21 May 2016

A Way-Too-Short Visit to Bogotá, Colombia (With Photos)

During the wee hours of 21 April, 2016, Jamie and I flew LAN from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Bogotá, Colombia, with a short stopover in Lima, Peru, arriving to a lovely day in the Colombian capital, all snuggled up against a line of intensely green mountains to the east, around noon.  Following a minor adventure in which we ended up way out in the parking lot with all our baggage falling off the cart after Jamie’s doubts about going farther and farther away from the taxi lineup won the day and we told the guy pushing our cart that we were going back, our taxi ride across town gave us an impression of a surprisingly clean large city with many green spaces – parks, paths, and bike lanes teaming people out enjoying them.

When we arrived at our little apart-hotel, the Viaggio Virrey, I was exhausted, having been up since 6:00 the previous day frenziedly cleaning, tying up loose ends, and then executing the first stage of our migration back to the Northern Hemisphere with just a few little naps on the plane rides across the South American continent. But we had an hour until check-in, and we had eaten nothing but ham and cheese sandwiches ever since the bus terminal in La Paloma, so we decided to get a bite to eat and see if we could find a grocery store. Happily, there was a big, fancy, upscale store close by, and it had a cafeteria-style restaurant upstairs called La Terraza. Well, La Terraza was very busy, and in our discombobulated state of being, we were trying to figure out how the system worked when the woman we were asking suggested we try a plate of rice mixed with multiple types of meat, beans, veggies, and corn that also came with an arepa and a piece of pork skin… I think – comida colombiana. Melting into putty in her hands, we let her serve us each way too much of the rice plate filled with unknown meats, then Jamie needed help finding the right Colombian bills to pay at the register (the exchange was around 2,900 Colombian pesos per US dollar). The place was really noisy (we got up and moved after identifying the nearby soda refrigerator as the source of one of the loud noises), the meat and beans were way overcooked and dried out, and we were too tired to mess around with trying to figure out what it was about the little cornmeal cakes and the pork skins that had the woman so enthused, so we just shoveled down what we could and then headed downstairs to check out the grocery store. And, oh man, what a store! We would be back later to peruse the aisles and bask in the glory of having so many choices available, from the beer selection to the wall of coffee to the array of herbs and spices from around the world to the wonderful variety of beautiful produce.

Back at the apartment, another desk clerk had arranged for a young man to carry our heavy bags up the three flights of stairs for us (after the other desk clerk had told us we would be on our own), and then we proceeded to fall into bed and stay there until the next morning – though not before learning that Prince had died that day, which made me very sad.

The Viaggio Virrey was located in an upscale neighborhood where the apartment buildings around us had armed guards, so we felt quite safe there. A short walk of about four blocks took us to a main avenue, Avenida Calle 85, which was lined with stores, restaurants, and bars – including a Hooters, where the first desk clerk somewhat bizarrely suggested – several times – that we eat during our one-week stay. Instead, we had a yummy pizza with chicken and white sauce that Friday evening; a meal at a cute little meat and beer establishment based on some idea conceptualized in London, England, that had a cool name starting with the letter x; a solitary and very delicious teppanyaki dinner on Sunday after visiting the Museo National; and burgers from a tiny food court on Monday and Tuesday, when we were dealing with the computer guys.

Upon our return from lunch, reconnaissance, and purchase of necessities such as some Colombian coffee and, of course, a few beers, in need of some serious down time, we pretty much stayed in for the next day and a half – Friday and Saturday. It was rainy. Plus, Jamie was trying different things to revive our little Acer notebook computer. They served a nice breakfast downstairs that included a buffet of fruits, breads, and cheeses, a cereal bar, and a hot breakfast of huevos al gusto, i.e., eggs made to order. And we had also bought some fruit and croissants to have on hand in our kitchenette. So we were pretty comfy there. But when we did go out, I was surprised at how many hip young people were out and about. Everywhere we went, people seemed to be happy, laughing, and enjoying life. Of course, we basically remained in the upscale area our hotel was in, except for our two excursions to the museums and the taxi rides from and to the airport, so we were getting a skewed picture of life in Bogotá. But for many people there, life appears to be pretty good.

We had been waiting to buy new clothes until after we’d left Uruguay because clothing prices seemed awfully high for the not-so-great quality, so we decided to check out prices at the shopping center that was about ten blocks away from where we were staying. The centro commercial Andino was a-brimmin’ with activity that Saturday afternoon. Jamie bought some Levi’s and then took them to a seamstress located in a tiny closet of a room across the basement parking lot, and we went and had coffee and flan and then a shoeshine for Jamie while we waited. Then, on our way “home,” we stopped in at the Bogotá Brewing Company, a hoppin’ spot for a cold beer. In fact, we drank their red beer throughout our stay.

