Golden Nuggets of Treats Await in Bogota – Bogota, Colombia

Golden Nuggets of Treats Await in Bogota
Bogota, Colombia

Touching down into the brick and mortar splashed El Dorado International Airport, our plane didn’t felt blinded by any glaring sheen of this edifice christened with a golden name. El Dorado connotes a mysteriously never-found city overflowing with gold, a tale concocted by delirious Spanish bounty hunters. But instead of the glare, fast approaching dark clouds ominously tailed my arrival. It’s too much to expect from this supposedly glittering name, the somber airport is somehow comfortingly modest yet modern, this as I gathered initial impressions of Colombia.

Cycling Day Aides Assess its Success
Cycling Day Aides Assess its Success
Coming out from the airport, I simply took the bus like a local to the downtown center - straightforward and easy, with dark clouds and thunders still threatening.

Before that, I was bracing for some hassles starting with my initial transaction with the moneychanger because of the overwhelming number of zeroes in pesos I received in exchange for a small amount of dollar.

But that just didn’t materialize, only at the last minute manifested as minor downpour, an inconvenience while searching for accommodation. The welcoming committee of tropical downpour somehow missed its timing at the airplane’s touchdown but still accomplished its mission, to greet me wet, better late than never. But I learned my lesson well approaching these tropical capitals, now I have my plastic poncho with me.

Along the route, the bus traversed the straightforward avenue laced with tall modern office buildings and high-rise brick housing complexes quickly eliciting flashbacks of my memorable stay in clean and green Singapore, where the poorest of the poor residents are stacked-up in well-maintained brick condominium skyscrapers.

Bogotá wasn’t the city I was expecting, picturing a necropolis in doldrums and all for myself. A mass of neurotic and hostile, if not stoic and cantankerous inhabitants, devoid of the capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life, and expressing more fears than smiles in their faces is what I imagined. Houses might be even boarded up by nightfall, city streets desolate of human activity, save by patrolling forces in jungle fatigue uniforms.

From the impressions coming in, Bogotáns are cool and easily approachable despite the added burden of city stress. Take it from a resilient metropolis, which has hemorrhaged enough from violence and tragedies.

On my visit, its malls are alive on late evenings filled with relaxed and fun-hungry city residents and its city center is much livelier than schizophrenic downtown Los Angeles - alive by day, “City of The Dead” by night and on weekends; and frankly, a city of cold callous cars and hot car chases.

Bogotá is also a city in stark contrast with one other place I’ve had the opportunity to visit not too long ago; hence, my memories are still fresh. A city that doesn’t need public relations push other than to deflect the SARS outbreak nightmare, Hong Kong can manage to be classy yet cold and apathetic. Politely put it, almost all pedestrians in Hong Kong are seemingly in a deep trance of rushing, in all probability in pursuit for money, emitting a message “Mind your own business.” With no time to smile, worse than the creature immortalized in the song “Girl from Ipanema”, who goes walking and “doesn’t see”; never making a passing eye contact, added to it, frowns, pushes, and most especially, don’t say “excuse me”. A Philippine proverb says, “It’s better to live in a shack with people than a palace with monkeys.”

Bogotá outrageously projects a humane, warm soul. It’s very easy to strike casual conversations with Bogotáns.

Morally responsive, socially conscious, and fashionably introspective at the same time, at least that’s my impression of this city where I was greeted by health and fun buffs-in-motion claiming half of the carriageway width of the main downtown avenue on an early Sunday. Translated, it is an event organized as “Don’t Use the Car Day” with a subliminal message “Act Now Or Be Sorry Later Day.” That’s what happened to my father, who didn’t recover from a stroke reckoning, and whose favorite pastime is chatting and watching TV while engorging himself with too much transfatty, cholesterol laced food and beer without draining it to exercise.

One might call it a tacky put on, but I find this pro-active 21st century-style promenading as cutting across issues and gains. Smog pollution, dependency on car travel, and effectively, obesity caused in part by bad diet and junk food with a dull sedentary life are some issues of the day plaguing a resident of any metropolis, which this city tries to address en-mass. Life after all, can be enjoyed healthily in cheap, almost free and simple ways.

Imagine if this program is set to fruition in trendy Los Angeles. There will be a slim chance of encountering walking voluminous panting refrigerators, full-blown obese figures that practically have not gazed down at their sex organs for decades, obstructed by wrap around breasts and belly flab. No wonder, Bogotá has been spared from this American phenomenon notwithstanding Colombian diet is more attuned to the likes of salty soups, beefs, and potatoes; I’ve not seen a super obese person in my entire visit.

Grandmas on wheel chairs, babies on strollers, and leashed pets make a quality family and neighborhood affair instilled with comedy and camaraderie. Finding sense in living in a city, I find this move, which no US city politician would dare to initiate - brave, sound, and practical. This goes into my top three lists of urban gimmicks.

The officially called “Bike Ride Day” route pierces through the very heart of the city past the Presidential Palace and national buildings along the Central Plaza where a good slew of Bogotán characters vie for space and attention.

