When people think of Bogotá – and Colombia in general – they often think of violent crime, vicious gangs, and kidnappings.
Nowadays this is mostly not true.
I say “mostly” because George and I have, in fact, been kidnapped. Not by drug lords, however. Our abductor is our old friend Raoul. You remember Raoul. He’s the Ecuadorian nut job whose Nintendo driving nearly got us all killed in the Andes mountains. Turns out Raoul (whose real name actually is Raoul – I got lucky on that one) read my blog post about our journey to Cuenca and was none too happy with my characterization of him. Apparently Raoul does not like being called bat-shit crazy. Though to be fair, I never directly applied that description to him. I only inferred it.
But while Raoul is temporarily away from this small, dark basement where he’s got George and me locked up, I’m going to tell you without hesitation that Raoul is, in fact, completely bat-shit crazy. So much so that he gives bat shit a bad name.
How did we manage to find ourselves in this predicament? Well, after four excellent days in Bogotá, we arranged a car to take us to the airport for our flight to Medellín. Somehow Raoul infiltrated the local taxi company and made sure he was our driver. He took a sharp left turn that didn’t seem quite right to us (because it wasn’t right, it was left – sorry, a little post-abduction humor there). But our questions to him were met with only, “No hablo inglés.” Next thing we knew, Raoul was driving us down a questionable alley in a shady barrio on the outskirts of town. And by shady I don’t mean tree-lined and leafy.
Well crap, we thought. We’re being kidnapped. Raoul is going to demand a large sum of money from our families and friends in exchange for our safe return. Otherwise we’ll end up as corn fertilizer. A little extra flavor in someone’s tamale.
At least we assume Raoul’s plan is extortion. So far he hasn’t said. He just seems, well, pissed off. We have no idea how he got access to a condemned house in Bogotá in the first place. It’s a long way from his home in Guayaquil (a whole country away, in fact). And we have no idea where he is at the moment. Maybe he went out to pick up a quart of milk and some eggs. Or laundry detergent.
But since we’re stuck in this dank little basement for the time being, I might as well tell you about Bogotá.
Like Quito, Bogotá is a capital city. And like Quito, it’s at a fairly high altitude. But where Quito’s sprawl is relatively recent and feels somewhat haphazard, Bogotá has been a well-planned, logically laid-out big city for a long time. To us it feels a lot like New York.
For starters, though the city is huge in all directions, the main part of Bogotá is a long, relatively narrow strip of land running north and south. Numbered streets (calles) run east and west, while numbered avenues (carreras) run north and south. The whole length of the city is walkable if you’ve got the time (we did). And from street to street and avenue to avenue, the neighborhoods keep changing. There are business districts, historic districts, “bohemian” areas, a block of clubs and discos, upscale neighborhoods, working class neighborhoods, energetic university campuses, sleepy residential parts, you name it. There are parks full of greenery, cafes and monuments. There’s a cluster of highly regarded museums. There are skyscrapers reaching up to the mountains, and more being built all the time. And everywhere, I mean absolutely everywhere, crowds of people are walking, cars and buses and taxis are honking, street vendors are hawking food and tee-shirts and second-hand trinkets. Businesspeople are hurrying along in dark-colored suits. Hobos are sleeping in doorways. Musicians are playing traditional and modern tunes on the wide sidewalks, with their guitar and violin cases open to collect your coins and small bills. Artists are selling their wares on practically every street corner. Among the countless faces you pass are young mothers and old couples, students and tourists. Retail workers and restaurant servers. People trying to get you to answer a poll or make a donation or change your cell phone provider. There are flea markets, high-end shopping malls, and everything in between. And somewhere in the middle of Whichever Street, between This and That Avenues, there’s a store that sells the exact thingamajig you need to replace the one that broke on your whatchamacallit.
Bogotá felt as much like New York to us as any big city we have visited anywhere in the world. At one point we felt like we were walking on the Upper West Side. A few minutes later we could have been strolling in Soho.
And like New York, the activity is non-stop day and night. True, there are a few sections of town where well-heeled locals and gringos like us should not wander around after dark. But that’s true of New York too, and certainly Baltimore, and many other American cities. But just about everywhere in Bogotá is safe during daylight, and with a little common sense one can enjoy the nightlife safely too. Our travel books advised against hailing cabs off the street. We hailed cabs off the street. So did everyone else. It’s perfectly safe, as long as you stick to the official yellow cabs with licenses prominently displayed. Bogotá is very big, but it’s no more intimidating than any big city. You just have to be smart in what you do and how you move about town. But again, where isn’t that true nowadays?
