Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Los Estoraques

One perk of being the only foreigners in an area is seeing things not mentioned in our handy, though limited, Lonely Planet. And, as an added bonus of working in exchange for just room and board, every weekend is a three-day weekend ripe with opportunity to do so. A twenty five-dollar roundtrip taxi ride put us at one of Colombia’s Unique Natural Areas, Los Estoraques. Hello, Friday.

Situated 10 kilometers off the main road, the park is guarded by the tiny town of La Playa de Bélen.  A kilometer farther up the road lies the entrance to Los Estoraques, though the massive stone formations surrounding Playa and interrupting nearby farms have been flashing by like the coming attractions.

With only a small building and no real entrance fee, only the ANU (área naturale única) sign and the presence of a volunteer tour guide indicate that this is, in fact, a national park.The park’s massive towers and sprawling network of narrow canyons is the work of erosion. Sandstone looms overhead in peaks and spires, its warm colors contrasting sharply against the day’s crisp azul sky.

Our guide, naturally a Spanish speaker who doesn’t realize or understand that only half our party speaks Spanish, insists on relaying all information to Win and I, in addition to our Colombian companions. We nod and ooh and ahh in all the right places, following pointing fingers as he points out rocks that look like monkeys, lions, and kings. We wait patiently for Camilo’s translations, or simply wander on along the path.

He leads us up a steep flight of stairs cordoned off with bright yellow caution tape, surely just there to discourage those who have opted not to use a guide. Or so one hopes. Up, through, and around we make our way to the top of a hill for a bird’s eye view of the valley. Seen from above it is as though one were looking down on a cityscape carved from clay, etched into stone. Mock skyscrapers cluster together interlaced with patches of trees.

As we make our way back down, the path, simply the work of past rains, weaves between and around the rough sandstone giants. They tower overhead, blocking the harsh sun, as we scamper and explore alleys and caves.

We return to La Playa de Bélen, catching a ride in the back of a pickup (although as the only female I am offered a place in the cab, and therefore partake in some awkward conversation between myself and four Spanish-speaking men).

Winding cobblestone streets lined with blindingly white buildings topped by rust-colored terracotta roofs make up this tiny town, no more than three streets wide and petering out after maybe ten blocks. A dry fountain stands ready in the central park. The shade of nearby trees and shopfronts offer a bit of respite where one can enjoy some horchata and jalea, a surprisingly delicious local candy made from cow hooves and sugar.

As the taxi snakes its way back toward Ocaña, immaculate hills and farms roll past the windows, mountains fading to sky in the background. Amazingly interesting geology, spotless little towns, and incredible scenery: what more could one want for a Friday morning?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Holy Salt

Spending multiple days in Bogotá, a large, cold, sprawling city, warranted a bit of peripheral exploration. Enter: nearby Zipaquirá, home of Colombia’s Salt Cathedral. Originally merely a salt mine, the Catedral de Sal has gone through several incarnations before reaching the status of pilgrimage destination, holy sanctuary, and tourist attraction it possesses today.

Throughout history, up until man developed refrigeration techniques, salt was incredibly valuable. Understandable, as people tend to be neither physically tolerant nor especially keen of rotten meat. In fact, our English-speaking guide informed us, the word ‘salary’ has its roots in the word ‘salt’ (imagine my surprise when a google search confirmed the etymologic origin). Since the massive salt deposits were discovered several hundred years ago, Zipaquirá’s salt mine has been active, though it is less prosperous in the modern age of home appliances.

In the early 1930s, a sanctuary was carved into the mine for the sake of those who wanted to pray for protection before beginning their day’s work. In the 1950s, the sanctuary was expanded and dedicated to the patron saint of miners (because if there’s one thing Catholic countries have no shortage of, it’s patron saints). However, after 40 years of mining and praying in the same place, the mine was shut down for structural issues; the problem with building a cathedral inside a mine is that now your cathedral is in a damn mine.

After a major facelift, including structural additions and building only in the inactive areas of the mine, the modern incarnation of the Catedral de Sal was constructed. It wasn’t cheap or easy, but it is thoroughly impressive.

The downhill stroll begins with the Stations of the Cross. Though the rock in the mine is too hard for any detailed carving, each station features a large stone cross in various symbolic depictions, places to kneel for those who wish to stop and pray, as well as LED lighting.

A beautiful circular room, complete with an overhead dome, painstakingly hand-chiseled, represents the division between heaven and earth. Marble angels, designed by an Italian artist, perch throughout this massive complex. And, multiple staircases offer sinners the chance to repent before entering the main cavernous cathedral.

As you reach the farthest point underground (or farthest reached without donning a hardhat), you enter the main sanctuary. The primary cathedral is separated into three sections, partially due to structural limitation, representing the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is enormous. All told, the Salt Cathedral can (and each Easter Sunday does) hold up to 8,000 people.

Truly a magnificent feat of engineering and the human proclivity toward repurposing and interior decorating in places that are otherwise drab.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Buenos Días, Colombia

And we’re off again.

After a summer in our hometown of Albuquerque – enjoying first world comforts, hating first world prices, soaking up some beautiful high desert weather, spending quality time with old friends and new, stockpiling money, a whirlwind east coast visit with family – we have set our sights on a new continent.

It was an incredibly open-ended job hunt – Turkey? Indonesia? Bhutan? Costa Rica? Cameroon? Ethiopia? – leading us to settle on Latin America. Faced with dishearteningly low pay compared to teaching in Asia, our options were few (though job opening were numerous). Immediately, the volunteer jobs that want volunteers to pay were ruled out. The remaining options were a high-paying job in a capital city teaching business English six days a week or a low-paying job in a rural school. We went for hidden Option D: working four days a week in exchange for room, board, and Spanish lessons.

And sometimes, following instinct rather than money pays off in a big way.

Our instinct has led us to Olits Insitituto de Idiomas in Ocaña, Colombia. The school is new; students are few and classes small for now.  Olits is run by a couple, German Christine and Colombian Camilo. Along with Christine (and their two children), we are the only foreigners in all of Ocaña. Possibly this little bit of celebrity will help the school to grow.

So, here we are, in Ocaña. Built in among the landscape, the houses tier up and down hills, stacked like blocks, all terracotta roofs and beautiful balconies. Buildings crowd up to tight winding streets, restaurants, churches, and shops interspersed with the residential. Spanish rattles all around us, still indecipherable, but becoming more intelligible.

Language is shared, taught, practiced. And through this exchange, our international family grows ever bigger.