With a Special Homage to Fat Art
13.05.2013 - 21.05.2013 73 °F
Old and New
In Bogota, I straddled two worlds. I stayed in a modern suburban neighborhood just blocks away from a popular social hub with many restaurants, bakeries, and tiny hole-in–the-walls to choose from. Just a short walk away was a Transmilenio station for taking the bus rapid transit system. It would whisk me to the old colonial area of La Candelaria in minutes. Local advice is to avoid taking the taxis on the street anywhere in the city and that's probably good advice to follow. Locals that must take taxis call for service and then use their phones to make sure someone knows the details for security. I found that walking and the Transmilenio suited all my needs.
Is It Safe?
The city of Bogota has a reputation for having safety concerns though much of it may also be from the country’s long-time reputation for drug wars and kidnappings. The situation in Colombia has changed, but unfortunately, bad reputations can linger indefinitely. All the locals referred to La Candelaria as an undesirable place and suggested I not go there. Guide books give a nod to the historical sites, but seem to suggest getting in and out quickly to avoid safety concerns. Either the information was out-of-date or exaggerated—or perhaps, both. I guess everyone has to decide for themselves. All large cities require vigilancee, but having lived in Mexico City (in the notorious barrio of Tepito), I'm not too intimidated by old city centers that are supposed breeding grounds for thieves and pickpockets. In fact, I usually have a strange sense of being right at home-- just like in Quito, Ecuador (pre-Unesco cleanup) or Lima, Peru.
However, as a tourist, I also don't walk around with valuables (money, phone, etc.) in my pockets and I don't usually carry a pack on my back (I have a small sturdy side bag with a strap across my chest for day trips) and never- shudder- purse. I like to keep my hands free wherever I am. My money is tucked away in a safe spot. I put my emergency money in one spot and a few small bills in another (tip: a bra is handy for women). My travel pants have only one pocket; it's zippered and on the side near my knee. It's a good spot for the small bills and some change. But my advice is don't be paranoid; just be practical. Don’t miss out on culturally and historically rich city centers because someone else finds them dirty or dangerous. If in doubt or intimidated, you can take a group tour or hire a guide.
Bogota's old city center had cobbled streets, museums and beautiful old architecture. There were a variety of street performers and vendors creating a fun festive atmosphere. The food offerings were fabulous and the sweets addicting. I enjoyed randomly strolling around and every few minutes I would conveniently pass by something that would be listed in a guide book (if I'd had one for reference) and I could decide if I wanted to go in or not.
Simon and Manuelita
A house that belonged to the mistress of Simon Bolivar was definitely one I didn't want to pass up. The traditionally built house was interesting in itself, but Manuela Saenz embodied the quote (claimed by several people), “Well-behaved women seldom make history”. She was the first woman to wear pants and to ride astraddle a horse (rather than sidesaddle), she joined Bolivar in the field of battle and she is thought to have saved his life during an assassination attempt which earned her the title Liberatriz of the Liberator. The Casita de Manuela Saenz is now the Museo de Trajes Regionales de Colombia and has a nice collection of traditional regional clothing though one room is dedicated to Manuela's clothing and personal effects. Her casita was near the government buildings-- convenient for some quick, er, political advice if Bolivar needed it.
Manuela lived much longer than Bolivar and sadly, in her later years, she was scorned and exiled by Colombia, rejected by her own country Ecuador and died destitute in Peru where she was buried in a mass grave. In 2010, a handful of soil from the grave was transported through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia to Venezuela where her representative remains were placed alongside her lover.
Further away from the center was Simon Bolivar's quinta or hacienda. It was a lovely example of the time and fully furnished. The archaic kitchen was especially interesting with its unusual cooking equipment and the surrounding gardens with an amazing variety of plantings were well-labeled. Simon was actually born in Venezuela, but he is now viewed as the liberator (from Spanish control) by many countries including Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and even Panama. He died in Santa Marta, Colombia at the young age of 47.
