Colombia 1: Bogota

Oh boy, what a journey from Brazil to Colombia. Following on from my sickness/diarrhoea bug from Rio (which, as previously mentioned, started BEFORE carnival), I threw up in the loo on the aeroplane before even taking off from the Rio runway at 9:45pm, before arriving at São Paulo airport an hour later for my 7 hour layover prior to my flight to Bogota. The duration of the layover was spent attempting to sleep and battling with diarrhoea, before boarding my second flight of 5.5 hours feeling utterly exhausted and eventually being able to get some sleep for most of it.

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I arrived in Bogota at around 9:30am (being 2 hours behind Rio) and decided against my usual backpacking option of local, cheap transport and instead opting to take a taxi to my hostel, Hostal Yepeto, in the colonial quarter of La Candelaria. There was confusion between my driver and I as to the cost (not only is my Spanish minimal but I’d just come from Brazil where I picked up basic Portuguese, PLUS I was weak from illness and lack of sleep) and then he didn’t have enough change for me so it only set me back 28,000 pesos (£8.50).

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La Candelaria

I had been warned less people would speak English in Colombia and that was certainly apparent as I stepped into my hostel. The woman running it didn’t speak much but seemed to understand a little, and the young guy fortunately spoke some English phrases, but it was time for me to try to get back into the swing if speaking (and maybe, perhaps, even understanding) the Latin American Spanish language. I managed to check in and dump my bags in my room, before sitting in a rocking chair in the common area to get my bearings and figure out my next couple of days. The staff were making coffee and kindly obliged when I asked for some and then proceeded to gush over my shawl, which was relatively new having been bought from Rio and especially colourful as it was abstract of a fuvela. There is always the wonderful ability for a common language to be established through gesture, emotion and facial expression where language barrier has no place. 

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I eventually headed out to explore surrounding La Candelaria – also known as Centro Historico – which instantly reminded me of Valparaiso in Chile with its colourful and sporadic graffiti, cobbled streets and narrow alleyways dotted with coffee shops, street food stalls, bohemian shops and street-market sellers, plus its plaza with locals sitting around playing live music. I wandered around in awe, stumbling from one shop to another at gazing in wonder at all the colours before me. It really is a beautiful place filled with so much character.

 

 

My next destination was Museo Botero, a gallery founded by a donation from Colombia’s most famous artist Fernando Botero and which houses 123 pieces of his own works, plus pieces by various other artists including Picasso, Renoir and Monet. I’m not a huge art fan, knowing very little and being drawn to only certain types, but I may have found a favourite artist in Botero with art that combines an almost stoic humour in his style of all things chubby. Plus it was free to enter. Bonus.

After walking around staring at art for an hour I felt peckish so I ducked into a nearby local jaunt for a bite to eat, noticing that they had Ajiaco on offer and wanting to try Bogota’ classic soup of potato, corn and chicken, accompanied with rice, avocado and deep fried banana. I was, and still am, slightly unsure about the inclusion of cold avocado with the hot soup, and the banana an oddly sweet inclusion to an otherwise savoury dish, but the flavours were good and eating the elements in separate combinations made it work for me. A medium bowl set me back $9,500 pesos (£3) and I washed it down with Colombian, a soft drink that tastes very similar to iron brew for $2,000 pesos (75p).

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I then walked south towards Plaza de Bolivar; the heart of the historic town with mishmash of architecture and beautiful churches. The buildings surround a large, open, cobbled square that is flocked with more pigeons than people as they cross cross their way to various destinations, and it reminded me somewhat of Trafalgar Square in London as people sat on the steps eating street food.

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Plaza de Bolivar

I kept walking south west and walked through a guarded area where my bag had to be checked and armed men where everywhere – slightly disconcerting, but sort of safe.

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In the mood for exploration I kept going, passing bakeries and trucks unloading in the street, until I eventually reached an area that looked like a fuvela arching up a hill to the south. Beautiful but run down, suddenly hit with the feeling of poverty.

