The Colombian capital has always raised a wry smile between my family and I. It all dates back to an afternoon spent at the old viewing area at Heathrow Airport when I was younger, watching a huge jet take off and checking where it was heading to. It was my pronunciation of Bo-GO-ta that amused the parents, and for some reason it became one of those memories that still get mentioned every time the city name comes up (its Bogo-TA, though I still say it wrong almost every time in my head!).
But I also remember my parents telling me it was in Colombia, and as a youngster I remember watching that plane take off, wondering about this far away land in South America that it was heading to, seemingly on the far side of the planet.
Well quite a few years on, I was landing at that very airport, looking down on the city that had given my family a few smiles over the years. For me, it was my first ever view of South America too.
You might be wondering why I chose to make a random trip to Colombia. The truth is, with my passport expiring in June next year – and having a stamp in it from every continent in the world apart from South America (ok, and the poles before the smart ones point it out!) I thought it was as good a reason as any to set foot on the continent and go exploring for the very first time.
I’d initially looked at Peru and Ecuador, but with those countries just coming out of winter, and quite mountainous in the areas I wanted to visit, the weather would have been much cooler than back home. Plus I wanted a mix of nice beaches and a city experience. I could see Colombia would fit the criteria, although I had concerns over its reputation. For years it was gripped by drug cartels under the influence of Pablo Escobar. The country was one of the most deadly on Earth with sky high murder rates and regular gun battles related to the control of cocaine. Then there was its own civil problems- particularly its conflict with FARC rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. All in all, I admit, I had almost discounted the idea of travelling there – until I had some specialist advice from a travel agent in London, who insisted it was much safer these days. Researching on the internet and the Foreign Office website confirmed that, while you’ve still got to be careful, large swathes of the country are indeed ok to visit.
So I planned my own itinerary, which began in Bogota before visiting the pretty colonial town of Cartagena on the northern Caribbean coast, from where I’d get a boat to Panama. A perfect combination of new cities to explore with relaxing beach time. But my first impressions of Bogota were a long way from the picture perfect coastline I was heading for.
It didn’t help that I was being driven around by a taxi driver who seemed more intent on completing a giant newspaper word puzzle than actually get me to my hotel in one piece. Every time we stopped, even if it was just slow moving traffic, out it would come. Even while he was driving he was thinking of answers, at one point clearly working out one particular solution in his head and celebrating by momentarily waving his finger in the air while trying to weave through three lanes of traffic.
It was all getting a bit worrying. If the puzzle hadn’t been in Spanish, I’d have tried to help him complete it quicker so he could focus on the road a bit more. But 40 minutes after pulling out of the airport, he got me to the hotel safely and I made use of my newly withdrawn Colombian Pesos to pay him.
After two days of travelling from Hull, I opted for a bit of comfort at the Bogota Plaza Summit Hotel, in the north of the city, and spent the first night relaxing. With most advice being to avoid going out onto the streets in the city after dark, it was also the safest option. Street crime and muggings are rife in parts of Bogota, especially around the main areas frequented by tourists – with some cases of foreigners being stabbed – so it was definitely the safest place to be, and an early night set me up well for seeing the city the following day.
I took another taxi, thankfully minus the newspaper puzzle, to the La Candelaria part of the city, the main colonial old town and birthplace of Bogota. First stop was the main Bolivar square, named after the saviour of the city Simon Bolivar. He and his armies liberated the country by defeating the Spanish occupiers in 1819. He’s widely celebrated, and his statue takes centre stage in the square.
Nearby, what sounds like a concert is pounding out a mix of reggae and salsa beats, entertaining a crowd of a few hundred people at an event put on by the local council. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening, but it added to my first impressions that this was a city full of colour, sound and life. There was, however, certainly a bit of a nervous ‘edge’ about the place.
The layout of the old town lends itself to lots of quiet, secluded streets which you can quickly find yourself wandering around – and with few other tourists around, I hardly mingled in. I had taken usual precautions like keeping my camera in my rucksack and not taking my phone out to avoid displaying valuables. I even had a bundle of US and Colombian notes kept separate in an easy to reach pocket incase I encountered one of the thieves which are keeping Bogota’s crime figures so high – the advice from Lonely Planet is to hand them something quick and let them make an escape, rather than make them impatient and then stealing or snatching more from you. Or worse.
It’s quite sobering, but then this is still a very poor country despite the fact its on the economic rise. Like anywhere new, I had to keep my wits about me, as I wandered along through street stalls selling everything from corn on the cob to big huge vats of a creamy substance resembling strawberry Angel Delight, frequently being whipped around and stirred from side to side by two colourfully-dressed women near the main square.
I stopped to try a Colombian traditional dish ‘chocolate completo’ at Bogota’s most famous snack shop La Puerta Falsa. It’s a delightful little café, set over two tiny floors, slightly cramped and rustic but with a great mix of locals and tourists all squashing in together at the wooden benches and tables to sample the home made delights.
