I tried to hold no expectations for Bogota; online reviews did not put it on my “must see” list, nor on my “don’t go there” list. I only planned two days in the capital city, not wanting to base my first impression of Colombia upon a mass of bland concrete sprawl, crawling with bandits and beleaguered in distasteful graffiti. I decided to stay in the touristy, historical, probably contrived La Candelaria district, where shady characters loitering outside of tacky souvenir shops would probably try to sell me drugs or take my money.
It wasn’t like that, at all. Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t been anywhere new in four years, but I found Bogota vibrant, and the people friendly and willing to help a lost gringa find her way. After my first day in the city, I decided to stay an extra two. But four days wouldn’t be nearly enough to experience the wonders that hide in a city of seven million people.
The very first move I made upon my 4 a.m. exit from the doors of El Dorado International Airport involved a ravenous search for coffee, any coffee. And that coffee, served in a little plastic cup, was surprisingly not terrible. Onward I went in search of the bus to La Candelaria, with my usual anxiety regarding new public transportation assuaged by the caffeine coursing through my veins and the kindliness of the bus people.
The bus system in Bogota, TransMileno, is more like a makeshift metro. Buses are about three cars long and have their own lanes. You must buy a bus card (about 85 cents) to go through a turnstile into the terminal, where one must stand in a line behind sliding glass doors in order to board. The confusing bus line maps are made up for by the helpful TransMileno info people who can give you crystal clear directions to wherever your destination may be. Unfortunately I didn’t know this and took four wrong buses before the right one.
My first day in Bogota, I went to the monolith Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, which is worth the visit if you really like Gothic looking caves. But that night was the real highlight: Taking the teleferico (cable car) up to the top of Monseratte, a church and lookout that offers panoramic views of the city. I missed the sunset, but sparkling, sprawling, purple light grid below was good enough.
A market popped up in the famous Plaza Bolivar the next day. Although the place was packed with vendors and shoppers, and I came out smelling like delicious smokey meat, I shed not a single drop of sweat thanks to the blessed cool breeze that swept down and across the plaza from the looming green mountains. The overwhelming array of meats and fruits and vegetables and desserts and art led me to crisscross the plaza a couple of times before settling on a cup of perfectly ripe mango slices (for 85 cents), among the least- exotic fruit available.
When displeased rumblings in my stomach reminded me that I’d subsisted on only arepas and fruit for the past 48 hours, I decided to try a local dish of hot chocolate and cheese, in which the cheese is soaked in the hot chocolate. It was strange, tasty, but not satisfying. To be a carnivore in Colombia is easy, to be a frutarian in Colombia is easy, to be a vegetarian in Colombia is not easy.
But I could see myself living in Bogota. There is indeed graffiti everywhere, but its vibrancy and beauty and cleverness adds liveliness to buildings old and new. I found Bogota incredibly livable. On Sundays, certain main roads are closed off to traffic, leaving space for bicycles, street vendors, artists, musicians, salsa dancers, break dancers, lots and lots of dogs, and anybody who takes time off work to enjoy life- which seemed to be the whole city. As I sauntered down the bustling street, stuffing my face with fruit, I appreciated Sunday as a vacation day for the first time.