Rediscovering Bogotá

Once a hub for drug trade crime and kidnappings, Colombia’s capital has cleaned up its act. Today, a booming restaurant scene,dramatic geography and a newfound optimism are luring travelers back to this high-altitude Andean city.

It’s late morning, and we’re in a taxi dodging weekday traffic on Carrera Séptima—Seventh Avenue—Bogotá’s primary north-south thoroughfare. 

Our driver is a wiry older gentleman with a ramrod-straight spine and a severe expression. My wife, Heather, and I chatter away like the giddy first-day travelers we are, pointing out graffiti and other urban curiosities to our 17-year-old son, Luther, and daughter, Eliot, 13. Because we’ve just arrived—and because this is Colombia, a country with a violent past—our exuberance makes me self-conscious. 

The driver peers at us in the rearview mirror, never cracking a smile. The building heights drop, and we enter a warren of narrow streets, some paved with bricks or cobbles. We’ve reached the Candelaria, the oldest part of town. The old man parks and glowers at us. “There,” he says in Spanish, gesturing through the windshield, “is the Plaza de Bolívar. It is our city’s principal plaza and has many important buildings—the National Capital, the Palace of Justice, the Cathedral.” He swivels and points behind us. “There is the Gabriel Garcia Márquez Cultural Center. Gabriel Garcia Márquez is our country’s most famous novelist.”

Clearly I misread the driver’s expression. Though I already know everything he’s telling us, I listen patiently, touched by his pride and grandfatherly care—even if it was probably meant to earn a tip. I thank him and pay the fare—including a generous bonus—and we hop out and hit the streets. 

Bogotá isn’t on most people’s bucket lists. The entire country of Colombia fell off the travel map back in the 1980s, after the rise of the cocaine trade led to rampant corruption, warring cartels and a demoralized justice system. Violent crime spiked around 1993, the year Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar was finally killed. 

A street vendor makes arepas de maiz.

Ever since, with Colombians working hard to get their house in order, crime has fallen steadily. Last November, after four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the rebel faction FARC signed a historic peace agreement, ending a half-century of conflict.

Colombians are remarkable people—warm, worldly, generous and above all, resilient. This was the impression I came away with during several trips I made to the country back during the dark days of the mid-1990s. I spent a week in Bogotá and other locations reporting on controversial plans to bridge the vast undeveloped forest and marshland of the Darién Gap and, on a much cushier assignment, covered a film festival in Cartagena. My wife and I also honeymooned in Cartagena and the nearby Rosario Islands. At the time, we were living in neighboring Ecuador, one of my all-time favorite travel destinations. With the exception of the Galápagos Islands, Colombia matches the dazzling variety of Ecuador—ice-capped Andean Mountain peaks, Amazon rainforest, Pacific and Caribbean beaches and a rich diversity of food and culture. But Colombia’s troubles kept the country from reaching its potential. Today, with rule of law re-established and the economy booming, Colombia is rebuilding its travel infrastructure and reputation. Bogotá, the capital, is leading the charge. 

One of the world’s most populous high-altitude cities—eight million people at 8,600 feet—Bogotá is a charming, sophisticated Andean city, located fewer than four hours by plane from Miami. In 2012, Bogotá christened a gleaming new airport—called El Dorado, or the “Golden One”—and a second is already in the works to meet increasing demand. 

The new optimism has spawned an abundance of boutique hotels and restaurants. Chefs who fled the unrest and found fame in New York and Europe are returning to experiment with the country’s unique bounty.

When, after almost 20 years, I flew to Bogotá in 2014 to report on the booming restaurant scene, I was blown away by how much the city had changed. Now, with my wife scheduled to speak at a conference in Bogotá over Thanksgiving, the kids and I have tagged along. Why not turn an ill-timed business trip into a family adventure? 

Colombian coffee

Among the first signs that we’ve landed in a distinctive place are the coffee beans rather than pebbles filling the pen holders and decorative bowls at our hotel. These days, thankfully, Colombia, the world’s second biggest coffee exporter after Brazil, is known more for its pep-inducing beans than for white powder. 

We’re staying at the JW Marriott. Even though the dark cloud of crime has lifted—Bogotá’s current homicide rate is lower than Atlanta’s and Cincinnati’s and one-third that of St. Louis—we feel reassured lodging at a dependable U.S. brand. The 246-room high-rise, opened in 2010, is a haven of luxury and anything but cookie-cutter. The impeccable service and sumptuous furnishings seem a worthy splurge for our holiday getaway. 

November is the tail end of the rainy season, and today morning clouds have boiled up and dissipated over the green mountains ringing the city. The weather apps I typically rely on back home in Fairfax are of little help. The city’s unique geography—nestled in a high-altitude plateau, approximately 300 miles north of the equator, 200 miles east of the Pacific Coast and 200 miles west of the moisture-laden Amazon Basin—brings spring-like temperatures year-round, but also makes rain unpredictable.

Back in the Candelaria, on the way to the main plaza, we stop to marvel at a pair of cathedral doors that could have been built for a giant. A pair of lion-head knockers clings to the ancient timbers high out of reach. A tiny, human-scale door hides in the lower right corner. Even the kids, who don’t usually get excited about historic architecture, are impressed.

The Candelaria’s narrow streets teem with architectural treasures: rows of brightly colored stucco façades, centuries-old wooden balconies supported by hand-carved brackets, and stone entry lintels, some of which offer glimpses of magical courtyard gardens. This historic core dates back to 1538, when Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada claimed the territory for the Spanish crown after conquering the indigenous Muisca Indians. The city’s name derives from a Muisca chiefdom called Bacatá. 

