As a kid, I remember two specific things about all of my family.
Firstly, I have no idea who these people are.
But a part of that was because of my childhood in a divorced household.
Growing up, my family size was already double than the “normal” (a wonderful blessing blessing and, only in a small way, a curse), and because I was bouncing back and forth, I spent half as much time with each “family”.
However the second, and more important thing I will always see in all of my family: It doesn’t matter who you are, what you smell like, even if you like coffee or not. If you are family, you stick together, and the love of family is stronger than any distance between us.
My grandmother (“Nana”) and grandfather (“Granpa”) passed away in 2013 and 2014, and with them gone I started to feel that I might be losing some of my connection to latino heritage. After all, I had never once been to Colombia, the place where they had grown up, and where most of their (our) family lived today. Mom and I were now on our way to spend a week in Bogotá, where most of my family lived, and all of whom I would be meeting for the first time.
Mom and I landed in Bogotá airport, and with our bags fresh in hand, we walked from baggage claim straight into a crowd of family who had been awaiting us. Mark it: we had our first round of happy tears in the first two minutes. That’s pretty standard for mom and the family, we just have a lot of loving emotions going around.
Mom and I were joined by my mom’s sister, my Tía Martha, who had already been with the family in Bogotá for a few days before we arrived. Her spanish was also significantly stronger than mine or my mother’s, and her english stronger than anyone in the family’s. We were all still working to communicate with each other, but it certainly was nice to have the help if anyone needed it.
After some good food and conversation we settled in for the night with my Tío Alvaro, the brother-in-law to Granpa. Marta, and William, two of Alvaro’s children, also live in his building with their families. Nuri, Marta’s twin sister, lives separately with her husband and children, but we were not worried, we knew we would still be spending plenty of time all together!
Our first day we all reunited for a tour of some of the beautiful countryside together. With all 13 of us (to clarify that’s my Mom, her sister, and me, along with Tío, his children, their spouses and all the kids!) piled into a tour van, we set out for our first stop: Zipaquirá and the Catedral de Sal (“Cathedral of Salt”).
We arrived before the Parque de Sal (“The Salt Park”, where the Cathedral is located) opened, giving us some time for walking around Zipaquirá, where an enchanting town square and massive cathedral took our attention.
We eventually made our way into el Parque de Sal, a park based around the hillside salt mines. we enjoyed the view before venturing deep into the mountainside.
Soon enough we emerged into el Catedral de Sal. Having done no prior preparation, I was in awe at what was before me.
Deep underground we were within a huge cavern, carved to rival even Notre Dame in size. At the front, lights illuminated a massive cross-shaped hole over 22m tall. With no lights except the colored illuminations placed around the cavern, this was an incredible hidden “gem” in the salt mines of Colombia.
I could have easily spent all day taking photos deep in the mines below, but soon we were on our way out further into the countryside, an area known as Guatavita. It is named for adjacent lake nestled in the mountains, it was the perfect escape out of the crowded Bogotá.
The next day while many ventured to work, Tía Martha, Mom, and I hit some of the “must-sees” in Bogotá, accompanied by Marta and Nuri. We started with Monserrate, an adjacent mountain with a commanding view of the entire cityscape.
Climbing over 450m via cable car, we took in views of the sprawling views of Colombia’s capital while also enjoying the tranquil church at the top.
We finished the day seeing the classic of Bogotá: Plaza de Bolívar, along with Candelaría, the colorfully adjacent neighborhood to the plaza. Not to mention a little shopping in one of the local markets as well.
One of my most favorite days was the day we took an extra-long road trip to Puente Nacional, the small town to the north where Granpa had grown up. Getting there alone required a long drive through the Andes mountains, full of steep green hillsides and sweeping valleys.
Once we arrived we ate a quick breakfast in the town plaza. Here there were no police, no jail. With a town so small, there was no need!
We drove over to meet Granpa’s cousins and old neighbors, who owned a local luxury hotel outside of town. We all met on a large family-owned compound nestled in the rainforest next to the hotel. The tranquility was beyond anything we could have imagined.
After taking in the incredible views, we all sat down where we got a real treat, hearing the stories of Granpa as a kid!
As much as we knew Granpa, hearing yet another new perspective helped to make me appreciate all the joy he brought to the world around him, everywhere he was.
After a delicious lunch, we strolled along the river and on the grounds of the hotel. Incredible plants and flowers of all shapes and sizes, everywhere I turned there was another photograph I wanted to take.
The flowers once again made me think of Granpa, notorious for having the greenest thumb in our family back home. I could see why this place would have inspired him to grow so many different kinds of flowers when got older.
We eventually had to head back to Bogotá for the night, but, of course, not without a stop at the local sweets shop!
All in the Family
The amazing part of this trip, really, was the family. We spent most of our time with la familia de Tío Alvarez, who has three children, William and his sisters Nuri and Marta, who are twins. Marta has a daughter (Cata) who is 12 and son (Tian) who is 19, and Nuri has two daughters: 24 (Angélica) and 13 (Juanita). With William and his partner Jessica, we loved every second we got to spend with Sanchez family, who helped us out and around to la Catedral de Sal, Puente Nacional, and absolutely everything in between!
Family only gets bigger. After a whole day of seeing Bogotá, we went over the house of my Tío Andrés, a brother to Granpa, where I met cousins and second cousins and third cousins enough to fill a house all in itself! Like all Colombian families, made sure we were more than well fed, and had an amazing evening meeting and catching up.
We were also to given a real treat when we got to spend the day with Gil family, the family related to Nana. Nana’s numerous siblings meant that the Gil family opened an entirely new family, all of whom were incredibly happy and enjoying being together and visiting with us.
Before now I had only known my Tía Lucia (who to me is known simply as “Tía”), who was one of Nana’s 9 siblings. I had also already briefly met my Tía Anita, who had actually occasionally visited the US when I was younger. Tía Anita also made sure to host my mother and I for a delicious lunch on our last day with her family, along with my Tía Leonilde.
Out of all of the time I have spent as a member of the Gil family, what I think was most incredible was how much I saw and heard Nana immediately speaking to her siblings and family. I can only imagine how much she would have loved to see us all connect for the first time and finally been all together as a family.
So all in all, my trip to Colombia was incredible, as Colombia is more amazing than I ever could have believed. There was nothing better than being able to go and quadruple my family, add to those that I care about (and care about me!) and bring me even more memories of where I come from. Listo, me voy a regresar pronto!