Originally published in The City Paper Bogota on June 18, 2013 as “Tequendama: Forgotten Falls”. Find the original story here.
The trip to Tequendama Falls does not smell nice. You’ll start on the Transmilenio, which houses a diverse mix of body odour and strong perfume at the best of times, and riding down the G line to Portal Sur is no exception. Once you’ve transferred to the decidedly more fragrant Alimentador bus (take the 10-5), open windows soon introduce you to the nasal assault that is Soacha. Dust mixes with the exhaust of post-apocalyptic factories and the traffic jams that permanently lock down the southern highway. At Terminal Sur, where you’ll catch a bus on to Tequendama Falls (look for the bus company conveniently named “Tequendama”) you’ll have to contend only with the mixed odour of stale empanadas and cleaning liquid. But it’s never a long wait at Terminal Sur, and on your last bus you’ll break out of the city and into Cundinamarca’s pristine highlands and fresh air. This will last about twenty minutes or so until you pass a toll booth and enter a valley, getting your first whiff of the Bogota River.
There is something very special about the smell of the Bogota River, a smell that only a city of over eight million people living on a diet of bandeja paisa, mazorca and tamales washed down with fibre-rich fruit juices could produce. As Carlos, a guide at the museum that once housed the Hotel El Refugio del Salto tastefully puts it, “every time you flush your toilet, you’re sending a little gift down the river and over the falls”. To see over eight million people’s waste – everything you’ve ever washed down the drain or flushed down the toilet – sailing off a cliff and freefalling 160 metres into the canyon below will have you gasp in awe, then immediately gagging at the indescribable something you may have just inhaled.
The falls have mythical origins from the time of the Muiscas, who once lived in the surrounding area. Their god Chibchachum, in a fit of rage that seems characteristic to many gods, flooded the Bogota savannah in an attempt to destroy the human race. In response, his more level-headed colleague Bochica used his golden staff to open the rocks at Tequendama, creating a waterfall that would drain the savannah and make it habitable again. After Spanish colonisation, the falls drew Muisca people who opted for the decidedly poetic end of jumping to their deaths instead of a life of slavery. Possibly the world’s most picturesque train station was built further along the canyon overlooking the falls in 1923, and today you can still see the platform’s handrail half buried above the highway. Built in the republican architectural style, the building was far too beautiful to be a train station for long and soon became the Hotel Refugio del Salto, a hangout for Bogota’s rich and fancy throughout the 1920s and 30s.
According to Carlos, the sewerage started flowing at noticeable levels in the 1970s and after a stint as a restaurant, the building was abandoned. Meanwhile, a dam and hydroelectric plant upstream not only reduced the falls to a trickle in dry seasons, but diverted the Bogota River – and all our “little gifts” – into other surrounding creeks and valleys before flowing into the Magdalena River, and off towards the Caribbean. Today, efforts are being made to clean the river, and the former hotel is currently open weekends and holidays as a museum while renovations take place through the week. For COP$4000 a guide will take you through the building, expounding on the history of the building and the falls amongst the diagrams of a French anatomy artist that are currently on display. The City Paper didn’t necessarily come to Tequendama Falls to admire a Frenchman’s drawings of genitals and spinal cords, but it was all interesting enough.
Muisca legends and Tequendama’s depressing reputation as a suicide spot for Bogotanos have led to beliefs about ghosts in the hotel and plenty of YouTube “evidence” to go with them. Carlos dismisses them all as “campfire stories,” but walking five minutes up the highway, jumping the barrier and ignoring the “Prohibited” signs will take you to the very edge of the falls, from where many poor souls have jumped. According to Carlos, the most recent case occurred one month ago. Tequendama is a somewhat strange place – cloud collects in the valley, cooling things down as you draw closer and often hiding the falls in fog while the sun turns buses into ovens just half an hour away in Soacha. It is a truly magnificent view down the valley, standing at the very edge of a 160 metre high cliff as countless thousands of litres of water shoot out over the abyss beside you every second. But it’s also frustrating to know why the water is black and smells, well, like eight million people have been to the toilet in it. The sheer power of the water is an exhilarating example of natural force, and yet it’s sobering to think of the poor souls, Muisca and modern Colombian, who have stood at that same spot seeing no other option but down. There are plenty of metaphors about modern Colombia that you could pull out of that, but it’s sufficient to say that a visit to Tequendama Falls is a beautiful, frustrating and exhilarating experience all at once, and therefore very Colombian.