The eastern mountains against which the old city of Bogota, La Candelaria, rests are green. Over them comes the weather of Colombia’s capital, and they are often seen covered with clouds or shrouded by the rain. The clouds that come from Boyaca, from the jungles of Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, and ultimately from the Atlantic are always changing the features of the mountains.
Sometimes they form a canopy at dawn, which the sun paints pale orange over the hills that seem the portals of the day; sometimes a band of clouds rests on the mountaintops and broods there, grey upon heaped mysteries; sometimes the sky is cloudless and blue behind, above the cheerful slopes; and at night the lights along the top, and running a little way up the sides are seen against the darkness.
Long ago the people of Bogota realized something significant ought to be done on the top of one of these mountains, and in 1640 the labor of constructing there a chapel to the brown virgin of Monserrat in Barcelona was begun. So there is a white church above the city, and it can be seen from far away, especially when the sun shines on it through the clouds. The location is significant as a gesture of piety: the church crowns and overlooks the city; but it is also a location for the exercise of piety, and many pilgrims go up there every week.
Before they built the funicular railway in 1928, the ascent no doubt required a great deal of effort. Nowadays you can take the funicular railway or a cable car to get most of the way up (if you’ve never been in a vehicle so peculiarly called funicular, you ought to try it just for the name). The rest of the way you have to walk, and you have the gradual way with the stations of the cross, or the less gradual way with the stations of the restaurants—synonymous, the brochure boasts, of culinary excellence. I went along the stations of the cross, and in the fog of the morning, with dripping leaf and flower the sight of those sculptures of the story of that eucatastrophe was affecting. It ought to be done more frequently.
I have found that religious art in Latin America can be quite gaudy or cloying. Not so with these statues: I thought they were elegant, simple, appropriate. It is strange no information was to be found on these. What the brochure boasts of is the main, central relic above the altar in the church itself: El Señor Caido—Our Lord Fallen. Rather not the sight of beauty, but touted as a great work of art (it too much resembled an escaped Chibcha mummy for me). Also in the church is a figure of the brown virgin of Monserrat, of course, complete with a private chapel on the side, which in contrast to most of the rest of the building, is heavily ornate.
The chilly church in which the pilgrimages culminate is pretty austere by Catholic standards. Modernized, no doubt, it boasts of coin-operated electric votive candles. You put a coin in the slot and the electricity flickers under a flame-shaped glass bulb. One has to wonder if the symbolism still holds, but it does save cleaning up all the melted wax and on the bother of lugging candles all the way up the hill. The rib vaults of the church are unexpectedly high and pointed: the interior has a lofty space. The arches have small windows near the top and small, dim pictures under each window. The arches descend in columns along the nave which are paneled, and the walls of the side aisles are covered with marble. It is a dark place, a sort of cross between and Italianesque, square exterior and a soaring, stark, Gothic interior.
Mass is regularly held in that church, and on the weekends, especially on Sunday, the place gets packed out. But it was quiet there on a Tuesday, with the sounds of murmured prayers inside and the cries of a few tourists coming through the open doors. If you go during the week you can wander through the wide spaces, poke around all the nooks and crannies, amble through the inevitable and ample souvenir section, and, of course, gaze out over the outspread city below.
A strange sight, Bogota from high above: the towers stand out of it at odd intervals, the whole spreads into the valley, covering the receding marsh and reaching for the hills in the west. You can see the winding, red worms of Transmilenio, hear the dull roar of the traffic mingling with the quiet birdsong nearby, and watch the sunlight shine in patches through the clouds upon the city. If you turn the other way you’ll see the rolling of green hills, the swaying eucalyptus, the marching power pylons, and on the hill toward the south, a towering, white Christ with arms spread wide. At night he can be seen in amber light against the darkness.
“El silencio es la actividad profunda del amor que escucha,” reads a sign inside the church. “Silence is the deep activity of love when it listens.” As long as mass was not being broadcast over the precincts, I found the quiet of the top of Monserrate good for silence and reflection.