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Bogotá is a city that, two years ago when I first left the Netherlands, I was hell-bent on living in.
Colombians, backpackers, and Colombia-based expats all preached to me the gospel of Medellín, but I’d done my research and didn’t wanna hear it: I’d made plans to move to Colombia, to Latin America, and I wanted that big world city experience in the ‘Global South’, where I could live through the day-in-day-out of development in action and witness the forces of globalization chatting in different languages on my street corner.
But instead of Bogotá I somehow ended up in Mexico City, where I got that experience on a level that, in any way measureable, can’t be beat in Latin America. After my time in the Distrito Federal of Mexico, I saw Bogotá through different eyes.
Rather than being overwhelmed by its size—its 10 million-strong metro area makes it a huge city by most measures, but still one that could fit into Mexico City more than twice—what I felt was surprise and a really sincere sense of inspiration. This city, which was one of the violent crime capitals of the world during my childhood, has in many ways evolved into a mature world city, an Andean and Latin American cultural capital, and a model for civic change.
The week I had in Bogotá could have never happened 20 years ago, and as travelers we have no one but Bogotanos themselves to thank for the social transformation that put Colombia on the backpacker trail.
My Star-Crossed Love Affair with Colombia’s Capital
A lot of backpackers hate on the Colombian capital. Without Medellín’s perfect weather, Cartagena’s Caribbean beachfront, or Cali’s obsession with salsa, it’s not really clear at first what Bogotá’s thing is.
Actually, in a lot of ways, it’s the foil to these better-beloved stops on the backpacker trail: it’s kind of cold and rainy, a bit expensive, and, according to most Colombians, is home to the coldest and least friendly people in the country: Rolos, as Bogotanos are more informally called within Colombia.
For me, it’s a city I was “moving to” for two years.
Since early 2014, when I first started plotting a move to Bogotá, I’ve been sucking up documentaries and articles on the city and its history. Even though two years later I find myself living in Medellín rather than the capital (they told me so), it hasn’t erased the respect I’ve gained for Bogotá after two years of delving into its story and then finally spending a week exploring it from my friend’s apartment in the downtown Teusaquillo neighborhood.
I can’t really remember anymore what my association was with Bogotá before beginning to read up on the city, but I seem to spend a lot of time listening to others with strong opinions. The general perception seems to be something like this: people over about 35 who have (suspiciously) never been to Colombia are positive that its capital is a murder trap, while backpackers on the gringo trail typically turn up their noses at what they see as the boring version of Medellín.
But Bogotá is the capital, not just of the Colombian government but of Colombian art and culture, as well as education and enterprise.
Its nearly ten million inhabitants make up the fifth largest metropolitan area of South America, and their city is host to Latin America’s third-busiest airport. It’s the city drawing the most foreign direct investment in all of Latin America, and, more importantly for travelers, it’s one of the giant cultural centers of the Andes.
One week was just barely enough to get a general feel for the city and start delving into one or two neighborhoods while also working every day, especially when I spent two days with a nice attack of soroche, the light-headedness and diziness that results when you fly from flat Florida and abruptly dump yourself 2600 m (8600 ft) up in the Andes mountains. But still somehow I managed to see an Oscar-nominated Colombian documentary (El Abrazo de la Serpiente, or “The Embrace of the Serpent”) in the theater, complete the 120 km ciclovía bike ride, drink craft beer with Rolo hipsters, eat cheese and hot chocolate for breakfast, devour ajiaco for dinner, and explore the graffiti that’s turned Bogotá into a Latin American street art capital.
There’s just as much going on in Bogotá as in any big capital city. The difference is Bogotá’s story.
Recent History: Why the Bogotá You See Today Really Is a Miracle
Even twenty years into its transformation, most of the world still remembers Bogotá as the crime-infested violent capital of a crime-infested violent Latin American country. That’s understandable—around the time the West was winding down from World War Two, the Cold War came to Colombia, and competing ideologies and foreign powers have mostly kept the country in a state of violent disarray since.
From La Violencia to the Violent 90s
Most of Colombia’s current problems can be traced back to Bogotá in 1948.
In the midst of a tense presidential election season that year, Colombian Liberal Party candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had gained popular support among the impoverished farmers and manual laborers who made up most of the country’s population, was assassinated in the capital.
The ten-hour riot that broke out in response, eventually killing thousands and largely physically destroying Bogotá is known as el Bogotazo. It’s generally thought of as the first instance of political violence marking the beginning of La Violencia, the ten-year civil war that devastated Colombia and its capital.
The power-sharing agreement between the Conservatives and Liberals of the 1950s that officially ended La Violencia ameliorated some and alienated others. The latter group grew into the leftist militias like FARC and ELN; in response, the government and private political figures, as well as wealthy landowners and large corporations, organized and funded the right-wing paramilitaries that now combat them.
