Adventures in South America

Base, Common & Popular

When you think about Bogota, Colombia, what comes to mind? For most Americans, the answer is not much. Of course Hollywood steps into such vacuums with its own ideas and images, and rarely are they positive. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the 2005 film which sparked the Brad and Angelina romance, depicted the South American capital as a no-man’s land of flying bullets, which enhanced the element of danger for the eponymous couple. It looked like some updated version of a Wild West town, where every minute could be one’s last.

In truth, Bogota is an up and coming metropolis, which has developed rapidly, especially in the last decade. In all fairness, crime and violence persist, but levels have dropped precipitously since the 1990s. As with any big city, it is best to keep your eyes open (and your wallet held), but it is a great place with a big heart and lots to see for the intrepid tourist.

Bogota is also my father’s hometown, so when I visit there it is a homecoming of sorts. As I step out of El Dorado Airport (after an eternity with customs), I meet my family waiting for me. El Dorado is out in the western outskirts, so we have to take a cab back to the family apartment. You have to be careful with cabs; cabbies can be creative. A ride should cost on average 20,000-25,000 Colombian pesos (which in May 2011 conversion rates should be between 11-14 United States dollars). Use your common sense–get a good car service in advance, or ask the driver how much to take you into downtown. If you don’t get a good feel from the driver, wait for the next cab. Another tip: don’t slam the car doors too hard here. Car owners hang on to their vehicles for a longer time, so be gentle.

Our apartment is near Unicentro, a famous shopping mall, which has undergone a major renovation. It’s in the north-east in the Usaquen district. Bogota is an especially large city, spreading south to north, on an Andean plateau. The South is the older part, with the government buildings and older neighborhoods. Curiously the North has become the happening half, with ritzy rich neighborhoods and million-dollar business complexes. The sidewalks near our apartment are framed by huge fat tropical trees, resembling palms, but much wider.

With a highland tropical climate, Bogota is generally warm year round, though subject to its rainy periods of April, May, September and October. It was indeed raining when we were there, but this rain varied.

The following week we started by checking out Unicentro, which has become very Americanized. Many of the stores in the mall are American chains (like NINE WEST and McDonald’s). The week before there was a drive on behalf of the tsunami victims in Japan (see photo). There are girls promoting the same Dead-Sea based cosmetic products, which are seen in malls across America.

Later, we head towards the old town of Usaquen and the surrounding area. Originally Usaquen was just one of several towns annexed by the city, and it has the feel of a small locale. It has a classic cozy plaza with the colonial church of Santa Barbara facing it from the east. Around the plaza are charming low-lying buildings. Sharp entrepreneurs have modernized the buildings with restaurants, which look as up and coming as any trendy American neighborhood. We stepped into an elaborate Middle-Eastern style pavilion, which hosts belly-dancing and feasting.

Moving southward on the seventh street, we encounter the Hacienda Santa Barbara. It starts out looking like an old Spanish-style house with tiled roofs, white painted walls and a old courtyard. But the courtyard connects to an escalator to a modern multi-floor mall.

What is fascinating here is how buildings centuries old mix gracefully with just finished constructions. In my next piece I’ll go into greater detail on its sights and sounds.

Until later, happy travels.

New York May 18, 2011

PS – Bogota and Usaquen are both written with accent marks in Spanish, but I was unable to place that on this blog. My apologies to purists.