Breathless in Bogota

Efficient trip Havana to Bogota via Panama City on Copa airlines. From one world to another. Bogota is chilly, got out the jeans, down vest and jackets immediately though the sun shone for our stay which we are told is very unusual. They are parched for rain, attributing it all to climate change and El Niño.   Altitude is 2625 metres, hence the title.
Checked into the excellent Arche Noah hostel in La Candelaria district, close to all the main historic sites and the most important museums. Swiss-Colombian owned, very efficiently managed by a band of young students who were very helpful with our onward reservations and suggestions for sight seeing. Our room was large and modern and the common areas were very pleasant. Immediately evident that we had left Cuba behind though — gone are the neon Lycra outfits straining over massive tummies and buttocks, no plunging skin tight tank tops, and a much less exuberant street scene.

 Bogota is enormous, 9 million at last count, so we are seeing a tiny bit of it in the historic district. La Candelaria is considered “safer” but the young man who checked us in after dark gave us a map with a “no go” area clearly marked and told us the hostel would call a taxi if we needed to go to another district for dinner. Cuba made us complacent about safety, we will have to be more aware here. Quite the shock to see guards with big guns and big muzzled dogs patrolling the streets and parks but Colombians assure you it is to make everything safe and is much better than before.

 The first thing we did was take a free (but tips welcome) walking tour of the graffiti in the area. There is a strong sub-culture of graffiti artists here, and with the support of building owners, the government and police have been pressured to stop harassing them so in effect it is semi legal here now. The young guy leading the tour was at pains to distinguish the work of different artists, some of whom tag the same walls. Visiting artists come from other South American countries and other cities in Colombia. Graffiti also can include sculptures which hang from buildings, and posters which are permanently glued to the walls. He talked about technique — who knew you can empty a fire extinguisher, fill it with paint and use it to put murals on the second story. Doug was so intrigued he took a separate album of pictures. They are everywhere in the city, and all along the cement walls of the freeways leading out of town. Some of them are very politically explicit and critical of the social situation here, we had to walk farther out of Candelaria to see those.
We wandered fairly slowly as we return here to fly out at the end of March so didn’t rush to see everything. Also we really noticed the altitude. The churches are lovely, very much less ornate than those in Spain, or in Cuenca in Ecuador, but to my mind as beautiful, with stark white walls and the carving of the retablos, altars and ceilings done in dark mahogany, with a slight hint of the gilt that would have embellished them in the past. They are seriously old, most date from the mid 1500’s, though because of earthquakes have been repaired.

We particularly enjoyed the Fernando Botero museum, representing Colombia’s most famous artist. We have all seen his paintings of massive people with impassive faces, engaged in activities such as dancing, singing, primping naked in front of mirrors, lying in bed, being painted, and on and on. He also does sculptures in bronze in a similarly massive style, we particularly liked one of a cat which reminded us of Frankie. Doug loved this museum so much he took an album of pictures there too.

 The Musee de Oro is equally absorbing, a massive collection of artifacts from all the major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. The emphasis is on showing how gold was embedded in the culture and practices of the native people. One particularly entrancing exhibit involved entering a circular room where the doors slid shut, it became completely dark and then a stunning exhibit of gold objects was illuminated on the walls around the room, culminating in a very realistic “pool” illuminated in the floor seemingly filled with gold and emerald objects. Such objects were thrown into certain lakes by shamans travelling on golden rafts during rituals.

 We spent a couple of mornings fixing up an itinerary for the coming weeks, one thing we had not realized was that Easter comes just before the end of our trip and everything stops for 4 days. The colonial town we had planned to be in at that time, Popayan, has the most famous celebration in Colombia and accommodation is booked out a year in advance. We have managed to work around it though, and have decided to take a number of local flights as distances are really long here and we would like to sample more of the country than we can by road.

Off into the hills north of Bogota to a couple of colonial towns next. We have a little list of things to do next time we are here. So far very welcoming people, not much English spoken, and way more varied food than in Cuba. Very meat heavy though for the “tipico” food, but in Bogota at least more ethnic influences. We take our first bus on to Villa de Leyva in the morning.