LUISA, GUILLERMO, AND THE PUSSYCATS
We arrived at our Airbnb in Bogotá, Colombia and Guillermo and Luisa were waiting at the door of their apartment building to greet us and help us carry our bags up five flights of stairs. Yes, our Airbnb is on the 5th floor, not including the ground floor. Nope, there are no elevators here. It seems that we will be strengthening our legs for the 30 days that we are staying in this lovely little apartment in the Chapinero neighborhood of Bogotá.
After the long walk up the many flights of stairs, we sat down with Luisa and Guillermo, and of course the kitty cats. They brought out a map of the city and gave us a quick lesson in the general navigation of our new area and Bogotá in general, showing us where we could go safely and other areas that we should avoid. They informed us that we should not venture south of Calle 6 in the neighborhood known as La Candelaria. We quickly learned that Guillermo would be a wealth of invaluable information about the city and Colombian history. Luisa also served us some tortilla chips with an amazing homemade hummus. Later on we learned, to our astonishment, that hummus is actually quite difficult to come by in Bogotá; we were very lucky to have such a delicious treat upon our arrival at our new home.
A few days after our arrival, the pollution caught up with Joe. We ended up having to venture out to a drug store to find some cough syrup (this was one of the few items that was not included in our massive repertoire of pharmaceuticals that we brought with us from home). This was especially difficult because of the need for the cough syrup to be safe to take with Joe’s current medications. We ended up at a pharmacy called “La Rebaja” and the pharmacist was extremely friendly and knowledgeable. The only downside was that the natural cough syrup that we needed to buy cost us close to 30,000 Colombian pesos, or around $10 USD. It took a few days but soon enough Joe was back on his feet.
OUR WALK WITH GUILLERMO
A few days after Joe’s recovery, Guillermo decided to take us for a long walk to the downtown and historic areas of Bogotá. We walked all the way from our apartment in the Chapinero neighborhood, meandering in serpentine manner throughout the city, ending in the historic La Candelaria neighborhood. During our walk, we passed through many parks, neighborhoods, cemeteries, churches, and even a few small museums.
We first wandered through the neighborhood of Teusaquillo, with its many parks, old buildings, and even a few rivers that originated in the high mountains to the east of Bogotá. Many of the homes that we saw had very interesting architecture and some even dated backed to the colonial period. Almost all of these houses had Spanish influence and even retained the tradition of a niche high above the front door where a statue of the Virgin was to be displayed as a way to bless the home. Although there were many different styles of architecture, one of the more notable ones was of the colonial Dutch style, with steep peaked roofs and many chimneys.
We continued our walk and came upon the oldest cemetery in Bogotá. Guillermo explained to us that there are three distinct sections to the cemetery. The first section was not open to visitors as it is the burial place of foreign soldiers that were integral in helping Simón Bolivar gain Colombia’s freedom from Spain.
The next section of the cemetery consisted of a small museum outlining key moments in Colombia’s violent and tumultuous history. The museum was called “Centro de Memoria, Paz y Reconciliación” (Center of Memory, Peace and Reconciliation). Guillermo introduced us to notable figures and groups involved, such as Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, whose brutal assassination lead to a horrible period known as “La Violencia”. In the days after his murder, riots broke out throughout the city. These uprisings were known as the “Bogotazo”, a series of riots that lasted approximately ten hours. The few people that we have talked to about this time in Bogotá’s history described it as the entire city being burned to the ground. Estimates indicate that thousands of people perished and several hundred buildings in downtown Bogotá were damaged in the fires.
We also learned the true origins of the infamous Colombian guerilla groups, such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas), the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), and the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de abril). Each of these groups was organized by ordinary men and women who had been lost in the political turmoil that had plagued Colombia for many years. Many just wanted their needs acknowledged and to have a voice in the political arena. For many years these groups were forced to live and operate in the outlying regions to the east and south of Bogotá. In the U.S. we were told that these were violent people concerned with nothing more than the sowing of violence and the trafficking of drugs. In reality, the principle concerns of the majority of these people were access to food and basic rights. Drugs were a means to finance their operations, as any successful military operation requires financial backing.
