Defeating civil war demanded courage of the Colombians, but peace is the reward, and with it a buzz in the funky capital, Bogotá: a shining example to hip-city wannabes worldwide
Words: Stanley Stewart
Jorge gestured solemnly down to the pavement.‘It was on this corner they shot him – right in front of the church,’ he said. ‘I was in the café across the street.’
Through the open door of the Iglesia de San Francisco, where cupids shoot arrows at gilded angels, came the murmur of mass and the scent of incense.‘He must have been a gang member in the wrong place.’ ‘Did he manage to get away?’ I asked, lowering my voice. ‘The killer?’‘Sure he did. In those days, no one interfered with a gunman. Certainly not the police.’ I must have looked a little uneasy, a trifle nervous. ‘Relax. This is a different city now,’ Jorge said. ‘A completely different city.’
Not so very long ago, most visitors to Bogotá tended to be arms dealers, hostage negotiators or gangsters. A decades-old civil war simmered between a right-wing government and left-wing insurgents, and the bad boys had all the best tables at the capital’s restaurants.
Then, suddenly, there was reconciliation. If tiny Northern Ireland can do it, why not us, said the hard men of the Andean foothills. Exhausted by a lifetime of reading Trotsky and hiding in hedgerows, the rebels announced a ceasefire. Tired of chasing shadows, the government agreed to talk. Over cigars, the two sides now meet regularly in Havana, the new poster city for improbable reconciliation. They are getting on well, and for the first time in a couple of generations, Colombia is at peace. As for the gangsters, the old guys have been taken out while the new generation prefers a slicker, quieter model that doesn’t like its lunches peppered with gunfire.
It turns out there is a surprisingly fine line between murder capital and hipster haven, and Bogotá has leapfrogged across it with a speed that would impress Usain Bolt. Like Shoreditch, like Paris’s 10th arrondissement, like happy-clappy evangelists, Bogotá has been reborn. It’s hip, it’s vibrant, and it is now one of the safest cities in South America. They say you are twice as likely to be shot these days grooving to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans as you are joining the salsa dancers in Bogotá.
If Colombia has emerged as the hottest destination in South America, it helps that it has the whole continent packed into a single country. There’s a tropical Caribbean coast with gorgeous timewarped Cartagena. There’s a wilder Pacific coast of empty beaches, surf breaks and whale migrations. There are Andean peaks, Amazonian jungles, and yellow plains of vast ranches and taciturn cowboys. There are Spanish-colonial cathedrals overlooking elegant squares and mysterious lost cities framed by jungle. There’s also a hot music scene, the world’s best cocktails, and a culinary revolution fuelled by a bewildering array of ingredients.
I had come up from the steamy coast to cool off and to escape those hip-waggling salsa bars where I’d been spending far too much time. The cool bit worked; at 2,640m, Bogotá hovers year-round at 15oC. But the salsa bars? They are everywhere. Arriving here, I felt for a moment that I was in some retro America: ’50s Brooklyn, perhaps, a street grid of apartments and diners, trolley cars, convenience stores and kids’ playgrounds.
An archipelago of neighbourhoods revealed a funkier city, stretching north beneath the mountainous heights of Monserrate. In colourful La Macarena, bookshops and cafes attract a bohemian crowd. In Zona Rosa, it’s designer boutiques, while in Normandía, there’s the sprawling Simón Bolívar Park. In Chapinero, there are theatres and bars, and next door in Zona G are some of the most innovative restaurants in South America. Head for San Felipe for new art galleries, and Usaquén for street markets and street performers.
But down in La Candelaria, I found something entirely different. Churches reared like Spanish galleons, palaces commanded several city blocks, and ancient convents turned blank faces to the streets. La Candeleria is Bogotá’s historic centre and parts of it are older than most of London. This is Gabriel García Márquez territory – the colonial mansions, the capricious passions, the family histories that make the Old Testament seem a model of brevity. Along the cobbled streets I was lost in reveries of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, watching the window grills and the overhanging balconies for the dark-eyed beauty for whom I would abandon everything, including self-respect. Mercifully, she never appeared, but in a salsa bar, I did manage to get lost for an hour or two in the music and liquid movement of Latino hips.
Being lost in Bogotá seems to be the form. The city was founded in the 1530s by a band of conquistadors who were hopelessly lost. Having wandered for several months in the Orinoco jungles without a compass or a clue, they finally pitched up here in the highlands where they started dismantling the temples of the indigenous Muisca civilisation in order to build the first church.
The Muisca had what the conquistadors were looking for – gold. Colombia was an early focus of the myth of El Dorado, a mysterious jungle kingdom teeming with gold. Some versions of the tale told of a lake from which you could fish out tons of the stuff. For centuries Europeans died trying to find it. It seemed there was always just enough gold to keep the dreamers searching, but never enough to satisfy their dreams.
