Don’t believe everything you hear about Bogota. Because of my crummy, free ticket routing I had twelve hours to kill in Colombia and decided my time would be better spent seeing the city than hanging out at airport cafes and bars. I contacted a fellow LBS student, Jorge, who lived there and we planned to meet up. He was going to pick me up from the airport, show me around, have a beer or two together, then drop me back off. I figured you couldn’t ask for a better way to see one of the world’s most notorious cities. I got an email from Jorge the day before I was supposed to come, he had been sent to Medellin last minute to wrap up a project there. I decided I wasn’t going to let it spoil my fun so I bought a Rough Guide of Colombia in a bookstore in Athens. As I thumbed through the pages it almost convinced me to stay in my secure, metal detected airport. It had recommendations on what neighborhoods to stay out of to keep from getting mugged, tips on how not to get kidnapped by taxi drivers, and warnings of murders and other felonies. I put the book back in my bag after I read that in any given weekend there are more people murdered in Medellin or Cali than during the entire year in Sweden.
I took a taxi to the main square with one hand on the door handle and the other clinched and ready for action. I never really felt unsafe in Bogota, but at the same time I never really felt comfortable. I continually had my hand on my wallet and looked over my shoulders. Even though it wasn’t too sunny, I kept my sunglasses on so people couldn’t tell where I was looking.
La Catedral in Plaza de Bolivar
Looking south to Casa de Narino
One encouraging thing the book had mentioned was that because Colombia got so few tourists, a fair amount of people would really go out of their way if they met one. I got my first taste of this as I was trying to discretely read my map in the Plaza de Bolivar, the city’s main square. Two armed guards approached me and said something in Spanish to me. I didn’t really understand them and asked them to repeat it (in Spanish). They did but I still couldn’t understand. I asked they spoke English. They didn’t but when they realized I was a tourist they started asking me all sorts of question (luckily they spoke slower this time). They asked where I was from, how long I was staying, if I was enjoying it, and if I needed anything. I answered all their questions and then asked them if there was somewhere nearby to eat. They both said there was a place about two streets over and asked if I wanted them to walk me there. I said I wasn’t hungry now, but would eat there later and thanked them.
After wandering the plaza for a while I decided to go in search of a couple of museums. The Museo Arqueologico was the first stop on the list. It housed mainly pottery and pre-Colombian art. I was the only one in the entire museum and the armed guard with a bullet proof vest who apparently doubled as a proctor decided to give me a person tour. He was speaking very fast and I was only able to pick up one in maybe ten words he said. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful so I nodded, smiled, and tried to look amazed at appropriate times. I think I had him fooled up until the very end. He finally said something I understood. He asked if I had any questions to which I said no and thanked him for his time. He then asked me something which I had no idea what it was. I kind of stood there like an idiot for a minute and tried to play it off. He asked again. I looked at him with a confused, semi embarrassed look on my face thanked him again and headed towards the exit.
Some of the artifacts of Museo Arqueologico
The next stop was the Museo de Arte Colonial. This one was much larger and housed nicer artwork. It was readily reflected in the number of guards around the hotel. I had never seen so much security in one building, let alone a museum. Each room, even it was the size of an average hotel room, had two armed guards with bullet proof vests. Thankfully, some of the exhibits at this one had explanations in English so I didn't need a guide.
Some of the pre-Colombian furniture
Some of the old wooden, religious carvings
The last stop before I reached cultural saturation was the Casa de la Moneda, or the Money Museum. It actually provided an interesting history of the monetary policies and fiscal dealings of Colombia. At one point they allowed private banks to issue their own currency (the US did this too). In both cases, it proved to be a terrible idea and the government stepped in.
One of the machines used to stamp out the old gold coins
After the museums I headed north towards Chorro de Quevedo, a small neighborhood at the foot of the hills. All the houses were painted brightly and I managed to get a little insight into Colombian life. However, the streets were much less crowded there and I was getting some strange looks from people. I decided to head back towards the Plaza after about a half hour of wandering.
