Modern office buildings tower over centuries-old cathedral spires. Yellow, bug-like taxis dart past ragged horse carts. The electric pulse of international house music compliments a full repertoire of folkloric standards from the provinces. Contemporary art galleries and explosions of graffiti. Boutique hotels and backpacker hostels. Theatre festivals and street performers. Five-star restaurants and five-thousand-peso luncheonettes. Highlife on 93rd and whores on 23rd. Ten minutes of equatorial sun and ten hours of ice-cold rain. Vast flatness leading to a jagged horizon of green mountains, Monserrate and the Virgin Mary blessing the whole array. Developed-world comforts and developing-world chaos. Rags and riches. Bogotá is contrast, perched 9,000 feet above sea level. That’s high.
If the only picture you can come up with when you think Bogotá is bands of kidnappers and narco-traffickers ducking and shooting at each other through a veil of chicken feathers and dusty haze in a sweltering, tropical hellhole, you’ve been bamboozled like most of the world by erroneous Hollywood imagery and selective news reporting. The Colombian capital is at once New York, Denver, Zurich, and Mexico City: a (more than) mile-high city with inroads into finance, fashion, commerce, and design, ringed by colonial architecture and pockmarked by squalid refugee encampments. It is, at heart, an Andean metropolis, most people being reserved and stoic and polite; but the influence of the warmer regions of the country is felt throughout the city as music and food from Cali, Medellín, and both coasts add spice to Bogotá’s frigid, rarified air.
For 18 months, I lived in the historic district of La Candelaria, just south of modern downtown at the foot of Guadalupe, Bogotá’s answer to Rio’s Christ of Corcovado, and a stone’s throw away from the site of the current city’s founding in 1538 (the original inhabitants, the Muisca, had been there for centuries). Yes, I did see nuns slowly parading past pidgeons and soccer-playing schoolboys in the shadow of colonial church towers and indigenous Andean women lugging pack-laden llamas up and down cobblestone streets. I’d hang out at matchbox-sized salsa spots in Downtown and multi-story electronica clubs filled with drug-addled glamazons up in the Zona T. I’d take tango lessons on the 30th floor of the Residencias Tequendama or Afro-Brazilian dance classes at the Instituto Cultural Brasil-Colombia. Taxi drivers were nuts, buses jerky and old, and the TransMilenio crowded, but there was always somewhere to go: cruising at Gran Estación over in Ciudad Salitre, catching the ever-changing exhibits Downtown at MAMBO, chilling at Juan Valdez in Chapinero or Andino, or seeing an art film at Cine Club El Muro‘s various participating theatres. There’s the world’s best burgers at La Hamburguesería in La Macarena and Ciclovía Sundays on the Séptima, where the whole city turns out on foot, bikes, or roller blades to take it all in. There’s Rock al Parque and Salsa al Parque and Hip-Hop al Parque, and in this corner of South America, Bogotá’s the only place to catch the Black Eyed Peas, Caetano Veloso, Lenny Kravitz (though he “got sick” and cancelled), and Kylie Minogue (eh, not so into her, but…).
I had to move because my job there paid peanuts, but there’s much to miss about Bogotá (except the weather…think springtime London), which is why I’m there every chance I get. And it gets better cada vez.