He is always depicted with a deep and striking gaze, his black eyes searing through the humidity of a gathering tropical storm, or fixed on some distant horizon from atop a magnificent horse. When traveling around Colombia, Simón Bolívar is a reference of every small town and large metropolis, lending his name to parks, schools, roads, bridges, and airports. He has been cast in bronze, chiseled from white Italian marble and painted by great masters. His most famous words are engraved on the walls of government buildings, and the homes he visited during the Independence campaign are considered among the most important landmarks in the country.
Accompanied by roughriders from Los Llanos Orientales, Irish and British fighters with the British Legion, and machete-wielding Creoles, Simón Bolívar was 36 years of age when he entered Santa Fe de Bogotá on August 10, 1819. Having defeated the Spanish Army on a small bridge in Boyacá three days earlier, he was received with a hero’s welcome and climbed the steps of the palace of the Viceroy. Admired in Washington, Paris and London for his military prowess, the route the Liberator took to free the New Granadian colonies from the royalists, begins in Bolívar’s birthplace, Caracas. Having crossed the great plains of La Gran Savannah with footsoldiers and horses, Bolívar’s first steps towards the independence of the territory of Colombia begins in Tame, Arauca, when on June 12, 1819, Bolívar met with General Francisco De Paula Santander to reorganize the army before the final assault in the central Andes.
The 540 kilometers of the Ruta Libertadora covers four departments (Arauca, Casanare, Boyacá and Cundinamarca) each with distinctive topographical features, climate and vegetation. From the grasslands of Casanare where Bolívar’s fighting capacity grew to include the Santander division, to the historic freedom proclamation in Paya, Boyacá, on June 30, after a garrison of Royalists was ambushed by the patriots, the route follows the open road that connects the interior of the country with the oil-rich and cattle grazing region of Los Llanos.
Crossing the high altitude wetland of Pisba in a day, accompanied by General Daniel O’Leary and 3,000 poorly dressed soldiers, Bolívar entered the valley of the Río Sogamoso at Socha on July 22. Fatigued by the march and weakened by the altitude, the Santander and Arredondo divisions were to face their first major engagement with the commander of the Spanish Army, General José María Barreiro in the marshes of the Vargas Swamp. O’Leary was injured in the offensive.
The battle of Pantano de Vargas marked a turning-point in the independence campaign, raising the morale of the cavalry, infantry and lancers before the decisive Battle of Boyacá on August 7. At the center of what today is the dairy heartland of the department and includes the town of Paipa with its Designation of Origin cheese, travelers along the Ruta Liberatadora can stop and explore two of the country’s most important battlefields, with the stone bridge where the Battle of Boyacá took place, just 20 minutes south of Tunja.
The main landmarks to the Liberator are not relegated to this route however, even though it is pivotal to the bicentenary celebrations. As Bolívar’s legacy is also indelibly linked to the Colombian coast, visitors to Santa Marta can walk the estate known as Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino where the Liberator spent his final days and died December 17, 1830. Immortalized in the novel The General in his Labyrinth by Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, Bolívar visited Cartagena and Santa Cruz de Mompox on several occasions, before the independence cause took root, and inspired by the revolutionary ideals sweeping across Europe at the time. In colonial Mompóx, the Liberator declared most famously: “If to Caracas, I owe my life, to Mompox I owe my glory,” a clarion call that today is engraved beneath his statue in the town’s main square. Many of the homes and haciendas where Bolívar stayed with friends and close confidants in Mompox are among the main tourist attractions of this riverine town.
As a fortified outpost of Spanish rule in New World and port for the shipment of gold and incalculable riches from the continent, Cartagena seemed to Bolívar an alternative route to independence and gateway to the plains, mountains and plateaus of the interior. Hostile to Spain given its long history with trade, and governed by a powerful merchant elite, Cartagena adopted a Republican Constitution in 1811, declaring the city, in effect, an independent state. In this turbulent setting, Bolívar arrived a year later, seeking refuge and laying the groundwork for the capitulation of Spanish rule across Latin America with the so-called Cartagena Manifesto. The Casa de Bolívar in the Calle San Agustín Chiquita was restored by the Banco de la República and was where the Liberator stayed and today, still houses the partiture “La Trinitaria,” which he faithfully took to battle. Cartagena’s most important plaza, which faces the Palace of the Inquisition, also bears the Liberator’s name.
