Bogotá is crazy. That is really the best word I can think of to describe it. It is absolute madness. A walk down one of the city’s main streets triggers a complete sensory overload. Noise, movement, and smell swirl in a chaotic jumble, each vying for the undivided attention of your ears, eyes, or nose.
Grinding construction machinery drills into concrete and grates against bricks. Diesel engines thunder by to a cacophony of constant honking. Blaring speakers in front of every few establishments reverberate music, different instruments and voices blending so it’s impossible to focus on just one song.
Trucks, taxis, buses, and scooters whiz by, paying no heed to pedestrians. Homeless people stumble erratically on the sidewalks. Marketers thrust business cards in the face of every passerby. Fearless pigeons gather in droves, blindly flying or begging for food. Masses of people, people everywhere, flow off the sidewalks, line up out of fast food joints, throng in plazas, loiter at street corners.
Every breath of air permeates with the stench of exhaust, a gag of cigarette smoke, or a waft of street food.
Normally, I am very comfortable in cities. In fact, I usually revel in the din and commotion. I love to aimlessly wander down city streets, absorbing the vitality that is unique to each city.
Bogotá is the first city I’ve ever visited where the hubbub overwhelmed me rather than gave me energy. Maybe it was its past reputation of being one of the most dangerous metropolises in the world. Maybe I didn’t arrive with an open mind. Maybe I didn’t visit the right parts of the city. Or maybe Bogotá really is that crazy.
The city does have some appeal. For one thing, you can stay in a nice and new hotel for what would be hostel prices in other destinations. It was glorious to stay in a room with a flat screen TV, a minibar, and shampoo that got restocked every day. My hotel was in a more residential part of the city called Teusaquillo, its tree-lined streets a haven from the mayhem of the rest of the city.
And of course, there’s the coffee.
I love coffee. Naturally, my first venture into the life of Bogotá was to a coffee shop to sip on the Colombian version of one of my favorite drinks.
Don’t get me wrong. I am by no means a coffee connoisseur. I just really, really like to drink it. A lot of it. All kinds. Gas station coffee. Starbucks caramel macchiatos. Italian espresso shots. Even Nescafé. My unsophisticated palate enjoys it all.
Even my unrefined taste buds could tell that my Colombian cappuccino had a distinctive deliciousness, which is obviously why the country is famed for its coffee.
Invigorated with caffeine, I continued on to the Museo del Oro, a museum with thousands of pre-Columbian gold artifacts. Perhaps my brain was overjazzed with java, but I was having a hard time concentrating on the descriptions about each gold piece and the civilization to which it belonged. I was just too mesmerized by the dazzling gold containers, armor, masks, mirrors, jewelry, musical instruments, and more.
I left the museum with little additional knowledge about Colombia’s ancient cultures but a camera full of shining gold pictures.
A few blocks down from the museum on Carrera Séptima, an arterial that crosses through the city’s financial district and historical center, is Plaza de Bolívar, the city’s main plaza named after the Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar, one of the major players in Colombia’s quest for independence from Spain. Enclosing the square are an early 19th century Cathedral, a modern Palace of Justice, the French-Renaissance-style mayor’s house, and the National Capitol building, the meeting place of the country’s Congress.
The hordes of pigeons and people in the plaza were too much for me to handle, so I headed back to the refuge of my hotel.
My next jaunt in Bogotá was to La Candelaria, the historical quarter of the city. With sloping cobblestone streets of colorful colonial buildings housing libraries, universities, museums, theaters, and churches, it is also a tourist hotspot to experience the culture of the city. I was not really in a cultural mood, so I satisfied myself with zigzagging up and down the streets of the hilly neighborhood.
It was Sunday, a day where certain streets all around the city are closed to cars so bikers, runners, and pedestrians can stream off the sidewalks, leaving them open for window shoppers and food carts. As a biased pro-pedestrian, I thought this was a brilliant way to encourage residents to get some exercise while reducing the vehicle population in this normally congested city, at least for one day out of the week.
It was almost enough to earn Bogotá a few points on my mental list of city rankings, if only on Sundays.
Now it’s on to my next destination in Colombia, the Caribbean resort city Cartagena.