Here, on a Sunday morning, a peaceful chaos emanating from a corps of mobile vendors and churchgoers, strollers, and people watchers who converge and compete for space with an army of pigeons, filled the Plaza. Some residents are engrossed on an active civic duty peeling off sticky chewing gums from the street pavement and collecting them in small bags, a sight I’ve never seen before.

There is one special encounter with a poem seller because I’ve never ever been touted by one in my entire life. I know some tacky fly by night enterprises using just easy saliva capital as investment like soliciting donations and prayer-for-hire. But this one brings to a new level the cutting edge of human ingenuity and imagination. I’m not surprise if he teaches City Life Survival 101 one of these days. Even if I want to buy that instant eight-line poem written in a quarter-sized bond paper, save for the extra service of it being read-out loud to me with feeling, I’m still struggling with prose Spanish.

The Plaza was still comfortably spacious at this time, cyclers and joggers steal the show, flocking pigeons being chased by playful but petulant poodles leashed to their gleeful owners. Churchgoers breathed fresh air after a session, sitting on the steps of a massive platform shared by the Neoclassical Cathedral with its more elegant and exquisite sidekick structure, the Capilla Sanctuario, and the Archbishop’s Palace, forming the eastern flank of the Plaza.

Bogota's Proud Urban State-of-the-Art Baby - The TransMillenia Transit System
Bogota’s Proud Urban State-of-the-Art Baby – The TransMillenia Transit System
Although rarely opened, the Sanctuario is a not to be missed, if one is given just one architectural attraction to see in this city for one hour, this is it. It’s the supreme cream of Bogotán Colonial style, sporting a breathtaking interior with a pattern of red and gold alternates in the soffit, decorated with florals. Its other eye-catching features are its red and gold foyer screen, its cornices, its 16th century paintings, and its red and gold baldachin sitting on the high altar. This chapel is big enough to be a church.

The south flank is occupied by the unmistakably dignified-looking Roman Senate Building, the national lawmaking body’s convening venue, decorated with a colonnaded frontage heralding a courtyard and with a ferocious monstrosity of an impression of eagle headed winged lion statues in the background.

The Senate Building acts as a front line defense shield for the Presidential Palace, heavily guarded where its sidewalks are patrolled by Prussian-styled wearing Honor Guards in their steadfast flair that will put Buckingham Palace and Swiss Guards to shame. They have their own show at midday when the guards change, passing and detouring at the Plaza. Augmenting the heavily guarded perimeter fence are rottweiler-walking fatigue uniformed guards alertly warning people - needless to say, with their crossed faces, to stay off from the wrought iron fence enclosing the Palace and front yard or do seemingly innocent acts as sit on the sidewalk, stand for more than five minutes on the pavement, or take pictures of a humanly interesting subject - a housemaid attired in royal servant’s uniform vacuuming the Palace entry porch. Cleaning dirty linens or porches in the public is definitely a no-no for the rest of the world to see.

On the north flank is the Supreme Court Building, a modern interpretation of the Senate, heavily traumatized in its existence when terrorists held all sitting Justices captive, ending in a tragic fate of both the occupants and the structure itself. Its massive platform serves fittingly now as a stage for any national celebration, completely masking the tragedy that befell on it. On my arrival, a huge Christmas tree was in place.

The west side is the Italian palatial façade of arcades and array of windows serving as the City Hall.

Past this Plaza, northwards to infinity, the comfort zone becomes more challenging as pure chaos takes over. Pedestrian shoppers are distracted by sidewalk vendors selling posters, cds, fake sports outfits, grooming kits, giant mangoes, coconut candies, the list goes on.

Before I leave this historic center, by the way called La Candelaria, there is another church not to be missed. Of the so many churches scattered here, this is the next most impressive. The two possibly best churches after the Sanctuario, based on reliable information, were unfortunately closed for renovation. Not in the picking but there is still one very exquisite church that is saved for my visit. No other else matched the impressive reaction of awe I expressed in entire Bogotá - the Santa Clara, misleadingly bare on the outside but very elegant on the inside. It is not a working church anymore, actually a museum now but everything is preserved, from the pews, to the choir, and the altar. I have two beautiful words for it - subtle yet sophisticated. Native but delicate craftsmanship blend with glittering gold, especially the coffered ceiling. By the way, this church is located on the right side of the park approaching the Palace from the Plaza, coming from the tourist information shop.

On my way up, I did some windowless sidewalk shopping. Actually, I bought some fakes of the best brands in the sporting world, here and there - a baseball cap, a warm up sporty pants, and a pair of slip-on shoes from the street vendors who have already spread out their merchandises on the edge side of the sidewalk. Because I was their first customer for the day, all three different vendors made that customary gesture of a Christian cross, touching with their right fingers their foreheads and chests, matching that with the rock bottommost bargain price they imposed on their first sales transaction.

