Twilight settles over Carrera 19, a northern boulevard flanked by good shops and eateries. Lights twinkle high on the mountainsides to the east, the black-green Andes coming to life for the night. A conversation on the sidewalk catches my attention.
You don’t hear English spoken a lot on the streets of Bogotá. Many of the 11 million people here know the basics—the capital city of Colombia, like many capitals, is fairly cosmopolitan, and kids learn English in nearly every school in the country. Still, Spanish rules.
I surprise four travelers, out strolling. Sightseers.
“No English allowed,” I tell them gruffly … in English. They look briefly confused, then start laughing.
They’re from Las Vegas. They’ve boogied into Bogotá traveling the world as the sound-and-light crew with a Bee-Gees tribute band. (Bogotá may be the only place on earth where the Bee-Gees are staying alive on local FM. George Michael sends careless whispers through his radio respirator here too, and Cyndi Lauper makes an occasional cameo, reminding chicas that even good Catholic girls just wanna have fun.
The four Vegans say tickets sold out in no time for the two Bee-Gees shows at Gaira Café, a hot night club and rumba (dance) spot run by Colombian superstar Carlos Vives.
“He’s the Michael Jackson of Latin America … or something,” one gringo tells me.
Well, sort of. Vives played in Latin American soap operas and TV shows until releasing an album in 1993 that changed everything. Clásicos de la Provincia blended traditional vallenato—the roots music of Colombia—with modern pop. Think Dylan walking onstage at the Newport Folk Festival with an electric guitar. Or something.
But I digress …
“So what should we do in Bogotá?” The gringos pose this simple question as we swap yarns.
Simple … but it catches me flat-footed. Uhh, what should they do in Bogotá? I have a deer-in-headlights moment when I realize, with surprise, that I don’t really do things in Bogota. I live here.
Thank goodness for a diversion—an attractive Colombian woman storks past on high heels, her brave blouse about to burst.
My answer should be easy—I’ve lived in Bogotá 15 months now, exploring many safer parts of town. I’m beginning to have haunts, favorite little places.
Dulcinea serves good black coffee and a roscón de reyes, a little guava-filled breakfast pastry. I like simple Colombian breakfasts at Romanotti, especially a morning caldo—a steaming beef rib-and-potato soup with savory herbs. I enjoy a cerveza at Bogotá Beer Company, where I can knock my overheated writer’s mind out of gear with a fútbol game on Spanish ESPN at any hour.
These places, though, feel idiosyncratic, personal. A pack of gringos loose in Bogotá will find their own pastries and breakfasts and beer. The Bee-Gee boys want an experience to take home to Vegas … something for the bucket list.
So my stammering non-answer troubles me. Here I’ve been a bogotano longer than a year, and I simply draw a blank when asked the most obvious question any visitor could ask.
So what should we do here?
Well … what could anyone possibly say that would help visitors understand the fantastically crazy thing that is Colombia? Gabriel García Márquez wrote one novel after another trying to explain this unexplainable place. I’m not Gabo; my merely human mind claws frantically at its cheap plywood walls.
“Oh, just walk,” I consider saying. (That’s what I always do in a new place.) “Just keep on walking. You’ll find what’s trying to find you.”
These four cool cats, though, could walk anywhere, any town. They probably even walk sometimes in hot Las Vegas, that great glowing neon clitoris of the U.S.A. … at least to get from one air-conditioned casino to the next.
I study twinkling lights on the mountainsides … then it comes to me.
I suggest this adventure to you too, good reader, the first thing you do when you come to Bogotá.
You won’t forget it.
Settle in after landing at El Dorado International Airport. Unpack in the hotel room or hostel space. Put on fresh clothes. Call an Uber.
(For the record, no matter what anyone tells you about Ubers, in my experience they put taxis to shame. They are cleaner, with more courteous drivers and better sound systems for hearing Bee-Gees and GM and Lauper. In Bogotá, you will almost never pay more than $10 in pesos for a ride anywhere in the city. They’re safer than taxis too. Google Paseo Millonario before you take a street taxi here. You’ll see why.)
Direct your Uber driver to La Septima, Carrera 7. (North-south streets in Bogotá are carreras; east-west streets, calles.) Merge onto the Circunvalar and climb the green toes of the mountains, colorful hodge-podge apartments and street vendors and medical clinics along the route giving way to parks, where you see the police. Bandidos hide in the mountains among the eucalyptus groves.
The road will bring you to The Thing. You’ll know it immediately by the lines of tourists … and on religious days, maybe a few bloody-kneed Catholic penitents.
All aspire to the same place atop 10,000-foot Mt. Monserrate, a peak overlooking downtown Bogotá. Tourists take the funicular car that climbs the mountain. Penitents will go up the mountain on their knees, painfully pulling themselves along a steep path towards a 17th-century church in the heights.
I recommend the funicular.
And that’s the thing I should have recommended to the Vegas gringos—the first thing any visitor should do in Bogotá.
No experience here will give you a more thrilling introduction to this vast, historic, chaotic, headlong blur of a metropolis than the funicular ride up Monserrate. Day or night.
The trip starts in a garden. The day I went to the top for the first time, a dozen hummingbirds hovered and dipped among the bright flowers behind the loading platform. That’s a beautiful experience in Bogotá all by itself.
The car arrives, and you climb inside, and things leave the horizontal and go vertical, and you remember thrill rides at the fair as a child, only this one feels gentle, sweetly swaying, and a city of 11 million people and 100 million lights falls away beneath you. Overhead on a clear night, the 100 million stars of the Milky Way reflect Bogotá from the black lake of space.
On the incline to the top, the car enters a long stone tunnel. It feels ancient and mysterious, like a cave. You wouldn’t be surprised to see primitive paintings on the walls, jaguars and flying things. The track steepens … and then you burst from the tunnel again … and Bogotá spreads beneath you as far as the eye can see.
From these heights, it’s magnificent. You forget the dream-destroying traffic, the grime and the hustle, the potholes and the poor. You forget the power outages and the tap water some people won’t drink and the strangely brusque manners of these mostly good people.
From the steps of the old church, it could be Shangri-La down there.
After this exaltation, before you ride down, make one more stop, at Restaurante Casa San Isidro. Ask for a window seat with a view, and order a cup of black Colombian coffee and a flaming cherries jubilee.
Forever after, when someone asks you what to do in Bogota, you’ll know.
Photo: Michael Schoeneis, CC-BY
Charles McNair is Paste’s Books Editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.