Adventure without tourist traps in lively Bogotá
BOGOTÁ - I was mugged in Spain and terrified in New York, but as a single female traveler, I got only the cursory “Have a safe trip,’’ “Be careful,’’ “Adieu’’ before those trips.
Colombia received a lot more attention: “Watch for kidnappers,’’ “Find a chaperone,’’ “Value your life.’’ The first day I was in Bogotá two people tapped my bag, but as with all big cities, if you want to enjoy your trip, pay attention and don’t stare at gilded living statues for too long. City dwellers move past these fixtures as they do trashcans, which is to say they don’t see them at all.
Bogotá is one of the liveliest cities I have visited and it’s not because it’s culturally rich. Unlike destination cities, especially those that cater to Americans, it doesn’t bow down to Western visitors.
That won’t last for long. The Bogotános I talked with were overly concerned with what I thought of their country. For years the city has been working on changing its image in order to attract Western tourism dollars, but it has yet to make the “Top 10’’ destination lists of leading airlines, cruise lines, and trip advisers. But when people from all walks of life willingly act as national ambassadors, doing all they can to redress the city’s reputation as the hemisphere’s drug nucleus, mass commercialization is inevitable.
My recommendation: Get to Bogotá before this happens, before the phenomenal street graffiti is covered by theater signs, the uneven sidewalks corrected, the shoe shiners circling city squares become a novelty, and the majority of the population learns enough English to accommodate tourists.
Bogotá’s most touristy area, La Candelaria, is a good home base. It is close to theaters, museums, parks, and the city’s central historic district. It feels like a city neighborhood, not a glitzy tourist trap. Very few people speak English and even seasoned tourists stick out. La Candelaria is in the eastern part of the city, in the bottom right corner of most tourist maps, which neglect to include the large, poor southern part of the grid.
La Candelaria is divided by one of the city’s main streets, Carrera 7, which is just as entertaining as the city’s official cultural offerings. Wandering through La Candelaria and up and around Carrera 7 as far as Calle 63, you will find a brassy representation of Bogotá past and present, official and unofficial.
The herculean-sized statue in the Parque Nacional Olaya Herrera and the detailed graffiti art spackled throughout La Candelaria are just as interesting as the two main art museums, Museo de Arte Colonial and the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá. The Museo del Oro, in all its weirdness, is worth a stop. On the surface, the Museo del Oro is rather dull, stuffed with too many artifacts and informational placards - but on the second floor it morphs into a rapturous retelling of a sordid pagan past rife with animalistic murder and insatiable sexuality, all of which is corseted in gold and jade.
The city’s parks, gardens, and squares are impressive since the area’s more colorful characters have not been booted from public eye. The parks are thick forests and very quickly feel like the middle of nowhere, so pay close attention when you walk there.
The southern side of La Candelaria dead ends with Plaza de Bolívar, a vast, cobblestoned square more like European city centers than those in South America. The plaza’s namesake, Simón Bolívar, led several South American countries, including Colombia, to independence, but spent the last years of his life holed up in his Bogotá vacation house, Quinta de Bolívar. It is within walking distance to the plaza and a good stopping point on the way to Cerro de Monserrate.
Walking from Plaza de Bolívar to Cerro de Monserrate is not only a good hike into the city’s foothills - it’s more than 10,000 feet above sea level - but also the path mirrors Bogotá’s continuing battles of good versus evil, city progress versus mountain regression. Cerro de Monserrate is a church and shrine. No other spot in the city has a view like the cityscape from the top of Monserrate.
Though Monserrate has a few fairly good restaurants, skip the expensive meal and eat your way up the mountain. Cheese, starch, fried meat, caffeine, and chocolate can be found on every corner in Bogotá. Bogotános love cheese and sugar filled homemade bread. Watch for arepas, pandebono, and bocadillo, all of which fall in this category.
Even though your hands may be scarred by it, indulge in Bogotá’s version of to-go coffee, which is carried in small, thin, white or blue plastic cups to be tossed on the ground when finished.
Everything about Bogotá is an adventure, including transportation. While public transportation is abundant and will get you where you need to go - eventually - buses, cars, and the TransMilenio train system share the road with cart-hauling mules, so arriving anywhere takes patience. Bus stops exist, but buses do not actually stop at them. If you want a ride, step into the street and flag them down like you would a taxi.
Bogotá is chaotic, raw, and personable. The government and residents are on a quest to make it more appealing to Westerners, which threatens its authenticity. If you want to see Bogotá while gesturing is an acceptable form of communication and public art is the work of artists rather than municipalities, it’s time to delve into the Andes.
Ivy Hughes can be reached at email@example.com.