Colombia. Most people immediately only think of three things when they think of this South American country: 1) coffee, 2) cocaine, and 3) kidnappings. But Colombia is SO much more! I was first inspired to look beyond the stereotypes when I saw Anthony Bourdain go there on the Travel Channel. In Medellin, once the murder capital of the world, he stressed that Colombia has changed, and it is quickly emerging from its shaded and violent past. When Missy and I and some friends were trying to decide where we would go in South America, Colombia came out on top considering the time of year (the weather that is) and money (it's cheaper to fly into the northern South American countries than the southern ones). Next, it was figuring out where to go. Much of the country is now quite safe, though the statistics are still daunting. Colombia shares the title with South Africa for the most murders by guns in the world, and despite the cities being very safe, there are still massive areas in rural parts of the country that are in the control of rebel, narco-terrorist groups, who have kept the country in an ongoing civil war since the La Violencia started in 1948. We decided to start in the capital, Bogota, which is the home of the government and the popular yet controversial President Alvaro Uribe, who has done wonders for the country in terms of fighting the drug lords and guerrillas but may just be setting himself up as yet another South American dictator. Regardless, we enjoyed Colombia; it is an absolutely beautiful country with some very nice and immensely proud people. As I said, it is so much more than the negative stereotypes, and I hope that throughout my next few posts, this will come across to all of you.
We arrived in Bogota at around 10 at night, and after getting through customs, we had no problem getting a cab to take us directly to our hostel. Jack had the best Spanish out of the group, with mine and Tiffany's coming in next. Most Colombians don't speak English, so I finally had a chance to really practice a second language in order to communicate! Anyway, the cab brought us to our hostel, and we got all set before heading just around the corner for a beer at a really great little rock bar. We stayed in La Candelaria, which is a historic old district in central Bogota. La Candelaria, like almost everywhere in Bogota, is relatively safe to walk around during the day, but is totally different at night. At 5 people, we were a fair sized group though, and we were sure to just go out with a small amount of cash and no valuables on us. In the morning, we set out to explore.
Bogota is the third highest capital city in the world and is quite massive, with over 8 and a half million inhabitants living at 8661 feet (2640 m) in the Northern Andes. The city is distributed beside some impressive mountains which run primarily North/South, so the city is longer in those directions. Our first morning, we wandered La Candelaria and had our first taste of local food, which consisted of spiced chicken and rice steamed in banana leaves and served with fresh cheese, bread, and coffee (of course) or hot chocolate, which is really popular in Colombia! The cheese was definitely farm fresh, like a pungent form of cheese curds, and the coffee was quite good, even though they export the best beans. After breakfast, we headed for the Plaza de Bolivar, the city's main square.
Bogota has street and place signs like this one, which I really like! The font and style is just so fun!
Simon Bolivar was instrumental in founding the first Republic of Colombia and gaining independence from Spain in the early 1800's. He is a national hero, and we saw many statues devoted to him throughout the country.
They were getting ready for Christmas while we were there. Colombians, a strong Catholic people, definitely enjoy their holiday season; there were plenty of decorations for Christmas all over. Primate Cathedral can be seen here (right-center of the pic) with Monserrate (mountain in the background, rising close to 2000 feet above the city) and it's brilliant white cathedral as a backdrop. The plaza is also home to the Palace of Justice and the National Capitol, but be warned, as with most places that draw tourists, there are people trying to take advantage of them.
One of Bogota's famous green people perched atop a roof and the ever-present Colombian tri-color. These green people are just a little artsy quirk of La Candelaria; there are many of them in pretty random places, so keep your eyes peeled and high. As for the flags (the flag on the left is Bogota's), Colombians are proud, very proud, which I definitely respect and appreciate.
Cathedral again, but now with an interesting character in the foreground and Guadalupe Hill in the back.
Changing of the Presidential honor guard at the Presidential Palace. The WWI, German-style Kaiser helmets were interesting to me. To get down the street where President Uribe resides, we had to go through a military checkpoint. The guards were friendly, despite being armed with a couple of the biggest anti-personnel machine guns I had ever seen in person. They checked our bags and waved us through, and we were fortunate enough to catch the changing. We didn't get to see Uribe though. President Uribe is an interesting man. The son of wealthy landowners, he catapulted into his political career after his father was killed by FARC (one of the largest narco-terrorist groups) guerrillas during a kidnapping attempt. He was elected President in 2002 in a campaign centered on confronting the armed terrorist groups causing the civil war. He has been very successful at not only that but also reducing Colombia's crippling crime problems, which has made him immensely popular with the people. However, he has had congress extend the length of the President's term in the Colombian Constitution, and many fear that he is setting himself up to be another South American dictator. Either way, he has done great things for the country, particularly concerning safety in and around the major cities.
Just a really neat cathedral we stumbled across while wandering. I love the red and white stripes and intricate stone work.
Classic La Candelaria street, though surprisingly devoid of people; during the day, it was rare to be alone on a street. The people of Bogota are very active and love to bike ride. They even close down a third of the city's streets to cars every Sunday for ciclovia, when it seems like half the city is out riding around town with their family or friends.
I love the colors they use to paint their buildings. This is one of the things I loved about Puerto Rico and was really looking forward to in South America.
