Colombia: Bogotá

An uneventful 3+ hour flight the next day returned me to my coveted stomping grounds of South America once more, Colombia (finally) in particular: Bogotá! At the airport I duly received a visa stamp for 60 days, barely meriting a glance from the non-plussed customs officer. My fake ticket onward? Unchecked. Apparently they let ANYONE but ANYONE into this country!

For my untimely troubles in Miami, and the belated flight to Colombia, I had at least finished the first of ten books stacked in my rucksack: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Berendt). That tome was a colorful take on some real events that took place in sleepy Savannah, Georgia, some years ago. But Georgia was far, far away as my taxi neared my first hostel of the trip, Destino Nomada.

Sort of. It didn't take long in the preemptive conversation with my cabbie driver to realize that he had no idea how to get there. Not wanting to show a complete lack in knowledge in my surroundings (NEVER to a cabbie! - I knew what THAT could mean), I surrepticiously flipped through my Lonely Planet Colombia guide instead. Quickly I found a better-known replacement, moments later changing our course en route to the famed hostel Platypus.

At the hostel's antique door I paid up 20,000 pesos (magically rounded up from 18,500) without too much grumbling... it was too soon for that mentality. I was happy enough to have arrived in one piece with all my luggage, still plenty cheap at the unheard-of price (in the U.S.) of $10 for a half-hour ride from the airport. This was all it took to ensconce me in the safety and comfort of a new home - done!

Perhaps with a name like Platypus I should have expected the Australian invasion which next comprised my new fellow travelers. Such was the case: they filled about half the hostel! The name of the place, fancifully chosen by the welcoming owner German (a pioneering hosteler of Colombia who had trekked the globe and most liked Australia), obviously invited the clientelle to some degree.

Then again, I personally wouldn't head for an inn called the Bald Eagle or Uncle Sam's Hostel in Bolivia. So be it (or rather, "fair enough - good on 'im!"): I generally got on well with Aussies. I set to getting to know a few of them (and more) right away to get the trip started in good company. At the very least, if I knew the Aussies at all, I'd manage a Bogotá pub crawl in no time.

A couple first encounters were admittedly not very promising, though, both with a beautiful blonde who had been robbed by her companion (after 6mos of traveling with said Englishman) and another woman who had had her electronics stolen. (Aussies both.) Uh... cheers, mates! Next arrived a couple of dreadlocked hinterlanders (from the hilly interior areas near Brisbane, Australia) catching their breath in town. They were getting ready to head to the jungle and experiment with whatever they'd find there. Hmmm... they probably weren't looking for jungle pineapples, I knew. Nevertheless, they were all Aussies I LIKED. Good start.

Next I encountered a host of what I could only call kids (all aged presumably around 20), all looking individually or en masse to go out and score some cheap coke. This was a less interesting lot to me, chiefly excited to be in Colombia because their drug of choice now suddenly cost five or ten times less than back in their hometowns. Maybe more than that - I wasn't running a price check, myself. Running noses and rapid-fire speech seemed the order of their day, often with louder voices and lots of "DUDE!" Sigh - this wasn't the Colombia I was looking for, and certainly not at a rude first blush.

With this latter group gathering rain on my parade, I soon took refuge from the mayhem to play the trumpet comfortably from the safety of a hammock in the courtyard. This soon led to meeting Carlos, Fernando, and others of the hostel staff - ensuing in a long discussion about the Colombian music spectrum. My spirits and confidence in the choice of Colombia as a destination was restored.

One immediately large positive came in realizing that I was in the most interesting area of Bogotá, La Candelaria. This wasn't by coincidence, of course, but it was refreshingly reinforced straight away. Both a rustic and mustic place, on the surface it was a grand expanse of colonial architecture. Translated, this meant that it was at turns rundown, while simultaneously still cobblestoned and brightly painted.

"Charming" would be what it was in the gushing vocabulary of a guidebook, however. Indeed, it wasn't any coincidence at all that this gem of a neighborhood was in the midst of an ad hoc restoration - "charm" had a way of translating further into "dollars"... or "pesos." Evidenced repeatedly, if not altogether consistently, this was true over the square kilometer-plus of its loose boundaries, wholly taking advantage of the burgeoning tourist trade.

