Mauricio Carrasquilla (left) guides us into Plaza Bolivar.
“I suspect this is a good town but I am damned if I know where to grab it.”
–Hunter S. Thompson, in a letter from Bogota, 1962.
A good guide makes all the difference, and it wasn’t until my last day in Colombia’s capital that I understood how lucky I was to have someone who loved the city as much as Mauricio Carrasquilla.
First off, Bogota is massive. The whole place seems impenetrable. The city starts miles outside of its own limits, the traffic funneling in along a road that suddenly turns to a gravelly, bumpy slog, then smooths out again, passing under the sign that reads, “Bienvenidos a Bogotá.” The traffic trickles in, then fans out again, picking up speed along the huge byway that almost seems to slope down into the capital. From the window you make out Monserrate, the giant mountain that dominates the city’s skyline, its sheer cliffs like a wall around God’s summer home.
Get deeper into the city and the smoke gets thick. For years, politicians have promised the city a metro system along the lines of Medellin’s. But for now, the air is frequently choked with the diesel fumes of the busses plying the roads in the city center. It sticks to your lungs more here than it would elsewhere, because you’re 8,600 feet in the air.
Look back at Monserrate at night. There’s a former monastery up there and, nearby, the arms of the Virgin Mary extending out and offering protection to the city. It’s comforting in a way, but it’s hard not to notice how far away she seems.
A view of Bogota from Monserrate.
Bogota has a rough reputation, both outside the country and inside. Throughout Colombia, people warned me away from the capital, though that’s not a surprise. One of the constant themes I’ve found in my travels is the disdain that people outside the capital city hold for the people inside of it. Mexico. Argentina. France. Everyone has an issue with the people at the heart of the action. Colombia is no exception. Go through the country and ask about the Bogotanos. They’ll tell you that the people in Bogota mimic their weather and terrain. Cold. Moody. Above everyone else.
And, they added, watch your bag.
The Bogotanos reject the criticism that they are cold, and rightly so, in my experience. But even though crime is nowhere near where it was during the bloodiest times of the country’s history, all threats, real or exaggerated, are taken deadly serious today. When we sit down to listen to some street musicians, several point at our bags and encourage us to keep them on our person and not to set them on the ground. The manager of the hostel I stay in, a lifelong resident, praises the city, then tells us how and when to exercise caution.
“It’s so much better than it used to be,” he says. “But this is still Colombia.”
Sam Doores jams with local musicians on a street corner.
Yet Mauricio seems to have it clocked. He moves through the streets, his hand perpetually ready to shake that of another associate, friend, fellow painter. An indigenous student who, like many others, was studying law in the capital to help protect his community back home.
The Bogota he takes us through is his canvas. He used to teach abandoned street kids how to paint. A few of them, I’m sure, created some of the luminous works of art that line the walls and doorframes across the city. Everything is framing, and when Mauricio sets Bogota up in front of you and explains the brushstrokes, you listen.
And very quickly, you start to fall for the painting.
Chris Romaguera takes in the street art.
There’s no recipe for a place like this. A megalopolis that remains dominated by its terrain. A billion dollar capital, teeming with business, that still feels connected to the indigenous communities that run countless shops, study in the universities, and recognize the place for what it is: a mountain city that happens to be a capital, and not the other way around.
As the tour moves along, Mauricio hauls us into the Botero Museum, which came into existence when the internationally acclaimed Colombian artist Fernando Botero donated over 200 works of art. 123 of the pieces were his own compositions. The remainder include such well known names as Degas and Monet. But more importantly, the collection includes a wide range of art from across Latin America. Mauricio would frequently bring the kids he was teaching art to into this museum to appreciate the work of the masters, including the masters of their own continent, and their own country.
This was easy to do because, in addition to being one of the most important collections of art in South America, the Botero Museum is free to the public.
Wares on sale in Plaza Bolivar.
Just a five minute walk from the front door of the museum sits Plaza Bolivar, a meeting place for everyone in the city, ringed by the seats of government. By evening, the plaza’s well known pigeons were mostly scattered, and a few days later, access to the plaza was limited by a large protest. But on that evening, it was an easy place for a walk past the Palacio de Justicia, the Congreso Nacional, and the Catedral Primada. It’s the beating heart of the nation’s institutions.
But government officials and big time clergy have to eat, too. And the plaza is ringed by restaurants old and new, including the 200 year-old La Puerta Falsa–one of series of small cafes where you can put down tamales, ajiaco (a Colombian chicken soup said to aid with altitude sickness), and chocolate completo, a cup of hot chocolate with sweet bread and cheese on the side.
I order chocolate completo at one of those cafes and, when it arrives, Mauricio immediately grabs my cheese and crumbles it into the chocolate.
“We have a saying. Chocolate without the cheese is like the kiss without love.”
Chocolate completo. One of the glories of Bogota.
“Take this,” said Mauricio, and wrote down his phone number, Facebook, Whatsapp, email; everything we could need to get a hold of him. The rest of the tour group had split out hours before at the museum. But we were hanging on to get every last bit of the city we could get.
I worked as a tour guide for 10 years, and if I found the right group of people, the same thing would happen. The tour would continue into the evening, into dinner, into a visit to a local watering hole or a music club.
Mauricio did that one better. A couple nights later, we were in his apartment, playing music and telling stories and drinking rum with friends until the night sent us home. You find someone like that, you don’t just find a guide. You find a locksmith who can open up a city’s heart and show it to you like a painting.