I arrived in Bogotá around dusk on a Monday. From the window of the plane, you can’t see where the city stops, and you can’t miss where the mountains begin. It is easy to see why they call it “La Atenas Suramericana” (the South American Athens). There are about eight million people in Bogotá, accounted for. A tour guide told me there are likely at least two million more who are homeless and not included in the population – literally and figuratively.
Bogotá is the capital and largest city in Colombia, for many travellers it will be the first stop as it has the largest international airport. If you are planning a trip to Colombia (or that includes Colombia) and wondering where to start, start in Bogotá. Logistically, it might not make sense at first, as it is in the middle of the country. But domestic flights are cheap and I think it was good to experience Bogotá before moving onto better weather, better infrastructure, and more welcoming people. It would have been hard to visit Bogotá after Medellin. I have outlined my recommendations for how to spend three days in Bogotá in another post.
Bogotá is cold and gloomy, which happens to be my favourite kind of weather but is not for most (I arrived on August 29 as the Southern hemisphere moves into Spring). It was a welcome respite from Toronto’s sweltering summer but I wasn’t prepared. I was comfortable in long sleeves, long but light pants, a rain shell, socks and shoes; but I bought a sweater because a girl in my hostel had one and she looked cozy. The elevation is 8,675 feet (2,644m) and there is little humidity which makes for crisp air and chilly nights. It also makes for being embarrassingly winded half way up a flight of stairs. Don’t underestimate the weather like I did: bring a sweater and a scarf. You’ll also need them for bus rides, which are famously frigid.
I spent most of my week in Bogotá in La Candelaria, the Old City. If you are backpacking, this is the place to stay. When I was researching neighbourhoods I narrowed it down to Chapinero and La Candelaria, and I am glad I chose the latter. Chapinero is posh and a nice place to go out, walk around, shop, and eat. Walking around in Chapinero, you wouldn’t necessarily know which city you are in. If I haven’t gotten my point across: there is a T.G.I. Friday’s there.
La Candelaria is what I pictured before coming to Bogotá, and I use the following descriptors with utmost affection: chaotic, loud, lacking infrastructure, poor, and slightly dangerous. After a week there, I validated those assumptions and narrowed my opinion to that small area of the city. There are gaping holes in the “sidewalks”, which is a generous term for the narrow paths on the edges of the narrow streets where motorcycles weave between vendors pushing carts full of fruit, shoe laces (yes, shoe laces), and other wares. Occasionally, a yellow taxi beeps his way through without regard for pedestrians. If it seems sensible to find a wider street, be prepared to inhale clouds of black smoke spewing from the Busetas barreling past.
In La Candelaria, you will be on edge. Period. Everyone there seems to be watching everyone else. They stand on guard, vigilant, aware of their surroundings; no one seems to be caught up in their own experience, and that kind of energy is contagious. They have a saying in Colombia, “No dar papaya”. It means, don’t make it easy for people to take advantage of you. Perhaps that is part of the collective unease – knowing that you are seen responsible when bad things happen. I can think of another context in which that way of thinking does immeasurable damage to victims and the societies they live in.
On Friday, a delegation from my hostel went out in search of live music near Carrera 2. No one called it that; we all seemed to understand when someone referred to “The Hippie Street”. It is the oldest street in Bogotá and lined with shops selling Chicha, Coca Tea, and marijuana related clothing and paraphernalia. At the top of the Hippie Street is Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo square.
On Friday evening, the Plaza was packed with young people both young and old. It was like a music festival, but instead of groups sprawled out, lounging in the grass, people sat shoulder to shoulder on the cobblestones. Almost everyone fit one of two profiles: gelled-hair/puffy-jackets/tight-jeans/at-least-one-Chanel-accessory, or dreadlocks/ponchos/stretched earlobes/body-odour. It was as if the cast of Jersey Shore visited Portland. The latter played drums and the former took selfies. Everyone passed bottles of miscellaneous liquor around their respective circles.
You can’t walk (or sit in a square) for five minutes without being offered cocaine. Sometimes subtly with a sniffing noise and a whisper, sometimes like a hot dog vendor at a baseball park. Although, it does not seem that many locals are using it. Learning more about the impact the drug trade has had on Colombians, I am not surprised.
One afternoon, I sat in El Parque de los Periodistas with some girls eating lunch and one of the ubiquitous security guards with dogs came and stood near us. When the guard broke his stern facade to oblige the dog when he put his paw up for a handshake, we giggled and cooed. We enjoyed our gyros (Colombian food is…well…we were eating Greek) and commented on how nice it was to have the guard close by. In less than an hour, we were offered drugs by three different men. We could not believe the dealers had the nerve to do it right in front of the officer. After the third time, the officer and his dog left us and we realized he wasn’t looking out for us, he was watching us. We were being set up, we later heard this is common. Long story short: don’t buy drugs, for many reasons.
If it sounds like I don’t like Bogotá, it is because there are a lot of things to dislike about it. But I had a good time there and it was a great place to kick off my trip. I made some friends whom I met up with in Medellin and our paths will probably cross again. I recommend you go and see it for yourself, I am glad I did.