I am now over mid-way through my fellowship in Bogotá. It’s bittersweet because while I have finally created a life for myself here that still challenges but also pleases me, I am also aware that my remaining time here is limited. Conscious of the fact that I will need something to do after this fellowship and that this year will be hard to follow up, at times I become overwhelmed with thinking about my future. But so far I’ve been able to shrug off this bundle of anxiety by convincing myself that I wouldn’t be doing this fellowship properly if I became concerned about things (aka job hunting and picking a city to settle in after this year) that pull me away from fully immersing myself here in the moment and taking in the culture. So in the spirit of trying not to worry about opportunities for the future but rather living in the present, I’ve begun to finally compile the scattered field notes I’ve taken about some unusual qualities of Bogotá.
Back in February I wrote about some of my first impressions upon arrival, and I complained about weather then. But the weather–mainly in its unpredictability–is so characteristic of Bogotá and Colombia as a whole that I can’t help but elaborate more. The last several months have definitely not been a drought, like the one that was causing problems when I first arrived to Bogotá. In fact, the rainy season of April and May lived up to its reputation of months of frequent downpours. But the rainfall was also interspersed with sunny rainbows in a way that I’ve only ever experienced in Bogotá. And this week, as the rainy season of September and October is beginning, there have been mostly grey skies and a few spontaneous heavy downpours that even created a state of emergency yesterday afternoon, as flooding and trees taken down by the winds led to power outages and road closures.
In general, the weather here is unique because of it’s ever changeability, going from sunny and warm to cold and rainy in a mater of minutes. It really is that extreme. And the transition from one set of weather conditions to a completely different set can happen countless times within an hour, let alone a whole day. The changeability isn’t a big deal once you’ve developed the habit of always carrying an umbrella and dressing in layers, and it can even be fun to experience a range of climates and precipitation within such a short period of time. Bogotanos frequently joke and whine about the bizarre changes in conditions; there is even an abundance of GIFs illustrating the weather phenomena that never seem to stop circulating on Facebook in my Colombian circles.
Another oddity that I am still getting accustomed to is that temperatures vary greatly among the different neighborhoods and districts of Bogotá. While the city is big, for many months I didn’t believe what I heard bogotanos saying about certain places in the city being colder or more humid than others. It is logical that the further up the mountains on the eastern side of the city, the colder the area, and I’ve slowly began to believe there is some truth to the belief that neighborhoods above (or east of) La Septima are colder than those below (or west of) La Septima. There are also areas in the north of the city, like an area referred to as La Sabana, or the Bogotá savannah, that has a reputation for being colder than the rest of the city and responsible for the neighborhoods in the north west of Bogotá being colder than the neighborhoods in central and southern Bogotá.
Besides La Sabana, weather differs greatly at the outskirts of the city, like in some of the special ecosystems, such as my favorite discovery during my time in Colombia: páramos. I had never heard of páramos before moving to Bogotá, but after hiking several (near Bogotá, I’ved hiked PNN Chingaza and the Páramo of Sumapaz) and learning more about páramos through materials provided by parks and the fantastic documentary Colombia Magia Salvaje, I have become a self-proclaimed páramo lover. These types of environments exist above 3,400 m and many contain endemic species only found in an individual páramo. Since the páramos are all isolated from one another and species that only grow in these high altitude environments do not typically come into contact with the equivalent species in other páramos, páramos epitomize biodiversity and evolution of flora to unusual conditions. Páramos are known for their wild fluctuations in weather, but, generally, they are generally and humid environments, with temperatures around 30F lower than towns and neighborhoods of Bogotá bordering the páramos.
I could get carried away talking about páramos, but I’m brainstorming about creating a project celebrating and summarizing the conservation history for these ecosystems, so I’ll save my thoughts for that. Back to urban life in Bogotá, since that’s really what I live 90% of the time, for better or worse.
* * *
In most urban settings where I have lived, I’ve gotten used to the idea of lots of commercial activity nearby, particularly lots of food options. Bogotá and specifically my immediate surroundings near my neighborhood are home to many fantastic restaurants ranging from fine cuisine to corrientazos and cheaper, casual meal options. But a peculiarity of Bogotá that I couldn’t make sense of when I first arrived is that there are many restaurants that close around 5 or 6, meaning they don’t serve dinner. After several weeks, I learned that many Bogotanos take a small snack-like meal called Las Onces, usually in the early afternoon, and then have very small meals at home for dinner.
Traditionally, Las Onces consists of hot chocolate with cheese and an almojabana or buñuelo shared with friends and family, the drink and snack choice supposedly designed to warm people up in cold Bogotá. I’ve observed people taking Las Onces in all sorts of contexts, like rickety tables and small chairs outside of small bakeries or tiendas, or taking coffees and hot chocolate at a Juan Valdez just below the office. I also see many people at nice restaurants and fancy cafes eating second lunches in the afternoon or right after work as a “happy hour” with coworkers or friends before going home for the evening. For expats, it can be alarming to learn that your favorite restaurants are not open for dinner, but learning about the cultural explanation behind early closures of restaurants has been fascinating. And as Bogotá becomes increasingly international, I’ve noticed more and more places that do offer dinner service, fear not!
