Christmas In Colombia Atop Bogota’s Monserrate Mountain

White Christmas In Colombia

At more than 10,000 feet above sea level, Christmas atop Monserrate mountain feels like something out of a movie.

The history of religious celebration on Monserrate dates back to the early 17th century, when the Brotherhood of Veracruz would climb the hill for prayer. Later, in 1640, a religious retreat established there and eventually built a church dedicated to Monserrate’s Virgen Morena, whose sanctuary is located in Barcelona.

By the 19th century, the site’s shrine and statue, devoted to El Señor Caído (The Fallen Lord), had become a popular destination for residents, tourists, and pilgrims.

The residents of Colombia, as in much of Latin America, are predominantly Catholic. Religious traditions and celebrations maintain more of a traditional meaning in this country than in much of the Western world. Less focus on Santa Claus and more on the miraculous birth of Christ.

This traditional focus on Christmas doesn’t need to be boring, and nowhere has this been more apparent to me than at the lighting of Monserrate’s Christmas tree. The festive spirit present during this annual event is infectious.

Don’t worry if you’re not into long sermons or religious spectacles. You can show up anytime for the celebrations, and most of the attraction is outside the church. Just be sure to be in time forthe tree lighting and fireworks. This is a light show worth seeing and includes lit-up Nativity scenes scattered along the route up the mountainside.

Don’t worry either if you’re not up for a 10,000-foot hike up a mountain. You can make the journey by gondola or train. Devout visitors make the hour-long trek on foot, especially on Sunday. The most penitent place rocks in their shoes or make the climb on their hands and knees.

Many thousands show up for the event. For some it’s a serious religious pilgrimage, but for others it’s a night out to enjoy the uninterrupted views of Bogotá, the aromatic tea and coffee, and the Christmas treats and trinkets sold in the market.

Come one, come all.

The facilities at Monserrate’s peak include washrooms, a pastry and coffee shop, and a fine-dining restaurant, surrounded by woodland walking paths. Foxes are spotted in the thicker brush on occasion, as well as hummingbirds, sparrows, and wrens. Vendors are lined up in the market area, where you can buy crosses, rosaries, artwork, snacks, and piping hot coca tea.

Coca tea is a traditional drink here and isn’t anything too different from drinking coffee or other teas. It’s not too strong, and isn’t even considered a narcotic (in neither Colombia nor the United States), though it does alleviate altitude sickness.

The hot coca tea and the coffee are served for another reason, too: Keeping your hands warm. Down at sea level, Colombia may be famous for its hot beaches, but Bogotá and Monserrate are inland, up in the Andes Mountains, where the temperatures are much cooler than in coastal Cartagena, for example. Temperatures here are known to flirt with freezing, so hot drinks (and probably gloves) are essential.

The most recent snowfall was only last winter, when two feet of snow dumped on Bogotá. The streets of the Colombian capital could have been mistaken for a scene from “Fargo.” Some say there is a chance it might happen again this year, though Bogotá has recorded only a handful of snowfalls in the past 70 years or so.

A proper climatologist would probably note that it is technically hail and not snow, but don’t let that spoil the winter wonderland. Snowballs fights, snowmen, and snow forts await.

A white Christmas in Colombia—a true Christmas miracle.

Matt Chilliak

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