Suesca is an hour or two north of Bogota and is the birthplace of rock climbing in Colombia. The Rocas de Suesca are a 4km long sandstone block of awesome climbing, with approx. 400 routes, including trad and sport climbing as well as multipitch. Perched high on a rocky ledge is a statue of Mary, watching over the climbers.
I had gone online and found a guide recommended on a blog and given him a call. Sebastian was great on the phone so we agreed to climb at 9am the next day. Now we just had to get from Bogota to Suesca and find a room for the next few nights. All this was easier said than done, as we chose to leave Bogota in rush hour. The buses were chockablock and getting on and off with our big rucksacks was an ordeal!
Still, we arrived to Suesca at 8ish, to find a completely dead town. We had heard this might be the case as Suesca is a popular weekend place for Bogota residents but there is hardly anyone climbing there during the week. The only place showing any sign of life was a little shop so we asked in there if they knew of any rooms. They called somebody and five minutes later, a guy named Ricardo was letting us into his place a few doors down. The other two or three hostels in town all close at 7pm as I guess the workers/owners don't stay here by the rock, but rather in Suesca town ten minutes up the road.
Ricardo suggested we move the next morning to his other place, a 15 minute walk along some train tracks to a hostel and campsite right by the rocks. So the next morning bright and early we headed there and I met up with my climbing guide Sebastian shortly afterwards.
As the hostel was so close to the rocks, Will came along to watch, meaning I've got some pretty great pictures of the climbs that day. We started with two supposedly easy routes that were actually pretty challenging I thought! The crux move at the end was a sloper hand hold, basically slapping your hand down and hoping your skin is calloused enough that there's some friction to hold you there for long enough to grab the last hold.
After this we tried some crack climbing, using trad gear. I've never climbed trad before and it was really fascinating to learn about this whole different aspect to climbing. Trad is short for traditional and it is when there are no bolts in the rock, you must place all the gear yourself to clip yourself to the wall. Gear can be tiny little nuts that fit into the smallest of cracks, or much larger spring loaded ‘cams’ that fit into bigger spaces. You can also use slings to tie through holes in the rock, or around horns, or even around trees. It is an amazing part of climbing that really respects the rock and believes in leaving the rock as you have found it. Some advocates of trad climbing also believe that if a route is possible to climb trad, e.g. there is a crack where protection can be placed, then it shouldn't be bolted at all. All of this makes sense in theory, but in practise trad is a whole new ball game, that's needs a lot of skill, experience and forward planning. You need to take up the correct gear with you but ideally you don't want to be taking up everything you own as it's too heavy. You must select what you think you'll need, but be wary of running out of gear before you've finished the climb, or you run out of one size of cam because the crack has been the same width throughout the climb.
Of course none of this was an issue as Sebastian has been climbing here for 17 years and knows all the routes inside out. The crack climbing used completely different techniques to the slab climb before and I did two interesting routes. Once he had set up the route on top rope, I climbed and ‘cleaned’ the route by removing the gear using a special tool on the stubborn pieces as I went up.
If you need a guide, call Sebastian on: 310 786 3024, he was attentive, had brilliant equipment, and I learnt a lot about trad climbing and the traditions in the sport of climbing that I didn't know before.
On the second day of climbing we did a multipitch called Clavicula. It was nice easy climbing up to the top of the rock and a walk back down. It was three pitches long, the first pitch was up a crack, through a narrow chimney section to a bolted anchor. It was fun climbing. I reached Sebastian and then we picked our way along a flat platform to where we started the next pitch. This pitch was solely trad climbing, meaning he had to build the anchor from trad gear from where to belay me from above. The second pitch was harder than the first, with smaller handholds, but still nice and easy. The last pitch involved a slight overhang which was more of a challenge, but again absolutely doable. At the top when we finished the climb, we could stand away from the edge and take in the view of the valley. Dominating the view were giant greenhouses where they grow flowers for export. It was a quick walk down the back of the rock on an easy slope to get our feet back on land. It was a really enjoyable route.
After, we tried a much harder route that was definitely a challenge from the start to the finish. It was more of a bouldering start, very tricky, requiring strength in the finger tips! I tried the start a few times with the help of Sebastian, and eventually hauled myself up and over to finish.
Other than climbing there really isn’t much to do in this town in the week. Apparently it gets heaving on the weekends when lots of the boarded up places fill with life and revellers escaping the city. However for us it was pretty tranquil, almost too tranquil.
Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá
We had heard that this was a good day trip from Bogota but it is also close to Suesca so we headed there one afternoon after climbing in the morning. After a two hour journey on two different buses we made it to the town and quickly got a taxi up to the cathedral area. The entrance was full of crappy fast food restaurants and crappy tacky shops and we both looked at each other thinking of gaaaawd have we made a huge mistake coming here. But once we were inside the mine, all these fears were forgotten. It was absolutely stunning!
The tour took us deep into the mine, starting with the 14 stations of the cross, representing Jesus’s last journey. We had seen oldy statues of this up on the top of the hill in Bogota but this was entirely different. A completely modern take, each stage was a huge bold cross carved entirely from rock salt. They had been designed by different artists to represent each stage, and were incredible structures made from gigantic single blocks. Around each one were kneeling platforms for people to pray. They were creatively lit, and it felt almost like we were in an underground modern art installation and not a place of worship.
This corridor led us down deeper into the mine to the much larger mine tunnels that made up the main cathedral space. Our first glimpse was from the choir area, looking down onto the worlds tallest underground cross. On first thought this sounded really special and grand, then on second thought we wondered… how many large underground crosses can there actually be. The guide asked us to guess how heavy the cross was. But when we got down to check it out, we could see it was an optical illusion, the cross was carved into the rock and lit from the inside.
Four huge 12m wide columns supported the ceiling. The three chambers represented Jesus's birth, life and death, and in the first was a natural salt 'waterfall' suspended in time, with the bright white salt cascading down from an opening in the high wall. The middle contained the giant cross, and in the last was a simple carving of Mary carrying Jesus's body down from the cross.
The striation marks from dynamite and pick axes in the walls and ceilings were everywhere making beautiful crisscross patterns. We were told that below us the mine was still in operation but now they use a water method to dissolve the salt rather than explode it.
There was a non religious space down there two, which sold the customary tourist tat - statuettes carved from rock salt, jewellery etc. There was also space for a light installation and a water mirror that perfectly reflected the ceiling. It would seem they have so much space down there they are struggling to come up with ideas of how to fill it. One quite successful use of space has been using it as a gig venue where drunk revellers and guest DJs can get wasted on holy water and ask for forgiveness in the morning.