A sign near my hostel’s entrance reads, “For safety, only go right when exiting the hostel. Do not go left!” The words “only” and “not” are harshly underlined twice.
When I pass that sign and step through the lock-laden, heavy wood double doors, I feel a pang of unease.
Some dark corner of my brain unearths fleeting images from action flicks with storylines punctuated by bombs. I picture tangled Colombian jungles concealing unctuous men who, sneering and cruel, lead armies of bedraggled child soldiers. I conjure up decades-old news reports of kidnappings and Pablo Escobar’s rampant drug cartel chaos.
Outside the hostel, I half expect to be greeted by a gang of weapon-wielding cartel hombres in soiled tank tops and camo pants.
But each time my feet hit the sidewalk, I am met only by quiet, streaming sunlight. I glance upward to see cloud wisps lacing through broccoli-textured peaks of the Eastern Cordillera, rising from the edges of the the Andes Mountains, just beyond Bogotá.
Such are the extremes here. Colombia’s headline-making history vs. the startling beauty of its landscape, and the warm smiles of the overwhelming majority of its people.
The Character of Candelaria
The tension in my muscles evaporates away into the high mountain air, and I meander downward along Calle 12B through the vibrant Candelaria District toward the city center.
The houses in Candelaria, some of which are 300 years old, are painted in jewel tones that have grown somewhat dingy with a combination of time and layers of exhaust stirred up by the beat-up cars that barrel through these narrow streets.
Still, they strike me as noble, like aging royalty. Their Colonial details exude charm even as paint flakes and curls away from the wood panels around their windows and doors.
I pass cafes and restaurants attempting to lure in hungry tourists and students from the nearby university with handwritten chalk signs touting fresh empanadas, arroz con pollo, chorizo, and Bogotá’s specialty: Ajiaco soup, a shockingly flavorful dish of chicken, potato and corn served with a plate of rice, avocado and capers.
(I will try this for the first time later in the day and it will convert me to a Ajiaco fanatic — as it does with most skeptical gringos.)
Downtown is a highway of foot traffic and a more functional, less charming shopping zone. I head to the Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, to join a free city walking tour.
I find the group gathered together in front of the stark white, ultra modern museum and shake hands with the tour leader, a 30-something native Colombian with a sociology degree who introduces himself as Jeff. A few minutes later, we set off into the streets of Bogotá and Jeff launches into this very old city’s ‘golden’ origins.
City of Gold
Around 500 years ago, a rumor began to swirl across Europe; whisperings of a golden city located somewhere in the New World. It was said to perch deep and high within the mountains of what is now the area around Bogotá.
Mesmerized by the brightness of the gold shimmering in their minds’ eyes, wave after wave of explorers from Spain arrived over the next several hundred years determined to discover this storied glowing city.
They dubbed the elusive land El Dorado, meaning “the gilded one.”
The legend of El Dorado remains a legend, therefore it goes without saying that no such treasure was ever uncovered. However, enough gold was discovered in and around Bogotá that it eventually evolved into the economic and cultural power, and capital city through which I was currently strolling.
But to say that it all happened with an inevitable battle or two would be an astounding understatement. Significant amounts of blood have been spilled on Colombian soil.
A History of Violence
At a spacious intersection, I notice a lone bicycle hooked up to a homemade trailer, inside of which a small, cute dog waits patiently. The owner is MIA. Across the street, multitudes of people, mostly men, stand around seemingly without purpose.
Jeff nods toward them and asks if anyone knows why they’re there — and no, they’re not on lunch break. Blank faces. They’ve got emeralds in their pockets. If you pass near them, they’ll whisper to you:
“¿Quieres comprar una esmeralda?”
The stones have been illegally mined. Bad business, Jeff advises ominously, seeming to imply there might be blood on those hands which hold the hidden gems.
Jeff points out old tram tracks that dead end oddly, close to one corner of the intersection. They’ve been abandoned and left to corrode for almost 70 years. The tram that once occupied these tracks was burned to nothing on April 9, 1948 — the day that popular Liberal party President Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala was assassinated at this very spot. The event (quite literally) ignited a riot, El Bogotazo, which burned and destroyed the downtown.
It also spurred a 10-year civil war, a period known as La Violencia, which flared across the country, pitting family against family. By the time a semblance of order was restored in 1958, La Violencia was blamed for the deaths of some 200,000 Colombians.
Even today, Jeff tells us, there are deep rifts between neighbors that cannot be forgotten.
In Plaza de Bolivar, an aged homeless man dressed in a disheveled brown sport coat and stained, threadbare slacks approaches our group. Shuffling through flapping pigeons milling about the steps of the Catedral Primada de Colombia, he stretches a ragged, dirt-embedded hand, imploring.
“¿Necesito dinero…por favor…dame tu cambio?”
Jeff reaches into his pocket to scrounge for change. “Sí. Aqui, señor.”
“Gracias! Gracias, señor.”
Jeff watches him trudge slowly away, and speculates that he very well might be old enough to have experienced La Violencia personally.
Then, almost as an afterthought, our guide points across the plaza at the Palace of Justice building and explains how in 1985, a guerrilla siege took place there. Twenty-five supreme court justices were murdered, and 6,000 court documents were destroyed — including paper evidence that would incriminate cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. At that point, Escobar was one of the 10 richest men in the world, and may or may not have financed the siege (though signs point to ‘guilty’).
The day after Escobar’s 44th birthday in 1993, after escaping from the prison/castle (in the city of Medellin) that he designed himself, known as La Catedral, Escobar was finally hunted down by the government and killed.
Almost from that day forward, things began to slowly and steadily improve in Colombia.
Monserrate de Magnífico
The cobbled walkway of narrow Chorro de Quevedo has silently witnessed Bogotá’s colorful, and sometimes vicious timeline, having existed ever since the middle of the 1500s.
The point where Chorro de Quevedo begins offers a grand view of a white 17th century church positioned atop Monserrate, a mountain that interrupts the flatness of the city and climbs almost into the clouds.
The day after the city walking tour, I take a cable car 3,000 feet to the pinnacle of Monserrate. At the top, I hike a short incline toward the pale church. From the side of the path I’m able to see almost the entirety of the massive 210 square mile metropolis.
Inside the church, a service is underway, and I linger near the door for a few minutes to watch. Past the church, or more accurately, behind it, is a corridor of food stalls and craft shops selling woven sweaters and novelties like whiskey glasses displayed inside severed calf’s feet. I pay 2,000 pesos (about 65 cents USD) for a steaming cup of cocoa leaf tea to try. It’s sweet and pungent; good, but too hot and it burns my mouth.
I decide to grab lunch at Restaurante Casa Santa Clara, a white colonial gazebo-shaped structure built into the steep Western-facing side of the mountain. Club Colombia beer in hand, I dig into arroz con pollo and gaze out from my prime spot near a corner window.
From this view, high above the city, the graffiti, poverty and reminders of bad news and unrest over the centuries fade into a landscape of tiny boxes, like a vast treasure chest. It stretches in every direction across the valley to the open arms of the Andes.
Here, the ghosts of the past dissipate and Bogotá radiates with a faint golden tinge from the late afternoon sunlight.
It’s El Dorado, I think, grinning to myself. It was here the whole time.
Later, I take a taxi back to the Candelaria District and am returned safely to my hostel.
Now, without any fear, I step away from Calle 12B and stride past the warning sign by the door without so much as a glance. My mind is occupied only with residual images of the fierce beauty I have just witnessed in warm, welcoming, shining Colombia.
Next up: Incredible Ecuador and the wild Galapagos Islands!