Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Bustling Bogotá

After an agonizing 20-hour turned 26-hour bus ride from Cartagena, we pulled into the bus terminal and breathed a sigh of relief that we were out of the hot coastal area and instead sitting comfortably at 2,600 m (~8,500 ft) in Bogotá, the fourth highest capital in the world after La Paz, Quito, and Thimpu. The bus ride had us scared for a second when it departed Cartagena northward, travelling along the Caribbean Coast. We were sure we’d gotten on the wrong bus until we eventually turned southward, the first of many strange twists and turns the bus would take to arrive at the centrally located capital. We hopped on an urban busito and headed for our hostel, finding it with no trouble despite the street numbers having recently been changed. It was refreshing to be in a real big city, and it helped that the annual temperature hovers steadily around 60 degrees.

We started our city exploration with an early morning trip up to Cerro Monserrate, one of many large mountain peaks that create Bogota’s eastern urban border. The funicular train was out of service, so we zipped 200 meters up to the top via cable car. The views were breathtaking, literally. Having just come from sea level to 2,800 meters, every step seemed like a huge chore and we were soon winded. Fittingly, at the top, dozens of little shops sell coca tea, leaves of the same plant that produces cocaine, which are steeped and sugared to make a tasty fusion that cures altitude sickness (well, it tasted grassy to be honest, but the sugar helped). It seemed to work, since we didn’t have any more problems in Bogotá. We snapped dozens of shots of the church that sits atop the mount and the manicured gardens, shops and restaurants that surround it. People do hike up the mountain as a sort of penitence, but we heard it was dangerous so we cabled car-ed it back down.

View of the cable car and city from the top

Tasting coca tea - Don't worry, it's not illegal!

View over sprawling Bogotá

The funniest thing happened when we were up there though. A group of high school kids approached us in a furry and began asking us all kinds of questions, where we were from, if we spoke Spanish, if we had kids, where we were travelling. They were trying to pretend they knew English but could only get out “cost of transportation?” Hah. They also thought Nolan could pass for a Colombiano. It was a little intimidating having 20 kids all asking you questions at once and cooing every time you answered, but it was funny too. As soon as they saw some other gringos, they ditched us. Maybe it was a class assignment to talk to foreigners?

At the base of the cerro, we stopped in at Quinta de Bolívar, the temporary house or inn of the legendary Simon Bolívar from 1820 until 1830. Bolívar led many countries in South America to freedom from Spain (more on him later) and as such, is always referred to as “the Liberator.” The house wasn’t specially built for him or anything, and he only sort of temporarily lived there with his wife/mistress Manuela, but it was a great peek into the life and times of colonial Colombia. It had an extensive labyrinth of manicured gardens and a vegetable/medicinal/herb plot. The house itself had some great period furniture and a replica of a famous sword given to Bolívar by the city of Lima. It also had a fantastic breezy dining room where in the early 1800’s, the signs explained, culinary habits were beginning to change from full-service to buffet style. The kitchen was of course my favorite room with a huge blackened stove, old skin wine casks and antique utensils. It was serene spending time at his little hacienda, removed from the bustle of the city and nestled in the foothills.

Kitchen inside la Quinta

Gardens at la Quinta
Bogotá had so many great sights to see, it was hard to take them all in. With over 7.8 million people and an urban footprint of 613 square miles, we barely scratched the surface in our few days there. We stayed in the La Candelaria district, which is basically the old town. However it didn’t have exactly the Spanish colonial feel of other places we’ve visited. While there were some colorful colonial buildings, we also spotted art deco and even English style row homes in addition to the newer apartments and high rises that are beginning to infiltrate the downtown core. La Candelaria has a cluster of churches and restaurants which make it pleasant for strolling. It’s also home to Plaza Bolívar, a Trafalgar Square-esque place that has the primary cathedral, but also the Supreme Court building, city hall of Bogotá, and the building of the National Congress which backs up to the president’s quarters and other governmental buildings. It was very monumental to say the least, but not as pleasant as some other parks we visited later on.

Congress Building in Plaza Bolívar
Bogotá is known as the “Athens of Latin America” due to its high concentration of universities, which we can attest to having walked past dozens of them as we strolled the streets. It also has some great museums we visited. The first was the Donación Botero, a collection of works done by Francisco Botero himself and other famous artists from his personal collection. Botero is a contemporary Colombian artist, from Medellín actually, that has a peculiar style of painting and sculpting everything quite fat. Not just people, but animals, fruits and even furniture have a stocky nature to them. He’s quite famous and the museum housed a wonderful collection of his works, augmented by Picasso’s, Monet’s and others.

Botero hand
Botero Mona Lisa
 The second and even more famous museum is the Museo de Oro, or gold museum, which has a huge collection of Pre-Colombian gold artifacts from all over the country. It was really well done with all the information in well-written English (surprise!) and had thousands and thousands of amazing pieces. We saw everything from jewelry and ornamental sculptures to tools used in religious ceremonies and musical instruments. Amazingly, the Native Americans were skilled at making alloys with gold, platinum, bronze, copper and silver and perfected many techniques including hammering and the lost wax process.

Gold mask
In between all this sightseeing, we enjoyed a variety of delicious food. Colombia and Panama don’t have tortillas like many other Latin countries. Their equivalent is the arepa, which I previously mentioned, a thick cornmeal patty grilled and stuffed with a variety of ingredients. We found that eggs or shredded meat and cheese are the best, hot off the street from a guy with a grill on the front of his bike! Genius! They also sell amazing fresh potato chips and sweet churros on the street, as well as fried sausages and a grilled corn (choclo), which is so crispy after grilling that it tastes almost like popcorn. Empanadas abound with every filling imaginable, including a mix of cheese and guava jelly (not great). Colombian’s also love their sweets, particularly anything flavored with caramel syrup called arequipe. They eat it smeared between two wafer discs with other toppings like jelly or cheese. 
Bogotanos in particular are getting into microbrews and they have a famous chain called the Bogota Beer Company, which we stopped at to have some tasty Belgian style ales. We felt like we were back in the States, sipping delicious beer among hip and trendy college kids and young professionals. We heard Colombia has great hamburgers, but the few we tried weren’t that spectacular. Sadly we also missed out on eating lechona (a stuffed pig) and ajiaco (chicken and potato stew), since most of the restaurants were closed both Saturday and Sunday afternoon/evening. We did buy a famous Chamba ceramic cooking pot though which will be great to try making beans or stews in back home.

Wafer with arequipe

Crispy choclo
But beyond the food and the culture, what we loved most about Bogotá, was its urban-ness… which is the subject of the upcoming blog, so stay tuned!

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