Founded in 1538, Bogotá is the cold, foggy Andean capital of Colombia, perched 2640 metres above sea level. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the area was inhabited by the Muisca tribe, who called the settlement Bacatá, ‘The lady of the Andes’.
Following the victory of Simón Bolívar, ‘El Libertador’ at Boyacá in 1819, Bogotá was made the capital of Gran Colombia; the short-lived union of modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. These days it is the 3rd largest city in South America (pop. ~10 million), nicknamed ‘The Athens of South America’ for its numerous universities.
La Candelaria: 2.6.18 – 5.6.18
We arrived jet-lagged and weary to our hostel, the perennially popular Cranky Croc in the heart of Bogotá’s colonial district. After a brief wander about and a dinner of Ajiaco (a delicious Colombian broth) we crashed out for the night.
Outside our hostel in La Candelaria
The next day we ventured out to explore the city. The grand, colonial buildings of the city centre are in stark contrast with the ramshackle Barrios rising in to the mountains around us. During the 20th century, millions of Campesinos fled the violence in the countryside, swelling Bogotá’s population from 500,000 to 10 million and creating these sprawling neighbourhoods.
Our first stop was the Gold Museum, which featured a fascinating and extensive collection of indigenous art, pottery and golden artefacts. The Spanish stole and destroyed much of this artistic treasure and it’s a bit of a miracle that so much of it is left today. That said, with thousands of artefacts spread over 4 floors we were definitely had ‘gold fatigue’ by the time we left!
Afterwards we wandered around the Botero Museum, which featured many of this famous Colombian’s most recognisable works. Botero ‘exaggerated’ body shapes in his art, using this to make sartorial or humorous points. I took the opportunity to balls up my first, hesitant attempt to speak Spanish, demanding that the museum attendant buy two tickets for herself – must keep practising!
‘The Dancers’ – Botero, 1987
We then took in the grand Plaza Bolívar, the country’s administrative centre. The wide square is flanked by The Capitol, a large Cathedral and The Palace of Justice. It was the latter which M19 (a communist guerrilla force) seized control of in 1985, prompting a clumsy military assault which left half the country’s Justices dead. Today the plaza was peaceful, filled with people flogging lemonade and souvenirs.
The National Capitol in Bolívar Square
After a rain-filled bank holiday spent chatting with fellow backpackers and downing several beers, we spent Monday on a guided walking tour of La Candelaria. Our guide, Milton, was friendly, erudite and keen to convey his love of Colombia. As we walked the city streets he told us about the political history of the country, taking us from the murder of Jorge Gaitán in 1948 through La Violencia to the modern day. He outlined the city’s architectural development and the cultural conflict between an increasingly open, secular state (same-sex marriage was legalised in 2016) and a people with strong traditional values.
Along the way we tried delicious, crispy Arepas, Empañadas and Chicha, a beverage made from fermented corn. Traditionally chewed and spat in to a bowl (thankfully not on this occasion, Milton assured us), it was mildly effervescent but quite pleasant. Afterwards we wandered along Calle del Embudo, an ancient and narrow cobbled street filled with walls overflowing with street art. Justin Bieber had an unlikely role in the flourishing of art here; his execrable doodles on a wall here in 2013 prompted outraged local artists to pick up their paints and claim back their streets, legitimising graffiti throughout the country.
Graffiti on Calle del Embudo
We finished our tour with craft ales and a game of Tejo, an inspired Colombian National sport. Explosive charges are arrayed on a clay-caked wooden board, with points awarded to those who hit them with heavy lead puck-like projectiles. The resultant explosions are gratifyingly loud and the whole process is enlivened with copious, near-obligatory beer consumption.
On Tuesday we visited 3 churches in the centre of Bogotá; Iglesias San Francisco, La Tercera and De La Veracruz. The former was a beautiful example of opulent Latin American design, with a vast gilded altarpiece and graphic depictions of Christ’s wounds. The latter was rather more reserved in tone, but the altar and reliefs of Iglesia La Tercera were our favourite, beautifully carved from a dark wood. We then took a taxi to El Chapinero in wealthy northern Bogotá.
El Chapinero: 5.6.18 – 6.6.18
Northern Bogotá feels like a different city, one of banks, cafés and towering office blocks. Local teens wander around with iPhones out (unthinkable in parts of La Candelaria), while our first meal out cost an outrageous 60,000 pesos (£17). El Chapinero is a particularly welcoming place for the city’s gay community and is a reminder of the rapid improvement in income, tolerance and safety in parts of Colombia.
That said, we missed the edgy charm and history of La Candelaria, and after a tour of the faintly disappointing Museo Nacional we planned our day trip to Zipaquirá, some 40km north-east of Bogotá. That night a guy from Bucaramanga gave us a list of must-visit locations in the Santander region while the hostel sound system blared out the latest hits from the US and UK.
After a fantastic breakfast at Arbol del Pan (their French toast is incredible – seriously recommend!) we spent 2 hours navigating the various buses and connections to Zipaquirá via the city’s ‘Transmilenio’ bus service. I confess at one stage a US expat caught me muttering obscenities as we circled between platforms for the 3rd time. Staring out of the coach I spotted a number of people living rough in the foliage of the highway’s central reservation, the more fortunate using plastic sheets to protect them from the elements. It was a stark reminder of the gap between rich and poor in this polarised country.
Zipaquirá’s claim to fame is it’s Salt Cathedral, an underground church built in an old salt mine in the 1950s. Disastrously, the admission fee had increased astronomically since our Lonely Planet guide’s visit (the whole place had a forced theme park vibe, not unlike the last time we visited Wookey Hole in Somerset). Lacking the funds to enter, we consoled ourselves with lunch in Zipaquirá’s colourful and picturesque plaza, followed on our journey by several of the stray dogs wandering the square. We then returned to Bogotá, stopping in at the excellent Taller de Té for a cuppa before packing our things for the journey onwards.
Zipaquirá’s central plaza