Another way Bogotá reveals its deeply urban roots is in its architecture. Modern glass towers mingle with neo-Gothic revival homes. Groovy mid-Century low-rises sit alongside British tudors. Spanish colonials and late-Century garden apartment buildings fill in the gaps. Along one lovely residential corridor dotted with embassies, George remarked that it felt like we were in Washington D.C. On another block we could have been in Chicago. Then it felt like Miami. Then Boston. Then Los Angeles.
But you can’t eat brick and mortar. So what about the food? Simply put, the food in Bogotá is freaking amazing. Every cuisine you can think of is available in whatever format you want, from street vendors to cafes and casual restaurants to the finest of dining. Traditional Colombian cuisine is an option, of course, but that’s only one slice of a very large pie. Fresh seafood is plentiful. Local beef is top quality. Artisan breads and pastries are irresistible. Bogotá’s chefs are winning all kinds of awards. And thanks to the exchange rate, prices are reasonable. (As of this writing it’s a little more than 3,000 pesos to the dollar. All those zeros can make the math dizzying. After a fantastic meal with wine and dessert in a beautiful restaurant that rivals the world’s best kitchens, we got the check and saw the damage: 350,000 pesos. Eye-popping, until we realized that was about $105 US.)
As if all that isn’t enough reason to like Bogotá, the tap water here (and in other major Colombian cities) is perfectly drinkable. (And tastes a hell of a lot better than Baltimore’s.) So you don’t need bottled water to brush your teeth. You don’t need to keep your mouth closed in the shower. You can eat all the salads and fresh fruit you want (and we ate lots – no shortage of green veggies here). You can sample every sauce and garnish. You can order a drink with ice cubes.
If it sounds like we can’t say enough good things about Bogotá, well, here’s another cool thing: every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Bogotanos participate in a phenomenon called La Ciclovía. Miles and miles of city streets are closed to motor traffic so that bicycles, joggers, and pedestrians can take over. We got to witness this on a gorgeous, sunny Sunday afternoon as we walked north from our mid-town hotel to the pleasant upscale neighborhood of Usaquén. That’s where another dozen or so city blocks are shut down each Sunday not for bicyclists but for a huge artisan market. You wind your way along shady streets (the good kind of shady) past restaurants and shops and public spaces while browsing local artwork and crafts, clothing and textiles, housewares and consumables.
Bogotá isn’t perfect, of course. Like Buenos Aires, it’s a bit decrepit in some spots, and a bit more decrepit in others. (But then, so were parts of Manhattan a few decades ago.) And the neighborhoods to the far south are nowhere tourists should venture. But the sheer amount of construction going on in the main part of town, not to mention the high-end shopping malls and 5-star restaurant scene, make it clear there are plenty of people in Bogotá with pesos to spare. Billions and billions of pesos, in fact. The citizens just need to encourage their government to develop long-term plans to enrich their city. More spending on public spaces would be a good thing. And maybe more efficient social programs. If they make the right moves, Bogotá has the potential to become a behemoth. A truly world-class city, the kind people speak of in the same breath as London and Paris – and New York, of course. It isn’t there yet, but it could be. It’s up to Colombia.
Meanwhile, it’s a destination we can see ourselves returning to again very soon. There are direct flights from Fort Lauderdale, which makes it almost too easy for us. And for the time being at least, the dollar goes a long way here. (A 20-minute taxi ride costs around $5.) There aren’t many ex-pats here yet, but we have to believe they’ll be coming. Besides the affordability factor, the tolerance for others and the almost endless list of things to do, there’s also the fact that health care, and especially dentistry, are considered top-notch in Colombia. You do need to learn a little Spanish to get by, but other than that, if you’re a retiree looking for a better lifestyle on a limited income, what’s not to like?
And if you happen to get bored of big city life, there are plenty of places to escape to in the countryside too. We took a day trip to the town of Zipaquirá to see the famous Cathedral of Salt (La Catedral de Sal). It’s located underground in a salt mine, and it’s pretty spectacular. I’m not sure our pictures do it justice, but people come from all over the world for a look.
Oh shit, I hear Raoul coming back. I need to hide my laptop quick, before he realizes I smuggled it in underneath the alpaca blankets he threw over our heads when he forced us out of the car. (Those blankets are damn soft, by the way. A kidnappee could do worse.) I had to figure out how to access Raoul’s wi-fi, or you wouldn’t be reading this. But it turns out he’s not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. It took me less than a minute to guess his password. It’s the word “password” in Spanish (clave). Really, Raoul? Come on, man.
Now we just need to figure out how to distract or disable him long enough to get the hell out of here and get back to enjoying our South American vacation. It’s dark in here, but I think I see a large pre-Colombian artifact over in the corner. I hate the idea of possibly destroying a rare historical relic, but I might have to whack Raoul over the head with it in the hopes of knocking him out. We’ve got to try something. Raoul’s tamales are awful. So say a pray for us to Our Lady of the Salt. Or at least keep your fingers crossed.