Proceeding up, there is a grouping of three churches - San Jose, a dark, dingy colonial structure with an El Dorado-esque altar, glaring with nothing but gold but didn’t made an impact on me, and two smaller churches at the back, not impressive enough to merit a description here.

Across to the right is a plaza leading to the Museo Del Oro. This world-class museum displays jewelry, nothing but gold and more gold. Its holy grail is the Pre-Columbian “Balsa Muisca”, the Mona Lisa of Bogotá. Be warned that this piece of native artifact taken from a cave needless to say, is made of entire gold, is disappointingly as small as a 3-year-old child’s play truck or more realistically, like an experimental ashtray with some nativity scene smacked into it. But the security it demands is such that it is encased in a thick glass container the size of a small billiard table surrounded by infrared cameras. And it’s detailed by exclusive security, including a very vigilant honor guard fit for a president - much like a Chief-Of-State’s aide-de-camp - who will admonish you with his very dignified presence and crisp blue uniform that photography is not allowed except without a flash. That’s how cherished this piece of valuable glittering national treasure is.

Just as Colombia is famous for its gold, and so too is she for her fair sex. It’s confirmed here in Bogotá that women are not only beautiful and gorgeous but they are not easily to be left behind in fashion with their northern American and European counterparts. The latest trend here is the exposed midriff over very low-riding tight jeans, some with exposed stringed underwear, and for others untraceable at all.

I’ve seen one most daring attraction of just a barely legal pubescent girl in the lowest low riding jeans ever with an inch of her butt crack exposed to the public, bending over to inspect a museum piece, in the presence and blessings of her parents, oblivious to the ogling of curious men. In this day and age of pedophilia and any scare whatsoever, when boys and girls, and even men but not gorgeous women, except in the Muslim world, cover themselves with phobic modesty, girls here are so daring and carefree that Donald Trump won’t have a hard time recruiting barely legal beauty contest aspirants.

Probably here is the best indication that crime is not outrageously rampant that members of the delicate sex let their guards down and wear anything they please without fear of attack.

Down the souvenir shop are cheap gold replicas entombed in laminate cubes, the size of play card boxes that I bought as giveaways for my friends.

Coming out of this museum, the plaza has some activity going on, a mini fair and lots of sidewalk vendors. One more character to be avoided is the sticker lady in clown make-up whose favorite victims are absentminded, distracted sightseers like me. She snappily slaps a sticker in an unsuspecting stroller’s lapel. Once it sticks, she demands a fee, one harmless prank but still annoying. Along this sidewalk are Michael Jackson human statues much similar to those I’ve seen in Las Vegas’ Bellagio. Painted in gold or silver, they delight children with their ability to freeze and make some funny routines.

Uzaquien's Updated and Well Maintained Bus Stops
Uzaquien’s Updated and Well Maintained Bus Stops
As late evening comes along, Chiva buses, those dangerously noisy discotheques on wheels roam the busy streets. These colorful open sided buses become annoying light and sound menacing monstrous machines bursting with hollering maddened passengers who have no way to release their unspent boisterous energies but to the unimpressed evening rushers.

Most Bogotáns use the TransMillenia system, an articulated fleet of state of the art buses that are in place instead of the as-to-be-expected overhead urban monorail system. Deciding that this system is more cost effective, they opted for this street-level transport mode, and it clicks. Every ingredient is right there, which includes the seemingly portable state-of-the-art glass and steel stations in the middle of the street with glass doors that slide out. The only thing missing is the iron tracks.

The best suburbs of Bogotá are laid out in the north. Here, they compete for the ambience as in any first world country city with very quiet affluent neighborhoods lined up with elbow-to-elbow posh apartment buildings resembling the city planning structure system in west Los Angeles. Fast food outlets, banks, and the accoutrements of first class city living displayed their presence here. I’m particularly referring to Uzaquien, a very relaxing neighborhood. The only give away clues of poverty seeping through are those traffic stop jugglers who earn petty changes from hostaged motorists while the red light is on. They make center stage on the pedestrian crossings and perform some balls tossing and catching in fast draws, collect their tips in a jiffy just as before the green light goes on.

Two hours north of Bogotá is the lovely and peaceful town of Zipaquira, famous for its salt mine attraction, a labyrinth of El Dorado pitch black darkness whose only feature is its solidified millions, if not billions of tons and acres of sea water salt trapped in this location millions of years ago. This place used to be part of a sea, and when land forces surged up, a container emerged capturing salt rich waters that evaporated, leaving that mine-ful of black solidified salts, covered into oblivion, discovered by the natives, and then further exploited by the Spaniards. The underground cathedral is its high point with its three or probably four stories tall cross, deeply etched from the end wall altar in such a way that it gives an illusion whether it is carved positively or negatively. Other attractions are the thirteen Stations of the Cross and a working convention hall fit to accommodate hundreds, all set deep in the innards of the mine.

I was pleased with Bogotá. It’s certainly one of the finest cities in South America with much more interesting nuggets of golden treats to share.

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