I have a confession. I really like Bogota. It is a weird, fascinating and vibrant city that has seen terrible times and now appears to have faced-down its past and is looking to the future with renewed confidence. Still, there is no way around the fact that Bogota has a reputation that would give pause to even the most hardened traveller. A reputation for violence, drugs and crime that is well deserved. Except these days, maybe that should read ‘was’ well deserved.
My first visit to Bogota was several years ago for work. During a free afternoon I took a cab to the historic colonial district of Candelaria. I walked around, strolled up and down streets and at one point a policeman came over to me and asked where I was going. I pointed up a street that looked fairly nice and he simply shook his head and drew his finger across his throat mimicking a knife. I didn’t need to be told twice.
Bogota 2013 seems like an entirely safer place. Not a single policeman drew their finger across their throat or warned us we couldn’t walk down a particular street. The city was alive with activity and I didn’t once feel threatened; although judging by one review of the hotel we stayed at, violent crime does occur all too often. Perhaps that’s why tourists still seem few-and-far-between, or maybe its because this is the low season.
There are safer and wealthier districts to base yourself in the north of Bogota, but we decided to stay in the old colonial heart of the city, La Candelaria, centred on Plaza Bolivar. Here you can wander streets – with one eye open – full of glorious colonial architecture, pop into student bars full of people dancing tango to pumping music and watch street vendors weave their way through the crowds with any number of unlikely items.
The other benefit of staying in La Candelaria is that pretty much everything culturally worth seeing was within a short walk from our hotel: the Museo del Oro and the Botero gallery being the two highlights. The whole area does still have a slightly down-at-heel feel about it, which is part of its charm, but it probably makes it feel more intimidating than in reality it is.
To me, the real joy of being in Bogota is the human life that goes on there. It is a joyous place to be at times, and on odd occasions I found myself thinking I was back in La Paz.
One thing is for sure, Bogota is a surprising city. Ringed by mountains, full of history and culture, outrageous street art, welcoming and friendly people, bizarre street performers and any number of excellent restaurants. It feels like a city waiting for its moment, and that moment seems to have arrived. That makes me happy.