Bogota, the capital of Colombia and the 4th largest city in South America, with a population of seven million is very cosmopolitan; residents are elegant and its streets are safe, clean and happening. Signs of Bogotá’s urban rebirth are everywhere: from its vibrant restaurant scene to its world class museum exhibitions, high fashion shopping neighborhoods, edgy fashion designers and the Sunday flea markets (mercado pulgas). Architectural award winning condos, a sign of increasing prosperity, rise in contrast to La Candelaria, the colonial old section of town, where narrow streets are yours to explore, and charming old houses offer unexpected architectural treasures.
Bogotá’s colleges and universities have a major impact on the city and region's economy. Not only are they major employers, but they also attract national and international industries to the city and surrounding region, including highly needed technology industries. The city is Colombia's educational " Mecca".
Diana Rodriguez, a young intern with Proexport, meets us at the airport; we drive three hours for an overnight stay in Villa de Leyva, a charming old colonial religious town with cobblestone streets and a beautiful church on the town square. On weekends the square and narrow streets come alive with musicians and artisans selling hand woven crafts. Unfortunately it is a week day, and the town is quiet. We wander in and out of small family owned shops and bargain for hand loomed ponchos. The workmanship is exquisite, and the people are happy to share a little local gossip. We stop in a tiny cafe for a sweet treat and a refreshing frozen fruit drink; I wander into a local art gallery.
On the way back to Bogotá we make a detour to visit the underground Salt Cathedral, built for the miners who worked the mines. Altars and chapels have been carved out of stone and marble. It is eerie to sit on a stone pew in an underground chapel.
It is dinner time when we reach Chia, on the outskirts of Bogotá, and Andres Carne de Res Restaurant. We are treated to an evening of mayhem, a zany wait staff of over 100, and fabulous T bone steaks cooked to perfection on open grills. Confusion reigns; the décor is a happening in itself; Andres has spent 25 years collecting whimsical and outrageous bits, pieces and antiques for this mad hatter watering hole. Locals and tourists come here to eat, drink and dance. .. . both on the dance floor, and on the tables. A group of costumed performers meander the rooms, working the audience with humor and audacious behavior. To quote another journalist “The Andres experience is representative of what the world misses by not going to Colombia” It is indeed profoundly creative, tumultuous, confusing and fattening all at the same time.
My two bedroom suite, with three bathrooms and a kitchen, at the prestigious Hotel Estelar La Fontana is huge, well appointed and ideal for entertaining. Too bad there wasn’t more time to enjoy its elegant classic décor. However, the hotel’s delicious Colombian breakfast buffets, served in the La Fontana Restaurant and al fresco in the courtyard (included in my stay), was a not to be missed morning ritual. After a day of sight seeing and shopping, the restaurant’s ajiaco, a typical Colombian chicken, potato and avocado stew, was a welcome treat. On special Sundays, the hotel courtyard is filled with artisans selling a wide variety of handicrafts.
The traffic in Bogotá moves at a crawl (there are more than 50,000 taxis), but fares are cheap. From Hotel La Fontana on 127th Street down to the Old Section costs less than $7, and to Zone T and Zone C, about $4.
Bogotá is a treasure trove of culture, exuberant history and creativity. There are more than forty world class museums; the Gold Museum houses the largest collection of Pre Colombian gold works in the world. It is a city of ethnic festivities and ongoing celebrations. The restaurant and nightclub scene is vibrant and elegantly dressed; the cultural calendar of art, film, jazz, opera and fashion events is impressive. Highlights include: The Artists Salon, The Bogotá Film Festival, Rock & Jazz in the Park, The Opera and Zarzuela Season, and the International Book Fair.
We wander the narrow colorful streets . . . churches, colonial mansions and republican buildings are proud tributes to Colombia’s past. Many have taken on a new life after being converted into hotels, restaurants, theaters and museums. The Gold Museum, ( Museo del Oro, Calle 16, 5-41) is temporarily closed for renovation; we view a smaller collection of gold artifacts at the Botero Museum, (calle 11, No. 4-21) Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, known for his oversized figures, has donated an impressive collection of 123 of his own work, as well as pieces from his private collection, including Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Renoir and Monet.
Corferias, the fair and convention center of Bogotá, is the scene of a wholesale food exposition; we wander from booth to booth tasting food products from around the world.