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Deciding it was time to turn back, I stumbled across a group of 3 men playing a board game on a small table on the pavement – it was such a warming sight that I asked if I could take a photo, to which one of them responded in the negative, mentioning my phone then indicating my bag and shaking his finger at me then bringing his finger across his throats in a slicing motion. Rather than threatening that he would kill me if I dared take a photo of him, I gathered he was warning me against getting my phone out as I would be mugged or, worse, attacked, for it. I muttered a response and sped off, feeling hot and embarrassed and once again fearful and wary of my surroundings. I then had to achieve that magic combination of getting back to “safety” as quickly as possible without drawing attention to myself as a vulnerable person. My fave. 

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The sun was setting by the time I made it back to the Plaza, so I took a slow walk winding around the streets, picking up a hot drink from one of the many street stalls on wheels serving fresh lime, honey and hot water (alcohol is an additional extra) for something sweet and to warm me up for $2,000 (80p), although I now think I was overcharged. Foreigner fees. After walking for a good 4-5 hours – albeit at a pace slower than my norm – I decided to head back to my hostel to rest and sleep.

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Plaza de Bolivia (later on!)

The following morning I woke relatively early to have breakfast before heading out at 9am with my dorm mate from France, Romain, to walk up Cerro Monserrate. A 3200m high mountain that is a symbol of pride to locals, the top offers views of the city below. You can take a funicular or cable car with a round trip costing around $18,000 (£5) or you can walk the 1500 steps to the top – a tough, uphill climb that takes between 60 and 90 minutes. I read about bring careful due to robberies and mugging but there were police at various stops along the way and it felt really safe to me.

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Having been recently ill and not having slept well for the past week my body felt particularly weak and, with the heat and the altitude, I found it a struggle, but it took us just over an hour to climb and I rewarded myself with a homemade tutti frutti ice lolly from a local vendor at the top. Plus it was a pretty decent view of the city and the mountains in the distance, the whole of a Bogota being more appealing than I had imagined.

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Back at the bottom I parted ways with Romain and headed towards Centro Internacional, following my google maps for the quickest route and thus ending up walking along a main highway. Probably not the wisest of choices as it’s in the open and hardly anyone else is around, plus I was beeped at by passing vehicles repeatedly (and by repeatedly I literally mean every third vehicle) to the point where I went from thinking it was flirtation-appreciation to a danger warning about me walking alone. That is until a 60 year old in a motorbike beeped at me, giving me a toothless grin as he vroomed past and laughing me out of my apprehension. Still, at the first opportunity I veered off the highway onto a side street and continued my pursuit along pedestrian roads.

 

I eventually reached Museo Nacional – housed on an old prison – where it cost $3,000 COP (£1) to enter. This really cheap and there was a lot of interesting art, historic objects, photos, documents and weapons giving an insight into Colombian history, but very little in English and having visited a museum just the day before, I found it a bit of a struggle to stay engaged. Afterwards I headed to a nearby cafe where I decided to try Tamales, a local dish of maiz dough mixed with chicken, pork, egg and corn, wrapped up in a banana leaf and served caliente – as I opened up the leaf, steam came shooting out and the first taste was hearty and delicious. For $5,600 pesos (£1.75) with two small bread rolls it was a bargain.

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Tamales

Back in the direction of the hostel but not far from Museo Nacional I then came to Mirador Torre Colpatria. Bogota’s highest skyscraper at 180m it offers 360 degree views from the 48th story, but I wasn’t able to enter until 6pm (for a cost of around $5000) and I didn’t want to hang around for 2 hours. I therefore continued my walk back through Centro Internacional, venturing into an indoor market on the side of the street to buy some more studs (the ones with screw balls for the back – ideal for travelling) at 5 for 10,000 pesos (£3) and snapping more street graffiti on my way.

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Back in La Candelaria I was in need of a pick-me-up so I purchased an amaretto coffee from a street stall, paying $5,000 (£1.50) for alcoholic amaretto, espresso, steamed milk, chocolate sauce and a coffee bean sprinkling, plus the amiable chit chat of a local Colombian vendor.

