“Be Safe!”, “Watch out for the Militia!”, “Stay clear of the Cartels!”, “Go easy on the Cocaine!”, “Better not get kidnapped!!” Just some of the reactions I got when I told people I was headed to Colombia!
It’s interesting – and sort of funny – the kind of pre-conceived notions people have about places. Going by all that it was built up to be, I have to say I was a little disappointed – all I got was a single instance of a totally lame peddler trying half heartedly to palm off some hashish to me!
The first thing that hits you – and quite literally at that – is the rare and cool mountain air! Bogotá sits 8661 ft (2640 mtrs) above sea level, making it the 3rd highest capital city in the world (the top 2 also happen to be in S.America)! So my gallant stride up several flights of stairs was quickly reduced to a slow crawl by the time I reached my friend’s 4th floor apartment!
Within 12 hours of having arrived there, my nasal passage was clear again and the cold symptoms I had – a distant New York memory! It’s not that the city is completely devoid of pollution – far from it in fact – just that being in the mountains definitely helps! Not only does the city enjoy the benefits of elevation but also a beautiful natural setting – surrounded as it is by the Andean Mountains, some of them over 10000 ft in height.
The weather is perfect to – never too cold or too hot – and it remains so throughout the year! You’re unlikely to find a heater, air conditioner or even a fan in anyone’s house! Great savings right there!! Being high up in the mountains also means constantly changing light conditions – plenty of variety for a day and always a photographer’s delight 😉
A good way to get acclimatised to the high climes and orient yourself to the city is, you guessed it, biking! My first day there happened to be a National Holiday which meant that ‘Ciclovia’ was in full effect! Ciclovia in Spanish simply means ‘bike path’ and worry not, for Bogotá has no shortage of those! On Sundays and National Holidays however, most of the city’s major thoroughfares are closed to traffic and reserved only for cyclists, runners, skaters, pedestrians and essentially anything that can claim to be, well, non – motorised!
It is estimated that about 2 million people (30% of the city’s populace!) partake in this weekly event, with over 100 route km’s of streets closed to traffic! Cali & Medellín in Colombia and several cities around the world have followed suit – The Big Apple included! But Bogotá is well and truly the pioneer, having started the event way back in the mid 70s!
If biking is not your thing, getting around is still fairly easy and cheap, what with countless ‘hatchback’ (mostly Hyundai Santro!) yellow cabs swarming the city’s streets. And then there is Bogotá’s pride – TransMilenio – the Bus Rapid Transit or BRT system that the world looks up to!
And for good reason to! While the city can’t stake claim to inventing the BRT system, it has perfected it like no other. Fare controlled stations, level boarding platforms, subway style barrier doors, real time arrival information, local and express service, free feeder buses – just a sampling of features that make it a world leader, and comparable in its capacity to many Metro Rail services across the globe! And having ridden it several times while I was there, let me also say this – it is FAST, VERY FAST!!!
So the obvious question on everyone’s mind would be, ‘easy to get around, yes, but what if you’re not a Spanish speaker??’ It’s like the lady at the check in counter at LGA inspecting my Colombian Visa and proceeding to ask, “Habla Español?” “No” I said. “I’m curious then, why are you going to Colombia?”
Honest, I had every intention of learning the language before I went but procrastination got the better of me! So it helped, no doubt, having a local host while there! That said though, it is almost overwhelming how warm and friendly Colombians can be – never mind if you don’t know their tongue! The hospitality and love I received from the family I stayed with was second to none, in my experience. Coming from me, an Indian, that says a lot!
Wherever I went, people were all smiles and always chatty – even if it meant conversing with me in Spanish and me nodding my head knowledgeably to everything they said! Heck, you could even sweet talk a pair of strapping young police officers to pose for you and they didn’t mind!
Oh and did I even mention the women? They say that Colombian, Argentinean & Venezuelan girls are the loveliest of the South American lot. I haven’t been to Venezuela yet but the Colombians, I feel, trump the Argentines in the good looks / curvilicious department! You gotta love them 😉
Studying in NYC, I had the good fortune of getting to know a handful of Colombians. Thanks to them, I was introduced to the delights of their cuisine and so was most excited at the opportunity to finally taste Colombian food in Colombia!
When people think of Colombian food they think red meat, and possibly, corn! But the country’s rich culinary tradition goes well beyond that. All one needs to do to grasp this is make a trip to ‘Surtifruver de la Sabana’ – a chain of supermarket sized stores which only sell produce!
If you thought India has a diverse selection of fruit, think again! Maracuyá, Gulupa, Granadilla, Guanábana, the list was endless and needless to say, I was blissfully clueless about the existence of each! Add to that the most varieties of bananas and pineapple’s I had ever seen. And then there are the juices – a lot of them sourced from these very fruits – each of them a unique and refreshing flavour! Fruit juice carts (of the ‘whole fruits’ variety) are about as commonplace in the city, as say, street meat vendors!
Talking of street meat – and I promise to revisit other foods later in this blog – we headed over to the city’s infamous South to sample a ‘local’ favourite! Truth be told, we would have had little other reason to go there but for the best ‘Lechona’ in town! Made up of pork, rice, peas and some spices, it was served over mini Arepas – all washed down with a local non alcoholic beverage, Pony Malta! It was truly special and I savoured every bit of it, knowing well that I would be hard pressed to find this again, even in the most authentic Colombian eatery in NYC!
Sure the city’s South has its dodgy parts – shanty towns, run down buildings, dingy alleys and such – and you’re always advised to keep cameras and other ‘attractive’ items out of sight. But Bogotá’s neighbourhoods change almost as quickly as its weather! Like every city in the world, it has its share of seedy areas and on the other end of the spectrum, there are the extremely posh ones!
