Bogotá, Colombia...one of those places it feels surreal to be visiting. In years past Bogotá, probably all of Colombia for that matter was notorious and the mere mention of the name conjured up images of cartels, drugs and violence. Still, as we have heard and read, and as we have learned first hand thus far in Colombia: the way things were 'then' and the way things are NOW are worlds apart.
The ride from San Gil to Bogotá was, as all bus rides in Colombia, long and frigid (bus A/C cranking) but also incredibly scenic. We watched as the scenery changed and we descended and then reascended and wound our way through various mountain ranges and finally through the outskirts of Bogotá. We at last were unceremoniously dropped at the North City bus station where we were instructed to get a city bus the final several miles into town. It was 5:00pm on a Thursday: rush hour on the Trans-Milenio bus system.
Amidst the rush hour chaos we managed to figure out buying a ticket and even got onto the right bus and then, even luckier, scored seats where we sat with our backpacks piled onto us. We were crammed in; but at least we were sitting...the aisles around us were packed beyond capacity; the proverbial herd of cattle all commuting home from work.
30 minutes through town and we got off at Museo del Oro bus stop and set out to find our Hostel; La Quinta amongst the many Calles (streets) and Carreras (avenues) that fill the old town aka: La Candelaria. Now, we had an address...but it only got us part of the way there. As it turns out there are several streets called Calle 1. On top of that they somewhat recently decided to re-do the street names, meaning there is not only more then one Calle 1, but there are also several former Calle 1s! (And the old street signs have not been removed- only crossed out with red spray paint).
We thought we were almost there when a man with a gun approached us...
Here is the difference between 'then' and NOW; 20 years ago the man could very easily have stuck his gun in our faces and alleviated us of all our belongings (or worse!!). Today the man was one of the thousands of armed private security guards who, in addition to the many thousands of police that patrol the city, are one of reasons that Bogotá is now a reasonably safe place to visit.
He asked us what address we were looking for and when we told him he responded: 'Oh...you're looking for La Quinta?' and he proceeded to walk us through a small plaza and around the corner...of course, it was on the other Calle 1...stupid gringos. He rang the bell for us and waited until the door opened...quite literally hand delivering us to our destination. We thanked him and he waived it off and wished us a good stay in Bogotá and then with a smile he was gone. Try finding that sort of help in downtown LA, Manhattan, or Chi-Town...just saying.
We got checked in and then headed out for some much needed grub. We wandered the neighborhood for a little while noting the distinctly bohemian vibe; hell we could have been in SF: dreadlocks, guitars, slack-lines and the smell of weed smoke were all in abundance. Finally, we found a spot offering Middle Eastern food and slid into the the fire place warmed dining room. (I forgot to mention: Bogotá is cold- 8500 ft. elevation!) we got down with some hummus, falafel, tomato & cucumber salad and pitas. We went for our standard short post dinner walk and made a quick stop for a glass of wine and a beer (G ended up with some strange herb wine that left a little to be desired) before we headed back to the hostel to chill and gameplan the rest of our time in Bogotá.
In the morning we packed up, ate breakfast, checked out and stored our bags in the back of the hostel. We had booked a small apartment via Air BnB for the rest of the weekend and would be moving there that afternoon, but first: Bogotá bike tour.
We cruised over and met our guide, Fernando, and got our bikes sorted and eventually headed out: just us, a Swiss dude, and Fernando. We quickly realized Fernando is not your average tour guide: he's borderline hyperactive, very, very, extremely enthusiastic, and also quite a talented actor: all qualities which aided in his explanations, stories, anecdotes and one man 'plays'. When there was gunfire in Fernando's story (being Colombia there is plenty when discussing the country's past) Fernando would be holding a pantomimed gun and making the sound of gunfire. Sometimes he would play both the shooter and then jump over and play the person who was just shot. When we got to places that showed signs of recent protests (being Colombia there are plenty when discussing the country's present) he would shout the chants that the protesters had been chanting during the protests. As I said: not your average tour guide...we were stoked.
Hopping on our bikes we both quickly looked at each other: although we had pulled up surprisgly un-sore in the legs after our 55km mountain biking odessey a few days earlier in San Gil; we discovered we were both extremely tender in one particular spot: our asses.
The tour went through La Candelaria (old town) and to the [legitimate] Emerald market (of Romancing the Stone fame) and then to the black-market Emerald market which is on the sidewalk on the next block where several dozen people milled about looking just a touch shady showing each other little packets of what were apparently emeralds. To the uninitiated it very closely resembled a market place for Colombia's other famous export (and I ain't talking about coffee!)
From there we headed to Bolivar Plaza where we learned a ton about the tumultuous 80's and 90's, the rebels, the FARC, etc. Here Fernando said one of a few lines that will stick with me; regarding corruption: "The problem in Colombia is that when people become rich they forget where they came from, forget about the poor and focus only on making themselves richer."
