This is one of the recovered blogs that was lost when the Website phylonthego.com was hacked. With the help of my friends who had saved these blogs it was recovered and put together again with its images. The original was written in November 2013, so it is not current, but has been left in its original form to be authentic.
Bogota, the beating heart of Colombia, is located on a high, Andean plateau in the center of the country. It is the Capital and largest City in Colombia, covering an area of 613 square miles with about eight million people in the metro area. Founded officially in 1538 by the Spanish Conquistadores, they left behind some magnificent architecture, beautiful Cathedrals and many trained artisans who helped build and decorate the Cathedrals.
Today Bogota is the economic and financial center and the largest business platform, attracting international companies and real estate investors. It is also the Judicial and Government headquarters. The majority of the population are of European descent with a small minority of Mestizo (mixed) and Afro Colombians. The language is Spanish and the predominant religion is Catholicism – though all religions are respected..
Whereas Medellin enjoys spring temperatures twelve months a year and Cartagena has a humid tropical temperature, Bogota is chilly, with the temperature hovering around 55 – 65 degrees Fahrenheit and alternating wet and dry days
Known as the Athens of South America because of its cultural offerings, Bogota has the largest number of research centers and universities, the latter said to number one hundred and fifteen. The population is mostly well-educated. It has several outstanding book stores and libraries and in 2007, UNESCO gave Bogota “The World Capital of Books” Award for promoting reading activities and libraries.
Bogota is the hub of Colombia’s flagship airline, Avianca, founded as long ago as 1919. The city with its sophisticated food scene and stylish restaurants, micro-breweries, trendy bars, attractive coffee shops, fashion boutiques and sophisticated hotels is attracting an ever growing number of tourists. It is easily accessible to foreign airlines, the bus system is good and inexpensive and there lots of taxis that one can hail any time of the day or night.
It is time to get over the outdated and ill-informed memories of the Escobar era and to enjoy this vibrant world-class City for what it has become and what it has to offer.
Bogota was on my “to do” list since earlier in the year when I had visited Medellin in Colombia. I had read that Bogota had made a huge turnaround since the early 1990’s when it was a chaotic, fear ridden, urban decaying city and I wanted to go and see for myself.
The gateway to Bogota is the El Dorado International Airport and after arriving, I took a taxi to the hotel. My arrival was a little rough”, with a hotel reservation made on the internet that the hotel said they had never received, even though I produced a printed confirmation. It was a “plot” to push up the rate and after working that one out, I made up my mind that it would not color the rest of my visit and go forward with an open mind even though I had been told Bogota is known for it scams !!
Bogota is enormous – I had no idea just how big until I called a taxi and asked him to take me to Plaza Bolivar. .Now I know just how enormous it is: 613 square miles, which is bigger than the area of NYC. The traffic was horrible and every now and again I gave a gasp as we narrowly escaped an accident. It seemed we were driving “forever”” and I began to wonder if this was another scam and perhaps we were driving round and round the same route while the meter went up !! It was interesting seeing the different neighborhoods and how many people were in the streets.
Ultimately we arrived at Plaza Bolivar. It is in the Candelaria neighborhood, the original heart of the City. The beautiful classically styled buildings on the periphery of the square represent the main Cathedral, the home of the Congress, the Mayoral Seat and the Supreme Court. The stature of Simon Bolivar seated on his horse, sits in the center of the square and someone had irreverently added a little graffiti. There were tame pigeons everywhere, and people feeding them. A mime artist, perfectly still, with his skin painted gold and wearing army fatigues, was doing brisk business collecting change – occasionally he would shock the pubic by saluting. Colombians like to snack in the street and there were vendors selling snacks and drinks.
Bogota has a selection of important museums. Exploring the area further, I found the Botero Museum close by, with a generous collection of one hundred and twenty-three original Ferdinand Botero sculptures, drawings and paintings donated to the Botero Museum by the artist, plus eighty-five works by international artists from his personal collection.
Adjacent to this was a fascinating numismatic exhibition, restaurants, little shops, street peddlers and ultimately a welcome Juan Valdez coffee shop where I sat and relaxed over a good cappuccino and an irresistable pastry. Juan Valdez is a “home boy” ( Juan Valdez is the brand name, not the real name of an actual person), a successful chain of coffee shops that has proliferated throughout Colombia and Panama with a few in the USA – his coffee is good, really good and his success is deserved.
