Travel: Latin America - The inside-out salt cathedral

In the first of an occasional series of journeys inspired by books, Simon Calder goes in search of Charles Nicholl's The Fruit Palace - and ends up looking for gold but finding salt
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The Independent Culture
GABRIEL GARCA Mrquez is Colombia's greatest living writer, and has a Nobel Prize to prove it. His intense studies of South America's most misunderstood country range from the mournful, evocative One Hundred Years of Solitude to the plain scary Diary of a Kidnapping. The trouble is, he doesn't do much for Colombia's tourist industry.

Charles Nicholl does, though. In his autobiographical travelogue-turned- thriller, The Fruit Palace, he describes a series of (mis-)adventures with people on the fringes of the drugs industry. Yet Nicholl also manages to convey the beauty of Colombia and the generosity of its people. If any book persuades you to visit the place, it will be this one.

The source of the title, though, proved disappointing. The first port of call on my trip to follow up a fragment or two of his journals began in Colombia's last resort: Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, not far from the frontier with Venezuela.

A couple of blocks from the sea, at Calle 10 No 2-49, I hoped to track down El Palacio de Frutas. In the book, this seems the Colombian equivalent of a milk bar, dispensing garish but tasty fruit juice combos. It also had a few rooms at the back, where Nicholl resided for part of his stay. Now its place is taken by a shop called El Progreso. No sign of cheap beds for dissolute foreigners there.

The compensation was day at a seaside which could hold its own against any Caribbean island - with the added advantage of live cumbio music throbbing from shoreline bars, in Colombia's loose equivalent of Brighton. I wandered into the Tayrona Gold Museum on the north side of Parque Bolivar. This, the oldest surviving building in Santa Marta is dedicated to the craft of the Tayrona people, who once wrought dazzling jewellery from gold in Colombia before the Spanish arrived to plunder.

The search for gold was at its most frenetic in the search for the location of El Dorado - literally, the Golden One. In The Fruit Palace, Nicholl paints an enticing scene of the prospect. Which is how I found myself aboard the Guatavita bus as it rumbled unsteadily across the heather-flecked moorlands of central Colombia. Battered, smelly and crowded, it seemed an odd vehicle for a pilgrimage. The driver halted at the foot of a small extinct volcano and yelled "Lago" (lake).

When the smoke from the bus exhaust cleared, I saw the only way was up - to the lake of El Dorado. If you remember the BBC's dreadful Iberian soap opera, you should know that it was named after one of the most mystical sites in South America, an hour north of Bogot. The lake is now called Guatavita, the same as the nearby town.

The walk to the rim takes a breathless hour. It is rewarded by the breathtaking sight of a shimmering lake half-filling a perfect crater, swathed in verdant anarchy.

El Dorado, the story goes, was an Indian king whose wife was unfaithful. Filled with remorse, she drowned herself in this idyllic lake. The grieving king covered his body in gold dust, placed himself on a raft and pushed off into the centre of the lake. Here he cast gold and jewels into the lake, and dived in to immerse himself in the cold, clear water and wash away the anguish.

This later between a tradition for Chibcha rulers, leading to the not- unreasonable assumption that the lake contains a vault's worth of precious metal. The tale aroused the greed of the Spanish and, later, the British, but no significant finds were made. The only examples from Lake Guatavita are on display in the Gold Museum in Bogot. In its bullet-proof glass cases, strands of pure gold have been wrought into a tiny model of the royal raft and the forlorn king.

Digging or diving for treasure proved less successful than salt-mining. After Lake Guatavita, zip along to the town of Zipaquira for the saline sight of the century. An hour on the bus deposits you in this dusty, grimy and cheerful little settlement, built on the edge of hills whose chief component is sodium chloride.

The miners could have hewn the salt from the hill artlessly, but chose instead to hack a couple of subterranean cathedrals from its insides. Had these been built in conventional fashion, the elaborate sculpting would be impressive enough; that the intricate nooks and curious crannies were chiselled from salt crystals makes the ensemble extraordinary.

I didn't blink too much when I emerged into the gloom of dusk. Just enough daylight seeped through the cloud cover to guide the bus driver's over- confident swerves along the racetrack back into Bogot. The Colombian capital is also the world's murder capital, so after dark you may prefer to stay in your hotel room and read. But make it something by Nicholl, not Garca Mrquez.