Everyone wants to be the New York of somewhere. Take Buenos Aires, for example. People want it to be the New York of South America. When I was in Copenhagen, and felt like people were being snooty in my direction, I got the feeling they thought they were the Paris of Scandinavia.
You’d want to be the Paris, the London, the Capetown of somewhere (looking at you, Rio, which some South Africans think of as the Capetown of South America, what with its large hill, and setting on the ocean). But nobody wants to be say, the Tallahassee of somewhere (no offense Tallahassee). If someone told you that a city you’d been to was the Peoria, Illinois of Europe, would it make you go?
What if I told you that to me, Bogotá, Colombia was the Brussels of South America?
Before people get their various undergarments in a knot, I would first like to go down as saying that I generally like most cities, and that I genuinely like both Brussels and Bogotá. But not, maybe, as much as I’d like Paris (if I’d ever been there), or Medellín (which I have, and OMG, you should go).
What’s similar about them? They each have a cool museum. In Bogotá, it’s the Gold Museum (oh my word). In Brussels, it’s the comic book museum, with all kinds of displays featuring Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs, who it turns out are Belgian).
They each have at least one cool mode of transportation, trams in Brussels, the Transmilenio busses in Bogotá that you get on at stations, and with a nifty swipe card.
They have very urban, grungy parts that seem like if you could see them in black and white, you’d be in a film from 50 years ago. Lots of street art, graffiti, broken down things.
They have good snacks. In Brussels, I ate many a baklava-type-item (which yes, I know is not Belgian), and in Bogotá, I found (thank goodness, and you will see why), amojábanas, which are salty little fluffy sopaipilla-type breads that have cheese in the dough.
They both have one main attraction that is their shining star. In Belgium, I referred to that thing as the “chose atomique” (atomic thing), which is a scale of a molecule (I think) in a park. It was built for a world’s fair, but when you get there, it’s sort of like just seeing it in a picture, except rainier. The supposedly amazing thing in Bogotá is Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood.
It is true that Candelaria is a colonial neighborhood. It is also true that parts of it are quite (no really, quite) sketchy, much of it is run down, and it is where I had a meal that had a very unfortunate disgusting to taste ratio. It was about one to one, if you must know. There is another colonial neighborhood that is actually in good shape, though it lacks the cathedral with the pigeons and the larger-than-life smurfs and the couple posing for wedding pictures (really). That neighborhood is called Usaquén and it’s touristy, but in the sense that wealthy Colombians go there, not in that everyone has their nose in a guidebook as they trip over cobblestones. And in the interest of full, well-traveled-in-Latin-America disclosure, I am comparing Candelaria to lots of well-preserved colonial towns, from Antigua, Guatemala to Paraty and/or Ouro Preto Brazil, Colonia, Uruguay, Cartagena, Colombia, among others, so I may be holding it to an unfair standard.
It sounds like I’m down on Bogotá, and really, I’m not. It’s a big city, and the distribution is such that you are fairly obligated to take taxis at night, some of which will go past parks and woods that will make you wonder if this is not exactly a taxi to your house, but some kind of shortcut, emphasize on the word cut. But you can also take long, long urban strolls down pretty much any avenue (I chose 7th), and see graffiti and street art and museums and many, many places to make photocopies. I never felt unsafe, never really even felt observed, everyone was pretty much minding their own business, except for one very squeezy ride on the ultrafast bus, with a friend of mine from Russia/London, who used to live in Santiago but was then living in Bogotá. We were speaking English, and one of our fellow squeezed passengers chatted with us, too. To the point where we shook his hand and kissed (on the cheek, me) him goodbye when we left. They close off giant parts of the city for bicycling on Sundays, and people really take advantage of it.
But… it’s got that urban grit, and it was much colder than I expected it to be, and also (and this is important) there are two unrelated terminals at the airport (which was undergoing construction) such that if friend A (me) takes Avianca to Bogotá and friend B (whose name actually begins with an R) takes LAN, despite leaving at the same time from Medellín, they will never, ever see each other in the airport, and no matter how many security guards that they explain their plight to ask them if they can’t just call each other on their cellphones, the answer will still be no, because we do not have Colombian cell phones.
At this point you may have forgotten about the 1:1 disgusting to taste ratio meal. Fear not! I have not! We were instructed to go to La Puerta Falsa, to have some kind of breakfast/teatime treat (chocolate completo). And so we did. We got the works! And the works turned out to be: a buttered wonderbread hotdog roll-type thing, an almojábana (see above, awesome), some other bready items, and the piece de resistance, a cup of scalding hot, watery cocoa, which came with it (or in it, if you like) with a piece of cheese-flavored gum. First we tried the cheese on its own. Oh no, too chewy. Then we tried dipping it first into the scalding, watery hot cocoa. Also not so nice. Then we tried crumbling it up in the cocoa itself, and by crumbling, I mean tearing pieces off, like you might with silly putty, approximately. These pieces sat in the bottom, growing stringy, did not milkify the hot cocoa, and were just the right texture so that when you got one in your mouth as you were drinking your first thought was “spit it out spit it out spit it out.”