In practice, charm could also take both the form of a wall bearing evidence of painstaking and beautiful work... or full decay, loaded with grafiti. That latter reality was a good thing, though, as the quality of grafiti in La Candelaria was the best I'd ever come across (on average.) Granted, it was slightly dangerous to stop and stare in lengthy mural appreciation - a given (mis)step could plunge you into an unmarked water meter hole, or just as likely a hunk of dog poo. A crumbled curb might send you stumbling into the street, too.

Such typical themes of disorder didn't end all possibilities of pitching into a street or sidewalk unaware, it must be said. There were also numerous life-sized sculptures of people, each painted green, looming above on balconies and rooftops. What the...?, you might ask yourself, as one of these would catch the unsuspecting eye and distract even the most wary stroll.

Being the historic district of Bogotá, La Candelaria unsurprisingly also was the locale for the majority of museums, government buildings, old mansions and universities for both Bogotá and the country at large. The streetlife accordingly was plenty active, if not for officialdom and students then for tourists. From having only one hostel for more than a decade (Platypus), in only the last few years another dozen had shown up. Colombia, and Bogotá, had officially arrived on the tourism circuit after a long, belated start.

Not an insignificant change, this flood of tourist dollars (and euros, and pesos...), so uncoincidentally cafes, bars, and restaurants followed in their wake. Scammers, beggars, and muggers, too. Particularly regarding the latter, reality checks repeatedly reassured me that this was still supposedly a very dangerous area after 9pm. Many warnings both verbal (talking to locals) and written (in guidebooks) kept that in mind. Furthermore, a great police presence belied this in their conspicuous uniforms and accompanying arsenal of weaponry. Not for nothing, such a show of force.

Should I feel safe or in danger? That was the primary nagging question since arriving in-country. In the daytime, anyway, I figured SAFE had to be the answer. (I fortunately wouldn't be proved wrong, true or not.) Even for the few locals who warned me I shouldn't be walking down this lane or that, nor far from the hubs of tourism, it was hard to fully appreciate that a mugging could go down in a hurry with so many people nearby. (This is actually called false security, and all of this is called foreshadowing.... (see San Agustin section)

Nevertheless, throwing caution effectively to the daytime wind, I spent one grand day out after another walking the labyrinth of La Candelaria. Random walking allowed for such happy surprises as finding myself in an ancient cubby of a building, eating Mexican (?!?) food by myself, alone in the most antique of forgotten buildings. Who woulda thought its toilet space would be so interesting? (One could try and imagine what it used to be hundreds of years ago, for starters.)

Another walkabout led me to the museum complex hubbed around the museum dedicated to the artist Botero, a personal favorite of mine. The coffee shop next door - Juan Valdez, the Starbucks of Colombia which is trying to upgrade the local taste for coffee - led in turn to a battery of taped interviews with six electro-mechanical engineering students. I effectively completed their English assignment for the week - or year, based on how long it went. Once again, random - possibly my favorite word. The Museo Botero itself? Impressive, as it erupted into four unforeseen museums (all free) in a handsome jungle of courtyards, also unsuspected. La Candelaria was my cup of... coca. Or coffee?

I kept on thus with this stumbling about, eyeballing handsome buildings scotched in attractive grafiti, putting my nose into various courtyards I spied not under security. That was most of them, leading to some beautiful, hidden Shangri-Las often hosting a bar, cafe, or restaurant... if not someone's private residence. Sorry! - You LIVE here?

Plaza Bolivar anchored the center of this colonial grandeur, host to the capitol and such capitol things as the court and legislative branch. This governmental complex included the "palace" of the president, too, nearby which I pulled out my trumpet for a whispered serenade of old Spanish tunes. I was sure he appreciated it greatly, or at least the palace guard did - they eyed me all the while as some kind of nutjob. As if they could possibly have a point - each was wearing over-tassled uniforms, with golden-spiked helmets straight out of Weimar-era Germany.

One museum dedicated to the 19th century drew me in, oddly enough, given my predilections - but perhaps not particularly so since it came from hearing piano tinklings from the street. A hesitant entry was followed by spying the lonely piano... which led to hours of a trumpet-piano exchange, fueled by ever more coffee when I met the resident ivory-tickler. Our collaboration didn't lead to any grand concertos, not exactly anyway, but the accoustics were right and the odd (or should I say random) person that would step in for a coffee seemed to appreciate the quality of the occasion.

Just as serendipitously, an invite to check out some soccer with my fellow hostelmates made for my Bogotá week's lone excursion outside of the Candelaria-Centro part of town. A soccer (football) match in South America? What a novel (NOT!) idea! Surprisingly, with well over a year spent in Latin America under my belt, this would be my first time. Novel enough, apparently - to me.