Bogotá served as the colonial capital of New Granada—a region encompassing most of modern-day Colombia, Venezuela and Panama—until independence in 1819. Colonial architecture, therefore, dominates the Candelaria. One of the grandest colonial homes now houses the Botero Museum’s art collection, donated by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. Some 85 of the works are by international artists, while more than 120 are by Botero, who is known for his stylized paintings and sculptures portraying figures more corpulent than Rubenesque. 

The Candelaria is home to a handful of other museums devoted to colonial art, Colombian currency and regional costumes. The most popular is the Gold Museum. But this being our first day, Heather and I decide to keep strolling. We don’t want to lose momentum. Besides, we’re all getting hungry. 

Arrullos, an appetizer of battered seafood bathed in coconut, gree curry and served with sour cocadas (coconut cakes).

“How about pizza?” Luther suggests.

“No way,” I say, careful not to roll my eyes. “This is our chance for some comida típica.”

I’ve done my homework. Topping my list of traditional food joints is La Puerta Falsa, Bogotá’s oldest café. Founded in 1816 (as Spanish rule crumbled), it’s known for its pastries and ajiaco, a hearty potato and shredded-chicken stew that’s one of the city’s proudest food traditions. I poke my head in the door. The eatery is charming. And packed. And only as big as a large closet. My eyes follow a winding staircase up to a cramped, three-table loft. La Puerta Falsa would be perfect if I were alone—and a foot shorter. 

“Hey, Dad, how about this place?” Eliot asks.

She’s a half-block up the street peering through a nondescript entry in a tall stucco wall. We pass between a pair of Tuscan columns, and the space blossoms into a huge patio ringed with glass-enclosed dining rooms and wooden balconies above. We choose an umbrella-shaded table in the center, amid fountains and garden beds walled in stone. La Sociedad is the restaurant’s name, and it’s perfect. We order a mix of flour and manioc empanadas, some with gooey farm cheese, others with meat. Luther, a hot sauce fan, smothers his with bright orange ají, the tangy condiment found on tables throughout the Andean countries. The ajiaco is excellent. It comes with a collection of garnishes in little white bowls—fat, boiled hominy called choclo, avocado, capers and cream. 

The food is a highlight of our trip. Colombia’s newfound peace and prosperity have sparked a restaurant renaissance. Wherever we go, we find quality and confidence at all levels—from independent coffee shops to Colombia’s surprisingly good Starbucks-like Juan Valdez Café chain, from the quality burger joints popping up around town to the upscale restaurants led by chefs gaining international notice. 

Craving sushi after a long day early in the trip, we score a late-ish reservation at Canoa, perched on the city’s eastern slope in the upscale Chapinero Alto neighborhood. The narrow, stylish Japanese tavern is pleasantly loud and filled with well-dressed young professionals who, like us, seem happy to have ducked in out of the fog and drizzle.

We spend Thanksgiving evening at Mini-Mal, a small, lively restaurant in a brick, mid-20th century townhouse in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood, not far from our hotel. I had met the friendly owners, chefs Eduardo Martinez and his wife Antonuela Ariza, during my 2014 trip and knew their celebration of indigenous food from Colombia’s Pacific coast—an economically impoverished yet culinarily rich region—would provide a fitting alternative to our own Thanksgiving traditions. Eduardo plies us with lots of small plates to sample and share—plantain balls stuffed with crabmeat, mushrooms with a pesto made from stinging nettles and a dish that looks just like a fancy sushi roll made instead with plantains, farm cheese, avocado and pork belly. Heather and I share a hibiscus ceviche made with the fish of the day, a sweet white fish called corvina. 

Between meals, we make it to a few museums and other sites. One day when Heather is in conference sessions, I take the kids up Monserrate, the mountain towering over downtown Bogotá. The white monastery at the top has been winking down at us, piquing our curiosity. At 10,341 feet above sea level, Monserrate, accessible by cable car or funicular, is one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. You can also hike, which I did two decades ago, but I’ve heard the trail can be a magnet for pickpockets. I first visited on a Sunday, and I’ll never forget seeing penitent Colombians bloody their hands and knees crawling for hours up the rocky trail, some bearing timber crosses on their backs. I recommend the funicular, which takes less than five minutes. After taking in the views, touring the grounds and pawing through trinkets at the tourist stands, we hop the cable-car for the return trip. 

It’s an easy walk from the base of Monserrate to the Gold Museum. We follow a tree-lined street past the Universidad de los Andes. It’s midday, and students are hanging out in the small Parque Germania and at coffee shops. All morning, the sky has been threatening rain. It finally cuts loose, pelting us with warm, nickel-sized drops. We duck into a giant mural of cats—a café, rather, called Dos Gatos y Simone, whose entire façade is covered in a psychedelic feline fantasy. The Colombian-Mexican fusion-inspired food is excellent. We hang around playing poker and Go Fish, waiting for the clouds to part. They don’t, and the place closes, so we slosh through the now-flooded city streets, our umbrellas and jackets unable to keep us dry. 

The Gold Museum isn’t far, thankfully, and we find a locker for stashing our wet stuff. The collection of pre-Hispanic gold—the world’s largest—is so impressive, I soon forget about my soggy shoes and pants. The exhibit begins with an overview of the many early goldsmithing techniques—sintering, melting, hammering and carbonizing. The men who mastered this work were craftsmen, chemists, artists, historians and arbiters of culture. They must have been viewed as gods for their range of skills and the delicate jewelry and wares they created. It’s fascinating to stroll past glass case after glass case, comparing the work of different indigenous groups and periods—and a bit heartbreaking from my 21st century vantage point knowing that the Spaniards would eventually arrive and melt down most of their creations. 

Then again, it’s Colombia’s dramatic past—both distant and not so distant—that makes it such a fascinating place to visit.

This article originally appeared in our April 2017 issue.

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Star Gazing and Laser Nights

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