Finding The Charm In Bogota
A couple of months ago, friends in Panama City told us about their recent visit to Bogota. You’ve got to go see it, they told us, your next trip to Colombia. It’s worth the trip, they assured us.
Driving the 45 minutes from the airport to our hotel the night we arrived, I wondered. We must be passing through the not worthwhile part of the city, I told myself. Block after block after block of low-rise near-tenement buildings covered with graffiti, trash floating around the streets and the sidewalks, everything dark and dreary.
It reminded me of some West Baltimore neighborhoods (I grew up in Baltimore), except, in Baltimore, the buildings, while rundown and often filled with homeless drug addicts, are architecturally interesting. These buildings were more reminiscent of down-at-the-heels parts of Belfast. The IRA terrorists believed to have migrated to this town must feel at home. We also saw a couple of Irish pubs.
We came to Bogota in part on our friends’ suggestion, in part because we had a couple of meetings–early morning at the U.S. Embassy, then across town for another appointment. We stopped for lunch in a very local-style eatery…wandered around a couple of shops…tried to get the feel of the place.
Despite the warnings, the people in Bogota were as friendly and polite as those we’ve encountered in Medellin. But their city is horribly depressing. We criss-crossed it and couldn’t identify a single interesting or redeeming feature.
For this Bogota scouting, we engaged a driver from the hotel. Lief and I are cavalier travelers, but we thought it wise to hire someone who came, at least, with the endorsement of our hotel rather than relying on random street taxis. Alfredo delivered us door-to-door then waited for us just outside. I don’t know if this was really necessary, but it made for efficient travels. Total cost for having Alfredo at our service for the day was less than US$50.
After our final appointment, late in the afternoon, I suggested we take a detour on the way back to the hotel to see the old town.
“We may never be back here,” I said to Lief. “So far I haven’t seen anything I’d go out of my way to return for. While we’re here, we should see the historic district.”
Across town again (Bogota is a big, flat city spread over about 650 square miles), this time, finally, to arrive at something worth seeing. While modern Bogota is urban sprawl defined, old Bogota is the most impressive and extensive collection of Spanish colonial structures I’ve seen. Nothing in Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, or Ecuador compares. The old town in Bogota is most reminiscent of old town Quito, but many times bigger and, though hardly gentrified, more welcoming.
Still you have the litter. The graffiti. But in Bogota’s old city you also find, finally, color, history, and charm.
There are museums, cafes, churches, bookstores, a massive library (dedicated to Gabriel Garcia Marquez), several universities, an expansive plaza, and many miles of picture-book colonial structures.
Thanks to the universities, you also have in this part of Bogota a concentration of university students. They’re everywhere–in the cafes, in the plaza, on the street corners, coming and going, chatting and texting. Their presence gives the place a friendly, vibrant feel.
I’m a sucker for interesting old buildings and quartiers. For me, few things are as charming or romantic.
Now we have a reason to return to Bogota.