Madrid!

When exploring a new city for the first time, I make sure to go around the block once or twice, then slowly branch out from there….making note of the parallel and perpendicular streets and landmarks. It saves time later and keeps me from getting lost.

Madrid is glorious! Modern, sophisticated and spotlessly clean, this Spanish capital is     beautiful, with spectacular buildings from historic architectural periods, including Baroque, Gothic and Neo-classical; an abundance of large, safe public parks and tree-lined avenues; heaps of trendy shopping spots with prices ranging from rock bottom department stores (Primark) to expensive designer boutiques, specializing in everything from shoes, handbags and stockings to styles hot off the runways.

Madrid has a gentle, quiet and well planned system of public transport with the Metro underground rail being the star attraction. (I say “gentle” in comparison to NYC’s screeching, graffiti-riddled subway trains, and well planned in the sense that it is easy to understand, even for someone who is new to the city and doesn’t speak the language).

The people are friendly and helpful, the city is crammed with world class art museums and a plethora of massive cathedrals, the tap water is delicious and safe to drink, and, as far as I can tell, crime is not an issue.

While Madrid’s street plan is archaic and confusing, the grand plazas, roundabouts, spectacular fountains and statues create an aura of spaciousness, even on crowded streets near packed tourist attractions. Outdoor cafes abound; the coffee is excellent; and prices are reasonable, and don’t vary much between residential and business or tourist areas.

Of course Madrid is a Mecca for tourists, students and international business people. With several lavish Royal palaces, including Palacio Real (former home of  King Phillipe V, the grandson of French King Louis XIV), the Palacio de Liria, the Santa Cruz Palacio, and Palacio de Cibeles Centro Centro, one can get a glimpse of what being in the top 2% of wealth was like during centuries past.

Madrid is also home to the Prado (Museo Nacional de Prado), the Real Academia de Belles Artes, the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sophia, the Thyssen-Bornemizma Museum, a naval museum, the Sorolla Museum, and the Museo Arquelogico. Where else can you see Carravagio, Rembrandt, Reuben’s, Goya, Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, Dali, Velazquez, Raphael, Titian and Heironymous Bosch in the same day?

Home to the notorious Spanish Inquisition of Queen Isabella and King Fernando in the Middle Ages, Madrid’s cathedrals and monestaries are some of the most spectacular in Christendom. The Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, the Catedral de las Almudena, the Royal Chapel of St. Anthony de La Florida, and the Monestario de las Descalzas Reales boast items such as holy relics, like pieces of the True Cross, some of the bones of St. Sebastian, the burial place of Goya, the site on which St. Francis of Assissi built a chapel in 1217, and marble sculptures, and artwork by Titian, Reubens, Breughel the Elder, Goya and Pacheco (Velazquez’s teacher and father-in-law). There is even an Egyptian temple, called the Templo de Debod, that dates back to the 2nd Century B.C., that was dismantled and rebuilt in Madrid.

This world class city has something for everyone and every taste, so be sure to include it on your Bucket List!

 

 

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Boyacá – Close to Bogotá, filled with history, and landscape to die for

 

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My “casa de campo”, a rental cottage in Oicata

Pastoral rolling hills dotted by small ‘casas de campo’, or farmhouses – their bricks the same color as the dirt roads and mountain side gashes from which these materials were obtained – provide the backdrop where cows and sheep graze under impossibly azure skies.

Regiments of clouds – fluffy, gossamer, cottony, cream white with varying degrees of grey and silver edges — line up obediently, like marchers in a band, to perpetuate their silent parade, moving across the sky in step with the music of the universe. Lining up in rows after rows, upon rows and rows, they herald the sunlight that gives their gossamer presence life, never hesitating in thier silent march to question or forget their purpose.

Dirt roads the color of sand slash through fields of green, scrub brush, crops and pasture, dotted by tiny yellow, purple and orange wild flowers. Blankets of dust, like mini-mushroom clouds, violently volatize and are quickly dispersed by the brisk winds that pummel these fields, when canvas-covered “caminos” (trucks) or a “moto” (moped) happen o to fly by.

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A “caballero”, country gentleman. near Iguaque

With skin as brown as the bark of an old tree, natives of the Muisca tribes that once dominated the area  and the Spaniards who conquered them, walk along the dusty roads. They are clad in a dark fedoras and weed-colored “ruanas”, thick, wool, rectangular ponchos with an opening for the head, that have been lovingly woven from the wool of their sheep. A dark skirt or black trousers complete this unusual local “uniform”, worn mostly by the elders.

 

A proclivity for “cerveza” (beer) is enjoyed by both the obsidian-haired women, who sport long braids beneath their felt hats, and the older men, who wear grey-stubble sprouts on their toothless visages, but they all are grinning in the bright mountain sunshine.

Subtle transformation of colors, moods, changes in temperature and season, the earth’s temperament, shifting breezes, and variations in the natural order, are as constant and as natural as the earth’s rotation. These elements create Boyacá’s unique beauty.