These are the forces that have dominated and destroyed the country for most of living memory for twenty- and thirty-somethings in Bogotá.
Civic Culture and Public Space: How a Socialist Philosopher, a Neoliberal Businessman, and 7 Million Rolos Saved their City
When I was a toddler in Florida listening to Paula Abdul cassette tapes and watching Power Rangers, Bogotá was a largely lawless urban wasteland where anyone with any sense stayed indoors at night, and during the day when possible. The same year my family celebrated my little brother being born, 7,144 people were murdered in the Colombian capital.
And then in the mid-90s, Bogotanos started taking back control. What two radical mayors and a civically engaged city did to their home in just six years borders on the statistically anomalous, and is largely responsible for the Bogotá I spent a week enjoying when I first arrived in Colombia.
Lithuanian-Colombian Antanas Mockus was Rector of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia when he decided to run for mayor as an independent candidate against the established, farcically corrupt parties.
Many say his rise to the top started when he mooned an audience full of Nacional students:
In three years, Mockus cut traffic congestion and pollution by firing the corrupt police force and hiring traffic mimes in their place, distributed two-sided cards (in red and white, like in football) to encourage citizens to regulate one another in public spaces, and ran citizen education campaigns on the responsibility of paying taxes.
After the end of Mockus’s administration, Bogotá’s homicide rate had fallen 70%. Water and sewage reached 95% of homes. The city’s wealthiest inhabitants voluntarily paid an extra 10% in taxes. And despite all this, 61% of Bogotanos said that citizen education was the most important accomplishment of the administration.
Mockus’s claim to fame is his cultura ciudadana, or ‘civic culture’, an idea that holds traction today in the form of Mockus’s own #CulturaCiudadana hashtag and continued activism with Corpovisionarios. In establishing such a civic culture in Bogotá, Mockus reeducated 7 million people to self-police, respect shared spaces, and invest in their community.
Bogotá’s laws stipulate that mayoral terms are 3 years and that, while mayors can be elected multiple times, they can’t serve consecutive terms. That’s why Mockus handed over the reigns to his rival from the previous race, another political outsider long before Trump and Sanders came into fashion.
Whereas Mockus had led the city to a culture of citizenship, Enrique Peñalosa converted the engaged citizenry and foreign investment potential left by Mockus into a new respect for and enjoyment of public spaces.
To foster the safety and community of public spaces in Bogotá, Peñalosa took the build-it-and-they-will-come approach: parks, libraries, bike paths, road and sidewalk improvements, and a modern bus rapid transit system that’s now held up as an example of mass transit in developing cities by development experts.
The international media and development professionals have had an on-again off-again love affair with the Bogotá “miracle”, and these days it’s fashionable again to be skeptical of it. That’s good: Bogotá is still a real place where real humans are calling the shots, making mistakes often enough to leave most Rolos with a frustrating sensation of two steps forward, one step back.
But I would struggle to call the visible, palpable, and logistically unbelievable change that’s swept through Bogotá during my short lifetime and those of the Bogotanos of my generation anything other than a miracle.
So here’s the city that Bogotanos, Colombians, and travelers have inherited from their progress.
Bogotá for Backpackers: A Cosmopolitan Cultural Capital Built Around Open Public Spaces
I’m writing all of this because it has everything to do with the Bogotá I landed in in January and what I saw there.
Bogotá today is modern, urban, artsy, alternative, enormous, exciting, and cosmopolitan. From what other backpackers said I expected it to be a grey urban atrocity with unfriendly inhabitants and nothing to do, but I just can’t figure out how the city has gotten this reputation.
My first day in Bogotá, two cops walked up to me and my friends in the Parque Nacional just to ask how we were doing, if the teenagers smoking weed were bothering us, and if we liked Bogotá. After spending most of last year in Mexico, I almost couldn’t believe this, but so far none of my interactions with cops in Colombia have fit the extortionary Latin American stereotype.
Public space is an important (but unsurprising) legacy of the Mockus-Peñalosa era, and when you find yourself in it in Bogotá, you’ll likely notice that it’s better-equipped and better-maintained than many of its equivalents in other Latin American urban centers.
Parks dominate huge swaths of the urban landscape, and green is everywhere.
Have a seat in one of the public parks and I can almost guarantee that friendly locals will come chat you up. Or they might ask to draw you.
If public parks have given Rolos spaces to congregate and build community, libraries have given them spaces and tools to harvest the raw materials of social mobility, with Internet access, job training and job search assistance, and community education programs. The city’s nearly 200 libraries make it not only a better home for its citizens, but also for visiting bookworms and laptop-bound professionals.
