Adventures in South America – Part Two

Base, Common & Popular

It rained more than usually in Bogota, so I got used to carrying four light umbrellas in my stylish Ken Cole bag. We had family business all over the city, but still managed to get in some sightseeing. A lot of that was in the south. As the source of the old city, Bogota’s south central is its historical heart. The National government buildings are there, as are the historic ones which commemorate the nation’s birth two hundred years ago. One highly regarded place is the 20th of July Museum (for Colombians the 20th of July is our 4th of July). It’s a relatively small but historic building, complete with artifacts from the Independence period.

The museum is right there by The Candelaria district. La Candelaria, as it’s known, is much of the old city preserved. You will find countless blocks of cobble-stone streets and Spanish colonial and Baroque style houses. It’s a welcome slowdown from the high traffic in the rest of the city. By law the buildings cannot destroyed or altered by new construction, so you can meander narrow European-style streets.

Nestled among it’s blocks are several attractive schools, theatres restaurants and museums. Oddly La Candelaria has both cheap and expensive restaurants, depending on the establishment you choose to enter. There was one wonderful restaurant, which specializes in the seafood of Colombia’s Pacific coast. It’s a “cheap joint” in that lunch will not run you more than $7 or 8 U. S. Dollars, and it’s not high-end decor. But that’s not the point. It’s some of the best seafood I’ve ever had, and if you can watch out for the bones, you’re good to go.

We bought avocados from the vendor right outside and sliced them into our ajiaco santafereno. This is the wonderful potato-based soup, which is both a comfort food and what the city is famous for. The ajiaco is almost a meal in itself, but we had to try the whole fried fish. I didn’t ask what the fish was exactly, but it was superb. It was just right and flavorful, like a flounder, but not exactly. As usual, we washed them down with a blended juice of mora (blackberry) or maracuya (passion fruit). This ain’t no typical peasant meal–thank God! We walked out full, but not in that empty calorie way. There would be more experiences like that.

That was the weird thing. Sometimes the low-end restaurant was superior to the high end. A few days later I had a Colombian tamale in a really cheap joint a few blocks away on their Seventh Avenue (see picture of night scene). This area extending north of La Plaza De Bolivar (Bolivar Square) is closed to vehicular traffic on weekends and a tourist gem. There are these fabulous artisan shops there, as well as street vendors. While some of the tourist merchandise is mass produced, there are many fabulous hand-made pieces as well. Additionally there is a parking lot up there, which becomes a flea-market on weekends.

So we finished our shopping and were hungry. We went up to the street to this place frequented by laborers and students. To play it safe, I ordered a chicken tamale with a Pony Malta (malt drink). There was a wait for the tamales, but when they came, steaming, they were so good. I think the secret of a good chicken tamale is to have the chicken moist and flavorful without being soggy. Nearly a week later, I went to this more upscale place in La Candelaria and again ordered a tamale. Although the bill was bigger and the decor very nice, the tamale was dry. It wasn’t bad actually, but once you’ve had a great tamale, would you settle for less?

Visible day and night from Seventh Avenue atop the eastern slope is the Mount of Monserrate. A famous church was built there, and it has remained a religious and secular center ever since. The hearty like to climb the hill’s 3,000 meters, but a great cable car service and special train ascend the heights. I didn’t go there this time, but I remember the green of the high hills, the lovely streets stretching from the Church, and of buying a special bottle of Aguardiente con hierbas (with herbs). For those who might not know, Aguardiente is the national liquor, like Pisco in Peru. Since it translates loosely into ‘fire water” in Spanish, you can guess how potent it is.

Later on, we had these really superb empanadas uptown by the Avenida Caracas. They were at this unpretentious joint, and came in chicken, beef or shrimp flavors. They were not too greasy, but would not be confused with light food. We enjoyed them so much, we had to have another and come back another day.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we went towards the end of our trip to La Zona Rosa (Pink Zone) This is the trendiest, swankiest neighborhood in town: Bogota’s Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive. We hung out in the Mall Andino, which is as polished a shopping center as anything I’ve seen. I though about buying a Cuban cigar in one of the mall’s stores (like most of Latin America, Colombia does not observe the embargo against Cuba), but I wanted to be a loyal American. But come on–this law is getting old, fellas.

Still in La Zona Rosa, we finished up at Andres D. C., which is this zany, fabulous multi-story restaurant, bar, cabaret, etc. There is a great story to this. Around thirty years ago, Andres was a guy who began a small joint in Chia, which is another town in the north outside of Bogota. Then little by little, organically, haphazardly, it grew. Andres just kept adding to the original structure without the centralized remodeling American restaurateurs would employ. Today Andres Carne de Res (Andrew’s Steak House) is this sprawling, wacky and yet upscale establishment, which hosts over two thousand people a night. But Andres Carne de Res is a long drive out of Bogota.

Andres D. C. captures in a smaller way, the spirit of his original place, at least on a vertical level. To his credit, the place conforms to no exact rules, except to be a lot of fun. Lights and spectacle abound. On some levels, there is live entertainment; on others dining, drinking and dancing. The waiters have a cool pleasant manner. But there is no skimping on the dining. The food is expensive and excellent. If you crave a unique experience (no quiet night out for sure), this would be your cup of coffee. Going there was a great way to cap the trip.

As I keep writing, I came to realize that there is so much more to Bogota than I could put into a short piece. I didn’t mention my trip to the Gold Museum, or to various art galleries. The bottom line is if you want a world-class destination not always mentioned in the tourist books, Bogota is your kind of town.

Until later, happy travels.

New York June 10, 2011

PS – Several words here are written in Spanish with accent marks, but I was unable to place that on this blog. Again, apologies to purists.