After my first day of touring on my own, I realized this vast and sprawling City would overwhelm me and if I was to begin to understand it, and get through my checklist, I should hire a guide.. Looking on Google, I selected Destino Tours, and based on what I had read and wanted to see, I gave them my “wish list”. I was told to be ready the next morning by 9.30 a.m. when my guide would arrive. We would not be touring in a car, and would use public transport, which I thought was a bit unusual, but went with the flow.
Meeting my guide was a shock and I wondered if I had made a good decision. His name was Andreas and he was one meter ninety-four tall, that is about six feet five inches, with a mohawk haircut, a few studs in his face, was wild and woolly looking and not what I was expecting. We went over the plan, headed for the bus and I began to get some insight into Bogota, its history, architecture, politics, personalities, scandals and upheavals. Andreas is a free spirit, who has traveled extensively in South America and spoke openly about his country, the good and the bad. He had learned his English at school. but had “polished” it by being with English-speaking people he met while backpacking throughout South America. It took a while to understand what he was saying because of his accent.: Government was “Goovermint”, Skyscrapers were “Skyscrapers” (get a visual of that !!) and the word public was “pooblic” that sounded more like pubic, somewhat disconcerting, but he was a fountain of interesting information and opinions and I got a sense of this vibrant and evolving society. He knew his country inside and out and his favorite place was the Pacific Coast, its culture, (pronounced cooltoor) cooking and music.
Leaving the Hotel, we clamored aboard the bus, as it lurched forward without any consideration for my age or knee replacement, on our way to what Andreas called the cradle of Bogota, the old town of Candelaria from which this sprawling city of ten million inhabitants was born. He explained that the city was never planned and just grew, spawning different neighborhoods that eventually were joined together in a loose grid system with no urban planning.
We admired the graffiti and I was told it is an accepted art form in this city and encouraged. Many graffiti artists are Rustifarian (not sure why) and many are ex-cons (not sure why) and are recognized for their artistic creations and sought after to do new projects. Most of the graffiti has a political edge and a message.
We wandered through the”cradle” of Bogota, stopping to see some Pacific Coast musical instruments and Andreas gave a demonstration of how to play the drums. We sampled street food which I did not enjoy but ate as part of the cultural immersion. I learned that the San Francisco River that runs throughout the city had been polluted and Salmona, a brilliant man and the most recognized of Colombian architects, (who is also world-famous) was responsible for having the river “cleaned”, and harnessing its water supply, He showed me where the architect’s plan took this river underground, purifying the water that is now used as the main water supply for the City.
We went up Mount Monserrate in a “gondola” (cable car) to get an overview of the City. It took four minutes to reach the top, and the view was formidable. This was an important stop as it gave me an idea of the spread of the city and its urban sprawl. There is a Church at the top, and a restaurant and the noise of the city was for once left behind.
Returning to ground level in the cable car we walked the Macarena, a revitalized and bustling neighborhood that is a sort of Soho, with restaurants, avant-garde art galleries and interesting graffiti. In fact we stopped to watch graffiti artists working on a large design, surrounded by admirers as they worked.
Over the next two days we walked and talked and took taxis when I was too tired to walk to the bus. Bogota is a high altitude City, 8,700 feet above sea level, with an annual temperature of sixty degrees,at its warmest so I was a little chilly as well as finding it took more effort to walk because of the thin air. . We visited a “leftist” university where I saw un-American graffiti sprawled on the walls, such as: “American m.f’s go home.”
Viewing Rogelio Salmona’s architecture was high on my wish list. He had spent several years working with Le Corbusier in Paris as well as observing the intricate brickwork in Granada, Spain and these elements are apparent in his work. Working with Le Corbusier was part of an international prize that he had won. Throughout his life he had won several international and local awards and revolutionized urban architecture in Colombia His buildings were easily recognized by his use of the local red bricks that were customized for his unique designs and were used in both the buildings and the landscape architecture. This resonated with what he had learned while living in Granada, Spain.
The Produce Market required a particularly early morning and was a wonderful experience. The selection and quality of the fresh fruit and vegetable were beyond imagination and magnificently displayed. They were fresh, probably harvested that day or the day before and had more varieties of potato than I had ever seen. Photographs were forbidden and I did not dare break the rule The fish display took the prize for interesting and creative display and we finished the visit with breakfast on tall wooden stools at a counter. Sorry, no photos !!
I had read about the Ricoletta, the cemetery so we went off to see it, Latin countries have some incredibly interesting cemeteries with intricate family tombs and gravestones as well as being the final resting place for celebrities, well-known citizens, notorious murderers and the murdered. On entering the cemetery there were three large prominent tombstones, all belonging to murdered heroes, or protesters. These were people with promising futures who were gunned down because they were gaining in popularity, were a threat to the party in power and whose murders were “ordered” by the Government. Murder is part of the culture and I found it tragic how many brilliant minds had been silenced by death because they had the courage to stand up for their principles, young men in their forties and fifties who were trying to make a difference.
