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Bogota enjoys a golden age g jy; Once considered a no-go zone, Colombia's capital has changed drastically, says.

Byline: Sarah Marshall

THERE'S a 10 per cent chance of sunshine in Colombia's Chingaza National Park. So when rays briefly break through a heavy veil of cloud shrouding high-altitude bogs and grassland, I bask like the succulent plants around me, spiraling their leaves longingly skyward.

Damp weather is welcome in the 76,600 hectare, butterfly-shaped park, located in the Orinoco River basin and home to jaguars, spectacled bears and more than 200 bird species. The Chuza dam provides Bogota with 80 per cent of its portable drinking water, making Chingaza a beating heart for Colombia's thriving capital.

Escaping the busy city for a day, I've come to hike along one of the many trails in a governmentmanaged park that's cared for by farmers living on its fringes.

The park is also home to eight types of peat moss, forming velvet drapes across rocks and paths.

At one time, city dwellers would collect clutches for decorating their presepe (nativity sets), although now the plants are protected.

The other-planetary eco-system is surprisingly only a three-hour drive from Bogota - almost the same journey time required to travel from one end of the traffic-clogged city to the other.

Once considered one of the most dangerous urban destinations in the world, this thin, meandering, mountain-backed metropolis has drastically changed in the last 20 years.

Now, tourists can comfortably visit museums housing ancient treasures, wander through streets of crumbling colonial architecture, or dip into a fashionable nightlife scene.

Bars, restaurants and designer shopping centres located in the trendy Zona Rosa and Zona G districts could easily belong in Madrid, London or New York.

Most historical sites can be found downtown in La Candelaria.

In Plaza Bolivar, dominated by a statue of Simon Bolivar, architect of Colombia's independence from Spanish rule, I shudder at the number of political executions that have taken place here.

Some of the most scenic 16th century buildings are close to the Palace of San Carlos on Calle 10, not far from the excellent Gold Museum, one of the finest collections of pre-Colombian artefacts in South America.

Of the 55,000 exquisite pieces on display, highlights include facemasks with mouth coverings to purify words spoken to the gods, tweezers used by chiefs to pluck eyebrows during celebrations, and prized golden raft, the Balsa Muisca.

The famous votive depicts a ceremony linked to the legend of El Dorado ('the golden one'), which took place at Lake Guatavita, not far from Bogota.

I drive north of the city for two hours to the green-hued crater-lake in the forest reserve of Cacique Guatavita.

The indigenous Muisca people, whose presence in Colombia dates back to 5500 BC, used the sacred spot to celebrate the election of new chiefs.

After being bathed in honey and gold dust, the Zipa would be launched on a raft into the lake and showered with jewellery and trinkets by worshippers.

As a bird skims across the water's surface, I marvel at how many priceless finds might be lurking below. In 1545, Spanish conquistadors attempted to drain the lake in search of the mythical 'city of gold' but never quite reached the bottom.

Beyond sparkling museum displays and fancy architectural facades, there's clearly still much more to discover in and around Bogota.

WHERE TO STAY | Hotel B3 Virrey (www.hotelesb3.com) CONCEALED behind a living wall of plants, this 128-room eco-friendly design hotel is close to Bogota's trendy Zona Rosa neighbourhood. Rooms are compact but convenient and facilities include a fitness centre and buzzy modern bar. Rooms from PS41 per night.

WHAT TO SEE | Zipaquira Salt Cathedral (www.catedraldesal.gov.co/en) THIS extraordinary church has been carved from salt in mines in the town of Zipaquira, 47km from Bogota. Miners built their first sanctuary in 1932.

The government commissioned the current structure in the Nineties.

Stations of the Cross are located along a network of tunnels leading to a central nave with an altar.

Entry costs PS5 per person. | Botero Museum (www.banrepcultural.org/museo-botero) FAMOUS for his voluptuous subjects, artist Fernando Botero hails from the city of Medellin. Exhibited in this colonial house is a collection of his sculptures and paintings.

Also on display are items from the artist's personal collection, including works by Giacometti, Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Matisse, and Monet. Entry is free.

WHERE TO EAT | Criterion (www.criterion.com.co) REGULARLY L featured in Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list (18th place last year), this gourmet dining experience is run by celebrity chefs Mark and Jorge Rausch.

Jorge spent several years working with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, and the French influence in Criterion's menu is evident.

NEED TO KNOW | SARAH MARSHALL was a guest of HighLives Travel (www.highlives.co.uk; 020 8835 7034) which offers a four-night tour of Bogota and Villa de Leyva from PS850 per person (based on two sharing).

Includes visits to Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, the Ecce Homo convent and the Fossil Museum and Infiernito archaeological site in Villa de Leyva.

CAPTION(S):

Bogota's Gold Museum

The Catedral Primada, Plaza Bolivar

Zipaquira Salt Cathedral
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Apr 9, 2016
Words:844
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