On Isla Grande, as we lay in bed before getting up—trying to stay as cool as possible under a mosquito net and a rusty ceiling fan—we heard roosters crowing, dogs barking, the swish of a rake cleaning the sandy yard, and people calling out to each other as they walked or biked down the dirt paths.
The next morning, in Bogota, as we lay in bed before getting up—trying to stay as warm as possible under a crisp white duvet—we heard car horns, rumbling trucks, sirens, and loud TVs from other rooms in the hotel.
That was just the beginning of the cognitive dissonance we experienced on our sixth day in Colombia, when we took a boat, three taxis, and a plane from a small Caribbean island near Cartagena to Colombia’s mountainous capital city, Bogota. In a few hours, we went from sea level to more than 8,000 feet; from a hot, dusty island without cars to a cool, rainy city choked with traffic; from a population of a few hundred to a population of 8 million.
Once we got over our mental whiplash (and adjusted to the change in altitude), we threw ourselves into the things Bogota had to offer. First and foremost was an exposition of traditional Colombian crafts held in a huge convention center—row upon row of colorful beaded jewelry and masks, wood carvings, baskets, ceramics, and woven hats. Some of the styles harken back to pieces we saw in Bogota’s most famous museum, the Museo del Oro. That big, wonderful museum tells the stories of the country’s many pre-Colombian ethnic groups through the intricate gold, silver, and other metalwork they created over the past 2,000 years.
Jumping from ancient to modern, we also visited the art collection of Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero. His love of exaggerated proportions—especially short, squat people and animals—makes his work instantly recognizable and whimsical. Along with a large group of his own works, Botero donated his collection of world-class 19th- and 20th-century European paintings to the city of Bogota to create a free museum that anyone can visit.
Since we’re us, food played a big part in our visit to Bogota. We walked around the huge Paloquemao produce market, marveling at all of the interesting South American fruits, and savored international restaurants in the Chapinero neighborhood where we stayed (our favorites were a Moroccan place called Marrakesh and a pan-Asian restaurant called Wok). We also tried some Bogota specialties at little restaurants on Calle 11 next to the cathedral. I loved the rice-based tamales steamed in banana leaves and the ajiaco, a thick stew that tastes like mashed potatoes flavored with chicken and corn. Melissa pronounced the Chocolate Santafereno—a cup of hot chocolate into which you dunk chunks of mild soft cheese— significantly better than she’d expected.
We took Uber everywhere to get around the city. It’s not quite legal, but Bogotanos like it because it tends to be more reliable than the local taxi system. Bogota is huge, and the traffic can be awful, so it was nice to have reliable drivers (a few of whom even spoke English). The parts of the city we saw—from the Chapinero area south to La Candelaria, the oldest part of Bogota—were an interesting mix of old and modern. Sleek high-rise office and apartment buildings were interspersed with one- and two-story buildings in traditional European styles (such as faux Tudor and Venetian), a few Spanish colonial-era churches and houses, and many ordinary brick or concrete-block buildings that were often adorned with a variety of street art (ranging from graffiti to impressive paintings).
The night we arrived in Bogota, I looked at the city on Google maps and thought my wifi connection was so slow that the map wasn’t loading properly: East of the yellow road called Carrera 1, there was nothing on the map. By daylight, I realized that the seemingly empty space is occupied by surprisingly steep and tall mountains, which can be seen from all over the city and are useful for orienting yourself.
There’s a church on one of the peaks, Monserrate, that is covered in bright Christmas lights at this time of year. On our last night in Bogota, we tried to take the cable car up the mountain to see the lights and the view over the city. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of Bogota’s 8 million residents had the same idea. The lines at the cable car station were so long that we figured it would be midnight before we reached the top. So we contented ourselves with enjoying the Christmas lights at the base station and on buildings around the city as our Uber car inched its way back to our hotel, where we packed for an early-morning departure to our next part of Colombia: coffee country.