Corrugated City

Thursday 5 August 2010

Colombia II: Bogota

As I mentioned before, I had originally planned to spend my entire time in Colombia lounging on a beach doing nothing. I used to love lounging on a beach doing nothing. Turns out, I've kind of grown out of that habit.

After my first 24 hours in Taganga, I knew I wouldn't last more than a few days without going insane. Perhaps if I lived in a city, like I used to, I would have enjoyed the peace and quiet a little more. But I think that the rather tranquil Colchagua Valley has made me see a relaxing holiday as one which involves noise, people and stress.

Now that's not to say I didn't enjoy my beach time. I really, really did. But I just get bored quicker than I used to when doing nothing.

So after chatting to a few people, I decided to change my ticket and head to Bogota for a few days. Well, I didn't change my ticket. I bought a new one with a different airline. Lan's absurd exchange policy meant that this was about us$200 cheaper (the flight cost about us$90).

I arrived in Bogota knowing almost nothing whatsoever about the city. I hadn't planned on going, I had no guide book and I had very little clothing suitable for the permanent Spring weather (due to Bogota being about 2600m above sea-level). I'd booked a cheap room in a cheap hotel and arrived around lunchtime. I didn't really know what to do with myself so I grabbed a taxi, asked to be taken to the Centro Historico and asked what there was to do in Bogota. The driver's enthusiastic response to his hometown made me happy I'd come.

After a short wander, I decided to phone a friendly Colombian girl I'd met in Taganga. She'd given me her number and offered to show me around Bogota if I ever went after we'd got chatting in a restaurant on my first day . I'm pretty sure she did so safe in the knowledge I had no plans at all to go to Bogota at the time. Ha. Little did she know that this is a common tactic of mine- meet a local, wheedle their number out of them and then turn up unannounced asking to be shown around town. "Surprise! It's the annoying Englishman from the beach/plane/bar/supermarket/restaurant/hike/medical convention (don't ask). Drop whatever you're doing and come be my tourist guide." I've made long-term friends in some odd places over the years.

As chance would have it, Daniela was less than 5 minutes walk away at the time and even remembered who I was so we met up in front of the cathedral on Plaza Bolivar, the city's main square in the heart of the Centro Historico. It looks like this:

This second photo was taken in a moment of rare sunshine.

Even luckier was that she was currently on holidays from her studies and had loads of free time to be my personal tour guide. Lucky for me, that is. Not so much for her- she was stuck with this ingles mañoso for the entire weekend (my back was playing up and I was whingeing a lot).

However, despite having lived in Bogota for over two years, Daniela's knowledge of the city was, well, really quite poor. She'd never done anything touristy. Which meant neither of us really knew what to do, apart from wander around looking at the pretty stuff.

And the Centro Historico is bursting with pretty stuff. Most of the Colonial buildings have been renovated, there are bars, restaurants and cafes all over the place and there are some brilliant museums. This is what Valpo would look like if it didn't have a thieving, corrupt Municipalidad running the show.


And look at this gorgeous Church- so cool:

And the museums...there are 3 all together within the same complex just up from the Plaza. La Moneda with its history of Colombian money (more interesting than it sounds), a really good art gallery and, finally, the best of the lot- the Botero collection. I love Botero. To me, art should provoke a reaction. So much of what is considered 'fine art' leaves me cold. I look at it, scrunch my eyes up, put on a serious face, put my jaw in my hand and feel absolutely nothing.

Botero has always made me laugh and smile. His art is fun. Here are a few examples:

(this is the Mona Lisa, in case you hadn't noticed)

The Botero museum houses the artist's private collection that he donated to the nation. Not just his own paintings, but some fantastic pieces by other artists, including Picasso, Henry Moore, Joan Miro and others. I can recommend a visit to Bogota just to see this, and the other two museums, alone.

Oh, and it's all FREE. How cool is that? The museums are run and maintained by the Banco de la Nacion. More info here.

On one of the days I was in town, the Plaza Bolivar was taken over by a gigantic farmers' market to promote local and indigenous agriculture- most of which seemed to revolve around plantains, tangerines and unripe strawberries, although there was other stuff as well. Actually, there's a supermarket chain that sells predominately fruit. I wish I'd had my camera when I went in as there was so much variety of tropical fruit, much of which I'd never seen or heard of before. Some of it was so big I was able to imagine an end to famine in overpopulated Asian nations.

In the end, I only stayed in the cheap hotel for one night. It wasn't well located and the mattress was actually harder than the floor. Believe me, I tested.

I decided that I should splurge and get somewhere decent in the area in which I'd be going out at night, so I moved to the Hotel Virrey Park (horrible website music alert) a little to the north, just around the corner from the Zona T, Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93, the main nightlife areas. It wasn't too expensive, around us$100 a night. For the location and quality, I actually think that it was a bit of a steal. It's more than I'd usually spend on a hotel, but it was a short time and I wanted to enjoy myself. And I'm old enough to justify not being a scuzzy backpacker anymore.

Nightlife in Bogota is really fun. This part of town is kind of like a mix of Vitacura in Santiago and Palermo Viejo in Buenos Aires. The former because it's all new, shiny, safe and packed with good-looking people of both sexes and the latter due to the style and design of the bars and restaurants. This is a really good mix. Even better is that every place I went to beat both cities for service and style.

