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Published: September 27th 2010
I spent six weeks in Bogota and have now covered most of the tourist attractions and made a number of weekend trips to the surrounding towns. I stayed with my girlfriend Angela, who I initially met through Couch Surfing. She has a comfortable flat in Candelaria, the old part of the town, close to the one of the universities - a perfect and relatively safe location.
Candelaria is full of beautiful colonial buildings, alternative bars, restaurants, and home to several universities. The area has a cool, alternative vibe thanks to the abundance of young students decked out in designer clothes, piercings, and expanded earlobes. One particular street, El Chorro
, is full of bars selling a pungent home brewed indigenous corn beer called Chicha, and at the weekends is packed with young, trendy people drinking in the streets.
I realised that Bogota is much safer than one would imagine, and I felt safer here than any of the big cities of Central America. A heavy police and private security presence provides perceived safety to those wealthy enough to live or spend money in the nice neighbourhoods. Angela advised me not to walk past 7th Avenue to the South until I
reach 28th street to the West. The South can be dangerous with much poverty, prostitution, and gang related crime - even in the day time.
The area where Angela lives and most of the North of the city are fairly safe but late at night it's better to take a taxi even in the good areas. Late one Friday night, however, Angela's flatmate was robbed in a side street near the house by a group of around 10 teenagers armed with knives and guns. Nearby police and security guards did nothing. But it's not surprising as it happened in a dark quiet street late at night.
Nearby, a hostel in Candelaria, where two friends from my boat to Colombia were staying, was robbed at gunpoint and everybody's stuff was stolen. Luckily my friends were out at the time and escaped being tied up whilst the robbers were examining their pickings. However, no one was harmed.
Bogota is the most modern and developed city I have been to so far, which is reflected in the abundance of museums, galleries, and cultural activities.
I visited the Museo de Oro
(the Gold Museum) housing a large collection
of indigenous gold artefacts and describing the history of the use of gold on the continent. Strangely, it didn't cover the removal of the majority of the gold by the Spanish.
I really enjoyed the Botero Museum
(free entry), which exhibits the rotund paintings and sculptures of Colombia's most famous artist, Fernando Botero. Also there are his private collections of art including pieces from Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Lucien Freud, and many more famous artists.
I went to the National Police Museum
, which was worth the entrance fee because it's also free. It's housed in a stately colonial building, and exhibits various artefacts, weapons, uniforms and photos of the history of policing in the country and from around the world. Violence permeates most aspects of the museum and it's an interesting reflection on the style of policing in the country - military fire power, brute force and punishment as opposed to prevention and rehabilitation. However, perhaps this is understandable when you consider what the police have to deal with.
The most interesting part is the section on Pablo Escobar, the Medellin drug cartel leader. There are gory pictures of him and his cronies taken after they
were killed, including one of a henchman after being assassinated by the Cali cartel with his hand cut off and placed in his head.
I attempted to discover how to access the secret compartments in Escobar's desk - he had the carpenter and his family killed after finishing the desk so no one would know the secret. This maybe was overkill as it was deceptively simple to open.
The National Museum
has exhibits on the history of the country, the Spanish conquest, and indigenous culture. It was hard going as the majority is only in Spanish and a lot of it was stuff you're supposed to read. The colonial art collections were more interesting and gave me less brain ache.
Cerro de Monserate
One of the cities' most well known attractions is the cable car up to the church on the top of a mountain to the North of the city. Conveniently, the cable car station is located about 5 minute walk from where I'm staying. The thin, high altitude air and the spectacular views across the city took my breath away.
Cerro de Guadalupe
One Sunday Angela and I drove to the top
at Botero Museum
of the adjacent mountain headed by a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, looming sanctimoniously over the non-virgins in the city below. We were joined by many locals, who every Sunday hike or drive to the top to light candles hoping their prayers will be answered.
I had heard about the Virgin of Guadalupe whilst I was in Mexico. The cynical account that I was told was that the indigenous of Mexico were having a hard time swallowing the story of the virgin Mary fed to them by the zealous Spanish missionaries. So they invented a local version to make it more believable.
The skycraper is one of the highest buildings in Bogota and is open to the public Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday during the daytime. We climbed up it one Saturday - well took the lift up - and the views of the illuminated city were stunning.
