I honestly had no idea what to expect from my first trip to Colombia. Colored by decades of reporting that highlighted the country’s turbulent past, I was still hesitant about traveling there. For several years now though, Colombia has thankfully turned a corner and as peace has begun to take root in the country, so has tourism. Millions now visit to experience the beauty of this remarkable South American country for themselves and, if they’re like me, they’re surprised by what they find. I was especially, and pleasantly, surprised by my time spent in the capital city of Bogota. Walking around the colorful streets of the oldest part of town, I was struck time and time again by a central theme, the intense creativity shared by nearly everyone who lives there. This is a city for those who love and appreciate the arts, but who are also fiercely creative in any number of other ways. I experienced firsthand this beautiful creativity in a variety of ways during my visit, but I especially enjoyed embracing the creative spirit of Bogota in these three experiences.
In 2011, two graffiti/street artists decided to share the best of Bogota’s street art and to promote their craft as just that, a form of artistic expression and not vandalism. Since then, the tours have expanded but are largely centered in and around the trendy La Candelaria neighborhood of the city, not far from the historic center. Even more amazing, the tour is free, although tips are strongly encouraged and, from my own experience, very well deserved.
Led around town by the affable Carlos, those few hours were amongst the best I’ve ever spent on a walking tour. Street art in Bogota isn’t just about creating pretty pictures. For decades there have been important messages interwoven into the colorful images. Commentary on the complicated politics of the country, the violence which used to rock the capital and the struggles between rich, poor and the emerging middle class in Colombia. The country is very much one of the have’s and have not’s, and the powerful images created by homegrown and foreign artists alike reflect these sometimes-tough times. It’s not all deep thoughts and heavy-handed philosophies though, some of the artwork exists to either complement the building on which it’s painted or to just add some whimsy to the neighborhood. What’s important though is to stop and look, really look at each painting and to find the inevitable meaning sometimes buried deep within it. It adds a layer of complexity to the city that I frankly wasn’t expecting.
Love of Food
Food is an important part of the travel experience almost everywhere in the world, but in Colombia it carries even greater value and meaning. In order to learn as much as I could about the culinary traditions not just of Colombia, but specifically Bogota, I booked a private food tour of the city. I learned a lot about the culinary traditions of the city and country in general, from its many corn-based meals and snacks to desserts that may seem a little off, but which are all delicious. But it goes well beyond that into fresh and local eating, visiting the neighborhood or citywide markets and buying some of the freshest fruits and vegetables you’ll ever see. Due to the country’s unique sets of climates, they produce fruits so exotic you’d think you were in the middle of Thailand. I couldn’t even name half the fruits I tasted, but they were all delicious. Add in the medium-roasted and full-bodied coffee for which Colombia is so very famous, and the food scene in the country is worth a visit in its own right.
Bogota has many great museums and several surprised me, including the famous Gold Museum. But there’s one that I think deserves a little extra attention and is certainly one of the sights in town that is not to be missed.
Although I was a little skeptical at first, it didn’t take long for me to fall head over heels in love with the amazing Botero Museum in Bogota. Even if you’re not familiar with the name, I guarantee you’ve seen some of the many famous works created by Colombian artist Fernando Botero. You know the ones, the plump, oversized people and animals that look like they’ve been inflated? Well, the Botero Museum is the beautiful home to many of his paintings and sculptures. In 2000, Botero donated the works, along with his own private art collection, creating the museum in the La Candelaria neighborhood in the process. Open to the public free of charge, Botero wanted to share his works in a way of his choosing. He still decides on the layout and even the wall colors in the museum, but as I quickly learned the building itself is just as amazing as the works of art it houses. Built in the 1720s, this was the colonial mansion of the Archbishop of Bogota, one of the most powerful men in the city. Beautifully restored, you can easily imagine the lavish lifestyle enjoyed here and for as much as I enjoyed the artwork, it was the building itself that truly won my heart. Bogota is a city of intensely creative people seen through the literature, art but even in graffiti and street buskers. It’s exciting and this is surely one of those “must-see” places in this enormous city.
Bogota enjoys a certain creative spirit that is rare to find honestly. Sure, every city has museums and an artistic community, but the way in which it pervades daily life in Bogota is entirely unique. At every turn I was confronted by this quirky trait whether it was the many bookstores lining the small side streets, or the pervasive street art found throughout Bogota. Every resident contributes something to this rich tapestry of artistic expression and for me at least, it became an important part of my time spent in the city.