Altitude, pollution, poverty, noise, and toxic smells: Bogotá, located some 2600 meters high, rolls out over the Sabana de Bogotá like an extraordinary ugly carpet. Its physical impact is as inescapable as it is overwhelming; the smog so dense you feel as though you’re personally running on petrol and the police posted on every corner are more alarming than reassuring. The streets are not entirely safe to roam alone or after dark. I was stopped several times by concerned residents, “Amigos?” they ventured. No, I was alone and it was shaping up to be a frustrating experience. Luckily I met a Norwegian girl and together we ventured out into the old district of La Candelaria.
The historical centre proffered some gems: colorful colonial residences, the Museo Donacion Botero, and Cerro de Monserrate, a hilltop which offers views over the city in all its monstrous glory and the venue for my first mightily refreshing Club Colombia Beer.
Northern Bogotá, home to the more affluent neighborhoods and the brilliant Bogotá Beer Company (the largest micro-brewery in the city), was more aesthetically pleasing still. Unfortunately, there was nothing magnificent, quirky, or wondrous enough that it could make up for the spectacular shit hole that is Downtown Bogotá. Piles of decayed rubbish adorned the pot-holed streets, lined with sagging, crumbling buildings. The acrid smell of stale piss and deep fried food assailed my nostrils as I watched toothless beggars wade through the dust-clogged debris, aggressively demanding funds from passersby. Guiltily, I averted my eyes from the dispiriting scene.
Downtown Bogotá is a place that promises to steal the smiles from the most mirthful. I felt deeply nauseous, thoroughly intimidated, and completely overwhelmed. I had to fight hard with myself not to turn back as I was determined to reach the much recommended Museo D’Oro, home to one of the most important collections of pre-Hispanic metallurgy in the world. As a classical civilization graduate, once safely tucked inside the immaculate walls of the museum, I was in my element. The gold exhibition was a resplendent showcase of dazzling wealth, power, beauty and the divine. Two hours later, as I stepped back onto Carrera 5, the irony hit me.
Having seen all I wanted to see of Bogotá and more, I began frantically leafing through my guidebook plotting my escape. Meanwhile, outside the refuge of the hostel, things were growing increasingly tense. All the streets leading to the Plaza De Bolivar heaved and choked with traffic. Horns blasted, police shouted, and agitated, over-spilling crowds all shoved their way towards the Plaza. Manu Chao was coming to Bogotá.
I knew nothing of him except that I should know something of him and that he was playing a free concert in Bogotá that night. Not one for crowds, I hid inside the hostel only to be later persuaded back out by an Argentinean music producer, Juan, who insisted it would be an education. As we reached the edge of the plaza, I looked out in utter amazement. It felt as though every young person in the city had squeezed their way into the plaza and from the overpowering smell of cannabis and thick cloud of smoke seemingly suspended overhead, they were all in high spirits. Helpless police looked on, trapped on the outside. The atmosphere was electric, when everyone roared for Manu and as the first beat played out, I knew that this would be a highlight of my time in big, bad Bogotá.
I didn’t know the words to the songs but swayed along with the crowd, in awe of Manu’s stage presence and the hysteria he commanded; I felt as stoned as the gangly youths on either side of me. Juan sensed I was enjoying myself immensely as he offered up a big smile, “I told you that you should come out”. I thanked him and before I could be crushed by the retreating masses, I made my way back through the deserted streets of La Candelaria.
Back at the hostel, music still ringing in my ears, I could feel my intense dislike for the city slowly creeping away. Bogotá was most certainly not charming, nor a beauty to behold, but it was big, bold and energetic and as I left the next day I couldn’t dismiss the feeling that if I had given it a little more of my time, dug a little deeper underneath its gritty surface, it might well have won me over.