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A  cablecar arrives at the top of Monserrate.

Bogotá, Colombia: Progress and Promise


Story and photos by Lymari Morales

As my plane touched down in Bogotá, I had no idea what to expect. I was joining my father on a business trip there, and while I knew he would never allow me to put myself in danger, I had been less than comforted by the concerned looks I received when I told people of my plans to travel there.

Other than my father, I didn’t know anyone who had been inside the ill-reputed country and neither had my most traveled friend. Still, the State Department website said violence there had diminished significantly, and above all else, I was curious.

Unmistakably Urban

The drive from the airport was my first glimpse of the sprawling Andean city of 7 million. Massive pedestrian walkways criss-cross the highways of the unmistakably urban capital.

Taxis fill the streets but those who prefer not to walk generally traverse the city on the TransMilenio, an innovative bus system that operates like a subway, cruising on its own dedicated roadway and efficiently pausing at designated stops where passengers have already paid and wait ready to board.

I realized my preconceived notions were totally off once my taxi arrived in La Zona Rosa, a chic neighborhood west of the city center filled with upscale shops, wonderful restaurants and lively sidewalk cafes. Well-dressed business people make their way to and from work while locals shop, dine and drink. While it’s common to see armed guards patrolling large buildings and busy street corners, no one seems anything less than truly at ease.

Sky-high Scenery

The architecture in the 2600-meter high capital is a reflection of the pleasant fall-like climate that wraps Bogotá year-round. Nearly all buildings are red brick with large single-pane glass windows that are often open to welcome a comfortable breeze.

A bus zips through Bogota on the TransMilenio.

You’ll frequently see lovely orange wildflowers creeping up and down the walls like North American ivy. The nicest homes and apartments cascade up Cerro Monserrate, the mountain that creates Bogota’s natural border, providing the city’s most affluent residents with breathtaking views.

So few foreign tourists visit Bogota that the city is not run with outsiders in mind. But because of the city’s rich history, there is plenty to see. 400 meters up the dominating Monserrate mountain, a picturesque sanctuary and 17th century church sit perched above the massive metropolis. The ride up, either on a ground-level Funicular or the gondola-like Teleférico, is steep and exhilarating.

But the true payoff is the 180-degree panoramic view from the top, where you see the city kissing every inch of the huge valley it calls home.

Bustling Center

The centerpiece of downtown Bogotá is La Plaza de Bolivar, which boasts a beautiful cathedral, rivaled only by the heavily guarded presidential palace next door. Security is tightest in this area, with armed officers checking bags and streets sealed off to motor vehicles.

But on an average workday, it buzzes like any other economic center, with people zipping in and out of office buildings, joining friends for lunch on park benches and in bustling restaurants.

The view of Bogota from Monserrate

Downtown also offers its fair share of cultural attractions. The world-renowned Museo Del Oro holds one of the most archeologically important collections of pre-Colombian gold artifacts on the planet, presented with insightful displays and modern technology.

The city’s Museo Nacional is the perfect complement, gracefully teaching about life in Colombia both before and after the Spanish conquest.

Bang For Your Peso

You can’t help but feel rich in Bogotá. One American dollar is the equivalent of 2200 Colombian pesos, which means that once you’re past the sticker shock of all of those zeroes, just about everything is a bargain. For less than a dollar, you can buy a deliciously fresh café con leche (although the word on the street in Bogotá is that the very best Colombian coffee is exported) and your choice of dozens of fresh pastries including the national favorite arepas.

Dinner in the nicest restaurants in town, for example in the trendy area surrounding el Parque de la 93, will cost you no more than the average night at TGI Fridays. And for dessert, be sure to sample local ice creams, which are chock full of fresh ingredients and nothing short of gourmet.

Locals marvel at the fact that while tourists stream into neighboring Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela, so few cross their borders to enjoy the gift that is Colombia. They rave about cities such as Medellin and Cartengena, which are even more rarely visited than Bogotá.

Once they realize you are a foreigner, they sheepishly ask about your impressions, saddled a complex that outsiders deem their nation inferior to the rest.

A good review is received with equal amounts of pride and sadness, because they know one person cannot change the world’s mind.

Unbalanced Image

As a journalist, the sharp contrast between perception and reality hits especially hard. I know the media plays a major role in what the world thinks about places like Colombia.

I know progress and promise don’t make nearly as powerful stories as murders and kidnappings. But the consequences of that reality are palpable. When I think about what a viable tourism industry would mean for such a country and its people, I realize how unjustly they are being shortchanged.

Pre-Colombian culture centers on the idea of equilibrium: light follows darkness, deluge follows drought, the world above balances the world below, and when such is not the case the world is thrown into chaos. Unfortunately, Colombia itself has not enjoyed the benefit of such a balanced perspective. It is time the world started acknowledging the good, rather than solely the bad, and travelers can lead the way.

 

 

Lymari Morales




Lymari Morales
is currently managing news editor for Gallup.Com. She is also a former television news producer and a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

 

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