Bogota, part 1
April 17, 2014 – April 20, 2014
Taking our first night bus from San Gil to Bogota, we arrived bright and early in the morning. Our first impressions of Bogota were a little sour, it was cold, raining, and busy. The bus station a flood of people walking in every direction. Outside hundreds of taxis lined up in the rain to take people away from the bus station. Taking a cab off the street is supposed to be dangerous, so we waited in the long line to get a taxi with everyone else. The bus terminal takes a record of each taxi’s license number as it picks up passengers.
Heading out into the city, we could see that Bogota is a massive expanse of buildings going for miles in every direction except to the east where they crash into the hills like a wave of water, splashing up the side a bit and stopping. A mass of industrial buildings, graffiti and garbage filled streets. It is not the prettiest of cities. Our cab dropped us off at the place we would be staying, a condominium tower at the crest of the wave of buildings that crashed their way up into the hills.
With one of the highest views possible from a residence we were treated to an amazing view of the city below. Even a massive busy metropolis like Bogota looks amazing from far away. Especially at night when the towers are lit up. The sides of one tower, the Colpatria, light up like a television displaying dazzling images all night. Each night in the hills surrounding the city lightning storms rolled up lighting up the sky for hours on the horizon.
When the clouds allowed, one evening we were able to see Tolima Volcano, an active near perfect cone shaped volcano in the mountains west of the city.
Despite being in a city with a population of over 8 million people the downtown area nearby was mostly deserted. We had come on Semana Santa, or Easter Week in English. Semana Santa is a major holiday in Latin America, in Colombia it lasts for four days, from Thursday through Sunday. We were told that many of the people in Bogota had left the city on vacation.
Crowds could still be found however as we walked further south through the city to the foothill of Monserrate, a large mountain overlooking the city. Many streets were closed and crowds of street vendors gathered to sell just about everything you could want along sidewalks or in the closed streets.
Bogota Bike Tour
We heard about a bike tour of the city, and decided it would be a great way to explore the city and get some exercise. We went to Bogota Bike Tours, for a tour on mountain bikes with about 20 others for a four hour tour around the city led by Gringo Mike. The city of Bogota is actually one of the most bike friendly cities in the world. Every Sunday and most holidays they close many of the cities major streets from 7 am to 2 pm, and they become bike or pedestrian only streets, for something called Ciclovia.
This being Thursday or day one of Semana Santa, a holiday, many streets were closed to cars. The bike tour was excellent offering great stories and history of the city and access to many places that people would not think to go or have time to go on foot.
With many of the streets closed to cars it made the tour very easy as we did not have to ride next to cars. Although since it was a holiday and the streets were crowded with street vendors and foot traffic, there were actually hardly any bikes out on the streets. If you are looking to bike Bogota, go on a holiday or a Sunday, non-holiday Sundays typically have more bikers we were told.
The tour went through the downtown financial district, passing many of the museums in the city. We had a private tour of the bull fighting ring downtown. A quick pass through Simon Bolivar Park, Bogota’s version of Central Park, though about five times bigger. A pass by some of the popular political graffiti which covers many buildings, and for which the city is well known. A tour of the red light district and finally ending at a market for a fruit tasting. We tasted a half dozen or so amazing fruits that we had never heard of before, and would later return to get more.
Monserrate – Good Friday on the mountain – or – Pickpockets in the crowds.
Monserrate, as mentioned before is the large mountain looming over the city. At 10,341 feet the white church viewpoint at the top offers great views of the 1000 square mile sprawl of Bogota. The hike to the top 1,700 feet above the city was supposed to take about an hour or less for experienced hikers. Since the hike is known to have thieves and be dangerous on weekdays when no one is around, it was recommended that people making the climb instead of taking the funicular, do so on a weekend when more people are around.
