Although I live on the island where the movies Jurassic Park, the Lost World and Jurassic World were filmed, I never imagined that I would be able to see and touch the ancient creatures that once terrorized geologic history.
Until I visited Gondova.
Gondova is a huge theme park located near Villa de Leyva. Here, life size replicas of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures frolic on the dry hillsides and swim in the volcanic pools of turquoise water — their true, ancient, natural habitat. Gondova is the best representation of ancient geological history outside of a natural history museum.
The word Gondova, as it turns out, means “the great valley of the dinosaurs”, and the park is aptly located in the Monquirá Valley, a high altitude valley of semi-desert terrain that once met the sea.
In ancient times Villa de Leyva rested on the banks of the ocean, prior to the great upheaval and creation of the Andes Mountains. Rich in fossils from the Cretaceous period (145 to 65 million years ago), and the third and last episode of the Mesozoic Era, the area is a paleontologist’s dream. As the sea receded it left behind the bones and fossils of thousands of ancient species.
Bernardo Salamanca, a Bogotá businessman and expert in animation and special effects, saw an opportunity to combine Hollywood special effects with actual excavations of the area. A theme park that would bring education, the environment and natural history to life.
When the monumental discovery of the largest salt-water crocodile in the world — the Kronosauras — in 1977, was found three miles west of Villa de Leyva, Salamanca ushered his theme park into reality, and opened Gondava.
With no cars in the parking lot, we were instructed to wait for our guide. We sat on a stone wall that surrounded a pozo azul (or pool) of emerald green and turquoise water. In the pond were prehistoric creatures that broke the surface of the crystalline waters.
Trilobites, Gerrothorax, Ichthyosaurus (dolphins that breathed like whales) and Ammonoidea basked on the shoreline and swam in the waters. Our guide, a young local woman, provided a running commentary of the incredible creatures that we passed on our round trip trek up and down the hillside.
On the excursion more ancient creatures roamed and foraged in the desert landscape, guarding their off-spring and hiding under bushes for shade. Suddenly there was a grand roar from further up the hillside. Was it a Brontosaurus or T Rex? So life like were the models (and the sound effects) of these prehistoric monsters, that a child with his family visiting from Bogotá, ran to his mother and clung to her legs.
A mother Pterodactyl hovered over her hatchlings, wings outstretched from the branches of a tree. A Pentaceratops, with its head at attention and its great scaly crown and huge horns poised to attack, appeared to charge out of the bushes. Further down the hill a giant sauropod – a huge, long necked, herbivore – was still under construction. At the time a ladder allowed visitors to enter the sauropod’s belly and view the ribcage, lungs and the creature’s hypothesized two hearts — needed to supply enough blood to the brain and organs.
Colombia never ceases to amaze me, and here was living proof: having seen the towering skeletons and dinosaur bones at the Smithsonian, watching block buster films about the Jurassics, and now witnessing an entire reconstruction of these magnificent monsters close enough to touch, I felt a heightened sense of appreciation of ancient geologic history and the diversity of life cycles on our planet. Walking through Gondava– a real Jurassic Park — where Colombian paleontologists had just recently excavated creatures such as the Padillasauras and Kronosauras, was like walking into the past while looking forward to its lessons for the future.
Hollywood, try and top that!