The food was also good, better than most of what's on offer in BsAs (apart from the steak, obvio po). And it's about 10-25% cheaper than going out in the equivalent neighbourhoods in both Santiago and BsAs. I was a particular fan of the Bogota Beer Company, a micro-brewery gone large, with pubs all over the city. They have real beer in real pint glasses and the decor is a half-decent approximation of an English pub. I mean, you're not going to think you're down the White Hart, but for someone like me who really misses the whole concept of 'The Pub', it worked well enough.

Apart from the museums, wandering around and going out, I managed to drag Daniela out for another day of turisteando and we headed up The Big Hill, just outside of the Centro Historico. (I'm pretty sure it's not called 'The Big Hill' but I never found out its name and for some reason would rather maintain the mystery). The Big Hill is really similar to Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago- there's a cable car or funicular to take you up and down and a load of religious stuff at the top. The views on a clear day (ha, good luck) would be great. On a cloudy day, they were still pretty cool. You can see about half the city of 7 million inhabitants from up there.

If you go, don't get up too early. They only run the cable car after 2pm so we had to take the boring funicular up and down instead. Silly me for wanting to get out and do something with my Saturday.

That's about all. You can probably tell I rather enjoyed my time in Bogota. I think much of that had to do with hanging out with someone who lived there and being able to talk about the city, ask questions about the country and generally get a little more insight into things than if I'd just hung out and got drunk with a bunch of foreigners I'd met 10 minutes beforehand in a hostel. That second option can be fun, but it can also get old pretty quickly.

So, I've been wondering if I'd go back to Bogota. There aren't all that many cities that I've enjoyed enough to want to go back and repeat. Buenos Aires, Paris, NYC and San Francisco are the only ones out of the many I've visited that have really got under my skin. I think Bogota is pretty close to that but not quite there. I think I'd go back if I got the chance, but perhaps wouldn't make a special plan to do so. I don't know...I'm kind of on the fence with Bogota. Maybe I should give it another go and see which side I end up on. It would definitely be a fun experiment.

If you're planning a trip, though, I would absolutely suggest Bogota and Colombia in general as a fantastic holiday destination. Don't believe the hype about the dangers. Colombia is, generally, a safe place to visit and I certainly didn't feel any less secure than in, for example, Argentina, where I lived for 3 years without a single problem (I think Chile is safer than both, mainly due to the fact there are very few guns here). It is way, way safer than Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I'm sure there are areas of the country that are sketchy but in the places I went, I felt absolutely safe at all times.

That's it. Back to reality, normality and Winter. I arrived back in Chile more tired physically than when I left. The weekend in Bogota really took it out of me. But I am definitely less tired mentally and emotionally. I really needed a break from my life in Chile to help me put some things into perspective, forget about work and make a fresh start with some stuff that's been bugging me. The trip did its job and I've returned refreshed and relaxed.

That really doesn't often happen with me. I can't usually switch off. So, thanks, Colombia. It was fun.


Anonymous said...

Great posts! Loved hearing about your trip! Sniff...I want to travel!!!

HereBeDragons said...

I visited a friend in Quito, and it was a similar story. He's never really seen his own city. Didn't know that history. Was confounded by the centro and didn't know where to go. He wanted to go to the pool first, so by the time we arrived, museums were closed, the sun was going down and it was getting a bit dodgy. But Quito was lovely.

Matt said...

It's common when you live somewhere not to do the touristy stuff. It took me 13 years before I visited the 2 castles 4 minutes walk away from where I lived in England. And I only went because my girlfriend at the time wanted to go...

And Quito is quite nice. Sketchy as hell, but very pretty.

Claudia said...

Great posts and thanks for visiting Colombia!
So although it is common to not see one's hometown as a tourist, everyone, and I mean EVERY SINGLE PERSON that ever goes and definitely that lives in Bogotá knows the name of "The Big Hill"
Why? Because it is almost like our North Star for whenever we may get lost around the city, which for a true Bogotano, very rarely happens (fortunately). Anyway, that big hill is called Monserrate. Did you go into the church? Walking up is definitely a recommended experience at least once in your life (if you're up for the physical challenge and have about min 3 hrs to spare). Most of the folks that go up by foot are pilgrims (peregrínos haciendo penitencias); pretty much, people that are making a sacrifice by climbing up (sometimes barefoot, sometimes on their knees, or just plain walking up with comfy shoes) so that their prayers are answered (usually a particular petition).
You definitely need to head back to Bogotá. There is nothing wrong with splurging there and definitely go to more museums (we have more than that but the ones you named are a good start!). Do let me know if you go back to Bogotá again. As a "rola" (slang for bogotánas), I can give you a few places to go visit in and around the city that you might appreciate.

Matt said...

Haha, yes, I remembered the name of the hill after writing this post but couldn't be bothered to go back and change it...I didn't go into the church as there was a service going on blasting out horrible music and ruining the view of the city :)

I definitely want to go back to Bogota, I really enjoyed my time there. Such a fun city. Just a shame about the weather...

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pimalai said...

Well, it looks like it was a good idea to go adventuring. Good to know you didn't get yourself lost in a city you barely knew anything about.

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