Mine was effectively a bread bun and some cheese, which you make into a cheese sandwich, some form of dried, floury, slightly hard cake, and a hot chocolate. Though this was a particularly special hot choc – it had to be coming from one of the finest chocolate producing areas in the world – a watery consistency, but with a rich, bitter chocolate taste, rather like plain chocolate. At 6,500 Pesos, it was just £1.50 for a quick pick me up and I was off into the streets again.
After all those calories, where better to visit than an art gallery which celebrates everything ‘plump’, shall we say. Colombia’s most famous artist Fernando Botero painted everything, from trees to landscapes, all with one peculiar quality. Everything was chubby.
Yep, Museo Botero has some of his finest work, including paintings of chubby pears; chubby people; chubby horses; even a chubby Mona Lisa.
I still don’t quite know how or why his fascination with the chubby artform came about, but it was a very peculiar walk through. I’m not a big fan of art galleries at the best of times, but I could admire the quality of the painting and the methods he’s used to make them so colourful and pleasing to the eye. But they did all look a bit odd.
Back out on the streets, it was time for another of my favourite past times when I’m visiting new places. I needed to get high – and not the kind that gets you 10 years in a Colombian prison here.
Readers of my musings from my big trip five years ago may remember I have a particular fondness for getting to the tallest or highest point in a city, to enjoy the perspective from above. And Bogota has a trick up its sleeve – it sits in a plain, known as the Bogota savannah, a lofty 2,640 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains. It’s the third highest capital city in South America, and there’s a chance to get even higher thanks to a neighbouring mountain. Monserrate peak is topped by a very famous church in the city, Cerro de Monserrate, visible from across the capital, and its classed as a ‘must not miss’ by all the research I made into the trip.
There are two ways up and down – three including an arduous walk up a pathway notorious for pickpockets and muggers – so I opted for the cable car and funicular railway. But it’s a bit of a mission even to reach those, and I was quickly finding out Bogota is a giant city. The lack of a metro or railway system means taxis are the only quick and reliable (and cheap, it has to be said) way of getting around – though even they come with a genuine tourist health warning of ‘try not to get abducted’.
I was in two minds whether to walk it, as once again my guide book told me to advance with caution, particularly near the university area the route to the cable car would take me through.
But I was also walking through some areas which were being regenerated, and there was some quite spectacular street art along the way, so I kept going on foot. Eventually, after keeping my head down as I marched up the quite steep foothills, I arrived safely at the cable car office, puffing and panting.
It cost about £4 for a return trip to the top of the 3,150m peak – as high as some of the tallest ski resort peaks in France- and for the first time, the true scale of Bogota stretched out for as far as the eye could see. It covers an incredible 1,700 square kilometres, spreading out far more than Greater London – so huge, that it was easy to see half of the city was currently being battered by a torrential thunderstorm. The other half, including the La Candelaria area I had just walked from, was basking in bright sunshine.
It really was one of the best cityscape vantage points I’ve been lucky enough to see. What made it different is that, unlike many other cities, Bogota has very few skyscrapers. The city appears flat. It’s easy to see the main highways where they wind their way through neighbourhoods. The airport in the distance is a hive of activity. 6.7 million people living their lives between where I’m standing and the horizon. The parks below are full of people enjoying the weekend sunshine, or further away, running away from the impending storm. Thankfully, though only a thin breeze, it was moving gently away from the mountain I was perched on top of.
As well as the church, there’s a random market and a few restaurants at the top. I stopped for a snack and a much needed drink, took in the views of the mountains as the stretched away from the city, and headed back down in the funicular railway, plunging through a steep tunnel carved out of the rock.
After a walk back through to the main La Candelaria area once again, I was thirsty, so went to the BBC – though not a distant outpost belonging to my employer. The main brewery in the Colombian capital turns out to be the Bogota Beer Company, which also happens to like plastering those three famous initials all over everything. Naturally, I found this quite amusing, and took a few photos. Getting a few puzzled looks from the bar staff, I explained that I worked for the BBC back home, and suddenly acquired a few friends!
I enjoyed a pint of their Monserrate ruby ale, to celebrate reaching the top of the peak safely and without encountering any of the local criminals, whilst chatting in my finest Spanglish to the bar staff about what I do, and why their beer is so good. I left a short time later with a BBC t-shirt, a bottle opener, a handful of BBC beer mats, and a slightly fuzzy head.
Darkness had fallen, and so it was time to retreat back to the safety of my hotel and plan the next step of the journey. Once notorious Medellin, former home to drugs boss Pablo Escobar and responsible for much of Colombia’s turmoil in recent history, or the colourful colonial port of Cartagena. A lot depended on time available. A busy night with a calendar and flight websites was in store.