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Experiencing Colombia Through its Myths, Legends, and Folklore

From tales of gold to the music of the plains, delve into the storied traditions that make this South American country so fascinating.

Experiencing Colombia Through its Myths, Legends, and Folklore

Mount Monserrate

Photo by Guillaume de Germain/Unsplash

The fabled customs, legends, and traditions that Colombians have passed down to one another over generations are an essential part of their country’s culture, and Bogotá and its surroundings are no exception. Immersing yourself in the city and surrounding areas through its stories makes for a historic yet fresh perspective on the country. Whether it’s the tale of El Bobo del Tranvia (the Tram’s Fool) that’s synonymous with the capital city’s public transit or that of the legendary El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” which permeates local history, Colombia’s extraordinary folklore is woven into the fabric of its everyday life. Here are a few places and ways to experience it.

Channeling Bogotá’s soul

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The Artisan D.C. Hotel is located near Zona G, home to some of Bogotá’s best restaurants.

Your base for this adventure is the Artisan D.C. Hotel, a member of Autograph Collection. This eye-catching property masterfully evokes a sense of Bogotá’s exciting energy and culture through its locally inspired artworks, as well as modern features like marble bathrooms and soundproofed rooms. Brick walls provide a boutique feel, as does the hotel’s small but spacious size: 64 rooms spread among two individually styled towers. Once you’re settled in, it’s time to get exploring!

Rumor has it that Bogotá's eastern hills, which form a natural boundary for the city, are the home of indigenous Chibcha and Muisca spirits. Some are said to dwell in silence alongside the statue of “The Fallen Christ” atop Mount Monserrate, which rises 10,341 feet above the city center, providing spectacular views (enjoy them over breakfast or lunch at Restaurante Santa Clara)—not to mention its fair share of tales. You can reach its peak via hiking, cable car, or funicular.

At the foot of Monserrate sits Bogotá’s colorful Candelaria neighborhood, which is not only the oldest part of the present-day city, but one that’s also teeming with stories. Embark on a walking or cycling tour to learn about local characters such as the respected teacher and activist who wandered the streets barefoot in a red dress, Margarita Villaquira, “La Loca Margarita.” And stand on the exact spot in front of Luis Ángel Arango Library where she would meet daily with another of Bogotá’s fabled souls, “Loco Chivas,” to talk politics in the 1930s.

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El Museo del Oro. // Photo by Banco de la República de Colombia

In Candelaria you’ll also find Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum, home to more than 34,000 gold pieces, including the Muisca raft. This stunning work—an alloy of gold, copper, and silver—represents the ritual of the Muisca chieftain, who would cover himself in gold dust and then set out onto a nearby lake to make offerings of wealth to the gods. Many believe this was the mythical El Dorado, and have plundered the lake, often successfully, for its treasures.

For a restaurant that’s a legend unto itself, head just outside the city to the sprawling Andres Carne de Res where you can enjoy a menu of Colombian and international food as eclectic as the lively décor of red hearts, flags, bells, and so much more. Or try a fine dining experience that conjures the city’s past at the historic home that houses Harry Sasson, a restaurant serving dishes like their trademark smoked grouper and a stand-out wine list.

Lake Guatavita and the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá

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Lake Guatavita // Photo by Michael Clopatofsky/Unsplash

Grab an early breakfast at your hotel or at La Puerta Falsa, a Candelaria bakery and restaurant that has been run by the same family for more than 200 years near Plaza de Bolívar. An approximately 1.5-hour drive northeast of Bogotá brings you to Lake Guatavita, the sacred lake of the Muisca people. It’s here that many believe the Muisca chieftain performed his El Dorado ritual, inspiring others to toss their own precious jewelry and gemstones into the water as well.

Once you’ve combed its shores in the hopes of spotting gold, why not make your trip into a full-day excursion by pairing it with a visit to the otherworldly Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá? Make a little more than an hour drive west to where miners carved this remarkable Roman Catholic church out of halite deposits in the recesses of an underground salt mine—one that the Muisca people excavated themselves as far back as the 5th century BCE.

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Inside the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá // Photo by Mario Duran-Ortiz

Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz

Drive an hour back to Bogotá for a casual meal and a little break from history in Zona G, a former residential neighborhood-turned-dining hub near the financial district. You’ll experience how the city is inventing new legends at places like Mini-Mal, driven by creativity, and Colombia’s biodiversity and cultural diversity. You could also try Rausch, one of the first Colombian restaurants to offer a tasting menu and known for its commitment to sustainability and use of local ingredients in dishes including Crab Tower and Lionfish Ceviche. For a café experience you can take home with you, head to Café Rico, where the eatery’s own cutting boards, French presses, and even dishware are for sale alongside empanadas, salads, and a selection of international eats

Villavicencio

An easy hour-long flight from Bogotá, Villavicencio is considered the “gateway of the Colombian plains.” It’s also a city where folklore reigns supreme. Take in the local rhythms of joropo, a lively music and dance mixing Indigenous, African, and Spanish influences, or catch a performance by llanero, traditional Colombian cattle herders, as they work their magic on horseback. One place to see them is Parque las Malocas, a cultural park where you’ll also find a walking trail detailing the myths and legends of the Plains. They include that of el patasola, the one-legged woman known to lure unsuspecting men to her lair.

For a last authentic experience with a story to go with it, visit La Posada del Arriero to enjoy Colombian cuisine in their open-air dining room. Go for the Amarillo A La Monseñor, a fish dish with mushrooms, lobster, scallops, and green vegetables and invented by a local chef to elevate the “Yellow Bagre” fish in honor of a visiting priest on his birthday in 1979.

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