When you go to the top of Monserrate, you can see how strikingly massive Bogota is. You already knew the city was huge, but from the top of the mountain, you get a visual confirmation of how impossibly far its edges reach.
Zoomed out, it looks like a gigantic shallow bowl with a pattern of boxes at its base that either ends abruptly at the mountainous rim or jaggedly climbs and spreads up it. Zoom in and you’ll see the patchwork of rust-colored tiles of colonial roofs with clusters of skyscrapers and modern apartment buildings extending out above them.
I zoom in more to La Candelaria, the bohemian, hostel-filled neighborhood I had begun to familiarize myself with after a few days in Bogota. At the top of Monserrate, this neighborhood whose Calles and Carreras I had earnestly studied on the map looks tiny. Up there, I see how little of Bogota I have explored, how even though I feel that I have settled into Bogota’s groove, I am still at the very beginning of knowing the city.
But this is how cities are, even the smallest of them you can spend years exploring the crevices and still come up with new discoveries. So you zoom in and start with whatever tiny corner you land in and maybe you’ll find clues to something larger.
My first steps into Bogota had been small and timid ones within a few block radius of my hostel, mainly for the purpose of finding a place to have dinner. I found a small, dimly-lit restaurant with a fireplace and had my first of many meat & potato meals in Colombia.
Dinner alone in a new place is a special affair. Perhaps you feel a little nervous about your trip, but the wonderful feeling that you’ve arrived in your destination after all the anticipation outweighs the anxiety.
The next morning, having slept off some jetlag, I was ready to take more steps into Bogota. I began at the Botero Museum, a good place to hunker down while it rained. The museum is free and it mainly features the work of Fernando Botero, a painter and sculptor from Medellin whose distinctive use of chubby figures has made him Colombia’s most recognizable artist.
As the rain eased up, I walked to the Plaza de Bolivar, the main square of the historic center. It was packed with vendors, pigeons, llamas, people gathered to hear live music, and an abundance of various kinds of police officers.
I later learned that the square was not always so busy. Aside from the ever present pigeons and tourist police, the plaza was so crowded because of a Dia del Campesinados festival, a celebration the rural and often poor areas of Colombia. Though I think the title of the festival is a little lost in translation and culture, I found it hard to wrap my head around a celebration that could essentially be translated as “peasant day”.
I wandered around the stalls where people sold vegetables and fruits, some that I’d never seen before. In another section there were desserts and different kinds of caramel, my first glimpse into Colombia’s collective sweet tooth. Along the far edge of the square, handicrafts from different regions were for sale.
After a lengthy speech by the emcee, a band came on stage. A crowd gathered to watch, mostly just regular residents of the city. But there was also a group of drunk men—some with bare feet, some with vuvezelas—whose dance moves reflected just how much alcohol they’d had.
There was a charming older couple who danced to the music with bouncy yet elegant steps steps up and down the dance floor as they sang along with the music. The woman’s fancy purse and the couple’s city-like presence said something about their present. Her colorful poncho, his hat with a brim that curved up on the sides, and the passionate way they enjoyed the music like it was a long lost friend perhaps told of their past.
When the set ended, I continued on along a large pedestrian-only avenue filled with well-dressed business people. I had a cappuccino at a cafe amongst some of them and continued wandering when I noticed that the streets were beginning to empty. I figured out what was going on when I saw several vendors selling vuvuzelas and people wearing yellow jerseys walking around in a hurry. They were trying to squeeze into various bars and restaurants, most of which were overflowing with people.
It was game day, a World Cup qualifying match against Argentina, and it seemed to be a big deal for the Colombians. I decided to return to my hostel and see if people were watching it there. I didn’t know where I had wandered to, so I used Monserrate as a guide and followed the mountain home.
As soon as I got back, I met one of my hostel roommates, an Austrian, and she invited me to watch the game with her and another roommate from Brazil. We went the hostel’s bar-restaurant at half time and got a spot in the back before it filled up again with pumped up Colombian soccer fans. We watched the game, but mostly chatted and then cheered along with the Colombians at the end of the game when the final score was a tie. You have to appreciate it and join in when a country celebrates tiny victories such as simply not losing.
Later, having quickly established a new friendship trio, my two roommates and I decided to go out and experience Friday night in Bogota. The owner of the hostel gave us some wristbands to get into a club for free and we wondered if it would be full of backpackers, but we were happy to see that we were the only foreigners there. Two observations we made were how coupley it felt and how people’s dance moves were much more reserved than what we’d seen in other parts of Latin America.
The next morning, my Austrian roommate and I filled up on delicious breakfast arepas and coffee and went on the street art tour. It was more than just street art, it was a way to explore the neighborhood and beyond and take in the character and details and quirks. Like how in a city full of modern vehicles and highly fashionable people, you may just see a horse drawn cart.
When the tour was over, we walked to the base of Monserrate and took the cable car to top and watched as the buildings and cars become toys. As with other Andean cities, it’s not an overstatement to describe a view in Bogota as “breathtaking” as you may truly struggle with your breathing while you enjoy a high altitude panorama.
We walked around the top of the mountain to find different views and marveled at how green it was on the edge of the city. We caught a glimpse of yellow chicken and strange-looking sausages and decided not try them and perused handicraft stands. It was too early in my trip to buy anything, plus the crafts you see for sale in big cities are usually a combination of what you’ll find elsewhere as you travel through the country.
The following day, I was going to get my trip moving and head up north with my new Austrian friend. I felt glad that I had started in Bogota, eager to get going, and excited to return to the city at the end of my trip. Even after seeing how miniscule of a dent I had made in Bogota, I felt that in three days I was getting not just a sampling of Bogota, but of Colombia.
This is what I love about visiting cities despite what travelers who are convinced they’re all the same say. At first glance, that may appear to be true, maybe they seem globalized or too fast-paced and business like. But it would be impossible for them to be all the same, people will always want something narrower to identify with so they bring it with them from where they came from or establish something new in the city.
I find it endlessly fascinating how many worlds can exist in one tightly packed area; different regions and countries, old and new, concrete and natural. In Bogota’s amalgamation of worlds, I had been receiving clues about other parts of the country, and I was ready to uncover the rest of those places.
But first, back to La Candelaria for a few more leisurely strolls and a Saturday night out on the town.