With eager anticipation we arrived into Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, and the city where we were going to be reunited with good friends (my childhood bestie, Julie, and her husband, Doug) who were flying in from Los Angeles on the same day, for a much-needed 2-week vacation. Bogotá is a HUGE city, home to almost 9 million people. It still has a reputation for crime and danger, with cautions to guard valuable possessions (or not carry at all), and to avoid walking around at night. Keeping your wits about your surroundings and sticking to “safer” neighborhoods is encouraged, so we opted to stay in the more upscale, gastronomic center of Chapinero/Zona G in the North, instead of what was the rougher backpacker’s ghetto of La Candelaria.
With only 3 days to zig zag through selected parts of the city, we tried to absorb the “feel” of Bogotá, often by taste, sampling Colombian coffee, vegetarian almuerzos, hot chocolate and cheese (yes, this is a thing), and hearty ajiaco (a rich chicken, potato, corn and caper soup). Julie is a coffee expert, and I can assure you that we were not letdown in this department. Colombia has convinced me of their coffee bean superiority with its’ mellow unburnt flavor and varied brewing techniques.
Even with limited time, the dominant themes of Bogotá became quickly apparent. First, Catholicism and devout faith play a prominent role in the Colombian culture. The big city of Bogotá proved no more secular than a tiny traditional town. Our first pit stop was to Monserrate, a mountain that dominates the skyline of Bogotá. We rode its famed funicular to the summit, in anticipation of the vast views revealed from the top. What I was less prepared for was the religious purpose of the journey, this being an important place for pilgrims. Along the way to a church atop the peak, a walking trail brings both tourists and the faithful along an ascending path, depicting the various stations of the cross. Here we peeked into the Sunday service, which was also transmitted over loud speakers, but spent most of our time admiring the cityscape below.
Another day, we experienced several forms of public transportation, at its fullest capacity, in order to make a round trip to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira. This was one of the more unique religious destinations, in that the cathedral was built in an old salt mine, 200 meters underground. The complex is a series of abstract rooms featuring crosses carved in the halite bedrock, representing the stages of Jesus’ life from birth, life, death by crucifixion, to resurrection. The underground chambers also house geological museums and tours about mining. *It then took us over 3 hours to get home during the crush of rush hour traffic, using a combination of taxi, long distance buses, and the massive transit of the intercity transmilenio bus line (standing room only!).
Back in overcast Bogotá, we admired the bright and vibrant street art that brought a vitality to crumbling facades and both poorer barrios in decay as well as newly renovated, hipster enclaves.
While touring La Candelaria, we happened upon a seemingly peaceful march and demonstration that culminated in the main Plaza de Bolivar. It was Labor Day, and the crowds were out in droves to protest issues of inequality and injustice. With smoke, drumming, masks, and emphatic Spanish being boomed over loud speakers, the environment was intimidating. Curiosity brought us to observe the organized chaos, but a sense of unease kept our voyeurism short. The kids were a little scared and us adults were on edge, so we headed indoors, to lunch in a nearby establishment – La Puerta Falsa. Just as we were finishing our meal, my eyes started to burn and weep, and I heard increased coughing. The staff of the restaurant was rushing to shut the front doors and windows, as it seems that tear gas was being used outside to disperse the crowds. All patrons were now physically uncomfortable with scarves and shirts pulled over mouths, and hands shielding crying eyes and hacking coughs. Colombian adventure number 1!
In comparison, here is the same square on another more typical day:
Besides appreciating street art, we visited the most famous Gold Museum of Bogotá, which is considered a highlight of Colombia. El Museo de Oro houses the world’s largest, most extensive collection of pre-Colombian gold work along with other examples of indigenous pottery and archeological wonders.
As in most large cities, we let ourselves wander. After all, getting lost is part of the big adventure. We paused for street performers, watched skate-boarders, perused crafts and bookstores, and randomly found ourselves playing dress-up in a small museum, featuring the life and writings of Miguel de Cervantes. From that day on, symbols and characters from Don Quixote magically cropped up all around Colombia, as constant reminders and nudges to finally read this classic. Botero’s hand sculpture also marked the beginning of a growing appreciation and interest in this influential Colombian artist. Over time, I realized that it was all the little nuanced moments, and the inherently local observations that we glistened in Bogotá, that ultimately helped to shape and flesh out our impressions of Colombia.