Gold Museum and Surroundings
I spent a large portion of a day at the Gold Museum which was tiring, but well worth it. It had incredible pre-Colombian gold art which makes one wonder about all the gold art that was lost when it was greedily melted down by the Spanish. Even though the signage was well done, I rented one of the headphone sets for a deeper insight on what I was seeing. After leaving the muted darkness of the quiet museum, the park and plazas outside were refreshing. I had a snack and watched the entertainers. Lively drummers with a dance exhibit drew quite a crowd.
Cerro de Monserrate
A funicular and cable car transported me up a nearby mountain delivering me to the Cerro de Monserrate. The Shrine of the Fallen Lord of Monserrate dedicated to the Black Virgin and a monastery was completed in 1657. Two nice restaurants were perched on the side of the hill. One is a pretty traditional colonial manor. The other one is a lovely house built in Usaquen town in 1924 and then transported to Monserrate Mount in 1979. From every location and vantage point there were fantastic views of the surrounding mountains and forests. Timing my visit for sunset, I watched the city fade away into a sea of lights with one high-rise building providing a modern art light show with constantly changing patterns and colors.
Zipaquira Day Trip
One day, I took a bus to the small town of Zipaquira to see the Catedral de Sal an underground Roman Catholic Church created in the salt mines and to learn the history of the salt mines. I recommend not wasting time on the some of the extraneous tourist stuff that has proliferated around it. Instead, spend some time walking around the small town and exploring its nooks and crannies. A small archeological museum became a bit tedious even though my first university degree is in Anthropology and I have worked as an archeologist. However, for the dedicated and patient, the explanations were informative and interesting. A wander around town yielded some decent local food specialties and friendly people.
Bicyclists of Bogota
Bogota being such a large city (in North America only Mexico City and New York are larger), something that I found surprising was its commitment to bicyclists. Bicycle trails abound and on Sundays and holidays, many major and secondary roads are closed to traffic for bicyclists. On these days, you'll see people sitting on lawn chairs watching not just bicyclists, but walkers, runners, skaters and other health enthusiasts go by. The parade-like atmosphere is made festive by vendors selling juices and snacks, bike repair stations, and even yoga and fitness classes along the sidelines. There are bicycle rentals if you want to join in and meet some locals.
Food and Fat Art on My Last Day
On my last day in Bogata, I felt like I had seen most of the 'sites' and eaten my way through many local specialties-- the best of which was a whole pig stuffed with rice and roasted on a spit over a fire. Called lechon, the whole pig is usually on display in front of the restaurant. There is no menu because they only serve one thing; big chunks of roast pork on a pile of the rice cooked in the fat and juices with wonderful bits of the crispy skin dropped on top. Wow!
Anyway, on my last day, I decided to head back to the old center for more rambling and to check out the Museo Botero to see his art and his personal art collection (with such illustrious artists as Dali, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, etc.). Fernanado Botero is Colombia's most famous artist and sculptor...and his art is FAT. Yes, it's FAT art though lofty artists prefer to call it "large, exaggerated volume evoking political criticism or humor". Botero calls it FAT. The people, politicians, fruit, even a family dog are FAT. Botero is bold and he is not afraid to portray religious representations; a Mother Superior, the Madonna, Christ on his cross-- all fat. In this age of diets and fitness, it may no longer seem politically correct, but I have to say-- most of it is very cheery and made me smile. I especially loved how the fat, er, zaftig women were so confident and, well...sexy as they rose out of their baths splendidly naked or danced the night away in the arms of a suave, attractive and similarly fat man. Here's an homage to Fat Art.
By the way, in 2016, Seattle, Washington actually got its own Botero. It’s a naked FAT man. It is a 12.5 foot brass sculpture-- the Adam half of an “Adam and Eve” sculpture—located downtown at the corner of Second Avenue and Madison. Apparently, there was some fuss over his “dingus” (the word actually used by one local newspaper)…but well, he is a naked fat man. I noticed his dingus is not in proportion, but instead of lending a sense of modesty or dignity, I felt it drew the eye even more to his…well…dingus. Some viewers avoid their eyes and others touch it for…luck? A similar Adam by Botero in New York has parts of its brass surface polished to gold where viewers just can’t keep their hands off. I fear it will be the same in Seattle. The location of the Eve half hasn’t been determined yet. Kind of sad they have been split up, she might have provided him protection from fondlers or at least some sympathy.