Ten things we learned in Bogotá

A listicle.

1. The TransMilenio Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system is impressive, forward-thinking, often incredibly efficient. It is hard to ever fathom that level of investment in transit occurring in the U.S. But for all its positives, it’s also extremely difficult to navigate (even Google Maps hasn’t quite figured it out), and the distribution of riders is so uneven that it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen buses (all on different routes) pass with only one or even no riders, and then an impossibly stuffed one pass by immediately thereafter. I’ll let Drew comment further in an inevitable future post on the subject.

2. Bogotá’s Mayor Enrique Peñalosa – responsible for the TransMilenio, expansion of the city’s park, library and school systems – is a more controversial figure than we’d once thought (including as recently as my last blog post). One of his more famous quotes – “an advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it is one where even the rich use public transportation” – was inspiring to me as a city planning graduate student, and I was so intrigued to see his planning work in Bogotá in action.

But thanks to some helpful follow up from our friend Derek and some new friends we made (see #4), we’re learning more. During his second (and ongoing) term in office, Peñalosa was apparently responsible for the displacement of informal vendors, and was mired in scandal over a potential fake doctoral degree. Our new friends Vlady and Louise described him as a center-right capitalist in bed with the concrete industry, which would help to explain his major investments in building construction and road infrastructure for BRT, but his resistance to the subway system. Those same friends also think Maduro is being trashed by the right-wing controlled media and is actually a progressive force for good in Venezuela. So, the jury is out.

3. Dragonfruit (aka pitaya in this part of the world) is an amazingly effective treatment for constipation. That is all, and you are welcome!

4. Sometimes you make new friends in a public park during a literary festival, and they happen to have two extra bikes and invite you over during Ciclovía for breakfast, some education on Colombian politics and a ride around the city. When that happens, you feel grateful to the universe for literary festivals, serendipity and generous strangers.

At Vlady and Louise’s apartment after a ride around town.

5. Justin Bieber was actually one of the best things to happen to graffiti artists in Bogotá. In an act of classic tween pop star entitlement, the Biebs took to the street after a concert in Bogotá in 2013 and painted a Canadian maple leaf on a nearby wall, under the permissive watch of the Bogotá police. This sparked a national dialogue about the double standard placed on most local street artists and ultimately helped to de-criminalize street art and improve artist-police relations in the city.

6. Fernando Botero, whom I studied in high school Spanish class (shout out to Señora Groeneman!), donated a bunch of his work in 2000 to create the Museo Botero (which is part of a broader complex of terrific museums in the historic district). His stipulation was that the museum remain free and open to the public in perpetuity. In addition to over a hundred of his paintings, drawings and sculptures (I particularly like the way he does feet), the museum has work by Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, Calder, and a range of other notable artists. I also was unaware of his more recent series on Abu Ghraib, which Erica Jong (shout out to the Barnard alumna and also the author of one of the more formative books of my early 20s!) writes about here.

7. As with many coffee producing countries, the locals are only just beginning to enjoy their own product. I learned about this in Costa Rica in 2008 and Nicaragua in 2015 as well; the widely-held belief that people who live in coffee producing countries are constantly consuming tons of amazing coffee is basically wrong. Except that that is starting to change. Colombia is the third largest exporter of coffee (behind Brazil, and to my surprise, Vietnam!) and for most of the industry’s history, has sent all the high quality beans overseas for millennial snobs like me to drink at $4/drink.

However, Bogotá’s speciality coffee culture has begun to flourish in the last decade. While many of these shops felt and looked a lot like the new wave coffee scene in the U.S. (though even more beautiful and with more tropical flora decor) their coffee programs are decidedly focused on Colombian farms and farmers, and on coffee education. I learned quite a bit about Colombian varietals and look forward to learning more in the Eje Cafetero this week.

8. There are a lot of universities in Bogotá. It seemed like everywhere we went, we ran into another horde of eager learners and their book bags and their sweet urban campuses. However, apparently only one institution – Universidad Nacional – is public and there is a lot of discussion around the increased privatization of education…sound familiar?

Dinner at Salvo Patria. Guava delight in foreground. Tiramisu in latte mug (complete with rosetta art) in the background.

9. There is such a thing as candied guava and you can see it here encasing a guava mousse on a bed of shaved cacao and peanuts and this meal cost us more than our lodging budget for two days. Yay! (But, to be fair, the meal cost about $60 for multiple extremely delicious courses and drinks. Well worth it.)

10. The reputation the city has for being dangerous and crime-ridden feels, for a visitor, inaccurate and sad. This blog may only have a small readership (hi, mom) but it feels important to set the record straight. Bogotá, like most large cities, is a dynamic, exciting place full largely of good people just trying to live their lives and go places. Sometimes, the socioeconomic systems in place don’t do right by some, and they resort to petty crime to get by. And sometimes idiot tourists who don’t know better are their target. And that gets blogged about and then everyone gets scared and we end up with a bunch of paranoid gringos clinging to those ridiculous money belts under their shirts. Yes, I’m sure some scary and unfortunate stuff happens in Bogotá, but that’s true nearly everywhere in the world, and the decades of violence and fear that this country has endured have more than earned them a more accurate representation today. For our part, we found the neighborhoods we were in (Santa Fe, Chapinero, and Usaquén – admittedly, these are the wealthier and more touristed neighborhoods) to be safe, friendly, and inviting.

6 Replies to “Ten things we learned in Bogotá”

  1. I read and enjoy, and learn from your thoughtful blog! Thank you. It certainly has been true that locals cannot always enjoy the fruits of their own agriculture — beans, quinao, etc.
    It is true as well, the clueless tourists often put themselves at risk and then promote a culture of fear.
    We have just returned from a week with terrific whale encounters at San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja

    1. Hi Pat! Sounds like a wonderful trip – we may need your tips when we head to Mexico next month! Thanks for following along here 🙂 Love, Sara + Drew

  2. Good listicle. I’m learning a lot! Did you see Bieber’s maple leaf?
    We head to Patagonia next week. Hard to feel it until it actually happens.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Another great post! Re Maduro and Venezuela, the picture we get from everyone we talked to about the situation is that Maduro has dragged the country way down, and has to go. We’ve seen many, many Venezuelans on street corners begging money from passing motorists and pedestrians just so they can eat. In contrast to Trump’s bogus national emergency, Venezuela appears to have a real national emergency of mammoth proportions.

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