Bogotá, Colombia

October 8 - 14, 2009


In the fall of 2009, my oldest daughter Jennie and I flew from Washington, D.C. to Bogotá, Colombia for a quick one week vacation. Jen lived in Sao Paulo, Brasil for a year when she was a teenager, and has been back to S.A. several times. She speaks English, Portugese and Spanish. This was my first trip to South America. I speak only English plus "Lo siento, que mi espanol no es bueno".

With 45 million residents, Colombia is the 2nd largest country in S.A. by population, and has the 3rd largest Spanish speaking population after Mexico and the USA.

The Spanish arrived in 1499 and made Bogotá the capital city of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. Thus the original "Colombia" included what is now Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. Colombia won its independence from Spain in 1819, but soon after endured a series of secessions and political changes resulting in it's current borders by 1913. It has a constitutional government, with Liberal and Conservative parties. The current President is Álvaro Uribe, who is extremely popular, and who made huge improvements in security resulting in the U.S. State Department removing most travel advisories for US citizens visiting Colombia.

Like I heard said several times there, "the biggest danger in Colombia is that you won't want to leave". Jen and I would go back in a heartbeat. We saw only a tiny slice of what Colombia has to offer.

Our trip had two parts: half in Bogotá, and half in a small Andean village to the NW called Mongui (shown marked with the (A) on the map above. This page covers just the Bogotá part. There's a 3rd page of flowers, 'cause I love shooting photos of flowers and Colombia is famous for them and exports them by the plane-full to the USA.

Our host was Jen's most excellent friend Mark who works for USAID out of the US Embassy in Bogotá. A perq we particularly enjoyed was being met at the airport by an Embassy "facilitator" who whisked us through Customs with barely a glance, and drove us to Mark's apartment. Because the Embassy provides housing appropriate to the position you hold, rather than your pay grade, Mark lives in a very nice 2-floor penthouse apartment.

This is the view from his spacious living room. It's a pretty up-scale part of Bogotá, with lots of foreign residents, many nice restaurants, movie theaters, and a multi-story mall that would look right at home in a good sized US city. The building has 24hr security — even Mark can't get into the building without the "portero" inside letting him in. Nor will the tiny elevator go to Mark's floor without a key, which only he has (though he had a spare which he loaned us during our stay).

I got a nice bedroom on the top floor that had a slider to the 270 degree wrap-around patio. Jen got the bedroom that Mark uses as the computer room, which was equally nice but without the patio access. We shared our own private modern bathroom. I believe if Mark's apartment was in Spokane with a similar view, it would likely rent for $5000 a month. Probably double that in Seattle.

Jen and I enjoyed a delicious fruit smoothie that Mark had left in the fridge for us while we gazed over the city. Mark has an amazing collection of art in his apartment (he's lived all over the world), one of which you can see in the window. We sat here for quite awhile as we adjusted to actually being in South America, and to the fact that Bogotá is so huge.

As Bogotá is at 8,500' ASL, and quite near the equator, there really aren't seasons like we have in Washington State. Though the locals do claim that the altitude often gives them "four seasons in a single day". We lucked out, and only got rain 1/2 of one day, in spite of October normally being a rainy month.

Mark, Jen and I had breakfast together the next morning, where we began our taste testing of the huge variety of freshly squeezed juices available at every restaurant and coffee shop. I can't even remember the names of most of them, and most of them were completely new to me. But Jen and I sure did enjoy them!

Mark had to go to work, but had arranged a car and driver for us to show us the city. The weather was exceptional — about 65°F, sunny and with extremely clear air.

Our first destination was Cerro de Monserrat (10,000'), which we reached by cable-car. I believe the white building at the top of the photo above is a monastery on a peak near Monserrat, but the altitude is about right to set the stage for the following two photos.

My crude attempt at a panorama shot from Cerro Monserrat, encompassing about 150° and showing the vast size of Bogotá on a very clear day. Botoga sits in, or rather now fills, a surprisingly flat valley between two cordilleras of the Andes. Bogotá has a population of roughly 8 million residents as of 2009.

With my small Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot at max telephoto, you can see a snow-capped volcano far to the West on the other side of Bogotá. It would be about 4° north of the Equator. Colombia has several peaks near 19,000', that may be one of them.

Jen and me, just to prove we were really there. The smoke in the background is from an emergency preparedness drill the city was holding that day. I wasn't too overdressed for Bogotá, but I really should have brought my 'normal' clothes (jeans, t-shirts, tennies) for the trip to Mongui. My cowboy hat would have helped, too.

Our next destination was Candelaria, one of the oldest parts of Bogotá. It has several universities and museums, including two that were on our "must see" list: the Museo de Oro and the Botero Museum. We passed this classic old church on the way there.

Typical shot of the upper (east) end of Candelaria. Lots of students live here. Different parts of Bogotá have different numerical codes, the lower the code the lower the rent and taxes. This area was, I belive, a '2'. I think where Mark's apartment was is a '6' or so. On this day was also a city-wide emergency test, so there were simulated emergency drills and evacuations and shut-downs — we managed to avoid most of them.

