Dispatches from Colombia: Taj Mahal by the Highway

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Dispatches from Colombia: Taj Mahal by the Highway

A traveler north of Bogotá may pass a remarkable roadside attraction a thousand times and never slow down. Would you drive past the Taj Mahal? Tens of thousands of motorists do. Every day.

It’s a problem of location, location, location. Motorists departing the Colombian capital, headed into green Boyacá and points north, have finally gotten up to speed, just clear of the worst of the metropolis’s bumper-car traffic. No stopping them now.

Travelers returning to Bogotá have already put their adventures behind them. Facing bumper-car metro traffic ahead, they just want to get home, splash something cold in a glass, click on Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones), and chill.

So tens of thousands of drivers each day blast past an exact, full-scale replica of the Taj, the great Indian mausoleum considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The Colombian version stands in full view of anything on wheels that moves along Carretera Central del Norte, the major northbound artery of Colombia’s capital city.

The Taj Mahal might as well be a roadside empanada stand … the kind with a sleepy dog out front and a guy with lank black hair and no shirt watching the road like a condor. Too bad. The folks flying past miss a fantastic—in every sense of the word—stop.

Parque Jaime Duque bears the name of a pioneer Colombian aviator, a Purdue University graduate who returned home in 1944 to work with the national airline, Avianca. He organized Colombia’s first international routes in 1949 and 1950. Those planes used the stars for navigation.

Later Duque dedicated his life to community service. He built more than 300 homes and buildings, and donated, among many things, a city hall, school and firehouse to his home town, Villamaria, a library to Colombian military forces, and generous funding to hospitals, elderly homes, child centers, and universities.

Duque’s ultimate donation, a sprawling amusement/exploration park, opened in 1983. Along with a Taj Mahal, he gave Colombia a colossal helping hand (is it Atlas?) that thrusts from the ground mid-park. It palms a dark green orb as huge as some yet-to-be-named planet. Gigante!

A glass-enclosed train on an elevated track circles hundreds of acres where bright pink flamingos audition for work on the lawns of Tennessee trailer homes … and munching hippopotami imitate Botero sculptures … and furry beings with their monkey paws uplifted beg for peanuts on green islands … and little boats drift in dark arcades past elaborately crafted dioramas depicting the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves … and much, much more.

The Discovery Travel & Living channel named Parque Jaime Duque one of the five best parks in all Latin America. For sheer spectacle and bravado, it deserves other accolades.

Still, how many millions of Colombians have sped right past the Taj Mahal and Friends in the 34 years those attractions waited by the road in strange splendor? How many drivers glanced to the west and thought they simply saw an active Moslem mosque? Or some kind of cult meeting hall used on Thursdays by the Bogotá Elks Club and Mondays by Vegetarians for the Virgin?

It’s not easy to describe the real Duque. Imagine a mash-up of all Disney theme parks … but with every moment of our small-world-after-all, past-and-present history whirled in a blender, then poured out to entertain and educate.

Side-by-side, mythological creatures converge from Babylon, Greece, Rome, and … maybe … south Alabama. (It’s hard to tell the origin of that one thing with the spiky diadem and bare bottom.) The Taj Mahal awesomely commands the park, but smaller-scale replicas of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the Egyptian Pyramids also fascinate.

A genuine, full-sized, decommissioned destroyer escort, the USS Ruchamkin, idles in one of many water parks, and just beyond it, cannons trained and rigging ready, there’s a wooden Spanish fighting ship. Near the aviary spreads an enormous relief map of Colombia, one of the first things Duque laid out.

The world traveler was so proud of his country that his imagination seems to have colorfully exploded all over this part of it. The good man, who gifted this park to his nation, also made sure good things continued to happen after 2007, the year he rode off to that great amusement park in the sky.

Proceeds from Parque Jaime Duque support an elderly well-being center in Villamaria and the Maria es mi Madre home in Bogotá, where more than 350 abandoned old people receive care. The park provides financial aid to special children in the local community (Tocancipá), and these children enjoy Duque for free, as do poor and sick kids, thousands every year.

The Duque’s non-profit also finances programs to conserve endangered species like the Andean condor. (Sculptures of the hideous national bird pop up all over the park.) Other at-risk Colombian species—the blue-billed curassow and the gray titi monkey—also benefit. More than 70 acres are being reforested with thousands of native trees. And wild animals, including jaguars and pumas, live at the Duque temporarily after capture by government authorities. Many get reintegrated into Colombian forests and jungles.

Tag and release won’t happen for the stegosaurus, T-Rex, and other saurians on display. They’ll stare forever without blinking at the Taj Mahal from the park’s safe confines, their plastic reptile minds unimpressed by the spectacular onion dome, the soaring minarets, and the sheer unmitigated kitsch of the thing.

The seven dwarves (yes, those familiar seven, the Disney escapees) watch from a patch of grass too, and so do Cinderella and her wicked hermanastras, stepsisters, as do mythical rocs and centaurs and sphinxes. A theatre exhibits the 130 most important moments in the development of humankind. Another hosts the Divine Comedy.

That one, our Divine Comedy, is fully, wonderfully, outrageously on display here in this park. It’s a Damned Tragedy so few people stop to notice.

Image: Abe Bingham, CC-BY

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.