The ever-present military. We were shocked to see how many armed military members there were throughout the city center. I'm even more impressed that despite this practically martial-law-like presence, there is apparently little to no problem with military related violence towards civilians. The army and police are very visibly there serving their people and keeping them safe.
There were lots of flowers around town. Being a tropical nation, Colombia has year round access to fresh flowers and fruit.
At the Museo Botero, an entire museum devoted to Colombia's most famous sculptor and painter. Understandably, I couldn't take any pictures of the artworks, but I'd highly recommend looking him up. He does these incredible takes on life, using practically grotesquely fattened figures for both people and animals. Pretty cool stuff, and I'd highly recommend checking out this museum if you are ever in Bogota (it is free too). We also went to the Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum, which contains the largest collection of pre-Columbian gold works in the world. It is stunning in the shear amount of the precious metal the museum houses, and it is also kind of sad considering that the vast majority of Colombian gold was exported to Europe during Spanish colonial times.
Bogota is home to several universities, a few of which are found in or near La Candelaria, so the population was young and energetic. This was a Saturday afternoon and people were practically partying in the streets in places. Colombians love to party and dance, as Shakira kindly displays to the rest of the world. Speaking of dancing, one place not to be missed on a trip to Bogota is Andre Carne de Res, which is a famous steak house that isn't actually in Bogota and really isn't a steak house. This place is insane. Located in Chia, which is a small town about an hour's car ride north of Bogota central, this restaurant serves up some pretty tasty food, many dishes of which are steak, but the food isn't the reason to go. The reason to go is the absolutely crazy atmosphere. The place is just one big party, with decor that makes you feel like you are on a drug trip and a massive dance floor in the center of the building with live feed of the dancing action being sent out to tv's throughout the rest of the restaurant (for those unlucky visitors sitting out of sight of the dance floor...not like you need to be near it to see the dancing as everyone apparently gets up and dances at their tables or on the chairs randomly throughout their meals). It's an incredible experience, though it is VERY expensive...right up there with a good trip to a decent restaurant in Canada or the States. And then you need to figure out how to get out and back to Chia, which, as we found, can be quite the ordeal. It all worked out though and we had a hell of a good time there. I'd recommend it if you aren't traveling on too much of a budget, but make reservations if you do go, you won't be able to get a seat otherwise.
Graffiti/art. This is something that I absolutely loved about Bogota...there was creative and amazing graffiti just about everywhere. Several of the pictures in this post are testament to this.
On our second day, we were treated to some decent weather, which was nice since it had been drizzly and overcast our first full day there. We ended up going out to Zona Rosa that first night and partying a bit to hard thanks to the mix of friendly people, great music and dancing, and the omnipresent aguardiente (translation: "fire water"....hmm I wonder what that is?!?) and giraffes (3L tall tubes with a tap at the bottom) of beer. Needless to say, we slept in a bit late on our second day there, but at least the weather was nice. We had brunch at a cool little Israeli place that had AWESOME pita and hummus and some really good lamb dishes.
More art and cool signs...and another add for cellular minutes...available country-wide (and actually came in useful to me later)!
The cable car going up Monserrate. We took a nice trip up there and fortunately the weather continued to clear, at least above us.
As you'll see throughout the next few pictures, the area on top of Monserrate has been really beautifully landscaped.
The white-washed cathedral on top of the mountain was in full service while we were up there. We also seemed to be the only gringo tourists up there too, which was pretty cool!
The shops behind the cathedral (pictured here) are testament to just how many of the visitors are tourists though. You can get some interesting stuff up at these stalls though including: handmade jewelry, chocolate covered coffee beans, coca-infused liquor (yes, coca, as in the leaf used to get cocaine), and of course, cheesy t-shirts. The also had some food stalls selling tasty treats, including fried cheese pastries, arequipe (see bottom of post), and hot chocolate.
More military, though honestly, we had absolutely no problems with them. They do their jobs well and were even pretty friendly! In the distance here, you can see the white statue of Christ on top of Guadalupe Hill.
The cathedral and the entire area was decked out in lights for Christmas...this place was a bright beacon on top of the mountain at night.
More incredible graffiti on the walk back to La Candelaria from the bottom of the cable car. This was the second place I've seen broken glass used as a line of defense to deter people from climbing walls. I had seen it first in India, and it really disturbed me there. Here, not so much for some reason. In India, I think I was just too overwhelmed by everything else that the broken glass just seemed that much more awful. It is definitely an effective deterrent though. And speaking of deterrents, I've never seen razor wire used so commonly as I saw throughout Colombia.
More great colors back down in La Candelaria...after Monserrate, we ended up spending some time this afternoon in an awesome little cafe just off of the Plaza de Bolivar (not pictured here). This place was great, and there were lots of little cafes similar to it. It was tiny, had a small loft with tables upstairs, and a wood-fired fireplace. There we had some tasty desserts, all of which they made right downstairs, like these tasty coconut pastries and candied figs. We had some sweet pastries filled with a sugary, milky syrup called arequipe (really just dulce de leche: candied milk). Jack, Stephan, and I tried a local favorite: chocolate completo, which is hot chocolate served with that fresh cheese. The best is: the cheese is served IN the hot chocolate! Interesting combo and really not that bad!