In between these extremes lie several charming little neighbourhoods, one of which, Niza, in North Central Bogotá, I had the pleasure of biking through! Apart from being pretty, Niza also enjoys a good location, bordering a city park and a wooded area, complete with mountain biking trails!
The Colombians, like most of their South American brethren, are a god-fearing lot. Not a bad thing at all for a lover of old architecture! Cause this fervour invariably translates into a great many churches, of varying shape, hue, size and style – a lot of them dating from Spanish Colonial times, and most, if not all of them, very well preserved!
The most revered of the lot is Monserrate, a 17th century church which sits on a mountain almost 2000 ft higher than downtown Bogotá! It is both a pilgrim destination as well as one of the city’s biggest tourist draws. The tourists use either the Funicular (which for some strange reason does not operate after noon!) or the Cable Car to reach the top. The pilgrims are known to take a slightly longer route – that of walking!
I was already a bit disappointed that we had to make do with the Cable Car and then the weather gods decided to not cooperate as well. First, a thick cloud cover took over, which instantly dashed all hopes of my multi picture panorama! And then, it began to rain! But by the time we got up there, the rain had subsided considerably and the sun decided to make an appearance..
CUT TO – creatively composed rainbow shot
INSERT SOUND TRACK – Thought I’d died and gone to heaven..
Alright, I admit, that was a bit cheesy 😉
Other than its high perch and resultant views, the church itself is nothing remarkable – there are several more striking ones in the city below. Then again, not everyone goes up just to pray! There’s a huge handicrafts market right behind it, plenty of scenic paths around and two fabulously located restaurants – Santa Clara and Casa San Isidro – both offering spectacular views of the city.
A long, cold, and somewhat damp walk meant that a hot drink was in order – to warm the cockles, so to speak! Comprising of cane sugar, cloves, lime, cinnamon sticks and Aguardiente (a combination of hot water and Anis), the Canelazo was just the answer!
My host being full time faculty at Universidad de los Andes meant that a campus tour was on the cards! The University is nestled at the bottom of Cerro de Monserrate, the mountain from which the church gets its name (or is it the other way round?). The location itself is a plus and completely conducive to any kind of academic activity! Add to that a campus which aesthetically combines colonial heritage with contemporary spaces and at least a half dozen outdoor decks (WiFi enabled no less!) for its students, and you have an instant winner!
University de los Andes, along with a handful other local universities, shares its boundaries with La Candelaria – the city’s land marked historic district or more aptly, its Pièce de résistance!
Over four centuries old, La Candelaria is the oldest part of the city, the core of its Spanish Colonial past! Not long ago, the scene of fighting between guerrillas and security forces, the area today is dotted with cosy little cafes, modernist libraries, intriguing museums, spiffy galleries, stunning churches, baroque style homes, and a local university crowd that never stops buzzing across the length and breadth of its rustic cobbled streets..
The heart of La Candelaria is said to be Plaza de Bolívar – a European style public square surrounded by landmarks such as Capitolio Nacional (House of Congress), Alcaldía Mayor (Mayor’s building), Palacio de Justicia (Ministry of Justice) and Catedral Primada (Primary Cathedral of Colombia).
The street adjoining Catedral Primada is Calle 11 and on it is located a culinary institution dating back to 1816 – Puerta Falsa. We ended the day there with a bounty full of local desert!
The best way to describe what we ate was ‘heaven on earth’ on an orange peel and ‘heaven on earth’ on a fig! Now replace ‘heaven on earth’ with ‘Arequipe’, the Colombian version of caramel spread and you’ll sort of get an idea of what I’m talking about 😉
The next day – and my last in the country – we boarded the Tren de la Sabana (Train of the Savannah), bound for Zipaquirá, about 50 kms to the north. The obvious attraction for me was the fact that we had a steam locomotive up front, and what’s more, this was my first experience on a 3 ft gauge railway! However, there was plenty happening inside to keep my head from being stuck permanently out of the window!
From the word go, it was a carnival like atmosphere on board the Turistren (Tourist train), with musicians from the Andean Highlands and the Caribbean Coast entertaining us with their lively beats and energetic vocals. Add to that service from the Dining Car, views of the mountainous countryside and the clickety clack that is peculiar to the narrow gauge – it was nothing short of a treat for me!
Zipaquirá is a pretty little town, complete with a Sunday market and town square, best known for its Salt Mines. The town’s biggest attraction is Catedral de Sal or Salt Cathedral, an underground church built within a tunnel of salt mines, a couple hundred metres inside a salt mountain. Built in the 50’s after the mines were closed, the Cathedral has 14 small chapels, each illustrative of Christ’s last journey.
The main chamber of the Cathedral is absolutely humongous – 75 metres long and rising to 25 metres in height! The space truly has to be experienced to be believed! Standing 16 metres tall, the big cross in it, is supposedly the largest underground cross in the world!
Break we did, and how! Instead of getting the customary Churrasco cut (top of pic), my host recommended the Sobre Barriga (bottom) – a stomach cut topped with a gravy of onions, tomatoes and spices served with baby potatoes, Arepas and Chimichurri sauce! Now don’t ask me how I finished it (assuming I did..) but suffice to say, it tasted so damn good, it still lingers somewhere in my buds 😉
CUT TO – What were you doing in Bogotá? Why did you go? Who do you know there? How long for? – asked the courtly Customs & Border Protection Officer as he greeted me back into the United States.. I was ‘safely’ back in the land of manufactured paranoia!!
A full set of pics can be seen here.