Historic Bogotá has one of the highest densities of churches in Latin America, and strolling through the city centre, you are likely to find some of the oldest in the region: dating back to the days when Bogotá was called Santafé and was a little town of narrow streets and flowing rivers. In the historic La Candelaria district, there are 15 of the more than fifty churches scattered throughout this city, and each one has its own peculiar place in the history of Colombia. Even though many have seen better days, there is a concerted effort to preserve them not only as places of worship, but sanctuaries for the tested traveller.
Iglesia de San Francisco
You should start your ecclesiastical walking tour at the 400-year-old Iglesia de San Francisco, on the corner of the Carrera 7 with Avenida Jiménez by the Avianca building and the state bank – Banco de la Republica. When entering the church from a sunlit street you are likely to succumb to the darkness. As in almost every church in the city, there aren’t too many windows, the illumination is artificial and only the golden altar seems to be bathed in warm glow.
When Jiménez de Quesada decided to pitch his tent next to the river Francisco on the fallow land of this dried lake, the founding father of Bogota was looking for gold. Although he didn’t find the treasures of El Dorado, centuries later the biggest collection of pre-hispanic gold in the world was found under Quesada’s old estate. Bogotá in colonial times lacked the riches of other cities such as Quito and Lima, and when an earthquake struck in 1785, materials were scare and had to be reused in construction. This also applied to the churches, which represent the many layers of the city’s history. The church of San Francisco is an example of both Spanish and Arab architecture with its wooden ceiling built in a Mudéjar style and the clock decorating the tower brought from London.
Head south along the Carrera Septima and you soon enter the imposing Plaza Bolivar with the country’s main cathedral, La Catedral Primada. With its polished marble, the cathedral is light, accentuated by white walls and high ceilings. Built between 1807 and 1823, the cathedral also has a colourful history. During the early days of construction, the roof collapsed resulting in the architect being taken to court. In 1827, another earthquake shook Sante Fe de Bogotá and much of the original structure was destroyed. Later, Spanish architect Rodríguez Orgaz completed the facade with a bold design. The interior is built according to the Corinthian order with pillars separating the aisles and nave. Take a good look at the choir stalls carved with walnut and mahogany wood inlays.
Behind the presidential palace there is another church which has played its part in the religious history of Colombia: the Iglesia de San Agustin. This church marked the other extreme of the city where the Agustin River once flowed. Built in 1575 as the first Augstine convent in the vice-royalty of New Granada, the church marked the southernmost limit of the colonial town and stood on the banks of the Manzanares River. San Agustin also resembles its counterpart in the “north” – the church of San Francisco – due to its coarse stonework and dazzling white tower. In 1862, the church saw its share of violence, when troops loyal to then president Mariano Ospina Rodriguez fought it out with soldiers under the command of General Tomas Cipriano Mosquera. During the feud, every existing document was burned and precious paintings became firewood for makeshift kitchens. In 1939 the convent was torn down to make way for ministerial offices, but the church remains to this day.
Nuestra Señora del Carmen
Looming over the Candelaria with its bright colored steeple is Nuestra Señora del Carmen. With its colourful mosaics and carved stonework, this church dates back to 1606 when Elvira Gutiérrez decided to convert her house into a convent for nuns. General Mosquera expropriated the convent and it was turned into a military hospital. He introduced a very liberal constitution that made the French novelist Victor Hugo claim that Colombia was a “country inhabited by angels.” In 1886, under the conservative government of Rafael Nuñez these angels left and a new order was invited to take over the church – the Salesians of Don Bosco. Wanting to capture some of the spirit of their native country, Italy, Florentine architectural styles were incorporated in to the building.
Nuestra Señora de La Candelaria
When the monks of the Augustine order settled in near Villa de Leyva in the 17th century, they looked towards Santafé de Bogotá to establish a hospice at the base of Monserrate. After the original designs were scrapped, the order built a rather uninspiring structure where today stands this emblematic yellow-painted church. At the eastern corner of the busy intersection of the Calle 11 and Carrera 4, you’ll see more tourists basking on the steps of the Juan Valdez than lining up to enter La Candelaria church. Yet it is worth a visit, because it best represents the baroque style in the historic centre.
If you decide to end your walking tour of Bogotá’s churches, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria despite its unassuming start, is a testament to the city’s restoration efforts and the revival of the La Candelaria.