Another line I remember was at Milenio Park where Fernando discussed a famous Politician who was assassinated: "In Colombia all of the good Politicians are assassinated; ALL of them." His reenactment of the rocket propelled grenades that were shot off in that park a few decades back was pretty sweet, for the record.
Next we stopped for a break at Fernando's buddy Danny's cervecheria for a little local specialty refreshment: a 'Berraquillo'. Now, I'm not going to remember everything that was in this thing but you can get the point by my listing the following ingredients that were all put into a blender:
Brandy, amaretto, some sort of fruit wine, honey, Colombian cream liquer, grenadine-esque syrup, 1 raw egg, some strange fruit that is only found in one area of Colombia (nowhere else in the world apparently), fish pellets (no clue: apparently high in vitamins and Omega 3), milk, and the capper: 2 still alive little crabs.
Like I said: all blended up...one hell of a way to go out if you're the crab!!
Yeah, so me, G and the Swiss dude all shared a huge glass of the thick, bright pink smoothie. It actually wasn't as bad as you'd think considering the list of ingredients...G gets props for trying it; a pesca-tarien who just watched two little crabs meet their maker by means of a blender. She's toughening up!
We rode around for several more hours and made various stops including the Bull Fighting Ring, a beautiful park and the National Museum (used to be a prison and is allegedly haunted). We had to seek shelter when it started dumping rain and as it rained hard for a good 30 minutes we missed a few things on the tour...but even with the rain, we were more then satisfied with our few hours around Bogotá with Fernando.
We dashed back to the hostel and grabbed our stuff and headed for the Trans-Milenio bus before thinking better of it and grabbing a cab up-town to Calle 77 where we found our way into the small 1 BR apt we had organized through Air BnB. We were both stoked to have a little place to call our own, even if only for a few days.
We headed out to the grocery store to stock the fridge and grab a bottle of wine and some beer for some pre-game beverages before heading out to meet up with our new Belgian friends for a night out on the town in Bogotá.
The venue for the night was a spot called 'Vinacure' which is an old theatre that has been renovated into a very funky night club. On this friday night it was an 80's party complete with a drag, cabaret styled performance of Madonna songs. Sounded distinctly San Francisco plus 80's music; hell yeah we're in.
We met the Belgians: Steve, Rob, Sein and Leen in the line at the front door. We'd had a great time with them on the mountain bike ride in San Gil a few days earlier and had decided to meet for a night out in Bogotá as we were both headed that way. Rob studied abroad in Bogotá so had some Colombian friends who came along as well; plus, he's lived here so knows how it all works. Lesson #1; no such thing as going to the bar to buy a drink. At the bar you buy a bottle of booze and some mixers and then mix your own drinks at your table. Lesson #2; no night out is complete without a bottle of Aguardiente (a local specialty that tastes like ouzo (anis, or black licorice) mixed with rubbing alcohol. And so the night proceeded. The DJs bumped 80's classics which was awesome and then some strange other stuff which was not. Everyone danced up a storm and had a blast. The Madonna performance was...interesting.
At last it was 2am, and we decided to call it a night even though the Belgians were kicking on. Considering we're usually in bed (embarrassingly) by about 10pm, we thought we did OK, we wished them safe travels back to Belgium the next day and made plans to make the relationship official by becoming friends on Facebook and to hopefully see them again in either Belgium or the US.
Saturday was awesome; we did a whole lot of nothing and loved it. It wasnt even because of the previous night's Aguardiente, honest; we just were happy to have a quiet place of our own. A little strolling the neighborhood and mall walking led to us watching the new Batman movie at the theatre down the street. For dinner we cooked our signature traveling dinner: bean burritos.
Sunday comprised of a workout in the apartment's gym before some walking around the city then heading for the Museo de Oro- Bogotá's alleged best museum and also considered the best 'Gold Museum' in the world...Bonus: free entry on Sundays. The exhibits consist of all manner of gold objects; jewelry, statues, religious symbols, etc. One thing they all have in common, aside being made of gold: they are all old. We spent about an hour wandering before finishing up just as they closed up.
Another day, another Museum as we cruised back to the old town on Monday after saying goodbye to our little apartment and hit the huge Art museum. The main exhibit was from Colombian artist Fernando Botero. We'd seen a bit of his stuff throughout our time in Colombia including one huge statue in Cartagena. He's got a distinct style: basically everyone and everything is Fat. Fat ladies, fat men, fat dogs, fat fruit, fat everything. Tons and tons of paintings, sculptures and statues.
Two museums in two days left us cultured out and we took it easy the rest of the afternoon. We hung at the hostel and made some plans for the rest of our time in Colombia. That evening we headed out for dinner again and ended up back at the Middle Eastern restaurant for dinner.
Tuesday morning and we were up and at 'em to pack before grabbing our cab out to the bus terminal. We showed up and were rushed onto a bus that was leaving right that moment...no time to get any supplies for the journey which was a bummer...but the bus was leaving and we were getting on it. Next stop: Coffee Country.
And so we settled in for another long day of travel and watched as Bogotá slipped away and we headed back into the mountains.