In the fabulous Museo del Oro, the Gold Museum, I pressed my nose against the glass cases. For the Spanish, gold was just cash, but for the Muisca, it was a divine material they fashioned into sacred objects. In illuminated cases votive and decorative objects glowed – earrings and nose rings, bracelets and anklets, shimmering vases with the rounded curves of the female body, delicate golden figures and tiny masks, strange animals and leering faces, gods and voyaging boats, all exquisitely crafted, all carrying symbolic messages about the dualistic nature of the world, about order and chaos, about reality and dreams. When the Spanish got their hands on the richly symbolic objects of Muisca, they melted them down for coins. We are lucky so much has survived.
The museum’s climax is a circular room that recreates the legend of the golden lake. I stepped inside. A curved section of wall slid shut, closing me in darkness, as if I had arrived in the futuristic lair of some Bond villain. I began to hear the whispered chanting of priests, the sound of wind and water. Then the walls began to glow and flicker with images of gold. A pool of light opened in the floor, representing the lake, and for a moment I completely lost my bearings in a cascade of golden light.
The real lake – or at least one of the candidates for this mythical place – lies out of town. Laguna de Guatavita, a crater lake surrounded by green mountains, was reputedly the centre of Muisca rituals. Covered in gold dust, the Muisca chieftain was said to toss gold offerings into the waters to appease the gods. But try as they might, Europeans have never managed to retrieve the loot. In the 16th century, a conquistador drained the lake only to be rewarded with a paltry 232 pesos and 10 grams of gold. An English company tried again in the 19th century, but didn’t find enough to cover the cost of its expedition. On the shore, I gazed into the dark water and saw nothing but my own reflection.
Colombia’s new-found peace dividend is all about people. In the bad old days, the young, the ambitious, the well connected, left for universities and opportunities in America and Europe. Now they are flocking home, educated, entrepreneurial, and fizzing with energy. Time and again I met young people just back from Harvard, from a stint as a maitre d’ in Paris, from gap years in Madrid. They are the ones making Bogotá cosmopolitan, with a bonanza of boutique hotels, funky restaurants, designer shops, and an art scene that rivals Berlin’s.
Part of this renaissance is gastronomical. Peruvian cuisine is the latest South American fad – but only for people who haven’t been to Colombia yet. With such an astonishing range of habitats – Colombia is said to be one of the most bio-diverse countries on Earth – its real treasure is presided over by greengrocers.
I went shopping with renowned chef Leonor Espinosa, a Colombian cross between Gordon Ramsay and Delia Smith. It was easy to imagine Leo ‘losing it’, but just when you thought you were in trouble, she came over all patient, maternal and understanding. Tall, red-haired and commanding, she swept all before her in the Paloquemao market where she was greeted like a celebrity.
A sprawling cornucopia of fruit and veg, Paloquemao was the kind of market that could turn Hannibal Lecter vegetarian. There were endless aisles of exotica, gleaned from gardens and rainforests, from tropical hothouses and jungles. Leo led me from stall to stall, charming the vendors, enthusing about their extraordinary wares as she plucked them from kaleidoscopic heaps, scraping the skins to show me colour and texture, splitting them open to release heady aromas, spooning out the flesh to feed me astonishing flavours.
There were a dozen kinds of banana, 40 varieties of mango, and 200 variations on the potato. There were avocados the size of melons and melons the size of small cars. There were wild tree tomatoes, sugar apples and the pitahaya whose pale and seedy sweet flesh is good for tummy problems. The fruit and veg were as sensual as their names – zapote, uchuva, corozos, níspero, lulo, guanábana, chuguas or ulluco, cubios, guatila – brilliantly coloured (scarlet, vermilion, azure and charcoal), knobbly, sleek, pimpled, elongated, stunningly weird and wonderful.
Leo was their champion.
At lunch in her stylish restaurant (called Leo) the food was jaw-dropping. The roots of her cooking may be rustic and traditional, but the result is culinary sophistication. A succession of small dishes outdid one another – a cone of crab cream with olive-oil pearls, grilled Pacific tuna with an ant crust served with a drizzle of molasses, boyo mashed corn with snail shavings. The espresso was made from plants grown wild among lemon grasses so that it contained citric notes. How cool is that?
For all the city’s buzz and creativity, there was also an echo of the grief that it has endured. It intervened when least expected. In the hush of the Iglesia de Santa Clara, once a convent, now a museum, I was brought up short by a shocking reminder of Colombia’s tragic recent past.
The church’s facade gives little hint of its stunning interior. A gold altarpiece, riotous with decorative flourishes, overlooks the long nave whose walls are crowded with 17th-and 18th-century paintings. Soaring above is a glorious vaulted ceiling of gold floral motifs.
A contemporary art work had been installed in the church. A video showed women’s hands tearing clothes, garments in which each had been attacked. The sound of the tearing echoed around the church. In the middle of the nave, these same torn clothes – so personal, so charged with history and identity and memory – had been bundled into tight balls and placed together in a pile. Attached to each were defiant hand-written notes. ‘I will not allow myself to be a victim,’ one said.
‘I am not defined by this experience,’ said another.
The clothes were a witness to suffering, their annihilation a statement of intent that remains lodged in my mind still. But fortunately, far more than destruction, it is creation that Colombia can be proud of today. The renaissance of Bogotá is a work of courage and beauty.
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