A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
Perched on the green hills overlooking Bogotá, I marked the outlines of towers along the skyline with my eyes. Dark mountains rose and fell in the background. The bustling city appeared modern, a place of both future and past, and home to varied classes. I drank hot chocolate from a small styrofoam cup as the late-night wind rustled my hair and nipped at the nape of my neck. Paula and her family, in high spirits from our evening drive to a lower peak of Monserrate Mountain, pointed out the areas of the city below.
Intelligent and hard-working, they were overachievers, keeners, an ambitious family. Paula’s mother was a lawyer, her dad a civil engineer, and Paula was studying to become a chemist. The only odd one out was her brother, a free-thinking history and political buff who challenged outdated ideas. As the youngest in the family, near to adulthood, he was dismissed for his youthful sensibilities.
I met Paula in Vancouver when we worked together at a children’s bookstore. Not yet graduated from high school, our difference in age kept us from being close friends. Before she left Canada to return to Bogotá, in her farewell she mentioned that if I ever had an opportunity I should visit her in Colombia. Years later, with saved vacation hours and boredom within the borders of Vancouver, I reached out to Paula. Enthusiastic, she said she would be delighted to host me during my visit.
Bogotá was both what I expected and didn’t expect. It was my first time (back then) visiting a Spanish-speaking country. Home to 7 million people, Bogotá like any other big city had a sense of urgency to keep the dream of success alive. You can find both polished streets dressed in fancy restaurants catering to affluent locals and travellers, and shanty towns watching from nearby hills.
The city was surprisingly chilly in the month of November. I assumed it would be warmer closer to the equator. Above sea level, Bogotá lies in a basin in the northern area of the Andes Mountains. Similar to Cuba, the region revolted against Spanish colonial rule. Simón Bolívar is a popular name around the city and highly respected among Latin Americans. A deep knowledge of philosophy, the man born of Caracas soil brought independence and liberated Bogotá from Spanish colonial rule.
During my first few hours after landing, ignoring the advice of a once-visited travel doctor and at the insistence of Paula I purchased a Salipicón, a cold soup of fresh fruits. Salipicón consisted of different sliced fruits submerged in a thick punch. You eat it with a spoon like a “fruta y sopa”. She introduced me to her grandfather who sat in a cafe with fellow old-timers enjoying coffee and drinks in the afternoon. He mistook me for a Colombian. After the greetings I settled into Paula’s home ready to unpack and wash up for dinner.
Paula’s mother cooked us Carne Guisada, a beef stew with potatoes which tickled my tongue with a flurry of different flavours.
As devout Catholics, Colombians are diligent in paying their respects to God, erecting a beautiful church on the mountaintop of Monserrate found within the city. The Monserrate Mountains rise over 3,000 metres above sea level high into the sky.
Hiking up the mountain was a strange feeling. Even though I had hiked many mountains in Vancouver, as soon as we started climbing I began to feel dizzy. Since Bogotá was already many metres above sea level, the additional elevation was a strain on my body. My temples began to throb and ache. During repeated breaks I guzzled down my remaining water, looking back once in a while to catch a view of the urban life below.
Horses and mules transporting goods kept us company, and distracted me from the pressure weighing on my head. When we finally arrived at the top of the mountain, the view was magnificent. We were surrounded by looming green peaks.
Once a site of spiritual significance for indigenous communities, Monserrate is now devoted to the Catholic religion migrated by Europeans. The church has a shrine dedicated to El Señor Caido, or the Fallen Lord. Devotees visit the site daily and many religious ceremonies are held here.
The pathways designed around the church is a replica of Jesus Christ’s condemnation from Pilate as he walked with the cross over his shoulders. Around the church are statues commemorating the biblical occurrence. Along with Christmas lights decorating the church, a tall Christmas tree draped in ornaments stood next to the structure. From across Monserrate on another peak was a large white statue of Santa Maria. However, no gondolas, trains, or hiking paths were available to transport you to the other side.
