The inocentes spend a 6-day layover in Bogotá

29 Nov

En route to Paraguay, we knew we would need to stop by the Paraguay embassy in Bogotá in order to get visas for our trip to Asunción. What was originally envisioned as a 3-day jaunt before we booked it for Asunción turned into a 6-day layover in Colombia’s capital city.

In Medellín, the notoriously proud paisas we encountered would tell us to forget about visiting the nation’s capital. “The people are cold” they would say; “Why would you want to leave Medellín?” some would ask; “Paisas are the best, and how can you leave this weather?!” a cab driver might say. But we knew that a trip to the capital would be an eventuality, not just for securing visas if we wanted to travel to certain countries, but also because, well, it’s Bogotá. It has the same cache that New York does here in Colombia, and there’s no way we could leave without visiting the capital at least once.

A friend who spent a Fulbright year in Bogotá, Katie Paul, shot off some recommendations for us, telling us that she missed it a great deal, and that we would have great time. If Katie missed it, couldn’t it be a great city? Couldn’t it be a fun place to visit and party (and eat everything)?

Short answer: yes.

Long answer to follow.

While Medellín is often described as Colombia’s “second city”, it was never clear to me just how much of a second city it would be. Initially, I imagined it be LA to Bogotá’s New York. Missed the mark completely, there.

Bogotá is a big, cosmopolitan city complete with gothic cathedrals and lovely classical governmental buildings. We spent mornings at a French bakery pulling apart buttery croissants, ate Chinese food for Thanksgiving dinner and may even venture to have sushi one of these nights. Men and women in professional business attire scamper from one big, imposing building to the next, or take quick coffee breaks in the ubiquitous Juan Valdez coffee shops.

While Medellín is beginning to diversify its culinary offerings, the difference is marked. There are bars on every street corner in Medellín (sometimes three or four each block)  with no discernible difference between them. Many restaurants serve meat and chicken in three or four different iterations (slab of meat; stick of meat; meat between bread; fried meat) and often time these restaurants are right next to one another, as well. In the zona rosa in Medellín (designated party area)–which is Parque Lleras–there are a number of restaurants that are departures from the norm; a few Thai places, an Irish pub, even a Hooters. But these restaurants still have a very clear paisa flair, and while I wouldn’t expect an Irish pub to be authentically Irish all the way here in South America, it’s sometimes shocking how far the mark is.

We are staying right near the zona rosa in Bogotá, and I can tell you the Irish pub and the French bakery were founded not by enterprising Colombians, but by enterprising expats who chose Bogotá as a place to settle down.

We also encountered a number of people in Bogotá who spoke English very well, both at our hostel and at restaurants. In Medellín, it’s still a delightful shock when someone can speak English. Certainly, many can understand very well, but speaking English is still in its infancy.

The reason Bogotá has so surpassed Medellín as a more modern city are numerous. There are likely many that I overlook or have no clue about, but there are two contributing factors that come to mind.

The first is Medellín’s notoriety. While globalization began taking hold in Bogotá, Medellín was still closed off. Businesses wouldn’t want to invest in a city that was dangerous, so the money siphoned off to Bogotá. Certainly, for good reason (Bogotá is, after all, the capital of the country), but in the US there are numerous businesses with offices all over the country. This is starting to happen in Medellín, where businesses with headquarters in Bogotá are opening branches in Medellín, but it’s a recent development in the past five or so years.

The second, the proud paisa nature, is tangentially related to the notoriety that Medellín suffered through between 1980-2000, especially in the years before Pablo Escobar’s death. What Escobar created was a cult of personality that was as much his own as it was of the general region. He was proud to be a paisa, and that kind of pride catches quickly. While Medellín was closed off and many residents lived in fear, they were also fed a lot of lines about how great being paisa was. Don’t get me wrong, paisas are great, but it makes sense that they would still be a bit resistant to change and globalization when, in fact, shouldn’t the rest of the world be opening arepa shops right about now?

And so, Bogotá is New York and Medellín is…Medellín. You probably can’t get a great croissant, but you can get a killer pastel de guayaba and, later on, drink a beer at a small bar (next to three other small bars) and munch on popcorn. We have been enjoying ourselves here in Bogotá, filling up on the international things that we lack in our home base, but there’s something unique to Medellín. There is a Bogotá in every country (sometimes more than one!), but Medellín stubbornly sets itself apart.

But Bogotá should get its due. The city is huge and the people have been helpful and kind. The classical architecture in the historic center of town is stunning. We only saw a fraction of the city, so I guess we’ll need to return and enjoy the parts we missed and the nearby pueblos and sites that we missed this time around. Also, we’ll need more croissants.

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One Response to “The inocentes spend a 6-day layover in Bogotá”

  1. Lea Anthony November 29, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Wow, sounds like a nice cosmopolitan departure. Glad you enjoyed it. Great descriptions and comparisons of the cities.
    Chinese food for Thanksgiving…what could be a more American tradition save Chinese food for Xmas!

    Kisses, Mom

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