Well, we are here in Colombia and with jet lag, altitude adjustment, and attitude adjustment behind us, we feel as though the journey has begun. So far, the altitude has not been a real issue, other than occasional shortness of breath, but our (my?) attitude adjustment took a little longer. Stories of express kidnappings, the re-emergence of paramilitary groups in the jungles, government warnings, etc. had affected me more than I realized.
It took a morning graffiti tour with the charming Yuli to set me straight. This young woman, a native of Bogota’s “dangerous” south end, gave our group a passionate and informative insight into the political and social power of graffiti.
According to Yuli, Colombia is not nearly as violent as it once was, but there is still a long way to go, and government corruption, police brutality, unequal access to education, a staggering level of poverty (minimum wage is just under $300 US a month) and the bottomless international demand for cocaine and heroin continue to hold the country back from the peace and opportunity that its citizens so desire.
The Monkey on the Back refers to the drug habits that bedevil the local residents, most of whom are homeless. Interestingly, there is a symbiotic relationship between the homeless population and the graffiti artists, who tend to paint in the middle of the night. The homeless residents stand watch for the police and the artists share food and companionship.
Yuli talked about her neighbourhood, and how it is not perfect, but most of the citizens are not criminals, they are simply “humble people“. The graffiti below portrays some of her neighbours, including the stalwart abuelas (grandmothers), who help raise Colombian children while their parents work long hours.
Until very recently, graffiti was illegal in Bogota and graffiti artists were constantly on the lookout for police. Today, Bogota ranks as one of the top three cities in Latin America for street art, but it has been a sometimes bloody path. A young artist, Dilan Cruz, was murdered by police in 2017 as he was taking part in a protest. The resulting outrage and street protests over his death helped to ignite change in government’s acceptance and encouragement of street art and while there is still a lot of illegal political art to be found, there is also government-sanctioned pieces that are notable for their artistic beauty.
A memorial to Dilan Cruz.
Yuli told us a horrifying story about the “false-positives“, which happened between 2002 and 2008. During the armed conflict between government and guerrilla forces, soldiers were offered bonuses and promotions and benefits for the guerrillas they killed. In order to inflate their body count, they lured thousands of young men away from their desperate poverty with promises of work. These civilians were then murdered and presented as guerrillas killed in combat. They have determined that there were at least 6402 innocent men killed, with numbers possibly as high as 10,000.
Raoul, a father of one of the military troops who expressed concerned about this practice, and then “disappeared“, was determined to obtain justice for his son and find answers. He drove around the country in protest about the military tactics, and then set up shop near the main plaza with a photo of his son. Although he never received any justice, he kept attention on the issue. Raoul died of Covid in 2021.
As disturbing as these images are, they also embody the dignity and determination that Colombians possess as they move toward a better future for themselves. Much like Mexico, you wonder how they unravel the knotted threads of corrupt government, police, military, paramilitary, and drug cartels with so much money and power at stake. Still, much has been accomplished, and we honestly feel quite comfortable here. You can sense a shift.
At first glance, Bogota is not a beautiful city. There are pockets of great beauty, mixed with gritty, crumbling areas, abandoned buildings, Soviet-bloc apartments and desolate streets. The neighbourhood we are staying in, La Candeleria, is one of the city’s oldest and most interesting areas of the city. This is where most of the main attractions can be found, and its hilly narrow streets create fascinating sight-lines.
The Chorro de Quevado is one of the oldest areas in La Candelaria; it is thought to be where Bogota was founded. This square is flanked by an ancient church, a narrow cobblestoned street, and a cafe.
And, of course, not all graffiti is political. Bogota’s streets are a visual treat, with high quality street art at every turn.
Cycling is huge in Bogota. Every Sunday, major thoroughfares are closed to allow Bogotanos and tourists safe and unfettered cycling. We missed this because of weather, but a big chunk of the population get around the city on two wheels, and bike rental shops are plentiful.
Bogota has a wealth of museums; the most notable being the Museo del Oro, offering more than 35,000 pieces of gold from the pre-Hispanic era. We both felt the same way – should see it, but meh…once you’ve seen one shiny gold piece, you’ve seen ’em all.
Instead, we began our museum hopping with the National Museum, where we were pleasantly surprised to discover that senior rates in Colombia also apply to non-nationals. This outstanding museum is housed in an old penitentiary, and features archaeological pieces, indigenous and contemporary art; spanning Colombia’s history from pre-Hispanic to contemporary.
Our museum/gallery highlight was the Botero Museum. Fernando Botero, one of Colombia’s most famous artists, is best known for his paintings and sculptures that depict people and animals in exaggerated, almost cartoonish size. His painting of La Familia portrays the subjects with faces as devoid of expression as the bodies are distorted. His sculptures are equally voluptuous; many of them are found in the parks of Medellin, his hometown.
Botero also does his own interpretation of famous paintings. Da Vinci might not approve of Botero’s Mona Lisa, but at least Botero’s version does have a twinkle in her eye.
The art gallery adjacent to the Botero Museum featured a number of contemporary Colombian artists.
Antonio Caro Lopera’s Colombia sign is both a condemnation of consumerism and perhaps a sly nod at the country’s most notorious export.
Lotera’s Todo Esta Muy Caro sign ( Everything is Very Expensive) speaks to both an aspirational lifestyle and an acknowledgement of the rising cost of living.
Luis Caballero Holguin is an artist whose work reflects Colombia’s bloody history and his art combines homo-eroticism and violence.
Bogota’s main plaza is flanked by the cathedral, palace and municipal buildings, with the usual round-up of vendors, foot carts and small attractions. This being Colombia, there would definitely be a small boy playing with a ball, and a young man walking rather listlessly with a llama, hoping for excited children to pester their parents for a ride.
And finally… today we played chicken with the weather ( it rains most days, with a cloud cover and holds steady at about 17 degrees), to head up to Cerro Monserrate, the mountain that looms over Bogota and is reached by funicular. At the top is a church where devotees make pilgrimages every Sunday, and on a clear day apparently the view is breathtaking. This was not a clear day, but still, the funicular was fun.
We enjoyed our time in Bogota. It is definitely a city that is transforming and there is plenty to do in the city and in the surrounding area. We missed a lot due to weather, but it set the stage nicely for Colombia and we look forward to all that lies ahead.
Tomorrow we leave for Villa de Leyva, a small town about 3 hours north of Bogota. There will be hiking, and more wilderness and we’re looking forward to getting out of the big city and discovering another side of Colombia.