The Monserrate church clock struck noon, and the bells tolled. I followed the donkeys that lazily walked up the worn-out pathways bowing to the guides in front of them tugging at their reins. A short distance from the church, an up-hill pathway was lined with markets. Colourful and patterned souvenirs called out for recognition. Ukuleles, ponchos, sombreros, trinkets, shirts, scarves, and dresses. Products designed to capture the minds of tourists. Mementos to assure them that they really did travel to Latin America.
Paula and her brother Felipe brought me to a small cafe near the markets. It was a tented area with a couple of low-table seats, and a kitchen in the corner. For me, they ordered Ajiaco, a soup with potatoes, peas, corn and meat. Paula ordered a dish with cow intestine, a fact which was intentionally divulged to me after I had tasted it. On the table they also served Tamale which is now a favourite dish of mine. Wrapped and cooked in banana leaf, it contained masa, chickpeas, peas, carrots, and chicken.
After taking numerous pictures and visiting the church, we took the gondola back down.
Museum Quinta Bolívar
Near the foothills of Monserrate, we visited Simón Bolívar’s (a.ka. The Liberator) home, a place of refuge for a man deeply involved in the political well-being of both his birth country of Venezuela, and his later home of Colombia. He lived in the humble, single-level home after the war of independence from colonial rule. Unassuming from the exterior, the home is modestly adorned inside. Bolívar’s house was transformed into a museum in the 1920’s and restored in the early 90’s and 2000.
Walking Around La Candelaria
From the museum we walked into the downtown area of the city where we ate some Empanadas with chicken and potatoes, and Arepas con queso – baked or fried ground maize dough with stuffings of cheese or meats. We sat and wandered around Parque de Los Periodistas Gabriel García Márquez. It is a park in honor of Colombian journalists such as Gabriel García Márquez, one of the most renowned writers in the world, and author of the Nobel prize winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The district of La Candelaria is decorated in picturesque murals and graffiti art, elevating the beauty of its buildings. It is an older, rugged area of the city with cobble-stoned streets. Poor in certain areas, but an interesting neighborhood. The streets are narrow and lined with bars and shops. It was at one of these bars where I first tried Chicha, an alcoholic fermented juice. The Chicha was sweet, tart, fizzy, and perfectly balanced. I felt the buzz of the minimal amount of alcohol slowly formulate from a small nucleus and spread all along my head, warming my ears.
As we walked on we saw poor individuals hawking their wares, and tough-looking men smoking cigarettes outside the bars with eyes of pride and nonchalance. Paula told me she would not visit La Candelaria at night but was very fond of it during the day.
Flocks of pigeons flew around Plaza de Bolívar, hundreds of them gliding above or crowding around the floors of the plaza. There were so many that it seemed as though the plaza was built not by concrete and stone, but by pigeons. A large pedestrian square with beautiful buildings and churches, Plaza de Bolívar looked similar to the wide plazas found in European cities.
A Taste of Fried Ants
Before arriving in Bogotá, there were dishes I was not expecting to try, such as cow intestine, an animal heart, and the skin of a pig. Yet they turned out to be interestingly delicious. However, when I tried fried ants for the first time, it was difficult to determine if I liked it or not.
On a late afternoon, while walking with Paula’s family in the downtown streets of Bogotá, visiting shops and bookstores, her father stepped inside a small shop selling various items similar to a convenience store. He picked up a plastic bag of what appeared to be dark nuts. Many of these bags were placed on the display by the counter. After Paula’s father purchased one and opened up the bag I realized they were roasted ants. The ants were black and had big butts. Paula’s father ate them like peanuts, shaking them out onto his palms and throwing them back in his mouth.
When he urged me to try it, I had no idea what it would taste like. Probably crunchy, maybe a bit salty. The body of the ant was curled up and appeared bigger than what I wanted to put in my mouth. The taste was incredibly sour and salty, and the crunch of each bite made a horrifying sound in my ear. I ended up eating two because I wanted to see if I would like it a second time after the initial surprise wore off. It was familiar the second time, but still tasted strange, and knowing it was an ant made it even stranger. If I had eaten it without knowing its origin, I would have probably enjoyed it like salty chips.
That same evening we visited a local restaurant and ordered a full chicken. Our hands wrapped in loose plastic gloves we teared into the flesh of the cooked chicken like vultures. The meat was delicious, and although my belly was satisfied I still picked at the remaining pieces of meat on the bone, trying to erase the memory of fried ants on my tongue.