What a score was in store, however, when we found ourselves taxied over to the rambunctuous exterior of Estadio El Campin, scrambling for tickets. Were we actually going to get into this thing? Why didn't someone mention it was a sellout? Soon THAT would make sense - apparently we had chosen the final match of the Colombia Cup for our foray into football mania...

...but no worries, mate! A bribe to an excitable man would be all it'd take to do the trick. We'd hadn't been having any luck finding (almost) any scalpers. Our savior soon twitched his head this way and that, surveying the scene, then with a quickened motion of the hand indicated for us to follow him at practically a trot. We first went through one set of barricades, followed by a series of gates. Then we were in. The security guards and ushers all seemed to know our man-on-the-scene; this was obviously just more grist for the mill of graft. Not that we cared in this instance: in like Flynn, we jigged in the aisle.

Not that we had tickets - or any such documentable safety net - should anyone question us, however. With a final flourish of the hands, our exiting host now indicated the zone within which we should remain... and promptly disappeared. It was up to us, now, to figure out how and where to watch the game. With many other people in the aisles and standing on railings, it was a fair guess that there were other ticketless souls joining our lot. All for one, and one for all - three more musketeers joined the free-for-all.

As one would expect in a championship game, raucous was the order of the day. Cordoned-off sections at the end of each field were jumping up and down maniacally, more or less in time to music that blared at a phenomenal level. Flags were unfurled with the local Santa Fe team's colors, red and yellow, often emblazoned with various lion's heads - their emblem.

At a few chosen moments, what seemed to be the largest flag in the world would lower and cover a great deal of the upper deck. How anyone could see through such a thing was anyone's guess; this would only form a temporary obstacle for all the rolls of paper to bounce off of, too. This provided relief for player and ref alike when the poor things couldn't make their way to such usual targets on the field. Not there weren't enough cups and detritus headed in their general direction from the rest of the stadium, however.

We alternated our positions for a while, trying out different spots to check out the action on the field. We tried standing on rails, craning our heads from the half-assed bird's-eyes of the ramps; we even smashed ourselves against the field fence. Eventually we scored some abandoned seats on the front row, each with a masterful glance from which to survey the field. As far as I could tell, it was a well-played game. I think.

As the views came and went, we caught the goals when they happened. Well, sort of. But what was our emotional investment, anyway? For us, the action didn't seem on the field for most of the vaunted match - not with so much people watching to do. It was far too entertaining to check out the rest of the show.

Cheerleaders had obviously made inroads from the States, but in the U.S. they never moved like... that. A long row of hips just never stopped swiveling, gyrating snaps to beat. Meanwhile, to keep the hordes of slobbering fans off of them (and one might suppose the players, too) was a mere one or ten brigades of policemen in full riot gear. That oughta do it, one would think - when they weren't getting pelted with loose objects. At least they had the cheerleaders to keep them preoccupied with more pleasant thoughts. Meanwhile, what of those attempting to leap the fence, hoping to start a melée on the field? They soon learned that behind the riot gear was all business.

Thus it was perhaps best to just join in on the singing: "Ay oh ay... San-ta Fe!" (Click here for a clip I found on YouTube of it being sung at a different match.) Sigh - I don't think I'll ever forget those six notes in succession, no, not after 10,000 iterations. Neither would I fail to notice the amount of smoke bomb dust I had to brush off of my seat and clothes each time I wanted to sit down throughout the match. Nor would I miss out on the litany of colorful, sworn expressions of vehemence at each turn of play in the game - often uttered violently by the most matronly of ladies sitting behind me. Mama! We probably learned more from her about the game, anyway - the big jumbotron screen proved completely useless, only playing advertisements when not focusing on pretty girls in the stands. Priorities, sure, but no replay?

Oh yes - the game itself! It need be said that this final was the second of two championship games between Santa Fe (Bogotá) and Pasto, a town near the southern border and Ecuador. The first game had been won by Pasto on its homefield by a score of 2-1; significantly, an away goal had some kind of weighted meaning. Santa Fe needed to win and keep the score either low or blow Pasto out to win the overall championship was the upshot, anyway. For most of the game, Pasto led 1-0 - a grudge match mostly consisting of yellow cards galore: uh. oh.

