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The Great Thing about Bogotá: The View from Colombia

By Christopher Burke

4 April 2011, Bogotá, Colombia. Bogotá is often called gritty.  The city can look threadbare, and in many places it is.  Let’s not talk about the mid-afternoon downpours that can erupt within seconds into urban flooding and make for high adventure when crossing la Septima, or any of the other Carreras or Calles that crisscross the city.  This city is painful when you are stuck in non-moving traffic on the NQS, or when you are sitting on a Transmilenio bus (the answer to urban standstill, the bus that wants to be a subway train) stuck in Transmilenio urban gridlock inching home at zero miles an hour at 9 at night.  Okay, things are not perfect!  So it occurs to me that it might be a good idea to iterate what’s good, what’s great, about this city.  This is a city (and a citizenry) that has accommodated urban knocks with such humble and graceful acceptance that you have to give it its due.  Bogotá has humanity in buckets. Street musicians who jump the bus turnstiles to “entertain” their captive bus audience with their rap reveries, invariably begin their pitch with “Buenas trades a todos,”  (“Good afternoon, everybody.” ) And everybody on the bus invariably answers, “Buenas trades,”  (“Good afternoon.” ) And the politeness amazes me every time.  And then the rap begins, accompanied by a CD soundtrack, like it or not!  And so, to celebrate this complex and tenacious city, I put forth what for me are some of its enormous charms.

 

For a long time, I resisted Monserrate, the number one tourist attraction in Bogotá.  This is a church high on one of the Cerros, the hills that surround the city.  It lights up nightly, a sparkle from wherever you might be in the city with a view of the hills.  This is Bogotá’s answer to Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.  I’m not sure which came first.  On the evening when I finally condescended to take the funicular up to this tourist destination, as luck would have it, clouds rolled in and fog descended.  I exited the funicular to magic.  The city below was invisible, but huge Christmas fabrications were in process on Monserrate.  Haze obscured meaning, and all I saw were the outlines of large Wise Men and domestic animal shapes in clouds.  What had I been thinking never to come here before?  Later, the clouds dispersed just enough to let the lights of Bogotá vaguely fit into place in fuzz below.  I am told never to go on Sundays when Monserrate is thronged with people.  And I am here to tell you, go when the Cerros are covered in fog (not so difficult as clouds roll in over the hills with regularity in Bogotá) because then Monserrate is magical.

 

I take a bus three or four times a week coming toward the center of town from the north in the early evening darkness of Bogotá.  Somewhere on its front windshield this bus says Centro, or Germania.  La Septima is closed to southbound traffic at rush hours, so all buses detour to Carrera 11.  Traffic moves slowly as Carrera 11 was never designed to accommodate its own as well as all the displaced traffic from la Septima.  However, slow means that you get to window-shop from your bus seat (make sure there are empty seats before you get on the bus!) at some of the most exclusive shops in Bogotá as you make your way downtown.  Traffic makes another zig zag to get around the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, a neo-Gothic cathedral-like church in Chapinero.  We are now at Carrera 13 and Calle 63, and this is where it always behooves to pay attention.  If lucky, the bus will again be slowed in traffic just we pass the plaza in front of the Iglesia.  At this time of night, the main doors of the church are thrown open and light from inside the church floods out into the night.  Looking directly inside the church as you pass, you are given a clear view from your perch on the bus straight through the church to the statue of the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, large behind the altar.  It always seems to me at this moment that suddenly in the Bogotá night I am getting a sharp fleeting glimpse not just inside the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes but of the essence and mystery of religion itself.  And when my bus jags or swerves or bolts me forward, I get to contemplate through the shoe district the exquisiteness of what I have just seen.

 

The Botero Museum is beautiful on many levels, not least of which is its location in a calming 1724 fountain-centered space, the former Archbishop’s Palace, in the center of the Banco de la República museum complex in the Candelaria colonial district downtown.  The museum is uncrowded – many Bogotanos don’t know that it exists!  Rich in its collection of Botero’s but not defined solely by Botero’s, the museum immediately endeared itself to me when I first went there with its Alex Katz painting on its western staircase.  The collection here is deep and exquisite.  Entrance is free, which makes it the perfect stop when in la Candelaria.  I often wander in for only five to ten minutes to admire just one or two paintings.  And the cafe in a modern atrium tucked away in the back is one of the most perfect spots in Bogotá to sip coffee and let time pass you by.

