The conquest of the Muisca
By the 1530s the boat-loads of gold being shipped from Peru by Francisco Pizarro triggered a new wave of conquistadores to invade the northern shores of South America. Fired by the legend of a native king who coated his body in gold dust and tossed handfuls of emeralds into various lakes, armies of men marched south in search of this El Dorado…this Gilded King. One such conquistador was Don Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who was chosen by the governor of Santa Marta, Don Pedro de Lugo, to lead a party up the Magdelena River, all the way to its source. The 36 year-old Quesada was a lawyer by trade and had sailed to the New World in the hope of becoming a magistrate. Among the military men capable of leading such an expedition Quesada was considered a curious choice; in the world of the conquistadors there had never been any reason to fret over such matters as a ‘fraudulent conveyance‘, or a ‘defective title‘, or, god forbid, ‘caveat emptor‘, and so why send a lawyer into such a hostile jungle? Why indeed, except legal gobble-de-gook was the last thing on Quesada’s mind. The lawyer-turned-plunderer was issued elaborate instructions by governor Lugo: Quesada and his men were to treat the Indians with the utmost respect when relieving them of their gold. ‘Tell them how badly it’s needed to pay for the ships and the food of the Christians,’ the governor suggested. Quesada almost choked at such nonsense. Had the boss lost his marbles, he worried. No, not a bit of it, for moments later the governor balled his fist, growling, ‘But if the tribes refuse to cooperate…wage war of fire and blood!’ Quesada allowed a sigh of relief – Aah! Now this was more like it.
Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada and his men departed full of fervour on their mission to uncover El Dorado, though they soon found themselves speared by the poisoned arrows whistling out of the jungle, which caused them to hack away their flesh, cauterizing the wounds with branding irons, or otherwise dying a rather hideous death. To combat the arrows they took to smothering themselves in padded cotton, which Pedro de Aguado described as turning the troopers into, ‘…misshapen objects that fills the Indians with terror…’. Quesada and his men hacked their way through jungle and swamp, making rafts and bridges, growing thirsty and hungry, losing their shoes and their clothes, fighting swarms of mosquitoes and bot-flies, tending their ticks and carbuncles of weeping puss, getting eaten by jaguars and crocodiles, growing deliriously ill, slaughtering a few Indians and dying in unseemly numbers. Despite such hardship Quesada refused to give in. They swam rivers by day and slept in the trees by night, surviving on a diet of manioc, grubs, dogs and bits of old leather. They clambered up the hills of Opon, across the Atun Mountains and onward through a forest where the daylight never penetrated, nor the rains ever cease to fall. Just as they believed their toil would never end, twelve months after they had departed the coast, they broke out into a lush valley of villages and towns and friendly Indians. They had found the kingdom of the Muisca and here Quesada travelled along a civilised valley, resting, eating and filling his pockets with gold and emeralds. When the arrival of these bearded foreigners and their terrifying horses came to the ears of the Zipa of Bogota, the supreme leader of the kingdom, he set about them with his army. The Spanish soldiers, many of them hardened veterans, didn’t take long to repel and subdue the attackers. Reclining in his litter on a distant hill, the Zipa made a hasty and humiliating retreat to his palace in Muqueta. Quesada had finally found the king he’d come to conquer.
Just one of those days.
Our journey to Bogota has none of the drama experienced by Quesada and his men, though it has its challenges, nonetheless. From Medellin we drop down into the Rio Magdelena valley, back into the sultry heat. Often we encounter patrols of soldiers loitering beside the road, dressed in their neat DPMs and shouldering some considerable fire-power. They give the thumbs-up to passing traffic, apparently a traditional gesture to indicate that the road ahead is free of the leftist guerrillas who for years operated along these highways – robbing, kidnapping and killing – more or less with impunity. Much of Colombia is supposedly back under government control, so it does beg the question as to why these soldiers are still standing along the roadside with their thumbs sticking out. The day becomes increasingly tiresome for the volume of traffic, roadworks and tortuously steep inclines. At one point it takes three hours to clear two trucks that have ripped out each others engines in a head on collision and after that it is intermittent roadworks, so that we climb the eastern cordillera at a steady average of 20 kph. In the town of Guaduas, after nine hours driving, we know that today is going to be “just one of those days” and have little hope of finding a decent bivouac for the night. Then, as we sit in the plaza munching on cake, a pigeon craps on my shoulder. Shortly after, a sparrow-sized bird does the same to Christine. Despite the mess this causes we happily accept it as a quite remarkable turn of fortune and go on to find one of the best bivouacs we’ve known, at the end of a country lane, beside a waterfall, next to a quiet restaurant with a fridge full of chilled beer.