So that I could hold my own in the clubs of Bogota I took some Salsa classes. I started with Viviana at the Academia Musica Santana
, which were excellent value at COP75,000 ($38) for 12 hours. Viviana's pretty and vivacious nature made her a
at Botero Museum
pleasure to dance with, but at only 21 I felt maybe she was lacking experience and motivation. She was consistently between 30 minutes and an hour late for every lesson until I eventually decided I'd had enough waiting around and stopped taking classes with her. However, I got a good introduction to the basics of Colombian salsa at a very good price - I would recommend the school.
To digress slightly, Viviana's tardiness was bad even by Colombian standards. Angela tells me that lateness might be common socially but it's not tolerated professionally. My experience is that Colombians, as with other Latinos, have a tenuous grasp of time and space. Times, directions, and estimations of distance are often rough approximations. Social appointment times rarely mean anything more than arriving any time up to an hour later. Time estimations to get somewhere are always massively underestimated. Directions are often wrong - partially because Colombians are very helpful and friendly people and want to help you even if they don't know the way. During my stay in Colombia these minor frustrations accrued leading to a constant low level irritation - a form of culture shock - but I have now accepted
and integrated that aspect of Latino culture.
To return to Salsa, I learnt the basics with Viviana but my skills were totally transformed with my next teacher, Mr Swing
(T:3108834863). He's the choreographer of Bogota's most famous salsa band - La 33, who's office staff recommended him whilst I was buying tickets for their gig. He told me his standard price is COP40,000 ($20) an hour but gave me two hour sessions for the same price.
Learning with Mr Swing reminded me of one of those "Strictly Ballroom" type films where the young, hansom protagonist 😉 is trained by the old, washed out master - but who is still the best in the field. Dutifully I played my role and did a week of four hours per day and almost dropped with exhaustion to the barked orders of "faster", "why have you stopped", "keep going", "again". By the end of the week my dancing had been transformed with around 15 new steps of fancy footwork drilled into me, some new turns, falls, and even lifts.
I showed off my new skills in various clubs around the city. I went to Goce Pagano
Cerro de Monserate
from outside Angela's flat
times, which is very close to where I was staying. The music is excellent but it gets too crowded to dance later on in the night.
I heard live music at Quiebra Canto
- another good night but I was initially pissed because they have a minimum spend on the tables downstairs where the band was playing. I later found that this elitism is common in Bogota, but it still irritates me. Only the wealthy can sit at tables.
The situation is similar at Cafe Libro
where we saw La 33 live. They only sell bottles of spirits, effectively so that you have to spend a lot of money on alcohol. Nevertheless, the band were excellent, and made even better fuelled by too much rum.
One Saturday I went to "Salsa in the Park"
; a live Salsa festival in the august Plaza de Bolivar
featuring such stars of Salsa as Son de Cali. To accompany them, Mr Swing and his dancers put on an impressive show of highly choreographed routines featuring complex footwork, and acrobatic feats. The show inspired me to keep going with the lessons (despite the blood, sweat, and tears).
I didn't party that
much in Bogota - I was enjoying relaxing and resting after six months of travelling. I went to various places around Candelaria
, which are nearby areas very popular with students and young professionals. I also visited Park 88
and Park 93
, but these are further away exclusive nightspots in the rich North of the city.
Angela took me to some really amazing restaurants, for which Bogota excels. In the nearby neighbourhood of La Macarena
I ate modern fusion dishes such as fish with passion fruit sauce and coconut rice - a modern twist on traditional tasty Colombian cuisine. A treat for me was superb Italian food - something that is common in Europe but has been mostly absent in Latin America.
I celebrated my birthday at a very stylish Thai restaurant next door to the National Museum with Angela and several friends.
One weekend I went to Festival Algoimagen
- an arts festival featuring music, dance, film, theatre and other performance art. It was held in a variety of venues around the city. There are many free art and cultural events in Bogota and you can find something to do or see
most of the time. It appears that Bogota is a very cultural and interesting city - something I hadn't realised before I came here.
On an unusually sunny and warm Sunday (Bogota is usually cold and often cloudy), Angela and I went to the Botanical Gardens. They are the most impressive gardens I've seen so far in Latin America and due to the cooler and humid climate of the region included a greater diversity temperate and tropical plants. It was a great way to recharge after the bustle of the city.
My trips to places surrounding Bogota will be the subject of a later post. Note
- one of my friends commented that she is not receiving the email notifications when a new post is added. Please let me know if you are receiving them by posting a comment or sending an email. In fact, comments on whether you're reading the blog, whether the content is interesting or appropriate, and what you'd like to hear about would be gratefully received.
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