In the end the home team would finally rally, however, and in about the last minute Santa Fe pulled in front with a 2-1 lead. That's where it stood at the end of regulation, meaning a shootout would be required with two like scores. This unsurprisingly turned out to be a rather dramatic affair, with a couple blocks each by the goalies in the first five tries (the minimum number.) On we went to shot six, then seven, where a final block and score sealed the fate of Pasto. Ay oh ay, San-ta Fe!

The place immediately went wild, a celebration erupting in earnest. Fireworks, confetti, presentations, players running to circle the field with the trophy, pretty girls presenting awards - all this played out under a nonstop blast of music. Not bad, especially considering there wasn't a drop of liquor in the house.

But there was plenty of likka back in the hostel, where we eventually headed back to. For those not on a cocaine binge, there was plenty of rum and aguardiente (an anise-based drink) floating about to give a whirl. Making THAT happen, convenience/liquor stores were almost always open... somewhere.

Both rum and aguardiente were the liquors of choice in Colombia, locally produced... and thus the cheapest, best quality and variety. Not that plenty of it wasn't rotgut, too, but Ron Caldas and Ron Medellin were certainly respectable ron (rum). Over time and punishment I would learn that San Cristal made for good aguardiente (fire water, literally), too.

Liquor aside, it was hard to keep up with predilections of my fellow travelers sometimes. For example, one rather foolish American was passing on the coke parade... only to go for odd adrenalin rushes instead. This took the form of walking around dangerous neighborhoods at night, seeing if he would get a mugging attempt. Into martial arts (minus the common sense aspects), he managed to get in a couple of scraps one night and lost his shirt in the process. Needless to say he was pumped up after that "rush" - not that he could have fought a gun, the fool.

Perhaps he shoulda spoken with one of his countrymen at the hostel. On an evening when I myself had wandered back at a late hour alone, a couple of Americans returned together not much later. They, however, would unfortunately receive all the joys associated with two guys (in white jumpsuits, no less) plopping out of a car... and taking to stabbing them. Not a robbery per se, the knife was put straight to work jabbing the nearest guy a few times. Fortunately, though, he was able to quickly get back on his feet and run; his companion had taken flight just in time.

Before that fateful evening, I had heard of a kind of gang initiation in the neighborhood. THAT story consisted of an "artful" sort of attack by guys dressed all in black - was this a rival gang? My wounded friend, for obvious reasons, didn't care. He'd be okay as it fortunately turned out, but this certainly brought weight to what I had been hearing. As a consequence he'd have a story... while I upped my hunkerdown-lockdown mentality considerably for the (late) evenings.

That was a shame, since evenings were when Bogotá really came alive. There was lots of movement in the bars and danceclubs, both of which I enjoyed a number of times. Then again, that very thing could have been the source of my running headache in the Big B, too. Or was it more likely that it was the quick transfer to being at altitude. Who knew? The headache's hammer and nail pounding would fortunately move on to someone else after a week or so; in the meantime I would still work on adjusting to the continual coolness of the evenings. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or elephant-head guy, great spirit, etc.) for hot showers, I thought more than once.

One of my new friends had no shortage of stories of the old Colombia of not so long ago (11 years prior), near both the times of the heydays of the guerrillas and narco-traffickers. She had numerous stories of being under the gun at unoffical checkpoints on the road, or when the FARC or paramilitaries rolled into town to flout their strength. Her Taliban stories in Afghanistan reinforced this bravado - this wasn't a form of travel I was eager to share.

About as far as I got to sharing in such fun in Bogotá was translating a call for the poor Australian girl who had lost everything. In her mind, she had most importantly lost her drug connection in the process - the Englishman used to do all the dirtywork of finding her fix. Could I fill in? Uh... sure... though I'd come to question my decision later, however liberally I viewed such things.

We went to a phonebooth, where I placed a call using a number she gave me and no specific words (like what she actually wanted to buy) in Spanish. After some repeatings of where she was to meet the contact - "el mismo lugar, el mismo como siempre, caraca, caraca, una hora, etc." (same as always) - I left her to her fate. I wasn't going out into the wilds of Bogotá to do a driveby score... as it turned out, neither would she (fortunately.)

T, an Australian, had been good company all along. Self-deprecating, indeed calling herself a crackwhore cokehead, she at least had the good humor to laugh at her crappy situation: no Australian embassy or consulate in Bogotá meant placing repeated phone calls and messages to Australia. Getting new paperwork would entail going through Lima, Perú, and the Canadian Consulate in Bogotá. All this for an abbreviated passport with time windows and another credit card. No fun.

