From Agua de Dios, Colombia

There are two leprosy sanatoriums in Colombia: one in Contratacion and the other in Agua de Dios. Contratacion opened in 1860, and Agua de Dios 10 years later in 1870. Before these two sanatoriums, there was also a sanatorium called Caño del Oro, which opened in 1790 and closed in 1950. Upon its closure, the residents were transferred to the Contratacion and Agua de Dios.

In 1864, a regulation was issued to create leprosy sanatoriums in each province. At the time, Colombia had a large number of people affected by leprosy, and in many places people were no longer able to live in their homes because of stigma and discrimination. In the department of Cundinamarca, the government decided to prepare land for leprosy patients, claiming that Agua de Dios would be the land or them.

Although there were hot springs in the province of Cundinamarca, which had good weather and was easily accessible from Bogota, many wealthy people used Tokaima, a medium-sized city not far from there, as a winter resort, and many of them had villas there. About 70 people with skin diseases, including these wealthy people and their relatives, stayed here and were treated in the hot springs.

Following a regulation in 1864, rumors began to circulate that more than 100 people with leprosy were being brought into Tokaima from Bogota, and the residents of Tokaima, fearing this, forced the 70 people who had originally been there to be brought together and taken to Agua de Dios. The number of people who had been forced to leave Tokaima for Agua de Dios was reduced to about 40 by the time they arrived there, seeking the “Agua de Dios” (water of God), which was said to cure leprosy, as well as a safe place to live.

The government provided land, but its main purpose was to isolate people affected by leprosy. There was nothing there. After the issuance of a regulation in 1864, the government made efforts to secure a budget, and after the settlement in 1870, housing and other facilities were gradually provided with the provincial government’s budget.
However, the first hospital, San Raffaello Hospital, was not built until around 1880. In 1872, the Bridge of Sorrows, now a Colombian National Heritage Site, was built.

Before this bridge was built, people had to cross the Bogotá River, which runs along the road to Agua de Dios, in a cage hung on a rope which connects both banks of the river.

The name “Bridge of Sorrows” came from the fact that this bridge was where families and those affected by leprosy parted ways, and only those affected by leprosy crossed the bridge to reach Agua de Dios. Actually, this bridge was located in the neighboring city of Tocaima, and it took about three days to cross this river and wade through more woods and bushes to get to Agua de Dios.

What was the water of God? It was the hot spring that I mentioned earlier. Unlike Japanese hot springs, the temperature was just lukewarm, but there was a faint smell of sulfur. Surrounded by dense trees, the air was fresh, but the high humidity made it difficult for people suffering from leprosy to live there, so they continued their hot-spring cure while living in a town some distance away.

Today there are several shower booths and a jacuzzi. The leprosy isolation law enacted in Colombia in 1873 was repealed in 1961. Agua de Dios was registered as a municipality in 1963, and its first mayor took office in 1966. Around 1963, there were about 8,000 people affected by leprosy living in the city, but many left Agua de Dios when the emancipation order was passed, and today there are about 600 persons affected by leprosy.

Of the city’s population of about 13,000, the number of people unrelated to leprosy has also increased considerably. Agua de Dios is a beautiful, green city. How to preserve the history and develop the city is being discussed.