Weekend in Bogota
Colombia unfairly gets a bad rap.
We’d been warned about robberies from other travelers and our overly cautious State Department. And yes, not too long ago, violence and kidnapping were commonplace. But over the past decade, the situation has improved after Colombia’s recently departed president, Alvaro Uribe, took the fight to paramilitaries and guerillas. Every Colombian we met had raved about Uribe and his successful efforts in making the country safer.
Our stay in Bogota was limited to La Candelaria, the historic colonial neighborhood full of three hundred year old buildings and gritty, grafitti filled streets.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon as school was just let out. Students were milling about sharing the town with beggars and a large police presence. Baton wielding cops and security guards were everywhere, some holding the leashes of muzzled dogs.
Colombia was culturally much different from Uruguay and Argentina. Restaurants were closing, rather than opening, at nine. There was less beef on the menu, but Colombian empanadas, made from corn rather than flour, were far superior to those further south. Although the country grows some of the best coffee in the world, they export the good stuff leaving us to drink second rate cafe con leche at Juan Valdez, the Starbucks of the country.
Rising steeply from the edge of La Candelaria is Monserrate Mountain.
There were a few options to get to the church at its peak, but we joined the Saturday masses in trudging up the walkway. As Bogota lies at over eight thousand feet elevation, we were winded before we started, and it took us over an hour to climb the 1500 steps.
Even with the weather not being the clearest, views of the city were impressive. Walking one way was enough for us though, so we paid to take the cable car down.
Our travels throughout the world have taken us to many museums – but after the 10th or 15th we started to lose interest and eventually stopped visiting them altogether. But upon reaching Colombia we felt sufficiently charged to try again, starting with Bogota’s Gold Museum. This museum, one of several similar ones scattered across the country, displays thousands of pieces of gold from pre-Colombus Colombia and South America. The gold was displayed methodically by region, with descriptions how the pieces were made and used – whether for jewelry, offerings, or masks.
Colombia’s celebrated artist Fernando Botero donated part of his art collection to establish his namesake museum. On display are several of his signature paintings and sculptures of chubby people. One employee, eager to practice her English, gave us a private tour of the galleries.
On Sunday, Bogotans come outside in droves as the museums are free and major streets are cleared of cars. Plaza de Bolivar, the central square in La Candelaria, was packed with families and children. Each side of the plaza were important buildings: the oldest church in Bogota, the mayor’s office, the house of congress, the supreme court. We sat amidst the lively crowds watching the flocks of pigeons swarm around.
Just once we left La Candelaria to dine at Colombia’s most famous restaurant: Andres Carne de Res. Normally, we wouldn’t even have considered hiring a car to dine at an expensive restaurant an hour away, but hearing everyone rave about the place we had to see it for ourselves.
And yes, it was worth it.
The restaurant was huge – rumors that it covered three blocks and had 800 employees were only slight exaggerations. Neon signs covered the outside and hung from the walls inside. The strangest decorations and ornaments were on display: A stuffed tiger jumping through a hula hoop was up against a mannequin under a heart. Being Sunday night it wasn’t that busy and we didn’t have to wait for a table. The people that were there were squeezed into a small area around a dance floor and the music was thumping. The menu was the size of a book, listing every type of steak and side dish imaginable.
Maybe Bogota was an unsafe city.
But as we ate the amazing steaks at Andres while listening to music, watching the dance floor, and dodging thrown rose petals, it was hard to imagine how.