houses as well as museums that a visitor could easily spend an entire week there without straying much beyond.

This is exactly what my husband, Paul, and I did on our visit in March 2011. La Candelaria became the focus of our visit to Colombia’s capital, set high on a plateau at an altitude of over 8,500 feet and dramatically surrounded by mountains.

Heart of Bogotá

At La Candelaria’s center is Plaza de Bolívar. It is there that the civil and the religious meet. This enormous plaza is enclosed on three sides by massive government buildings: the Congress, Supreme Court and Alcadía (Mayor’s Office). In the middle is a statue of Simón Bolívar, honored as the liberator of much of Spanish-dominated South America, including Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

Sauntering down a street in Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood. Photo: Skurdenis

On the fourth side is the Cathedral. The original chapel on this site was built in 1538 when the city was founded. The present-day Cathedral is 200 years old and replaces a late-16th-century church destroyed by an earthquake in 1785. In a side chapel inside is the tomb of Bogotá’s founder, the conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada.

Adjacent to the Cathedral is the Sagrario, a small chapel with half a dozen huge somber paintings by Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638-1711), one of Colombia’s foremost painters. On weekends, the plaza is crowded with Bogotános meeting friends, posing their children for photos on llamas and buying sweets and cotton candy.

A wealth of museums

A 5-minute stroll from the plaza, behind Congress, is the 17th-century Church of Santa Clara, now a museum. Its exterior is unprepossessing, but the interior is stunning, with a huge gilt altar and a barrel-vaulted ceiling studded with golden petals. You’ll need a sunny day to appreciate all this gold because the lighting inside the church is very dim.

Santa Clara was only the first of many museums we visited in La Candelaria. Our favorites included the Museum of Colonial Art, housed in a 17th-century Jesuit college built around an arcaded courtyard. It displays more of Gregorio Vásquez’s paintings.

A few blocks away is the Archaeological Museum, with ceramics from Colombia’s many pre-Columbian Indian groups. This museum, too, is housed in a beautiful 17th-century colonial building.

Across from Casa de Nariño, the Presidential Palace that is minutes from Plaza de Bolívar, we came across an exhibit on the pre-Columbian Tumaco Indians of southwestern Colombia in a university building housing half a dozen mini-museums around a courtyard.

Best of all, and one of the prime reasons we visited Bogotá in the first place, was the superb Botero Museum, displaying the sculpture and paintings of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s best-known contemporary artist. Besides an impressive selection of Boteros, the museum also houses works by Henry Moore, Chagall, Monet, Renoir, Dalí, Sisley and Picasso, plus many others, all the gift of Botero.

Wonderful as these museums are, what we most enjoyed in La Candelaria was strolling the cobbled streets lined with old, colonial-era buildings, some beautifully restored and painted in vibrant shades of blue, green and red, with others slowly decaying, hopefully to be rescued and restored, themselves, one day.

The streets east of Plaza de Bolívar are among the most interesting to stroll along. (Stroll during daytime hours, not after dark. There is a strong police presence in the area because of the Presidential Palace and all the government buildings, but it’s still best to be cautious.)

Beyond La Candelaria, there are three superb museums to visit: the incomparable Gold Museum, with jewelry and figurines from all of the major pre-Columbian groups in Colombia, including the Sinú, Tayrona, Calima, Tumaco and Muisca (this last a group that lived in the vicinity of Bogotá); the National Museum, with both an archaeology collection and Botero paintings, including some painted when he was in his 20s and 30s (he’s now 80), and the Quinta de Bolívar, where Simón Bolívar once lived and where his furnishings and personal items are displayed. This house was given to Bolívar by the Colombian government. A guide told us that Bolívar lived there only about 400 days, not all of them continuously.

If you want to add one more church to your Bogotá collection, stop by San Francisco, Bogotá’s oldest church, to see its splendid 17th-century gilt altarpiece, considered a masterpiece.

Beyond Bogotá

As for easy excursions, I recommend two: Monserrate and the Salt Cathedral at Zipaquirá.

Card tricks in Bogotá

We never did figure out why, but our cell phone using a SIM card purchased in Bogotá did not work at all. There were, however, many small, very inexpensive Internet cafés within a few blocks of our hotel, which anyone who needed to keep in touch could use.

We also had trouble using our ATM cards — something that’s happened infrequently on other trips. We tried at least a dozen times at different banks and succeeded only twice at withdrawing cash. Again, we don’t know why and no one was able to tell us why.

It is wise to carry US dollars with you to change into Colombian pesos at a cambio on arrival, in case you run into a similar problem. — J.S.

At over 10,000 feet above sea level, Monserrate and the white church atop it tower over the city. The views of Bogotá from the top are spectacular. A funicular runs in the mornings, a cable car in the afternoons and evenings. Try to arrange going up in the morning and coming down after noon in order to experience both.

The Salt Cathedral in the town of Zipaquirá, about 30 miles north of Bogotá, is on most visitors’ must-see lists. The enormous underground cathedral is carved out of salt and is dramatically lit inside. Although I’m glad I visited, I would not rate it as highly as the guidebooks do.

Our hotel arranged for a private car service to take us to the Salt Cathedral and back and give us 90 minutes inside. The trip cost us $100.

If you go…

In La Candelaria, we stayed at Hotel Casa de la Botica (Calle 9, No. 6-45, Bogotá, Colombia; phone 57 1 2 810 811), a block from Plaza de Bolívar. The beautiful, small, colonial-style hotel occupies a 400-year-old building with guest rooms surrounding a courtyard with a shallow, oblong ornamental pool.

Rooms 1, 5 and 6 have working wood-burning fireplaces. Rooms 2 and 3 overlook both the courtyard and a small garden in back. Our room, No. 1, was a suite with living and dining areas, bedroom, fireplace, ancient wooden beams overhead and a view of a rock garden, plus lots of character.

Newer rooms, in a recently completed second courtyard, were not nearly as nice. Most were minuscule and without charm or character.

Rates for rooms in the first courtyard cost from $100 to $175, depending on day of week and size of room. Those surrounding the second courtyard were slightly less in price.

For shoppers, the museum shop at the Gold Museum sells gold-plated jewelry, much of it replicas of pre-Columbian items. It has one of the best selections I have ever seen anywhere. The shop is worth a visit in itself, even without the spectacular museum it is part of.