Less Crime, More Cyclists & Musicians – The not so mean streets of Bogota!
What is Bogota like now?
Much of Bogota’s story is dark and disturbing but it is one that is ever evolving and there is now a significant ray of light at the end of a long dreary tunnel. For so long this was a city dominated by conflict, crime, cocaine and cartels. Those factors haven’t completely gone away but nowadays words like culture, commerce and change seem more fitting.
Bogota is home to over 10 million people, a figure that is growing fast making it one of the biggest on the planet. The rate of change is exciting and come back in ten years time and this could be an almost unrecognisable city. However If you’d been here ten years ago, you would have had genuine reason to fear for your safety.
The Colombian capital is still at something of a crossroads with impoverished slums on the slopes of the surrounding mountains overlooking thriving businesses and the modern high-rise skyscrapers in which they reside. Inequality is a fact of life here as it is in much of this continent yet for the first time in decades there is genuine optimism for the future.
Friday Night Fiesta
That optimism is most visible on Friday nights when Bogota’s populous head down into the centre to celebrate the end of the week. Despite its developing international financial districts this is still very much a Latin American city and they like nothing more than a good fiesta.
The major avenue that dissects the city (Avenida Septima) is closed to traffic every Friday night and quickly fills up with people as far as the eye can see as street performers, musicians and street stalls take over the city’s most famous street. As midnight approaches it is overflowing with increasingly drunk Colombians, many of whom then move onto the bars and discos around town. If you’re visiting Bogota, try and be in town for a Friday as these parties are great fun and extra special during holiday periods.
One of the best ways to see the city is via the Ciclovia which takes place every Sunday. All morning and up until about 2pm many of the main avenues are closed to traffic allowing cyclists and rollerbladers to whizz around this vast metropolis without the risk of being wiped out by an impatient motorist. It can be tiring work especially in the uphill sections thanks to the altitude but there are refreshment stands all along the routes which are clearly marked. There are a few places in the traveller districts where you can rent out a bike fairly cheaply and it’s a good way of getting around and seeing Bogota.
Cartels, Cocaine, Kidnappings & Civil War
It’s fair to say Colombia has something of a chequered past and a visit to Bogota will help you understand the turmoil this country was in. Drug Cartels for decades fought what basically amounted to all-out war with the country’s police force and if they avoided capture or death, the heads of these shady organisations became hugely rich and powerful. Add to this the independence struggle of the FARC rebels who just over a decade ago were in a seriously strong position and threatening to move into Bogota itself.
In the first decade of the 21st Century the government attempted a major crack-down on these issues and after some serious bloodshed they seem to have seized control of the country back from the rebels and the cartels. Cocaine production has been hugely cut and FARC have generally opted to put down their weapons and become more engaged in mainstream politics. Visiting now you will be welcomed with open arms by people in a country that is trying almost too hard to change it’s international reputation.
Bogota’s National Police Museum (pictured above) is fantastic for those looking to delve into the countries recent troubles. One room houses a giant array of weapons seized during police raids on the Cartels over the past few decades. Another is dedicated in graphic detail to the hunt and eventual capture of the infamous druglord Pablo Escobar. You will be guided around by a serving police officer who will doubtlessly have a story or two to tell, especially if they were in the force during the violent 1990’s.
Modern Bogota: City of Culture
The city is arguably the best in South America when it comes to museums and they come in all shapes and sizes. Better still from the budget traveller perspective, most are totally free (or at least on certain days) and often include excellent guided tours. The most famous is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) which includes an enormous collection of gold and various different artifacts from bygone eras on this continent.
Art might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Colombia but there’s also multiple surprisingly impressive galleries in town with work from top local and international painters.
Amidst all the chaos some surprisingly happening districts have developed and are now flourishing with lively arts and music scene. Much of this is based in around the old-town district of La Candelaria which is also where the majority of the hostels are located. The streets here are full young Colombian punks. Wander around after dark and venture into one of the many underground bars for a taste of the alternative side to this city.
Check out the rest of this fabulous country in our Backpacker’s Guide to Colombia
This article was published in August 2013.