Andreas kept me sampling different street foods that he said was part of my graduation process !! There were arepas and tortilla like pies,, wafers sold from the bicycle cart with a sweet filling mixed with cheese and topped with a strawberry sauce, that was actually quite good and the one I really enjoyed was the wafer covered with a warmed chocolate sauce.
We went to a restaurant serving Pacific Coast fish. Simple plastic chairs, no table cloths, fresh homemade fruit juice served out of plastic jugs and no-frills or refinements. The first course, a fish soup was included and was enough for a meal but this was followed by fried fish, french fries, plantains, rice and salad — the quantities were enormous and the fish was delicious, with a crunchy exterior. This was a hole in the wall restaurant that I would never have found on my own.
Bicycles are everywhere in Bogota where cycling has been encouraged as a way to reduce the amount of cars on the roads and there is an extensive network of cycle paths. On Sunday many roads are closed to motor traffic from early morning until 4.00 p.m. to allow cyclists the freedom of the roads. I was in Bogota on a Sunday and saw this in effect. It is also a way to promote fitness. Traffic has also been reduced by introducing restrictions on the days that a person is allowed to drive. This is hard to believe when one sees the amount of traffic on the roads, but it did make a difference and there are penalties if caught not following the rules, The bus system is good and affordable and operates like an above ground metro with numerous connections. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive, about $3.00 to $4.00 a ride and no tipping. People from Bogota are always protesting and although many protests are unsuccessful the one brought on by the taxi drivers recently to reduce the price of gas, was extremely effective and caused the whole city to come to a standstill. The Government quickly responded, gave in to their requests and begged the drivers to get back to work and have the city operating again.
Bogota had been a violent, environmentally contaminated and lawless crime ridden City. The turning point came in 1992 when one of it’ s very corrupt mayors was put in jail. and this signaled a complete turnaround. Since then the Mayors have been democratically elected and a series of mayors with forward thinking policies have done much to change the culture of corruption, including reducing the number of guns that are in use. Today it is relatively peaceful and safe, although I sense that corruption is in the DNA. Property taxes and a gas tax have provided funds to clean up the slums, (there are still awful slums) create parks and green spaces, said to number 4,500, enforce parking rules ( no more parking on the sidewalk and in someone’s drive !!) and create an excellent bus system that moves the population around at an affordable price, as well as building pedestrian overpasses, sidewalks and bike paths for the increasing number of cyclists. One of the most successful Mayors was Antonius Mockus, who had been a University Professor, who used some crazy ways to bring about change to a lawless, corrupt and out of control City and I find the stories hard to believe but I know they are true. He was the right person at the right time and was successful in turning the City around. Traffic chaos was particularly bad and to draw attention to improving it he hired 420 mime artists who interacted with the public, shadowing pedestrians who did not follow the rules and ridiculing reckless drivers. During a water shortage he appeared on TV naked, soaping himself but not washing it off and asking his followers to do the same. Apparently it worked because the water consumption dropped dramatically by 40%. He was able to collect more taxes than previous mayors and use the funds for civic purposes. . He increased the number security guards and there was a 70% drop in the homicide rate. Drinking water was provided to all homes and sewerage connected to almost every home. There was a 50% drop in pedestrian fatalities after he had 1,500 stars painted on the streets where pedestrians had been killed in motor accidents. Obviously he was a showman, but he used his skill and talent for the good and by drawing attention to these problems in such a visual way he was able to bring about enormous improvements and make his citizens more aware..
Bogota is not a beautiful City although it does have some handsome buildings and many open spaces. What it lacks in beauty, it makes up in energy, that is palpable. In the few days that I spent in Bogota, I was only just beginning to understand what it is all about. This journey has been shaped by the people I met along the way and Andreas was one of them, I was able to talk to him about many aspects of life in Bogota and Colombia and found him forthcoming and critical of the country in many ways. The fact that stereotypes from the past are still getting in the way of people’s perception of this city is inevitable and although change has been going on for some time, these stereotypes could linger forever. I have now seen four cities in Colombia and I am aware they are all very diverse because of geographic location,climate and history. Bogota so far has been the most complex and difficult to understand, but I do underhand it more than I did on arrival and have succeeded in eliminating many of the stereotypes.