Since it was Friday and very crowded at the base of the mountain, where hundreds gathered to make the Good Friday pilgrimage to the top we decided it was safe to climb the mountain. We were immediately regretting the choice after only making it about 10% of the way up. The crowds were so dense that people were soon pushed together by the hundreds and the pilgrimage to the top ground to a halt. There was no room to go forward or to turn around. We decided to push on and wait out the walk to the top, though we did wonder why so many people would actually choose to spend their holiday smashed together for hours walking up a hill. For part of the walk we moved at no more than a meter a minute, being squished and shoved the whole way. The walk that was supposed to be an hour or less turned into a grueling 3 hour walk. It would have been much longer but thankfully about halfway up the crowds gave way after a bottleneck and we could finish the second half of the ascent at a somewhat normal pace. However at the top the dense crowds returned as people continued to push their way to the top and there was simply nowhere to go. We followed along with the herd of people making their way behind the church to what we hoped was somewhere we could stop to take some pictures of the view. Although it turned out to be heading away from any views into a marketplace set up on an ever narrowing street. The crowds got denser and the pace slower as we all pushed our way towards, from what we could tell, nothing.
It was here that I noticed a group of young people suddenly stop in front of us and hold up their hands as though they did not want us to continue. All through the walk I could feel many hands “brushing” innocently across my pockets. But I was already paranoid about pickpockets and had my hands firmly in my pockets. The people around us pushed into us without looking at us, I couldn’t decide if they were just being very rude or were just trying to get by me. Though they never actually tried to walk around me, they just pushed into me. One of the people, a young girl actually pounded on my chest, as though I had done something rude just by being there. A moment later someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at my arm where some spit that had suddenly appeared. I realized later that they were trying to get me to take my hands out of my pockets, and the guy pointing out the spit had probably put it there. When even the spit did not get my hands out of my pockets about eight of them encircled us and pushed into us from all directions and began to spin us in a move that was not unlike a washing machine. This finally worked as I pulled my hands from my pockets to attempt to push through these odd people rudely spinning us. This is when they reached for my pockets, I caught one with his hands in my right front pocket pulling out my cash. He had almost gotten it free, I could actually see the money halfway out of my pocket. The corner of wad of bills got stuck on the edge of my pocket however and he could not get it out in time. I reached down and grabbed the money and his hand instantly disappeared. I looked over to see three young men staring intently forward at nothing. I couldn’t be sure which one had tried to steal my cash. It was then that I noticed that a piece of paper folded up in my other pocket was missing. After this the crowd of people pushing and squeezing us suddenly dispersed and disappeared into the crowd. Leaving us standing there shocked about what had just happened.
Luckily the piece of folded up paper that was missing was worthless and the cash that they almost gotten was only about COP $22,000 or around US $11.00. And the key to our room on a small key chain was still deep at the bottom of my pocket. In all I lost nothing of any value but gained a valuable lesson to avoid crowds or to at least have nothing at all in my pockets when in crowds. Already worried about pickpockets I was in the habit of not keeping much in my pockets, at least nothing of value, now I try to keep nothing at all. And since hostels and hotels in Colombia give actual metal keys for the rooms (not keycards) I now keep the key which is always on a ring around a belt loop and then tucked inside my pants. Being a gringo with my hands down both bulging pockets made me a target, if I had had nothing in my pockets and my hands out I probably would have just gotten a few “brushings” and they would have moved on after feeling nothing there. Krista standing just behind me did not have anything in her pockets and didn’t know anything had happened until afterward.
Altogether we have felt very safe in Colombia, and it is probably unfair to label Bogota as a bad or unsafe city, at least not any more dangerous than any other large city of this size. This pickpocketing occurred because it was a holiday, and top of the mountain was packed beyond reason. On any other day of the year you would never see that many people there. We just happened to climb a mountain to a popular church on one of the biggest religious holidays of the year. Any other normal weekend there would not be crowds big enough to encourage eight pickpockets to encircle and trap someone.
After being in shock for awhile about what had happened we stayed long enough to take some quick pictures of the city from the top and then headed back down and away from the crowds.
Bogota did have some nice museums and many redeeming qualities, that I will go over in Bogota part 2.