By the time we arrived, I wasn’t feeling my most radiant. Things were a little hectic but after what felt like days of turbulent planes, lost luggage fears and soulless airport lobbies, we finally landed at our destination; Bogotá, Colombia. We’d been warned of the potential danger of late night taxis so were grateful to find the driver from our hotel had actually waited for our delayed flight to land. After a painfully broken conversation in very basic Spanish, we were well on our way to the city by 12am.
I was immediately struck by the amount of amazing graffiti everywhere. Not only was a lot of the work on a massive scale, the content was beautiful and politically confronting.
Driving towards the city, the mass of buildings comprising Bogotá’s skyline allowed only a hint of the surrounding mountain range to be visible through the darkness. The landscape that lay beyond was a mystery.
We turned into the smaller streets, working our way to the heart of La Candelaria; Bogotá’s historic neighbourhood, and the true atmosphere of the city at night became apparent. There was a buzz of excitement and celebration combined with a slight ambiance of unease. The sense of our upcoming adventure was in the air.
Arriving at our destination, we witnessed a couple of people, perched on a street-side electrical box, injecting what I can only assume was heroin. The poverty and drug use is visible in this area of the city, something that became more apparent over the following days, but seeing someone work a needle into their thigh a few doors up from our hotel was a little unnerving.
We settled into our super secure and comfortable apartment six floors up from the world below and went to bed as soon as possible. I’d fantasied about this sleep while contorted on an economy plane seat over the Atlantic, but it was interrupted a few hours later by a sequence of short sharp bangs from the street below. With true gringa trepidation I peered out of the window only to see the flashing lights of police through my sleepy haze. If I wasn’t so jetlagged I would have been worried.
We’d been told before arriving in Bogotá that it was a cold city. Not considering that interpretations of ‘cold’ might differ between Colombia and England, we began our first day layered up in jeans, hoodies and a very definite lack of sun lotion. The result was some pretty extreme and embarrassingly patchy sunburn.
Bogotá’s a great city to get lost in. There are lots of different barrios and confusingly busy streets to investigate. One turn in a different direction and you can suddenly find yourself relatively alone, or as happened in our case, in the middle of a small riot. We were browsing a bustling high street in the middle of the day when we realised the bustle directly in front of us, was actually people throwing objects at riot police. Shutters crashed down as people took shelter in the nearest shops and cafes to avoid the melee. We however, were a little slower to react so followed some locals down an adjoining street while the conflict dissipated, almost as quickly as it had appeared.
As we traipsed between landmarks and galleries it became apparent I was suffering from altitude sickness. If there’s one thing I can confirm, it’s that altitude sickness pretty much sucks. For me, it was twenty-four hours of room spinning queasiness and a headache that I just couldn’t beat. After the initial symptoms passed, it actually became kind of funny. We found ourselves massively out of breath from the easiest of physical tasks like walking up a flight of stairs, and started to question whether the Colombian fried foods we’d introduced to our diets had already begun to take their toll.
One thing altitude sickness did give me, was time to look out over Calle 13 while I was confined to my bed.
As night settles in, the atmosphere there changes. Tourists and shoppers are replaced by a more desperate demographic searching for food, clothing and anything to help make their day a little easier. Many people spend their evenings sorting through bins and discarded items on the roadside, while others huddle in shop doorways injecting relief.
Colombia’s had many well-documented political and economic problems in its recent past but Bogota has clearly been invested in, perhaps to make it more appealing to tourists. Sadly these people of the streets seem to have been left behind.
During my time in Bogotá, I had a lot of fun. I got mighty drunk in Teatron; the 13-room “biggest nightclub in Latin America”, saw some amazing artwork all over the city and tried the blandest cheese of my life with a caramel-type liquid called Arequipe in. It was rough.
Like any big city, people can seem a little unapproachable. But in between them, you’ll find a lovely old lady who’ll do anything to provide your perfect meal. Even if that means trying to decipher your appalling attempts at Spanglish and charades because your book of Useful Latin American Translations doesn’t have the right word for ‘avocado’.
On our last morning at the apartment in La Candelaria, the area was once again reincarnated. Llamas trotted down the street, machine-gun brandishing soldiers stood bored but posed at strategic positions along the road, and a man in the apartment across the road opened his floor to ceiling curtains.
Completely butt naked, appendage to the glass, he observed the world below, then turned to whoever was in the room behind him and began the day with a very enthusiastic clothing-free dance.