The final section of the cemetery consisted of the mausoleums of Bogotá’s most influential and wealthy families. In this area of the cemetery lay many of Colombia’s former presidents, military officers, and literary figures. Guillermo told us that even his grandfather was interned somewhere in the cemetery, but we were unable to find his resting place.
Next we went to the international trade area, known as “Centro de Comercio Internacional”, located in the downtown financial district of Bogotá. In this zone of the city, Guillermo brought us to one of the most popular chains of Colombian restaurants, “Crepes & Waffles”. Guillermo explained that the restaurant was created as a college thesis project, which didn’t get a very good grade but produced an incredibly successful business. The purpose of the project was to employ only single mothers as Bogotá has one of the highest percentages of single mothers in the world. To this day, with many locations throughout Colombia, Crepes & Waffles still employs an entirely female staff. The food is also delicious! If you ever visit Colombia, you must try the food at this wonderful restaurant chain.
With full bellies, we continued our adventure around Bogotá passing by many of city’s most notable places. Some of these places included the Parque La Independencia (created to commemorate Colombia’s declaration of independence on July 20, 1810), the Museo Nacional (formerly one of Bogotá’s largest prisons), Plaza de Toros de Santamaría (Bogotá’s bullfighting ring which is still in use and houses many other events as well), the Planetario de Bogotá, and the Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia (the national library of Colombia). Guillermo also showed us much of the architecture consisting of the incredibly intricate and detailed brickwork of one of Colombia’s greatest architects, Rogelio Salmona. His buildings were designed to harmonize manmade structures with nature, incorporate flowing water throughout, and combining every need of its inhabitants within one structure.
Next we headed to one of the principal streets of Bogotá, known as “La Séptima”, where in the historic center it is open for pedestrian traffic only and leads to some of the most notable sights in the city. Here we saw many examples of colonial architecture, street performers, artists, ancient Catholic churches, and a wide variety of merchants peddling everything including traditional food and drinks, kitschy tourist trinkets, and unique handcrafted works of art. We even visited the memorial site where Jorge Gaitán was assassinated.
At last, we arrived at our final destination of the tour, the very well-known Plaza de Bolivar (Bogotá’s main square), home to the Palacio de Justicia (to the north), the Capitolio Nacional (to the south), the Catedral Primada de Colombia, the Casa del Cabildo Eclesiástico, the Capilla del Sagrario and the Palacio Arzobispal (to the east), the Palacio Liévano (the seat of Bogotá’s mayor to the west), and the Colegio Mayor de San Bartolomé of the Jesuits (to the southeast). This plaza is always lively, full of people, and often times it is the final destination of protests and political marches.
To wrap up the evening, Guillermo shared a traditional Colombian drink with us called Agua de Panela. This drink is basically molasses diluted in hot water, often served with a slab of farm-fresh cheese, a piece of fresh buttered bread, and a traditional roll called almojábana. Some people like to put a small piece of the cheese into the hot beverage in order to cool it down, while at the same time softening the cheese. We both tried this method but felt that the soaked cheese tasted a bit weird. All in all, the beverage was quite delightful.
After all was said and done we were exhausted and ready to go home. To accelerate the trip back to the apartment, Guillermo treated us to our first ride on a Transmilenio bus. It was Sally’s first ride ever on a city bus in any city of the world. It only took a few more bumpy rides on the Transmilenio before Sally was an enthusiastic fan.
Guillermo has lived in Bogotá all of his life and we were extremely thankful that he was willing to dedicate his time to educate us about his beloved city. His wealth of information, dialogue, and companionship has created in us a great love and new understand for the city and its people. We will be forever grateful.
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