Three elements are essential in describing the aura of Boyacá:

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Casa Amezquita

The sky and landscape are constantly changing. Dawn’s awakens on some days as gentle as a drowsy kitten, and on others, precociously, like a hungry toddler who greets the morning with loud yells. There is no doubt that the chill and atmospheric changes of the nighttime hours has prepared the landscape for the events scheduled for this particular day.

As the morning progresses, the earth and sky converse, and sunlight dusts the fields. Clouds grow and billow, skies darken and rain begins to fall. As individual as an idol versus a God, the moods of these entities are as capricious as the tempests of the sea.

The sky: the atmosphere as the sun climbs her celestial escalator causing the day to bloom, as nature mixes in her cauldron humidity, temperature, sunlight, dust and wind to determine the weather for this particular day, peaks and declines across the hours of the day. One never bores watching the colorful transition – from silky fog that blankets the lowlands at day break, to the increasing brilliant colors of the day as the sun marches west, to the diving submission of the sun, sinking below the mountain ridges and coughing up mountains of blue-grey clouds that grow and shift into a million different forms as the sun cools the land. When all the color and shapes have pulled their chilly atmospheric blanket across the mountains, the light show begins, with bursts of orange and white lightening. Against the backdrop of the black, foreboding cordillera oriental, the intensity and variations of these electrical charges continue late into the night, leaving little time for interruptions or breaks from the show.

The Boyacá landscape is eternal, providing more than a lifetime of images and vistas that could rarely be imitated on canvas.

Jurassic Park Colombian style!

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.

crestThe 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. ancientseaRich 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, GerrothoraxIchthyosaurus (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!

Oicatá – silhouettes of the past guide the future

An ancient sacred spring and observatory of the Muisca

Blanca Ocasion (right), Oicata native, naturalist, historian and photographer lead us to the Sacred Spring and Musica Observatory. Leo Castillo Amezquita, translator (left).

The wind howls across the pastures of Oicatá, whipping the clumps of grasses, bending branches of dark green trees, painting scrub brush with grey dust, and lashing the slate colored mountains of the Cordillera Oriental.

Colombia’s easternmost mountain range, part of the ancient Andes, is the backdrop of this story, and the homeland of the ancient Muisca people.

Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada founded the tiny village of Oicatá on May 9, 1593. Located in the department of Boyacá, (the equivalent of a state in the U.S.) the area is well known for its history, because the region was the scene of a series of later battles, which led to Colombia’s independence from the Spanish Crown in 1819.

Prior to the arrival of the Conquistadors, however, an ancient, highly developed society inhabited the area, the roots of which have been traced back to almost 10,000 B.C.E. In the early XVI century, Conquistadors encountered the skillful and populous Muisca Confederation — gold workers, emerald miners, agriculturalists and weavers.

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Near the top of the mountain we came upon an ancient, sacred spring. It emminates from beneath a deep.

The Muiscan Confederation, a loose union of states that each retained sovereignty, was not a kingdom, as there was no absolute monarch, nor was it an empire, because it did not dominate other ethnic groups or peoples. The Muiscan Confederation was one of the biggest and best-organized confederations of tribes on the South American continent.

A short drive from Boyacá’s capital, Tunja, the bucolic landscape is one of sharp contrasts – just as the history and pieces of this ancient civilization are similarly juxtaposed. The ancient, ethereal silhouettes of the past loom over the dusty-lime-colored fields, where massive tan gashes mar the vista with scars of man’s determination to develop roads and harvest materials for bricks and the construction of modern edifices. Mountaintops, hillsides and entire escarpments have been slashed away by bulldozers, and whittled by picks and shovels.

After badly needed rainfall the previous day and night, today’s adventure  was to meet a local guide to visit indigenous places– a cemetary or an observatory.  Dressed in jeans with wool knee socks, simple walking shoes and far too many layers of sweaters and jackets, little did I know that we were all embarking on a cross-cultural, spiritual journey of discovery – connected by indigenous sacred sites and important celestial observatories – that would join the paths of the ancient Muisca with the Polynesian voyagers of my Hawaiian home.

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The site of the ancient Musica Observatory. During heavy rains this flat rock face becomes a waterfall. The holes are made by centuries of swirling rocks and worn depressions made by the natives during their rituals.

The day was gorgeous – sporting cerulean blue skies — while cottony clouds scuttled across the sky, buffeted by fresh, post-frontal winds.

The name “Oicatá” is the name of the indigenous chief who ruled the area prior to the Spanish invasion. The Cacique (chief) that governed this prehistoric village was the Zaque Hunza. The indigenous Cacique and his tribes paid homage to their deities and held festivals in her honor in the village.

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Omar Amezquita, whose family traces four generations in the area, stands at the sacred rocks. When Conquistadors invaded New Grenada they burnt the sacred sites and homes of the natives.

Driven by my host, Omar Amezquita, whose family has lived in the area for four generations, we dashed across dirt roads to the village of Oicatá. There,  we stopped to pick up our guide, Blanca Ocasion, a native of the village.

