Any Given Sunday in Bogota, Traveller, Winter 2012

Bogota: a little-visited city, disparaged by other Colombians, feared by foreigners, with a name hardly redolent of South America at all. These days, the Colombian capital is a firm favourite with backpackers, but for most of its history, Bogota has seen few visitors. Fidel Castro was there in 1948, for the revolution that almost but not quite transformed Colombia. In the early ‘60s, William Burroughs came to the city looking for the Amazonian hallucinogenic yahe. Bobby Charlton passed through with the England football team in 1970, en route to the World Cup in Mexico, and was mistakenly accused of shoplifting emeralds from the shop in the Hotel Tequendama.

I have lived in Bogota for several stints, varying from a month to a year, since 1999. I have always found it something of an enigma. I often wondered why the Spanish chose to build their capital city there at all. Colombia’s other big cities - Medellin, Cali and Barranquilla - are warmer, brighter, altogether more tropical places, whereas the weather in Bogota is near-English, prone to mist and rain, with temperatures hovering at a dependable 16 degrees. But then the sun comes out and within minutes your face is burnt, a painful reminder that Bogota is both equatorial and one of the world’s highest capital cities.

Perhaps Bogota’s strangeness is down to its having no obvious reason to be where it is. There is a River Bogota, but it is easy to miss since most of it was covered over long ago. Without a river, or a coastline, or a clear view, I often got lost and had to get my bearings from the mountains that ring the city.

The name, by the way, is a Spanish corruption of Bacata. Before the first Spaniards reached the Andean highlands in 1538, the high-sided, flat-bottomed valley in which Bacata sat was ruled by the Muisca people. Not that you’d know it, wandering the streets of the city that was once their capital. Window-shopping in the Centro Andino, the hub of the tree lined neighbourhoods in the north of the city, you might think you were in Miami or Paris. But not quite: the armed guards patrolling the marble floors of the designer boutiques and patisseries are a discreet reminder that you are in a divided city.

Seen from the north of the city, the ramshackle concrete shacks that crawl up the southern hills might as well be in another country. Many of those who live there are recent arrivals, displaced from villages the length and breadth of Colombia by twenty years of fighting between guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army.

I lived midway between the two extremes, in La Candelaria, the city’s old colonial quarter. Squatting in the foothills of the mountains that encircle the plain of Bogota, La Candelaria offers stunning views over the city. During the week, its narrow streets are crowded with minibuses ferrying students to the universities and workers to downtown offices.

Only on Sundays do the old people who make up the bulk of the local population have the place to themselves. Wizened and farsighted, they walk in the shadow of wattle and daub cottages that have hardly changed since colonial times. The descendants of the Muisca have retained little of their pre-Conquest culture, but they still make up the majority of the city’s people.

The Muisca were once known as the frog men, for the plain of Bacata was once a vast lake. By an apocryphal tale, the Muisca levered aside the giant stone that held back the waters, creating the waterfall at Tequendama, and opening the way for the building of their capital.

In time, Sunday became my favourite day in Bogota. We’d drive out to one of the open-air barbecue restaurants in the villages that ring the city, or the hot springs at Choachi, or the cloud forest at Chicaque. Colombian friends were keen that I saw the once-sacred lake at Guatavita where, long before the first Europeans ventured into Muisca territory, a chief daily covered himself in gold dust before jumping into the lake. It was the legend of El Dorado – the Golden One - and the gold he left on the lake’s silty bed that enticed the first Spanish explorers to climb the Andes from the eastern plains.

For most Bogotanos however, Sunday means the ciclovia, when the city’s biggest streets are closed to traffic, and its people can cycle the length of their city in peace, for one day free to venture through all the barrios of the divided city.

I used to start with a wander through the flea market in the Parque de los Periodistas, the little park that marks the northern edge of La Candelaria. Among the faded magazines and worn shoes, I might find a brass ashtray, or some salsa CDs, or at least a cup of avena, a delicious highland oat drink. Then on to the Avenida Septima, the long avenue that runs the length of the city.

On my way home, I might meet a friend for a game of pool and a bottle of Aguila beer at Billares Londres. To finish, we’d make a short ride up the hill, past the city’s bullring to La Macarena, a beautiful, tranquil neighbourhood of bohemian restaurants and boutiques and the teho yard.

It’s a wonder that teho hasn’t made it out of Colombia. You throw a metal ball at a wall of soft clay, in the hope of detonating one of the little packets of gunpowder buried within. A drinking game with loud bangs has to have global appeal.

The ciclovia is just one of several novel ideas put into action by a series of Bogota mayors determined to tackle their city’s longstanding problems. As a result, Bogota probably has more cycle paths than any city in the world, as well as the Transmilenio citywide bus system that mayors from other developing world cities have been queuing up to learn from.

Another bright – and telling - idea was the night-time curfew the mayor imposed on Bogota’s men, as a way of cutting the number of robberies and assaults committed in the city. Once a month, all men were confined to their homes, leaving the city’s women free to enjoy its bars and salsa clubs in peace. It was a novel experiment, but it didn’t last: women complained that they had nobody to dance with. The curfew was soon lifted. These days, Bogota is much safer than it was in 1999. But the city’s peculiar appeal - and Bogotanos’ love of dancing – hasn’t changed.


Tom Feiling is author of Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia, published by Allen Lane, price £20. See for more details.