Bogota in 24 hours
I know it’s wrong to judge a place in the first twenty-four hours of being there, but first impressions do count and within ten minutes of being in the centre of Bogota I feel a city with the air of a bad hangover – it’s dishevelled, in need of a wash and begging for a cure. Using an address provided by other overlanders we make for a car park in the centre of the city, where we pay 15 dollars to camp for the night – you really can’t beat 15 dollars a night to stay in the centre of a capital city! However, to get there we must negotiate carrera 7, one of the principal arteries to the central plaza, which is closed to traffic and now a sea of pedestrians, food-stalls, dancers, buskers, cyclists and a two metre deep strip of junk trawled from peoples’ attics. To get this far we’ve already had an eyeful of the prostitutes on carrera 12, who unashamedly occupy the whole of one block, bursting from their nondescript surroundings like blow-up dolls pressed into slithers of psychedelic Lycra. After parking we make for the Museo del Oro and its breathtaking collection of pre-Hispanic gold and ceramic art. This alone is worth the trip. The following morning we head for the second address on our very short list of places to see in Bogota – the Botero Museum, containing the works of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist. But first we must change some Euros, which is not proving so easy. In our search for the money-changers we attract the attention of a smartly dressed fellow. Now, like most South American cities Bogota has a certain reputation for its conmen and violent crime and so it is with my brain firmly in my shoes that I ask directions to the casa de cambio from the smartly dressed fellow standing in front of us. It’s a moment of poor judgement, I know, my senses presumably dulled by Colombia’s charm. Our new friend flashes his Policia Nacional badge, noted as a common ruse among the conmen of South America, though it’s his cloying bonhomie that really jangles a couple of brain cells. After the third handshake in as many minutes we wrap up the conversation and hastily move on, because we’re pretty sure he’s a fake. As we walk off I feel like one of those British-trained SOE agents freshly landed in wartime occupied Paris, at the moment he makes that fundamental error of looking right instead of left before crossing the road. From then on he’s a marked man. We drop all thoughts of changing money, as our friend is probably already on his mobile, and instead make for the museum. As we arrive before the opening time we dodge into a bookshop. ‘That guy was in the central plaza,’ Christine says, looking through the window. I watch the man – blue shorts, white cap, grey sweatshirt – as he ambles past the bookshop. He has a phone in his right hand. Are we getting a touch paranoid? He passes the entrance to the museum and continues up the street. ‘Nah, he’s just some kid,’ I mumble. Though it’s not the last we see of him.
It must be the fourth gallery in the Botero museum when we suddenly cross paths with a guy in a white cap, blue shorts and a grey sweatshirt. Wow! This is the very same fellow who followed us up the street. Quite a coincidence, we think. Two things mark him out: he expresses only a cursory interest in the surrounding artwork, and he has the sunken, coal-black eyes of a twenty dollar assassin. When he grins at me the resulting fissure sends a shiver to my heels. I turn away, wondering whether I should photograph him – just in case. If I was 007 I’d lure him to the gents and garrotte him with my bow tie, except I’m not, and all we’ve got in my bag to defend ourselves is a roll of toilet paper and two anoraks. For fifteen minutes, to a backdrop of Botello’s Fat Ladies, we cross paths with this guy in a moody silence. And then we manage to shake him somewhere between the section on Contemporary Art and The History of Machinery. I’ve read a few espionage novels and so I know, when under surveillance, it’s essential to exit through a different door to the one you arrive at. It takes a while for us to find a different door and when we do I note with dismay how we’re only 30 metres from the door we entered through, so this doesn’t work too well. In the Patisserie Francaise, two blocks away, by the time we’re half way through our chocolate eclairs we feel quite confident of having shaken our tail. We leave Bogota with the lunchtime traffic and in four hours arrive in Villa de Leyva. That evening, a scan through the headlines of the London Evening Standard reveals the shocking news that three women have been bludgeoned by a hammer-wielding attacker in a five star central London hotel. It makes Bogota seem quite tame.