My six month journey through South America both began and ended in the capital city of Bogota. Bogota is one of the cities I’ve explored around the world in which I felt an immediate sense of familiarity upon arrival, and then felt a sense of homesickness upon departure. I hope someday I can return when it is again safe to travel, not recreate the original experience because the past is gone, but to design a new relationship to the place based on my growth and years of acquired knowledge.
Prior to Spanish colonization, the area of Bogota was home to the Muisca people. This mountain was sacred to them even before the arrival of the Catholic Church. To them, Monserrate was called quijicha caca, or “grandmother’s foot.” They had temples constructed where today the shrine of El Senor Caido, Our Fallen Lord, is located. The conquistadors replaced the Muisca temples with Catholic buildings, and in 1620, the Brotherhood of Vera Cruz began to use the summit for religious gatherings and celebrations.
During both stays in Bogota in November 2014 and April 2015, I hiked Monserrate to the shrine of El Senor Caido, The Fallen Lord, located inside the church constructed in 1640. At 10,341 feet above sea level, the pilgrimage on foot up a steep path is a day-long adventure at a 25% grade over boulders and a staircase carved from the ancient stone.
When I was visiting, the shrine and footpath were only open on Sundays to allow locals and visitors to attend church services. The path was crowded with multi-generational families: elders slowly inching forward while sucking on orange slices, parents with toddlers and infant children, and groups of teenagers bounding energetically along the trail. Vendors stationed themselves on every flat surface selling bags of water and bottles of soda, slices of papaya and mango, and frozen fruit pops. Periodically, we all shared the trail with costumed alpaca, hauling quinoa, avocados, plantains, and other supplies to the cafe and restaurant at the summit.
I feel sad that the original history has been so thoroughly erased and replaced, as if the Catholic conquistadors were the first ones to recognize the sacred appeal of the summit. Institutions evolve, but colonization is not a peaceful integration from one culture into another. Instead it is an insidious and violent oppression of one experience of life and meaning, in favor of another that is not more “right” but is simply more brutal.
The first time I climbed Grandmother’s Foot two days after arrival in South America, I had to stop and rest. Frequently. I was breathless from the altitude, and feeling fluffy at the waistline. The second time was much easier. I had adjusted to higher elevations, and was far more fit from the months of endless walking and hoisting a backpack over my shoulders. At the summit, I gazed across the city of Bogota and reflected on my growth in preparation for my eminent return to the volatile and chaotic dream of America.
Regretfully, I did not collect many photos from either of my treks. The featured image is called “Bogota from Monserrate,” by Mark Horrell and is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.