On Sunday, we took a taxi to the National Museum. Jamie and I made it through the display of artifacts and information about the pre-Colombian indigenous cultures, the section about land use, from national parks to the history of agriculture and mineral extraction, and the one about the colonial and early history of Colombia. But Jamie sat out the modern Colombian history section, which included a modern art area where I got to see some interesting works, including some by the famous bogotater, Fernando Botero. (I made Jamie get up and take a look at a painting of his that was a huge image filled with tiled roofs, with a single, of a fat, goofy parrot sitting on one of the rooftops.)

The other thing I had wanted to do in Bogotá was visit the Museo de Botero, which is in the centro histórico de la Candelaria. It houses fine art that includes works by Picasso, Miró, and other internationally famous painters. Though lacking access to the internet, we had a tourist information and promotional book in our room that stated that the art museum was closed on Mondays; and when I asked desk clerk no. 2 if she knew anything about the museums, she just agreed that they were all closed on Mondays. But alas, the Viaggio Virrey was more of a place for business travelers, and it turned out that she and the book were both completely wrong about that.

So we took a fun taxi ride up along the side of the mountain that offered some great vistas out over the city and even took us past a student protest, complete with a naked chick and all (well, she was covered in body paint), to the museum, only to find that it was closed on Tuesdays. Oh well. We checked out the historical district, which includes the national congress and judicial buildings, along with the Catedral Primada de Colombia, and then strolled over to the Museo del Oro

And how happy we were to have been thusly diverted! I had pictured the Gold Museum as being filled with stuff made to glorify the Spanish conquistadors out of what they had stolen from the indigenous people, but there was none of that to be had there. No, no, no! This museum was dedicated to the creativity and craftsmanship of the early Colombians, who, we were informed, connected gold with the sun and its power through its brilliant, shining color. The museum displays myriad gold as well as some stone items in various ways to highlight different aspects of the artwork, such as the different groups of people, the symbolism of the work, and the methods of goldsmithing that these primitive people had perfected. They were really into bats – murciélagos, in Spanish, which is an infinitely cooler word than the English name for these amazing and mysterious animalitos. They were associated with the underworld and different kinds of power. The original Colombians were also into lizards and amphibians as well as birds and, of course, jaguars, because… jaguars!

While we were in the museum, it started raining pretty hard, and it continued for a while after we were done, leading us to enjoy a cappuccino in the museum coffee shop before heading out in a light drizzle to catch a taxi and head over to nerd central. In a building filled with little stores offering used computers, repairs, and parts, Jamie had decided to purchase a very nice refurbished Dell laptop to replace the dead Acer …that is, we thought it was dead, until Jamie asked the guy that we were talking to about purchasing the Dell if he could take a look at the Acer, and he ended up cleaning out the fan and replacing the hard drive for us. Then, when Jamie took it to some young fellas downstairs to install some software for us, he ended up getting a new memory, as well. Now, the Acer is alive and kicking, and so is the removed hard drive that Jamie has done his Dr. Frankenstein act upon and brought back from the dead …once again!

The building with all the used computer shops was one thing. But the next block down, there was a shiny new computer shopping center that was full of gamer technology, smart phones and accessories, and the latest computers that are self-contained in the monitor. We got some good headphones for the Dell and a little pen drive there. Going to Computer Central also allowed us to check out a different section of uptown Bogotá. We ducked into a small, brightly decorated restaurant with a Caribbean vibe going on for that afternoon’s rain shower cup of coffee on Wednesday, our last day there. People were enjoying big plates of food, and everyone had a cold brown drink that I thought might be something with tamarind, although I never inquired, since we were just having coffee. We also bought Jamie a nice baseball hat to replace his old, worn-out Suwannee Springfest cap from a super cute hippie chic in a souvenir stall in a little street bazaar.

It was at the airport where we both probably had our best Colombian-food meal. After we ate, we spent our remaining hours in the country people watching, drinking Irish coffee, more people watching… And it just wouldn’t be a real travel adventure without Jamie having some wild encounter in the restroom, this time involving a drug bust (there were dogs all over that airport).

So there you have it: my very limited viewpoint of what Bogotá is like. According to this viewpoint, it is a pretty damn nice city. It’s so green! And it felt lively. Vibrant. Happening.

Here are a few more photos - I sure do wish we had taken more!

All photos are by Jamie Douglas (most) and Julie R Butler (the blurry, out-the-window-of-a-moving-vehicle one at the end is mine).

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