While walking around the streets of La Candelaria (the neighborhood in Bogota with the most historical sites) it's hard not to notice Cerro de Monserrate (Monserrate Mountain). Peeking over the tops of multi-colored buildings and red roofs, its green canopy seems luscious and inviting. The white church located at the very top of the mountain gleams in the sunlight. And the Senor Caido (Fallen Christ) glows when lit from below at night. Looking up at Monserrate during the day or night, it's easy to understand why it's on most visitor's "must see" list during a trip to Bogota.
Located on a high plateau in the Andes Mountains, Bogota is bordered in part by the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes mountain range and the Guadalupe and Monserrate mountains. If you picture a soup bowl with the edges being mountains and the center being the city of Bogota, you've got the right idea. This geography makes it impossible not to notice the surrounding mountains while exploring Bogota. And in the case of the ever-so-recognizable Monserrate, located to the east of the city, they also serve as handy navigational points when you become disoriented among the little side streets (which you undoubtedly will).
Our first view of Monserrate came during our local bus ride from the airport to La Candelaria. (Actually we stopped off along the way at the US Embassy to have some extra pages sewn into our passports, but that's a story for another time.) The bus ride – which costs between 1,1000-1,2000 COP (about .50 cents USD) – only takes about 40 minutes (more during rush hour) and is a pleasant introduction to the streets of Bogota. Cruising along Autopista El Dorado, the main avenue from the airport to the rest of the city, we passed neighborhoods filled with homes, restaurants, and car dealerships just as we would in any American town. And while looking out the left window about 30 minutes into our ride, we came face to face with Monserrate and the blindingly white church on top.
It wouldn't be for a few more days until we had a chance to go to the top of the mountain. We knew our friends Klaus and Secret Agent X might like to trek there too, but they wouldn't be arriving in Bogota until Friday afternoon and Friday evening respectively. And so it was on Saturday afternoon, after a day already packed full with museums and all manners of Colombian food, that we began our journey to the top.
The guidebook had advised the walk between La Candelaria and the ticket booth for Monserrate had seen the occasional robbery. It suggested that tourists grab a bus and taxi to get there instead of walking. Seeing no reason to doubt the guidebook (and knowing all too well that a few less than desirable folks roam the streets of La Candelaria), we grabbed a taxi outside of the restaurant we ate lunch in. Driving down the streets we would have walked on, all of us looked to one another and asked, "Why the hell did the guidebook say walking wasn't safe?" The streets were no different than anything else in La Candelaria and they certainly weren't the den of thieves they were portrayed as. (After the tax ride, "den of thieves" would become one of my favorite phrases to say during our safe and uneventful walk back to La Candelaria.)
Paying the taxi driver, our little group of four travelers crossed the street to the ticket office at the foot of Monserrate. White-washed with a red roof, the ticket office almost looked like something you'd find in the Alps, and it seemed fitting that this would be the beginning point for our journey to the top. Reaching the front of the line, we took a moment to asses our options for the trek.
Normally there are three ways to get to the top of Monserrate, but not all three ways are always available at the same time. The first option is free and it means walking up the side of the mountain along a path. This choice is popular for the thousands of pilgrims who visit the church on Monserrate every weekend (whether that's because it's free or because it's a sign of respect to struggle so much before worshiping, I'm not sure). It's not as popular with tourists who aren't as accustomed to the altitude in Bogota. (Bogota is located at about 2,500 meters above sea level, while Monserrate is about 3,200 meters above sea level.) Guidebooks will advise tourists if they choose to walk to do so on weekend mornings when the trail is at its busiest. Otherwise, they gravely report, robberies have been known to happen during weekdays when the trail is mostly deserted.
(Though given the guidebook's description of what should have been a "den of thieves" on the walk between La Candelaria and the ticket booth at the foot of Monserrate, I'm not entirely sold that walking up the mountain wouldn't be okay anyway. That said, why walk when you can do one of the next two options?)
The second choice for ascending Monserrate is by funicular or an inclined railway. Sitting several dozen people at a time, picture a self-contained rail car making its way up the side of a mountain and through a brief tunnel about a third of the way up. In theory, this option for Monserrate is usually only available before 12pm on weekdays (specifically 7:45am to noon) and 5:30am to 6pm on Sundays and holidays.
The third option – which happens to be the one we took because it was the only option available at the time – is the teleferico (cable car). Holding around 40 people while standing, the teleferico makes the gentle 820 meter ascent in about four minutes. It is supposed to operate from noon to midnight on weekdays and 5:30am to 6pm on Sundays and holidays.
While not as cheap as free (like walking the path), both the funicular and the teleferico are pretty affordable splurges even on a backpacker's budget. A ride will cost 7,000 COP per person for ida (one way for about US$3.25) or 14,000 COP per person for ida y vuelta (round-trip for about US$6.50) before 5:30pm. After 5:30pm, the round-trip price hops up to 17,000 per person (about US$8).
Paying our fares, we walked through the main doors, along the pathway, and up the staircase directing us to the teleferico. Our wait at the top of the stairs only lasted a few minutes and before we knew it we were being loaded into the car with several dozen other eager visitors.
We managed to score a good spot right at the front of the car, giving me a perfect opportunity to take photos of our climb. When everyone was on who could fit, the doors closed, and the gradual ascent began. Floating above manicured waterfalls, terra cotta statues of frogs, and beautiful tree tops, our car climbed the side of Monserrate. Turning away from the trees in front of the car, my breath was taken away when I saw what was behind the car: all of Bogota began to spread out beneath us the higher and higher we went. Reaching the top only minutes later, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the view from inside the car. Luckily as soon as we stepped out the view got that much better.
Following the red brick path away from the teleferico and up toward the church, Bogota was to our left. It was difficult to not pause every few moments along the way to snap some photos, even though we knew the view would improve the higher we got along the path.
From our vantage point much of Bogota was within view and La Candelaria and the historic district were particularly clear. We were able to see the red TransMilenio buses, Bogota's public transportation system, drive along the tree-lined Avenue Jimenez. We could see the high rises of the city center, bustling with cars and people tiny as ants along the sidewalk. We were able to make out the Plaza de Bolivar with its Catedral Primada, the square mostly empty except for ice cream vendors, families on walks, and the ever-present pigeons (though we weren't quite able to make out the pigeons from that distance). We could see El Dorado (the road we had taken from the airport a few days earlier), the national university, and the Simon Bolivar Park (where a massive three day rock festival was taking place). And in the distance, high above the city and to the west, we could see the cone of Nevado del Tolima, part of a volcanic range in the Cordillera Central, with clouds settling at its base like a necklace.
Aside from walking through the church and maybe peeking at some souvenir stands, there isn't much to do on top of Monserrate. But with its breathtaking views there doesn't need to be anything else. The city laid out before us like a tapestry, we were mesmerized. As many moments were spent in silence as they were spent pointing out different parts of the city to one another. Hushed by the views, the other visitors spoke in whispers, allowing instead the wind and the singing from inside the church to speak for them.
The few hours we spent on top flew by and we could easily have spent several more there. But soon enough it was time to go. Nighttime would follow soon and while a sunset from up high would be nice, our stomachs had begun to rumble and our feet had begun to ache. Making a wish from on top of Monserrate, I wondered how much beauty the world can hold. It seems cliche, but every place new that we go brings forth a more beautiful scene. And Monserrate, with its sides draped in greenery and its crown covered in white-washing buildings, is certainly a sight to behold from the streets of Bogota and from the top.
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