It turns out, there are also tamales to be had. These people seemed happy with their snack, and at no point looked ready to spit it out, so perhaps we chose unwisely (though to be fair, neither of us eats meat).
All in all, Bogotá yes, for a day or two, go up the hill, see the city, oooh and ahhh. Eat an almojábana, go to the salt cathedral if you must (must you?), take some pictures (cautiously) in Candelaria, pose with the smurfs if you can find them, and go to La Puerta Falsa fully informed of what the breakfast platter comprises. Also, the correlation I made in my mind between Bogotá and Brussels had nothing to do with the presence of the smurfs (or smurf and smurfette) in this plaza. Nor the llamas.
Check out Usaquén, have some soup. Go to the Spanish tapas place where they lock the door after each customer, and everyone seems to know each other. Go to the upscale supermarket where half the milk is lactose-free, and they have fancy tea, and male couples in their 30s predominate. If you eat at the restaurant Patacones, know that this is a giant stretched “dough” made of fried plantains, spread with any manner of topping, and that there are lots of plantains hanging in the restaurant.
Don’t bring a gun on the bus.
And then go to Medellín.
And by the way, if you think you’ve read the expression “cheese-flavored gum” here before, it turns out you’re right. I have spoken briefly about Bogotá before, in this piece that is so full of snark, I had to read it twice. Also mentioned in more detail, the great airport snafu of 2012.
Geez. You really couldn’t figure out how to enjoy yourself in Bogotá, and you’re still kvetching about it months after the fact. It’s perfectly OK to not care for it or even to outright dislike it. It almost feels more offensive, though, that you make your criticisms so snarky and backhanded. I’m not crazy about Bogotá myself (and lived there for quite a while). I agree with many of your impressions, just find your sudden need to revisit and rehash your dislike puzzling. Anyway, no need to bother going back and try to figure out what you missed. Life’s too short– too many other cities to explore and enjoy.
By the way, did you ever write about Medellín anywhere? Can’t find anything on your blog. Would like to hear why you loved it so much. Am wondering if it goes much deeper than the shiny metro, the green, and the sunny weather. Culture-wise, there’s much more in Bogotá. My reasons for liking Medellín better are personal and admittedly irrational, so just wondering what charmed you, as an outsider.
I wish more Colombians would read and–more importantly–receive criticism like yours. They’ve been on such a 100% positive self-promotional kick for the past decade that it’s impossible for them to tolerate the slightest bit of negativity. It’s understandable, of course, given their history and international reputation, but the country still is f’d up in many ways, and seems condemned to stay that way so long as they remain convinced that Colombia is the best and refuse to see any other views. Which is kind of why I wish you would have just spit it out, instead of trying to be nice. Oh well, better to be the Brussels of a region than the Indianapolis, right? 🙂
Hi H! Thanks for your comment. I did have a good time in Bogotá, like I had a good time in Brussels. If you don’t have a good time somewhere, it’s pretty much on you, right? I found it visually very appealing, but a little more bustly than Medellín. One night coming home from further downtown, I took a Transmilenio bus that went up (I think) 14th ave. I walked in the rain and drizzle with a friend of mine back to where I was staying and we bought a bag full of canepas and ate/sucked on them as we walked down the street, the sidewalks glistening the neon of the store signs back to us. It was awesome.
Also, I was not aware of the statute of limitation of kvetching. And why is climate and a general “onda” about a place not a legitimate reason to like it? I’m talking about why I enjoy or don’t enjoy visiting, not living there, which is totally different. I seem to have touched a nerve!
And I somehow missed the last paragraph of your comment. I won’t say I dislike Colombia, any more than I will say I dislike anywhere. I figure if I didn’t like it, it was either not designed for me, or I didn’t get the best view of it. After nine years of living in a country where I am repeatedly told we have the most beautiful landscape in the world, I kind of take people’s enthusiasm for their own countries with a grain of salt. Though Chile is beautiful, most countries have something pretty stunning somewhere or another.
Love your blog. I’m coming to visit for a week in the end of July (I know, wrong time, but what the heck). I fancy myself a photographer (which means I have expensive gear which does not pay for itself). How much should I worry about using my gear in Chile?
Thanks for any information you can provide.
In general, I wouldn’t be worried about having and using expensive gear, though Chileans would tell you otherwise. I would be very careful on some cerros of Valparaíso, and in general would always have the camera on my body or wrapped around my arm/hand if I were you. You are much more likely to have something stolen either from a bag or have a small bag stolen than you are to have an actual altercation over your camera. That said, no public drunkenness with camera, careful in hostels, bus stations are particularly notorious.
All of my experiences are on the basis of me personally, so all the ways in which you differ from me (not female, not 42, not on a bike, not dark-haired, not Spanish-speaking, etc, and I’m guessing about most of those) might have some impact, but I have Chilean friends who have had cameras stolen, too.
Enjoy Chile at the end of July. I’m in Paraguay at the moment and it’s freezing here, too. There’s something to be said for travelling in the low season!