T amiably laugh-cried at her situation, but mostly she needed to attend to her runny nose. Too much of the powder, ya know. I tried to be a good acquaintance and mildly encouraged her to ease back on the stuff, but she was determined to at least do that part of her trip right. Semi-retired (she said) at 28, very pretty, athletic, T kept fit and didn't drink or eat after 5p.m. Powder somehow figured into this mix in a positive way, she assured me. Okay, sure. Anyway, given such discipline, it wasn't hard to at least get her to upgrade her vodka from the crap she was swilling before I came along: service rendered, I felt.

As the week progessed I hung out more with the dreadlocked crew I met on the first day. How else would I get invited to parties with a cover charge of a joint? Or learn all about the wackiness of the jungle shamans? Well, I didn't learn that much about them, to be factual, but I did get a considerable earful about the powerful jungle hallucinagen that many went to the Amazon to try: Huasca huayra, or something sounding like that.

The play-by-play of THAT trippy experience didn't draw me, for some strange reason. Perhaps here's why: one first spent a very long time - hours? - lying on the ground next to a shaman after imbibing the drug, for example. Then there was the vomiting. And more vomiting, until there was absolutely nothing left to vomit. Hmmm.

When those joyful heaving subsided, you'd next feel like you had died both physically and mentally. It gets better. Next you'd likely envision your body rotting as snakes and spiders ate you (somewhat) alive. Was there dancing and flames? I had no idea, but that seemed reasonable. Only AFTER all this fun would you shoot like a rocket over the Amazon and get to the trippy good part. I dunno - vodka always seemed to work o-kay with me. But I LOVED stories! Talk on, I urged.

Good stories were what I was getting meanwhile via my latest book, Garcia Marquez's Living To Tell the Tale. What a perfect book for the trip, taking place in numerous places I would soon come to know in Colombia - with a history lesson to boot. My only disappointment was that it ended around 1960 or so. On the bright side, that master had more tales to share - which was a good thing, since I was otherwise running out of his fiction to read.

Eventually my time in Bogotá needed to come to an end. This was not what I had come to Colombia for, after all - hanging out in the big city. I took in a final museum or two (such as the Police Museum, an altar to the capture of narcotraficantes.) I consumed some final set meals (meat, beans, rice, soup, lemonade, and arepa/bread for about $1.5-$2); huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions over arepa cornmeal bread) made their joyful way to my gullet, too.

What things had I forgotten to do?, I asked myself. Ah yes: the touristy cablecar up to Monserrate (a church/convent), to view the city from above. This was somehow managed in the midst of an Andean mist, while simultaneously avoiding the hordes of artisan stalls hawking all things Colombian (or seemingly so). I looked out on sprawling Bogotá, reaching into the distance in a sea of exposed brick.From this point on high I stopped to consider: were there any fat Colombians? (Answer: yes, just not so much in the eastern finger of the Colombian Andes mountains.)

Beyond such musings, and now nigh upon leaving town, I also went through errands like the rigors of money changing - via being fingerprinted and bill-smoothing out for phonies. I also reveled and reflected on clean tap water - a first in Latin America. I even marvelled at the ubiquitous mini-urinals found in the ubiquitous unisex bathrooms... the multitudes of guard dogs in muzzles... and the impressive weaponry on constant display. Perhaps it really WAS high time to start checking out the rest of this country. Those guns looked scary.

Coincidentally I had already been saying goodbye to new friends such as Alex (U.S.), Carly & Nick (U.K.), Natalie & Naomi & Jordan & Lachy & Cougar (not her name, just her proclivity) - Aussies all, Pablo (Argentina), Johannes & Eric (Norway.) They were all members of a week's-long ad hoc family disbanding to scattered points such as Cartagena, Villa de Leyva, Medellín and Leticia. Yes, the time had now come for me as well to find another collection of hammock lounge areas, leather-topped chairs, and neverending flows of free coffee that hostels in Colombia had a habit of offering.

As luck would have it, my friend T was finally ready to roll on as well - unsurprisingly to Medellín - so off we went together to the bus station. Bye bye Bogotá - See ya in a bit! I now was on the road to Villa de Leyva to the north, with the Caribbean beyond.

Bogotá Gold Museum

Bogotá Grafiti

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