Resurgent Capital: In and around Bogota, Columbia
We’ve hopped off our car briefly, and are standing at a mirador, a special viewing point, to take in the vast sweep of Bogota, Columbia’s capital city below us. Rotund cumulous clouds line up the bright blue sky as though someone has expertly blown a series of smoke rings. To the east is what you’d expect from an Andean city- a spectacular wall of mountains.
Even in pre-Columbian times, which is five hundred years ago, this place had been inhabited by the native Muisca Indians, who traded salt from the mines nearby, wove and potted skillfully and made spectacular objects of gold.
‘Now,’ I’m told, by the lovely Natalia Cardenas, who is accompanying me, ‘the city is home to nearly ten million people, many of them a blend of Spanish and Muisca Indian lineage. Bogota has been buzzing with optimism ever since the ceasefire between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels five years ago.’
We park nearby and hike along the lush green path for about an hour to reach Mount Montserrat, which is at around 8,660 feet above sea level. This hill is especially imbued with spiritual import given there is a cathedral at the top. The views below, of the vast hilly esplanade are pretty epic. ‘Not far behind us,’ she adds, ‘in the hills, is a rare ecosystem called the paramo, rich with bromeliads, orchids and moss, where the Andean Spectacled bears still roam.’
Just a couple of hours later we’re in the narrow streets of La Candelaria, a low-rise, colonial era neighbourhood, from where my eyes are drawn upwards to the looming mountains. We re-trace our steps and feel the awe of their commanding heights.
Walking in La Candelaria is like being propelled into Colonial times. Many of the small, painted houses that radiate off the sprawling Bolivar Square have been turned into hostels, art galleries and lively restaurants. Calle del Embubo, or Funnel Street, is a particularly narrow delight, its facades loaded with graffiti recalling portraits of the indigenous people. Chicha, the old Andean tipple can be tried here. We lunch at Prudencia, a chic restaurant that wafts us into the best of modern times.
The next morning we head to the bustling Paloquemao market to get a feel for the local people and to explore a vast and extraordinary library of fruits. Natalia has me try a dizzying array of produce from the Amazonian rainforests, the La Guajira desert, the altiplano, and riverine lowland plains.
This is a frugivore’s candy shop, and I delight in generously offered bites of grandilla, pitalla, guanabana, feijoa, mamonsijo, nispero and tree tomato. Lulo and curuba juices, like fine wine, are rolled on the tongue. Aromatic herbs were whiffed. Now we’re sipping the best Columbian Arabica coffee and nibbling crumbs of panella, rich brown sugarcane molasses, which is widely used in place of sugar. Every inch of the market is refreshingly clean, and the high altitude has ensured a lack of pesky flies. Colombia is close to the equator, and the high luminosity also ensures a vibrant growth of flowers, which we see next, over a vast outdoor area. Cannabis and coca plants too must grow with the same vigour. No shortage of inventory then, for the famed drug lords who shaped the recent socio-political story of the nation.
The gold museum, housed in a beautiful modern structure, is a revelation. It holds the largest pre-Columbian collection of gold in the Americas, and gives voice to the living culture of an ancient civilization, their mores, beliefs and religion.
Narco culture continues to amuse everyone around here. They’re viewed as tormentors, lovable rogues and big spenders all-in-one. Armed guards and sniffer dogs are omnipresent. Natalia points to shop front female mannequins with enormous breasts. Heavily armoured vehicles with darkened windows whizz by, and then there are the den-of-vice whiskeriyas and the lore of jewel studded personal guns.
Bogota gets wealthier the further north you go, and the likes of the singer Shakira live in smart modern high rises in one many posh neighbourhoods such as Zona Roza that are bestowed with a vibrant culinary scene and pulsating night life. There’s a wealth-based strata system, classifying families from 1-6, intended to tax the rich, (the sixes being the wealthiest) but it engenders class divides. ‘Even if you make a lot of money and go from 2-5, what matters is where went to high school.’
- The Gold Museum houses the world’s largest collection of pre-Columbian, new world gold.
- The Fernando Botero Museum in La Candelaria neighbourhood.
- Play a game of Tejo (where iron pucks thrown at gunpowder targets create explosive sounds) with the locals in the trendy San Filipe.
Artesanias de Colombia is a stylish boutique showcasing hand-woven baskets, hammocks, textiles and pottery.
- The Four seasons Casa Medina combines three mansions, and every corner is infused with charm.
- The Four Seasons Bogota, Carrere 13
- The Sofitel, Carerra 13, Number 85-80
Limo and Limon in La Candelaria neighbourhood.
- Prudencia, a stylish restaurant serving modern fare run by and American couple in La Candelaria
- Origen for Colombian dishes
- Tabula small Tapas size portions of Columbian fare (a Bourdain favourite)