Bogotá, Colombia

Ten years ago, when this blog began, I ended my northwards trip of South America at the equator. What’s past the equator? Colombia. The rest of this trip is addressing unfinished business. While I’m not resuming from where I left off by land, it’s gratifying to be able to celebrate a milestone, reflect on my last ten years and how far they’ve taken me, and also simply to keep a promise I made to myself to return.

Travel itself has changed since ten years ago as well. Not so many travellers I met back then on the gringo trail were visiting Colombia, then a destination with only nascent buzz after its years of instability lent it a reputation of dubious safety. Nowadays, it feels like the whole world has caught on. Everybody is here. Hostels are full, walking tour groups are everywhere, and tourists of all ages and abilities flood the Candelaria, the historic old town and touristic center of Bogotá. Colombia’s in its moment.

Of course, with just two days, I’m not seeing much of Bogotá beyond the highlights. The view from the top of Monserrate is a taunting one, showcasing a sprawl of neighbourhoods as far as the eye can see, including all the ones I won’t be able to visit.

On a Saturday, downtown remains surprisingly busy. The pedestrian street turns into a mass market, full of food vendors and street performers. People are out shopping, and the surprisingly ubiquitous bike lanes are full of recreational riders. On a Sunday though, downtown’s dead, except for the museums since they all have free Sunday admission. The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in particular seemed the biggest draw, as glitzy as the name implies but a very thorough and educational catalogue of goldsmithing techniques; religious, funerary, shamanic, and decorative usages; and the pre-Hispanic, pan-American societies in which they came from.

At least there’s some Sunday activity out in Usaquén, a wealthy suburb about a 45 minute bus journey north of downtown. (Shoutout to my friend Daniel for the recommendation a la distancia!) Its shady namesake park is surrounded by a ton of restaurants, pedestrian streets, malls, and a giant artisan’s market takes over the whole neighbourhood on Sundays, packed full of both locals and tourists alike.

But with most of everything else closed, of course I’m in the Candelaria with everyone else. Situated on a pretty lengthy hill, the streets are lined with colourful old colonial buildings. In comparison to Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, the word I guess is “more”: more space, more people, more life.

More food — especially the snacky kind. I’ll take more of those arepas, though I’ll… pass on more chocolate con queso, which is exactly as it sounds (hot chocolate with cheese mixed in to melt). Tastes fine but that texture is something I’ll never get used to. More bars — indeed, I met up with Pierre once again, also in Colombia after DR by coincidence, and took in some live music along with some chicha, a lightly boozy fermented maize drink. More museums! Love the one dedicated to Fernando Botero’s chonky art, though I plan to see more of that in his home city of Medellín. More churches too, including the spectacular Museo Santa Clara, a former church decked in gold whose religious artifacts are now juxtaposed with modern art.

But there’s one thing that sticks out the most to me: street art is pervasive, and I don’t think I’ve ever come across a city with this much. Not just graffiti tags (and there’s a whole lot of that), but murals and laboured art pieces. Not just on the trendy bars surrounding the Chorro de Quevedo, but on what would typically be considered heritage buildings. Conveniently enough, I joined a popular graffiti walking tour to gain more context.

The legal status of graffiti in Bogotá has until recent years been quite contentious: 16-year-old Diego Becerra was shot and killed by police in 2011 merely for spraying a tag (complete with a whole police cover-up plot that later fell apart), yet a touring Justin Bieber in 2013 was allowed to paint an ugly…thing in full view of his police escort. That unequal treatment spurred public backlash and decriminalisation, and slowly since then, artists have been actively hired for public art. As for the heritage buildings, rather than merely preserving a colonial past, it seems like an interesting statement on reclaiming the present by locals for preservation. Further pushing that narrative is the sheer amount of art celebrating indigeneity and/or blackness, a stark contrast to that colonial era.

What seems to be dominating the downtown core though is political street art. Of course, there’s plenty addressing the violence that Colombia has faced in recent decades from guerillas, drug wars, and paramilitary groups. But evidently fresh in the minds of the public are the 2019 protests and national general strike: not just the causes — a depressingly typical mélange of corruption, income inequality, pension cuts for the sake of austerity, politics, access to education, and silencing activists, along with the ongoing peace process to demilitarize the armed groups — but the response to the protests. Peaceful protests downtown turned deadly when riot police killed an unarmed 18-year-old student, Dilan Cruz, with a projectile to the head, which only further inflamed the protests. His name, Diego’s, and many others disappeared or killed show up on countless walls, along with plenty of resentment against police brutality. Change is slow to arrive: protests erupted again in 2021 and continue, still facing similar lethal repression. An imminent election hints towards upheaval.

As a tourist, it’s natural to only see the wealthy areas especially on a short stay. Cities (and countries) put their best foot forward and present the image they want. But in Bogotá, the image I get? The population welcomes you warmly, all the while not wanting you to forget the pervasive inequality they’re fighting against: visible out in the open, frequent topic of conversation, written on the walls.

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