Ocasion recently won a second term as a representative in local government. She is also an advocate of reforestation efforts, sustainable agriculture and a proponent of the recognition and appreciation of the indigenous culture and their history.  Ocasion greeted us with a dazzling smile.

A short distance past the village we pulled to the side of the road, and surrounded by a cloud of white dust, we prepared for the hike. After slipping around a metal fence with Blanca at the lead, we scaled grassy hills, and descended eroded vales. She explained that in times past, the area had an abundance of water – rainfalls, natural springs, rivers, streams – and thickly-wooded forests.

“When the original inhabitants populated the area, there were many more trees on the land. Most of the trees you see now are introduced varieties, such as Eucalyptus and Acacias, which take a lot of water and are bad for the environment. The water system is deficient; we have very few springs and streams.”

While the indigenous population farmed, mined and wove remarkable textiles, they are not responsible for the erosion visible today. Deforestation to exploit wood for construction, cattle and sheep farming, and excavating the earth for construction materials,  compounded the problem.

We hiked up into a valley where we found an abundant spring emanating from beneath a large cave. This unique spot was the site of the Muisca’s celestial observatory. In ancient times, the indigenous Colombian tribes observed the heavens to discover the best time for planting crops, harvesting, travel and religious ceremonies. Half way across the planet in Hawaii, the Hawaiian chiefs charted the stars for their celestical navigation routes throughout the Polynesain triangle.

On the way we passed by a sunny hillside where Blanca had been busy planting native shrub and tree species.

Miles from the nearest road, and without a visible source of water in sight, Ocasion is determined to bring the landscape back to its original glory, no matter how long the process might take. As the native plants flourish, endemic birds, reptiles and forest animals, such as native foxes, are making a gradual comeback.

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Brilliant pink flowers adorn this brushy native plant that thrives in dry conditions

Ducking beneath a patch of non-indigenous trees, Blanca pointed out an emerald green blanket of healthy, native moss, taking advantage of the shade. From this moist ground cover, the possibility of native species taking root will be increased.

A little further along, we stopped to examine some short bushes bearing brilliant bright pink flowers – an example of native species recovery.

While Colombia is witnessing one of the worst El Nino events since 1997, and a state of emergency has been issued by the government for certain areas of the country, Ocasion has reason to hope that one day she and like-minded people witll restore their farms and homelands to thier original forested, stream-crossed glory.

“With new farming techniques, such as using certain types of seeds, composting to enhance soil, water catchment, and drip irrigation, I hope to show others that farming can be profitable,” said Amezquita.

The Bogota bed and Breakfast Inn – Step into the luxury of the past with all modern conveniences in Central Bogota

With a stark white façade, medieval turret, and a demon-encrusted coat-of-arms, the Bogota Bed and Breakfast Inn adorns the corner of Calle 34 #17-01, in the shadow of Teusaquillo’s emblematic and ancient Santa Ana Church. The new inn provides a personalized, welcoming alternative to Bogota’s normal accommodations, with the elegant flair of the pre-World War era.

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Reminiscent of the by-gone era in which it was built, the 1930s, this historic buidling and a few other remaining Tudor-style mansions, that occupied the tree-lined streets of this upscale Bogota neighborhood, live to tell the stories of the past. Echos of the clanging  bells that marked the arrival of horse-drawn trolley cars, and later electric trolleys, hang on like ghosts of times gone past. The whispers of history can still be heard at the Bogota Bed and Breakfast Inn, where guests are welcomed with old-time hospitality, quality lodging and excellent breakfast fare.

Entering a portal to the past, the grand home’s colorful, Arabian-tiled portico opens on the living room where the ambience of firelight is reflected from the original, diaphanous crystal chandelier, bathing new arrivals in warmth and golden light.

Of the six guest rooms, two are located on the first floor, while three more suites adorn the home’s second level. Here, custom-made beds adhere to the shape of the walls, some of which are rounded, while shuttered windows look out upon the tree-shaded Tesuaquillo Park, just across the street.

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“We followed the history of the home that went back to the 1930s but the first time the deed documents were recorded was when it was first sold by the original family in 1953,” said Beatriz Leon, one of the businesses joint owners.

After two years of historically accurate renovations, the Bogota Bed and Breakfast Inn was finally ready to open to the public in July of this year.

“It took two years to restore the home because we stripped all the white paint from the original ceiling timbers and staircase, removed carpeting and tile flooring to reveal the original dirt and brick floors, which we replaced with wood, completely rewired all electrical connections, installed larger plumbing pipes and six modern bathrooms, designed and built custom-fitting bed frames, and had custom mattresses made. Someone had removed all the homes interior doors, so we had new ones built that followed the design theme and era.”

Popular throughout Europe and North America, but almost as rare as apple pie in Bogota, the Bogota Bed and Breakfast Inn offers home-cooked breakfast served in your room, insider tips on sightseeing, restaurants and local events, and a convenient location in central Bogota, close to transportation, museums and shopping centers.

For more information, and to book you upcoming stay, call (57) 321 425-5924 (international) or 571-703 7409 (local), or email INFO@BOGOTABANB.COM. You will be very glad that you did.

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