In Bogotá, Simón Bolívar is ever-present, beginning with the country’s most important public square in the historic district of La Candelaria – Plaza de Bolívar – and largest green space, Parque Simón Bolívar (Cra 45 with Calle 63). The Quinta de Bolívar was the Liberator’s official residence in Bogotá and given to the leader in 1820 by the government of the new Republic in gratitude for the Independence. Even though he only lived on this estate for 423 days (between 1821 and 1830), the rooms and salons reference his love affair with Manuelita Sáenz, the Ecuadorian-born daughter of a Spanish businessman. According to Bolívar’s biographer John Lynch, the “South American beauty” was lively and independent, showing a talent for riding, shooting, “and some sympathy for revolutionary ideas.” The Sáenz’s family home, one block east of the Plaza de Bolívar, faces the small San Carlos square and operates as the Museum of Colombian Regional Costumes (Calle 10 No.6-26).
If planning on discovering Colombia through the life of the Liberator, his fighters and aides-de-camp, here are some historical and cultural references:
The Plaza Bolívar in Manizales, Caldas, has the most outstanding sculpture to the Liberator created by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt and titled “Bolívar Condor.” This bronze monument depicts a winged man-bird taking flight with the neo-Gothic Cathedral as its backdrop. Arenas Betancourt’s mythical beast is one of the most identifiable works of the Antiochian artist.
If walking the Magdalena-fronted Albarrada promenade in colonial Mompox, look for the stone plaque with the dates of Bolivar’s arrivals and departures. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and among the most picturesque destinations in the country, Gabriel García Márquez’s writes in The General in his Labyrinth that the Liberator tells a companion: “Mompox doesn’t exist. Sometimes we dream about it, but it doesn’t exist.” This town of 30,000 does exist and can be reached on a good road from Valledupar, capital of César, Sincelejo in Sucre, and Cartagena, capital of… you guessed it: Bolívar.
The Vargas Swamp faces the Paipa – Duitama road and a meandering 30 minutes by car from the departmental capital Tunja. The battlefield is home to another sculpture by Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt called the Monument to the Lancers in which barefooted horsemen, wielding spears, charge toward the sky. The site of the famous battle is open to the public free of charge, and after admiring the synchronized rendition of the events that took place on July 25, 1819, head to Paipa and enjoy its famous cheese before soaking your bones in the town’s many hot thermal springs.
No two statues of Bolívar in Colombia are alike. Take the Plaza de Bolívar as one example where a stoic Liberator points his sword towards the ground, dressed in heavy garb and breastplate. The sculpture was made in 1843 by the Italian artist Pietro Tenerani (1789-1868) and cast in bronze by Ferdinand von Müller at a workshop in Munich, Germany. It was installed in front of the Capitol in 1846 and has witnessed ever since: marches, riots, uprisings, El Bogotazo, Christmas concerts and another fixture of the plaza – pigeons.
Formerly known as Plaza de Armas, the largest square in Santa Marta took the name of the Liberator in 1830, the same year as his death in nearby San Pedro Alejandrino. The sculpture depicts Bolívar on an unruly horse in true Napoleonic grandeur. The work was crafted by Italian metalsmiths Leone Tomassi and Vignali Tomassi.
The small stone bridge that allowed Bolívar and his motley crew to gain the upper hand against General José María Barreiro in the Battle of Boyacá is an obligatory stop on the Bogotá to Tunja highway, at the juncture of the country road that leads to Samacá and Villa de Leyva. With its Visitor’s Center and manicured lawns, the Puente de Boyacá is one of the most important tourist sites in the country, and where every August 7 a military parade takes place. If feeling the altitude, enjoy a local delicacy: a ground maize arepa, and snack that 200 years ago fed the forces of liberation.