Stuck for somewhere to stay the night in Bogota? Pack some spray paint, choose a wall and unleash your inner Banksy. One of the first things we learnt on our Bogota walking tour was that graffiti has been legalised almost everywhere across the city, with one exception. Using a monument as your canvas is a quick way to land yourself with a 12 hour “rest” in jail.
So why are we in Bogota weighing up the idea of a free night in a Colombian jail? Many months ago we’d booked a cheap flight from Panama City to Quito. In a bizarre 3-for-1 deal, this turned out to involve day-long stopovers in Bogota and San Salvador, and our own overnight “rest” in Bogota airport. In the end we risked the constant tannoy and freezing aircon of Departures rather than jail, but back to the walking tour…
With all afternoon and evening to spend in the city, our first plan had been to book a city tour with Bogota Bike Tours to cover as much ground as possible. We arrived to find out that a free walking tour was about to leave, so saved ourselves $35 and headed out with the guide, Jhovanny.
We began in the Candeleria, Bogota’s old town. The oldest street, Callejon del Embudo, a narrow cobblestone lane lined with low buildings covered in huge murals, led us down to a fruit market. Among the strawberries, bananas, melons and cape gooseberries, we discovered a new favourite; feijoa. They look like small, elongated limes, and taste like a mix of passion fruit and sweets.
By the time we’d passed the emerald trading centres and the gold museum, we were starting to feel the effects of being 2,600m above sea level. Luckily, the next stop was a market where we found some coca tea. Chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea can reduce the headaches and tiredness caused by altitude sickness. Coca tea and leaves are legal in Colombia, then again so are small amounts of cocaine and cannabis which would no doubt also do a good job of distracting you from the altitude. The government recently legalised personal use of these drugs to try and combat the power held by the narco gangs. Stood in Plaza de Bolivar, surrounded by the Mayor’s office, the Congress building, the Palace of Justice and the cathedral, we could see the paint splatters across the grand stone facades from previous protests and strikes.
We happened to be in the city just 2 days after the Colombian president signed a truce with the leaders of Las Farc, the largest guerrilla organisation in Colombia (and the whole continent), and 3 weeks after a raid on the largest gang-run ghetto in Bogota, known as the Bronx. This had to be conducted solely by police from outside of the city to circumnavigate the corruption and tip-offs from within the city’s forces. Jhovanny was particularly passionate when discussing these topics, and the discussions he encouraged within our group were an interesting tour highlight.
The coca tea having successfully banished our headaches, we decided on Cerro de Monserrate after the tour finished – another 600m up. The church at the top of this 3200m ‘hill’ looks out over the huge sprawl of Bogota and the surrounding hills. It can be reached by funicular railway if you visit in the morning, by teleferico (cable car) if you arrive in the afternoon, or by 1,500 steps if you’re downright crazy.
Back in the city centre, we headed towards La Candeleria via a chocolate shop to try some of the locally grown cacao nibs and a couple of free samples. The shop assistant didn’t have to work too hard to get us to part with a few pesos for some hand made chocolates. We also poked our head through one of the emerald trading centres, where expert eyes can grab a gemstone bargain (and where tourists can get fleeced on what’s left).
Where coca leaves help with the effects of altitude, alcohol makes it worse. But try telling that to the students and stoners at the Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo. We sat in the sqaure with a local beer and some delicious arepas (corn flour pouch served with chorizo) and watched as the oldest square in town, sitting at the top of the Callejon del Embudo, slowly filled up with a mix of post-work crowd, pre-party pump-up crowd, and musicians taking to the street with their guitars, drums, and even cellos.
Our final stop before taking the taxi back to the airport was obviously food related. We’d been recommended the local delicacy of ajiaco – Andean chicken and potato soup served with capers, avocado, sour cream and a local herb guasca. At La Puerta Falsa – with its claim to being the oldest restaurant in Bogota – Timian went with this delicious and warming dish. Rebecca, though, changed her mind as soon as she found out that it’s completely legitimate to eat chocolate as a main course in Colombia – another local delicacy is Chocolate Santafereno – hot chocolate served with a hunk of fresh bread and a chunk of local cheese.