I think of food as what it looks like when served, what it does for me, and how it makes me feel. Colombian food has much to offer even the most discriminating palates. Whether dining on robust traditional dishes at La, fusion cuisine at Harry Sasson, the best seviche I’ve ever tasted at Club Colombia (their menu features seviche marinated twelve different ways), or the gourmet specialties I sampled at Cocina y Cava, my emotions ran high. I was impressed with the range of creativity, both in the tastes and the plating presentations.
Leo Katz, Bogotá’s most innovative gastronomic entrepreneur, thrives on challenges; he and celebrity chef Harry Sasson deserve accolades for their role in turning Zona Rosa and Zone T( a neglected neighborhood) into a vibrant restaurant, nightclub and trendy boutique district . . . a mix of Bohemian chic with edgy couture, similar to New York’s Soho or Meetpacking District. Leo Katz has just ended his weekly staff meeting. He tells me: “I started with one donut shop, added a hamburger place then a diner. Today I have 22 restaurants, a bakery my parents run, and The Donut Factory, a chain of 16 donut shops. The Colombian Coffee Growers asked me to develop a chain of coffee shops, like Starbucks, but I could only use 100% Colombian coffee, unlike Starbucks that serves different flavored coffees from around the world. To meet this challenge, I drew on Colombia’s coffee growing regions with climates that produce a wide variety of coffees with different characteristics”. Leo is very passionate about the future of Bogotá and welcomes help in building confidence in people who visit. Lunch at Harry Sasson elevates my taste buds for fusion cuisine to a higher level of appreciation.
Rosario Rueda is an interior designer and a partner in an architectural design firm. On a trip to South America she found beautiful materials that inspired her to combine silver and stones with leather in a natural way. Two years ago she opened the Rosario Rueda Boutique at Carrera 14A # 8324 in the Calle del Sol neighborhood to showcase her personally designed collection of handbags, belts and buckles . . . and to sell the work of six other designers. She tells me: “our idea is to carry exclusive and unusual clothing and accessories to suit all personalities and generations, from twenty years to sixty years; what you will find here is art to wear”, which is exactly how best to describe Rosario’s changeable stone and silver belt buckles, suede and skin belts, cow horn handle classic bags . . . and artist/designer Helena Caballero’s one of a kind embroidered, painted and beaded jackets.
Helena Caballero, one of Rosario’s special designers, has just arrived with new jackets; I spend hours trying them on, admiring all the treasures in the store, and chatting about fashion in Bogotá. Rosario’s mother who I nicknamed the “duchess” helps run the shop. Helena, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design and studied painting in Milan, started embroidering an old jacket as therapy when her husband became ill. “After he died, it helped me mentally and economically. I found other women who were needy and set up a cottage industry to transform their lives. I now have 24 ladies who are happy and proud. My goal is to continue to join my love of painting to make very special one of a kind pieces to sell in the United States”.
My friend Francisco Vergara’s mom and sister own Los Arrieros, a neighborhood restaurant serving fonda pura antioquera, (homemade typical Colombian meat, fish, and rice and beans dishes) in a simple, comfortable, and homey atmosphere. They spoil me as Colombian mamas do their own children with an array of home made dishes that rate high on my comfort food recommendation list.
Now that Avianca Airlines flies non stop from New York to Bogotá 12 times a week, and non-stop from Washington, D.C, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Atlanta, Houston and LA. with very affordable fares, I highly recommend a visit to this cultural and fun treasure, “the only risk will be wanting to stay”.
For more info on Colombia: www.visitcolombia.com
or www.bogotaturismo. gov.co
For Avianca Airlines reservations: www.avianca.com
Bogotá, originally called Bacatá by the Muiscas, was the center of their civilization before the Spanish conquest, and sustained a large population. The European settlement was founded in August 6, 1538, by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and was named " Santa Fé de Bacatá" after his birthplace Santa Fé, and the local name. " Bacatá" had become the modern " Bogotá" by the time it was made the capital of the vice-royalty of New Granada, and the city soon became one of the centers of Spanish colonial power and civilization in South America.
In 1810-11 its citizens revolted against Spanish rule and set up a government of their own, but had to contend with Spanish military loyalists, who controlled the city until 1819, when Simón Bolívar captured the city after his victory at Boyacá. Bogotá was then made the capital of Gran Colombia . . . a federation combining the territories of modern Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. When that republic was dissolved into its constituent parts, Bogotá remained the capital of New Granada, which later became the Republic of Colombia. In August 2000 the capital's name was officially changed back from " Santa Fé de Bogotá" to the more usual " Bogotá."