 

The Candelaria surrounds the Museo Botero, backing up from the impressive Plaza Simon Bolivar, the heart of Bogotá.  I truly love the winged gargoyles atop the Capitolio Nacional, the Colombian Congressional Building, visible from the middle of the plaza.  La Candelaria is full of students, and stores that sell religious articles, and restaurants famous for their typical Colombian desserts.  There are theaters and universities, and great swathes of history, museums large and small, pizza places and French bakeries.  And then there is the pale yellow painted Iglesia de la Candelaria where time stands still.  Step inside the Iglesia de la Candelaria and pause a moment from the chaotic bus fumes and car horns and be awed by the achievements of belief and the spirit of craftsmen past.

 

It may seem to rain practically every day, but Bogotanos love their city’s weather.  And with good cause.  It is often sunny in the mornings, but rarely uncomfortably hot.   It can be wet in the afternoons, but it is usually beautifully mild in the early evening.  To stroll along tree lined Parkway at 6 or 7 when locals walk their dogs and mothers and fathers with children make their way home is to feel why people here call the climate eternal spring.  Eternal spring means that trees are green year round, that roses bloom for Christmas, and that you can go out at night with just a jacket or sweater and scarf for warmth.  Bogotanos will also be quick to point out that the geographic location of the city is perfection, that you can drive a couple of hours out of the city and enjoy temperatures much much warmer.  We are but a stone’s throw from tierra caliente and tropical weather.

Someone asked me when I first moved here to describe Bogotá with one word.  I used two, red brick.  Bogotá is a celebration of red brick.  Red brick is everywhere and it took me by surprise when I first arrived as I hadn’t anticipated a South American city as being defined by so much brick.  There is older red brick housing throughout the city, and then the modern apartment blocks in the north are predominantly red brick.  The new sidewalks that the city has begun installing are red brick.  And Rogelio Salmona, perhaps Colombia’s most famous architect, has buildings sprinkled throughout the city that are all red or orange brick – the Biblioteca Virgilio Barco, the Archivo General de la Nación, and the apartment towers behind the bullring are notable examples.

 

Bogotá has a great artisan’s market in December.  From all over the country, artisans descend on the city to Colferias, a huge exhibition space.  It is the place to buy Christmas gifts.  At other times of the year, the Sunday flea market on Carrera 7 may not have the cache of the flea markets of Mexico City or Paris, but it is always fun to visit.  However, one of my favorite places in Bogotá is another related kind of market well off the tourist track.  In somewhat of a ruined old hotel building downtown, there is a warren of stores selling all kinds of handmade arts and crafts, traditional wooden furniture, black Chamba clay cookware and dishes, paper lampshades, hammocks, wrought iron chairs, and a thousand other wonderful things.  La Pajarera (the Birdcage) as this market is called is located on Carrera 10, but is more safely accessed from Calle 10 (also called Calle del Divorcio!) walking west from the south end of Plaza Simon Bolivar.  Here you can buy rubber soled espadrilles, woven fique bags, and traditional caña flecha hats and table mats.  La Pajarera is rich in color and tradition.  Price bargaining is expected and the place is guaranteed to make you feel that you are in fact in a city that not only has hidden treasures but in fact its very own brand of greatness.  And bring your Spanish because English will not be understood!

 

And so the great, the greatest, thing about Bogotá is, well… that it brings the bounty of life into daily routine.  This is a very large city that pretty much bleeps off the general contemporary radar.  But it is a city rich in humanity, in human contact, in the desire for betterment, in architectural detail, in frustration, in history, in complex change, a city in search of definition, and in continuous expansion.  It is a city where many millions of people make an effort daily to understand the lives of those around them, and to come to terms with the limits of humanity.  Going back to the pen sellers and candy sellers and street entertainers who board buses across the city thousands of times a day with their “Buenos dias a todos,” or “Buenas tardes a todos,” greetings, and to the bus passengers who answer accordingly, “Buenos dias,” of “Buenas trades,” Bogotá’s greatest asset, of course, has to be its breath of life.

 

Christopher Burke is a freelance journalist based in  Bogotá, Colombia.

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Posted on: April 6, 2011, 2:10 pm Category: The View From Here Tagged with: ,

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