Together with its respected universities, Bogotá’s libraries have earned the city the nickname of the Athens of South America. There are even a hundred or so miniature public libraries, spread out across its parks and other odd public spaces.
Most of Bogotá’s north and many of the poorer zones in the center of town have already recovered from decades of disrepair. Teusaquillo is the neighborhood where I stayed, home to the Universidad Nacional that’s produced leaders like Mockus. It’s full of students and a proportionate hipster scene that keeps the local cafés and live music venues bumpin’.
To its northeast is the more posh and plastic scene of Chapinero, home to nightlife and gastronomy fit for a capital city. La 7 (La Septima) is the main drag that leads you north out of Teusaquillo’s microbreweries, through chilled-out jazz clubs and local favorites like Bogota Beer Company, and into the thick of the Zona G, the city’s best gourmet dining district.
Turning south is a different story.
The historic center, La Candelaria, is both one of the roughest parts of town and the center of the backpacker scene. Most of the city’s hostels and a lot of bars and restaurants are concentrated around the Plaza de Bolivar and the historic buildings surrounding it.
Going further south than Candelaria generally isn’t recommended by locals: already in the neighborhoods of Candelaria and Santa Fe, nighttime muggings are a fact of daily life, as is true in most of the contact neighborhoods between rich and poor in highly stratified cities like Bogotá.
Wherever you find yourself in the city, it’s fairly easy to get around.
Transportation is still a heated issue for Bogotanos, and I’ve found that most from the city seem upset with me when I praise the Transmilenio; the bus rapid transit system was a fantastic start, but most Rolos feel it’s more show than substance.
While I get that getting around Bogotá still isn’t perfect, one fact remains that seems to escape most of the middle class youths I come into contact with: with the Transmilenio, several million Colombians isolated in Bogotá’s hillside shantytowns can now reach the employment, healthcare, and education available inside the city. And for backpackers, it means an affordable and reliable, if not always comfortable or punctual, way of getting around the city’s main routes.
My preferred way of getting around any city is by bike, which works out beautifully with Bogotá’s 300 km of bike paths and its bike-friendly culture.
Every Sunday the city hosts the ciclovía: over 100 km of Bogotá’s busiest highways close to cars and open up for cyclists, pedestrians, and the the oddly large population of rollerblade enthusiasts living in Colombia’s cities.
But the ciclovía is more weekly cultural event than afternoon bike ride. Through various stretches you’ll find vendors selling cups of fruit or crafts or artwork. My friends and I were lucky enough to stumble onto this crazy little band, El Terrible Tarantismo, playing something like a mix of gypsy music and ska.
As you cycle, walk, transmilenio, or buseta your way around the city, you’ll notice it’s covered in art. Bogota’s local graffiti artists have pulled off an impressive PR stunt in rebranding their city as, among other things, the Latin American capital of public art.
The murals on Bogotá’s walls in many ways paint the stories of its human development over the last two decades.
Cultura Ciudadana in the First Stop On the Colombian Backpacker Trail
I’ve been thinking about and studying this city for two years, and even though I ‘knew’ what to expect, I couldn’t believe my eyes here.
After so many articles about La Violencia and documentaries depicting random passersby getting gunned down in the street, walking down Park Way at 11:00 at night and finding nothing more than a bunch of college-age hippies sitting in circles playing guitars and passing around a joint was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen.
That moment in the park with my friends when we were approached by the police is one of the ones that’s been most important in forming my image of Colombia. It’s not just the country’s government trying to heal its bad image and promote it as a tourist destination as it finally moves towards peace after more than 50 years: a huge number of Bogotanos and Colombians are buying in and taking stake in what they see as their country’s identity on the global scene.
In Bogotá, it started with small changes, like publicly calling out traffic violators and voluntarily saving water and electricity. Now it’s reached a point where policemen are, at least most of the time, serving and protecting rather than intimidating and extorting.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve witnessed Colombian police harassing Colombians—normally the homeless or the young and visibly poor—and there’s corruption in Bogotá just like everywhere else in this country and every other country in Latin America and the world.
But in Bogotá, I spent a week moving among a ten million-strong mass of men and women working slowly, haltingly, erratically, sloppily, passionately, cynically, and still somehow sincerely optimistically towards getting their collective shit together.
So this is my thank you to Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa, and el pueblo bogotano for taking the terrifying first steps that many of their Latin American neighbors have yet to take, and for sharing the city that they’ve spent my entire lifetime building.
Have you visited Bogotá? Did you find a sprawling urban mess, an inspiring cultural capital, or something in between? Share your thoughts in the comments or in a tweet to @JakobGibbons!