Well, here we are in Colombia. The country full of cocaine and guerrillas, dengue fever and kidnappings, or at least that’s what everyone thinks.
Our first stop is Bogota, the capital of Colombia and quite a large city at just under seven million. We weren’t sure what to expect in Bogota as far as safety is concerned. When even the government recommends that you carry only a days worth of cash, no cards and only a copy of your passport, you start to wonder. So, we locked our valuables in the hotel safe before heading out on an exploratory walk around the central colonial part of town, known as Candelaria. The more time we spent wandering around the safer we
started to feel. The streets were crowded with students from the nearby university and we quickly decided that what we needed after our restless night on the plane was a typical Colombian lunch called a comida corriente. This staple meal of the locals involves a meat based soup with a grain in it and maybe potatoes, followed by your choice of meat with rice and beans or vegetable mush, fried plantains, and a juice made from one of Colombia’s many mysterious exotic fruits. After a quick siesta we managed to find our way into a tiny bar where we tried chicha, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented maize. They served it to us in a large gourd with two straws, and the experience was completed by the blaring loud sounds of a Colombian Led Zeppelin cover band coming from the bar’s TV. We ended the night by eating tamales and arepas and walking through some sort of street festival taking place one of the main streets that had been closed to traffic.
The next day we went with some people from our hostel to the nearby town of Zipaquira, which has a big tourist attraction called the salt cathedral. It’s a huge salt mine that they’ve carved giant chambers out of and filled with crosses and other church related items carved out of salt rock. It’s actually a pretty impressive place and fun to wander around in. The biggest chamber is a working church, holding mass on Sundays and filled with pews and whatnot. At the end of our tour we watched the inexplicably 3-D movie in which a time traveling robot showed us the geological and modern history of the place.
Bogota actually seems to be a fairly progressive city, and has an annual day where cars are banned to encourage citizens to try public transport and commute on bike. Bicycles are big here, and the highlight of our stay was the Sunday morning Bogota phenomenon known as Ciclovia. It’s an open invitation to the city’s bikers, joggers and other self-propelled types to come cruise up and down one of the city’s main north-south roads, which they close off to traffic. Along the way they set up free bike mechanics, food vendors, and even cooling misters that seem rather unnecessary in this cool, high altitude city. We rode rented bikes for miles through the carnival atmosphere, along with thousands of other people, everyone just out having a good time. There were families out walking with little kids riding tricycles, Lance Armstrong types buzzing by on fancy road bikes, and everything in between. At a park we stopped and watched huge and enthusiastic crowds of people being led by instructors in jazz-ercise and yoga, and we pondered this question: how dangerous can a city be where it seems at any one time we can see at least three dogs wearing sweaters?
Very dangerous, of course, this is the biggest city in Colombia. Huge swathes of the city are simply off limits to people like us, and even at 7:30am during our cab ride from the airport we saw the most incredibly prostitute-y prostitute we’ve ever seen. Sticking to the generally safe neighborhoods, though, the cops seemed to outnumber the beggars, and as long as we stayed on streets with plenty of people we felt pretty comfortable. Even so, there were a few times we were distinctly nervous, and it’s not the type of place to be wandering around without being aware of your surroundings.
Another day we visited the Botero museum, filled with paintings by the eponymous Colombian artist. We hadn’t heard of him previously, but apparently he’s pretty important and we liked him a lot. He paints fat people: fat naked men and women, fat Columbian presidents, fat Mona Lisa, even fat Jesus on the cross. It was great. We also went to the famous Gold Museum, which was filled with more gold than we’ve ever seen, mostly impressive gold pre-Columbian pieces.
All in all we really enjoyed Bogota, and are excited to move onto San Agustin.