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After showering and changing at the hostel I swung back out again, exploring the streets of La Candelaria in the dark; I didn’t take my phone with me as I would be out on my own in the evening and muggings weren’t that uncommon, so apologies in advance for the lack of photos here on in. Back at the small plaza I decided to try a sweet treat I had seen at many street food stalls, which consists of 2 rounds of wafer that you can then add multiple fillings – or sabores – to. I opted for blackberry sauce and cream, which was as sweet as I am sure you can imagine, for $2,000 pesos, plus I grabbed a cup of Masato, which is a traditional drink from the Andean region made using rice or maiz. I sampled the natural masato, which was slightly sharp and also sweet, but purchased a cup of Masato Blanco, whatever that means, which tasted slightly milky and sweet but really good. I downed it in about 10 seconds. In the swing of sampling local delights I got chatting to a group of Colombian guys sat in the side of the street drinking from a bottle, which turned out to be a drink called Chicha; another national drink, apparently similar to the Masato as it uses maiz in a similar way but this one is alcoholic and goes through a fermentation process, that comes natural or in various fruit flavours as well. 

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Plaza in La Candelaria in daylight

In a hunt for some good, local Chicha I wandered around the small cobbled streets before stumbling into a shop with a sign for Chicha. I then managed to get embroiled in a mishmash English/Spanish conversation with the shop owner as we both attempted the other language and tried to understand one another, with him going so far as to try to explain the process of making Chicha to me. I gotta say I was pretty lost at this point, especially after sampling all three of his flavours at 4%, 5% and 6% respectively (natural, pineapple & grape, 7 fruits), so I eventually ordered a cup of the pineapple & grape for 1,700 pesos (70p) before taking it with me to a nearby cafe where I devoured a huge Papas Rellenas; a Colombian potato ball, this one stuffed with rice, meat and chicken for 2,000 pesos (80p).

I then walked over to El Candelario (a restaurant that converts to a club – Bar Candelario – at night) at 9pm to be told by the doorman it didn’t open until 10, so I spent some time attempting to have a conversation with him (he was lovely) before picking up another cup of fresh lime, honey, hot water and – this time – a local spirit of aguadiemente. I then queued to get into the club where the same doorman kindly let me in for free, as it was “solo yo”. I never imagined going to a Colombian club on my own and it is something I would NEVER do in the UK. Maybe it’s one of those “Only when Travelling” things, whether it’s being absent from normal life, knowing you won’t see these people again, being used to getting more attention anyway because of where you’re from that being stared at doesn’t bother you so much, wanting to experience something so much that nothing is a barrier, or being used to doing so many other things on your own – sleeping, eating out, shopping, sight-seeing, drinking in a bar, generally living – that nothing feels unusual by yourself anymore. I don’t know, and I still wouldn’t do it at home, but I enjoyed being there by myself and not having to make conversation (oh god, I just heard that as I typed it – am I becoming a LONER?) and being free to get up and dance to the music as I pleased. I will admit I did wait for there to be enough people dancing for me to try to blend in, plus I stood near-ish to a group so you might perhaps mistake me as being part of it, but for the most part I danced in isolation, permitting my body to respond to the Latin-meets-commercial mix that was playing. At one point the music switched to a more hip hop style, then for a rap battle performance between two Colombian guys to ensue; I’m not entirely sure what was said between them (ok, not at all) but the energy was electric and the mood euphoric as the two rappers had the audience laughing and cheering with delight. My first live rap battle, and it was in Spanish. 

I left just before midnight, making sure to take the busier streets (which were now much emptier than before) and establish that prompt-without-appearing-anxious walk back to my hostel. I probably got around 6 or so hours sleep before waking early to check out and have a grab-and-go breakfast as my uber arrived (kindly ordered for me by a fellow traveller staying at the hostel – cheers Peter!) to take me to Terminal de Transportes for $10,000 (£3). My uber driver had insisted on me sitting in the front for my safety, put all my bags including my day bag in the boot to not attract attention, and locked the car doors, so a slightly unnerved and wary me arrived at the terminal and booked her seat to San Gil, shocked to be told I wouldn’t arrive until 7pm and preparing myself for a day of battles. Bye, Bogota, you were more than I expected.

LS.

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