The houses around Chorro de Quevedo
Their version of Rainbow Row
The local transport
The other type of local transport (city buses)
En route I spotted an interesting looking church. I never found out what the name of it was because it wasn’t on my Rough Guide map and there were no plaques out front to identify it (for future reference, I’d steer clear of Rough Guide books, it wasn’t much help getting around and the map looked like something I drew on the back of my hand). I also managed to catch a glimpse of the Iglesia de San Agustin, a recently restored colonial era church, and the Casa de Nariño, the Presidential palace. If you thought the museum security was overkill, you should have seen this place. There were more guards than residents. I was carrying a backpack and got stopped every twenty meters or so.
My mystery church
Iglesia de San Agustin
Looking north at the Casa de Narino from the courtyard
Another view of the courtyard
After a lap around the complex, I found myself back at the Plaza. Things had changed significantly in the couple hours I’d been gone. There were at least a hundred guards dressed in military camouflage and another fifty in ceremonial dress uniforms. I had noticed the flags were at half mast earlier but didn’t think too much of it. When the band started playing, reporters starting giving newscasts next to me, and the flowers came out, I managed to put it all together. I had stumbled upon former President’s Alfonso Lopez Michelsen’s funeral. I stuck around for a little while and watched the procession.
Preparing for arrival
Pretty spiffy band
I somehow managed to secure a front row seat
During the ceremony I noticed a lot of people eyeing me. I figured they were trying to discern why a young white guy was at the former Colombian President’s funeral on a random Thursday. There were two people in particular that I noticed kept looking at me. As I walked in the direction of the restaurants the guards had pointed out earlier, I saw the two of them walking nearby.
They smiled and said “Hola”. I returned the greeting in Spanish. When they found out that I spoke some Spanish (they didn’t speak a word of English) they started bombarding me with the same questions the guards had earlier. I again asked where I could get a good, local meal. They thought about it for a minute then decided to take me to a place around the corner that served chorizo, sausages made of cow, sheep, goat, or whatever other type of meat was available that day. To my surprise, they ordered one for me and one for each of them and sat down to join me.
We talked for a while about families, work, and Colombia. I found that Judith, in her fifties but declined to reveal her exact age, worked in textiles and had lived in New Jersey for a while. Alex was closer to my age at 28 and loved to talk at warp speed, laugh out loud, and pat me on the back. After about a half hour Alex hoped up and paid the ticket. I tried to offer him some pesos for mine but he wouldn’t have it.
He asked if I would like to go get a couple beers before my flight. I was a little skeptical of this but took a minute and assessed the situation. I was bigger than Alex and Judith posed no physical threat unless she managed to get a roofie into my drink. I felt a little more comfortable when I saw the bar. It was well lit and would provide an easy escape if necessary. We headed up to a table and sat down. Alex ordered a round of beers and we traded more stories.
Alex and Judith during round one
I noticed some guys playing a bar game nearby I’d never seen before. Alex explained how the game worked. Basically you threw the small metal discs (size of a quarter but three times a thick) at a box with holes in it. In the middle of the box they had these three little whales. Each one was bigger than the one in front of it. The object was to throw the rings from about the distance of a dart board into the whale’s mouth. We opted to drink more cervezas in lieu of playing.
Apparently you get a lot of points for making it in the hole
Alex drank like a fish and I tried to keep up. We ended up having five beers in an hour and a half. I mentioned I had to get going to get my flight and Alex popped out of his chair again. He flagged the waitress down and paid for all fifteen beers. I tried to give him money but he insisted I was a guest of Colombia and wouldn’t take it. Both Alex and Judith gave me their email addresses and said that I had to come back and spend more time in Colombia. They said when I did, I had to stay with one of them.
Judith and I on the balcony
My new South American drinking buddy
The three of us headed out to the street and Alex flagged a taxi down for me. They negotiated and got me the best price to the airport. As I left, Alex gave me a firm handshake and a hug while Judith kissed me on the check and wished me luck. Content with my Colombian experience, I fell into the taxi and headed to the airport to catch my flight to Peru.