Clubbing in Bogotá
One night, Paula’s brother invited an entire group of his friends to a night of clubbing in the city. In preparation for the party, Paula, Felipe, and I drank copious amounts of Aguardiente (schnapps), an alcoholic drink popular in Colombia. The drink consists of fire water and anise liqueur, a combination which tasted like black licorice, similar to absinthe but less stronger in taste.
On the dance floor I learned to dance like Colombians, swaying my hips fluidly like waves of water, gliding with the rhythms of Latin American songs. Sweaty from the heat of the room, Paula and I stepped outside and purchased a couple of beers from a kiosk, drinking and sharing conversation about our lives. When we returned to the club and stood on the terrace, the city below was full of energy. People were dressed in fancy clothes ready to dance, the restaurants and bars pumped loud dance music, taxi’s rolled and paused on the streets dropping-off or picking people up, and colorful lights danced along the facades of buildings. Of course no night of clubbing is without some drama. Paula’s brother found himself frustratingly caught in a lover’s triangle.
Swim and Sun in Melgar
A couple of mornings later, after having recuperated from our night of clubbing, Paula’s father drove us all to Melgar, a town three hours south of Bogotá. The weather transformed from a cloudy chilly day into a humid moisture of summer heat. Melgar is a resort town near the city for locals to vacation. Bright and sunny, the town was small and filled with palm trees everywhere. We visited a water park and bathed in the cool swimming pools all day until we wrinkled. Surrounding the town were beautiful green mountains, a wonderful view to witness while waiting in line at the top of a tall water slide.
Driving back at night from the south of Bogotá, while listening to American rock stars on the radio, Paula’s parents pointed out the yellow-dotted lights scattered on the black mountain face along the road. Favelas. They were shanty towns for the city’s poor. Forced to live on the street due to different unfortunate life circumstances, many Colombians occupied and set-up homes on the hills. Overtime, working together, the area grew into a functioning society, equipping themselves with power lines for electricity, and constructing sewage systems.
It is an unsafe environment, Paula told me. The hills were dangerous for anyone who accidentally stumbled upon there. Even cab drivers refused to take passengers to the favelas, fearing possible theft or death. It was disheartening to think that such fear could be brought about by a class difference.
Last Day in Bogotá
On my final evening in the city, Paula and I decided to go bar hopping in the modernized area of Bogotá visited by tourists. We started out at the Bogotá Beer Company, a microbrewery resembling an English pub, where they played REM and The Doors for the American crowds. The interior was designed in dark wood and rustic decor, offering a variety of beers – IPA, Lager, Monserrate Roja, Wietbier, Porter, and more.
From there we went into a wine bar where their house wine, a merlot, tasted like a watered-down and bitter juice. After a few tropical cocktails at another bar we went home and I packed for my early morning flight back to Vancouver.
Apart from exploring, I spent my days in Bogotá learning Spanish words from Paula, who would be exhausted by the evening translating conversations between her parents and I. From one of the bookstores we visited I picked up a novella from Gabriel García Márquez called Crónica de una muerte anunciada. Surprised that I wanted to purchase this book, Paula told me I wouldn’t understand it. I told Paula that I was going to learn Spanish when I returned to Vancouver and finish the book. She was thrilled to hear that I would try, but my progress has been slow since then.
Colombia is intriguing, its nature stunning, and the people kind and skilled at hospitality. As with many of my travels, this trip was also too short. Recalling the favelas on the hills, I realized that I wanted to know more about the resourceful Colombians living on this land, and the awe-inspiring natural regions outside of Bogotá’s crowded city.
Copyright © Dipa Barua 2020
2 thoughts on “Bogotá: life in the northern Andes”
LOVE this Dipa. You totally took me there having been to Peru not so long ago. I look forward to going to Colombia on a future trip as I fell in love with the Andes and just want to be there again.
You write so beautifully. Maybe I’ll find the time to try and do some writing myself.
Thanks for this!
Thank you so much for your comment Cindy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. And I look forward to reading your travel writing 😉