Another shot of the same area. The pedestrians are probably mostly students. Motorcycles are everywhere as they are so much cheaper than cars. Most are Chinese or Korean 100-125cc models. Rarely I saw a Honda or Yamaha, which I'm sure would be double the price of the Chinese models.

A hole-in-the-wall market in Candelaria. Apparently you can get just about anything inside from fresh fruit to rented time on a cell phone (about $0.10 per minute). Sort of the local equivalent of 7-Eleven but without the gas pumps and all the junk food.

The Botero Museum was delightful. These were two original Picassos I'd never seen before, so I had to have a photo. My friend Flash suggested that both are portraits of me.

Botero is "Colombia's own" painter, and is famous there like Renoir would be in Paris. All the tourist places (of which there are surprisingly few) sell Botero art reproductions in various forms.

One of my favorite Botero's. In English, it's titled "Dancing Pair". The men in his paintings often look like Botero himself, though he is not, in fact, fat or chubby himself.

Jen loved this Botero hand (Botero is famous for the corpulence of the people and animals in his work). She also bought some postcards and miniatures of his artwork to take home.

At the museum we had a traditional Colombian lunch called "Ajiaco", a thick and hearty soup of potatoes, corn and chicken, served with a side of rice and avocado. It was delicious though as with many Colombian dishes I had, it was surprisingly bland. I expected Colombian food to be spicy hot like most Mexican foods, but it wasn't at all like Mexican cooking.

In front of the Museum of Gold was a small square, typically filled with vendors of fruit, fruit juices, and sausages. Plus the ubiquitous entrepreneur with a bunch of cell phones on cables selling minutes for 200 Pesos each.

The next morning we walked up this street a block from Mark's apartment and I noticed the expensive Porche parked there, more than likely with the 'guard' standing behind it. There's a 30% import duty on cars and motorcycles so that car says "I've got money!" loudly and clearly. I had the best cup of coffee I'd had in months at a little cafe at the top of this street. Unfortunately, I never had another cup as good as that one the rest of my stay in Colombia.

The Colombian slang for a milder cup of joe is a "Tinto", which I believe means red wine in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Sadly for me it was almost always way too dark a roast with a very Starbucks-like flavor.

There were tons of "motos" in Bogotá, mostly all 125cc or less, mostly Chinese. This 990cc KTM probably cost $20K US or more, and was the biggest bike I saw in all of Columbia. Motorcyclist all have to wear vests that have their license number in big letters on the back. Apparently that is a result of the (former) prevalence of motorcycles being used by thieves and purse-snatchers.

The "Starbucks" of Colombia. Not quite on every corner, but fairly common and very popular. Jen and I had coffee at several of them, which Jen liked okay but I mostly didn't care for. I bought a pound of good organic coffee loosely packed in a typical air-tight bag. When I got back to Spokane (2500') it was vacuum packed and solid as a brick, as Bogotá a mile higher in elevation.

The next day we headed to Mongui for a 3-day weekend (that Monday was a holiday in Colombia) and when we stopped for gas I shot this photo of some dirt-bikers heading out for the weekend. That is a small fortune in motorcycles for Colombia! Sure wish I could have joined them for awhile, though given how much fun we had in Mongui I'm not sad I missed out...

Final full day in Bogotá, more freshly prepared juice for breakfast. We got another driver for 1/2 day, this time a taxi driver in a taxi who spoke only Spanish and didn't know much about Bogotá at all with respect to tourist attractions. Fortunately we knew where we wanted to go (a couple more museums, one of which was closed for the day, the other being the National Museum).

After that, and a bit of last minute gift-buying, Jen decided to take me to a very nice up-scale restaurant a block from Mark's apartment, which he recommended. We had four appetizers for lunch, plus some Argentine wine called Malbec, which I'd not had before but which I really enjoyed in spite of not being much of a red wine drinker. Notice we had more juice too...

Jen had some very tasty local sausages served with a quartered arepa (a favorite Colombian "fast food", probably fills the role that street tacos would in Mexico). She also had some delicious Carpaccio.

I had beef empanadas and some home-made tomato soup that was to die for. We shared, so I got to enjoy it all. All this, plus the two glasses of wine and juices was just $30 including tip. Good food is pretty inexpensive in Colombia.

We tried several times to visit a Crepes & Waffles, a local chain that serves the obvious and hires exclusively women who are single heads of household. Very admirable, IMHO. It didn't work out this time for us — next trip, perhaps.

Later that night, after Mark got home, we went back to that same restaurant for dinner so we could experience Colombian beef. This was mine, with what I thought were potatoes but turned out to be yucca root. Yummmmmm!

A fitting final shot from Bogotá, taken on the way to the airport. The cabs are tiny, mostly Chevrolet Sparks and some Hundais. Very fuel efficient, in a country that is big on bio-fuel and high fuel-efficiency vehicles. There's a lot to like about Colombia: the people, the food, the juice, the countryside, the flowers and more. Now I just gotta learn Spanish!

Copyright © 2009, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.