* * *
Besides the daily routine of Las Onces in place of a large dinner, I’ve learned that daily routines and errands are practiced in a particular way in Bogotá. Most of this has to do with the layout and distribution of commercial activity; in short, Bogotá is a city comprised of specialized districts. For the most part, neighborhoods have their distinct vibes, and this is common to many cities, but when it comes to shops and commercial activity in Bogotá, there are very clearly demarcated areas where one should go to find specific items.
Bogotá is certainly not unique in this regard of having districts for some goods. When I first arrived and was getting to know downtown, I was struck by the similarity with streets in Manhattan that only sell jewelry or only sell lighting fixtures, for example. In El Centro of Bogotá a few blocks north of Plaza Bolivar, there are blocks full of jewelry vendors, offering all sorts of silver, gold, and emerald pieces and watch repair booths. A few blocks west, there are hundreds of booksellers, some with established store fronts and sophisticated and catalogued inventories of used books and collectible editions and others selling illegal copies on the street. Walking to classes in Teusaquillo from Chapinero, I also discovered the music store district (La Septima from around calle 53 to calle 60), the pet shop district (Caracas and calle 48 to calle 57), and the arts and craft store district (calle 53 west of Caracas). Nearly all foreigners–or at least the ones who venture beyond their posh neighborhoods or hotels in the north–take note of the city’s layout and the blocks of nearly identical shops selling nearly identical goods. A favorite of the resources developed for and by expats in relation to the shopping districts is this article with a handy list and map of the districts at the end.
* * *
Some heavily commercial areas are not the most pleasant and the centers themselves along with their surroundings act as sites of convergence for people from all social classes and backgrounds. Notably, the massive market 7 de Agosto, which features meat and produce vendors from all around Bogotá and surrounding rural areas and is also known for its leather goods is mere blocks from a Zona de Tolerancia. This Zona de Tolerancia is essentially a playground of vice, with run down motels, prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers abound. It is perhaps a logical consequence to have such a dodgy district so close to a center of commercial activity. In fact, located in the south, the biggest meat and produce market, Paloquemao, is also only blocks away from a Zona de Tolerancia in the sketchy neighborhood of Santa Fe.
This type of contrast is common to other areas of Bogotá, particularly in zones where there have been urban revitalization projects, like the Barrio San Felipe. Today the district boasts many of the international renowned art galleries of Bogotá, such as Sketch, Instituto de Visión, Flora Arts + Natura, Beta and Jacob Karpio. But several years ago, San Felipe was a largely neglected, former residential area. As someone concerned with the divide between elite art spaces and how to appeal to a range of publics, including and especially the non-elite who don’t typically frequent art spaces, I see great potential for San Felipe. My several visits to galleries in the area have left me disappointed because I feel strongly that there is great potential for outreach and for engaging the local community and surroundings in San Felipe.
Besides concerted efforts designed to transform neighborhoods, like that of San Felipe, many of the stark contrasts I’ve noticed in Bogotá are the result of the unplanned establishment of living spaces for the lower-middle and lower-classes, like “invasion neighborhoods.” While typically the breakdown of the city is that the north of the city is fancy, upscale and residential and the south is less affluent with middle and low-class neighborhoods, the absorption of refugees in the capital has destabilized this dynamic somewhat. The majority of refugees undoubtedly settled in the south in areas like Ciudad Bolivar, but there are estrato 1 and 2 residents in Chapinero as well (an area typically considered middle or higher-middle class). Events like the recent bulldozing of a crime-ridden neighborhood called Bronx, for example, created a population of homeless that moved up to the poor neighborhoods above the Circunvular of Chapinero, like Bosque Calderón Tejada.
A mere two blocks from my apartment in Chapinero is a mysterious zone. My best guess is that it is an “invasion neighborhood,” because the drop off in poshness of facilities is quite extreme. Up a hill from estrato 4 and 5 apartment complexes are sheets of corrugated metal, a superficial border, separating the residences of the affluent from shoddier constructions of the lower-middle and low-class.
* * *
The contrast of fancy buildings and those resembling shantytowns is also striking while driving along the Circulvular. This road, east in the city’s geography and winding in and out of the Cerros Orientales is a curiosity to me and a unique feature of the city overall. For stretches of the Circunvular heading to El Centro or further south from Chapinero, one can forget that they are in a city. Lush greenery surrounds the road that traverses the mountains, and it is only the occasional vista of Bogotá from the heights of the Circunvular that restores a sense of place and the context of a massive urban setting.
The Circunvular also represents to me another aspect of Bogotá that I love: there are many escapes from the city that are remarkably accessible, especially if you have a car. Without a car, there are several quebradas (mountains just east of Bogotá neighborhoods) with trails, like Quebrada La Vieja. The entrance to this trail is at the edge of a very upscale neighborhood called Rosales that borders on the business and banking center of Bogotá. And after minutes on the trail, you are immersed in nature. From speaking to the police the guard the trail on weekday early morning and weekends until 2pm, I’ve heard there is also a connecting trail to a páramo nearby that I am eager to explore.
With a car, there are many páramos and parks offering all sorts of hikes in a range of ecosystems that are easily accessible. An hour or so north, Suesca is a popular weekend destination for climbers and hikers. As part of their normal weekend routine, on Sundays, many bogotanos drive out to Chia or La Calera (which has a beautiful viewpoint of the city) for a countryside meal. Even without a car, it’s simple to take a colectivo from the banking center on Calle 72 to La Calera or Guasca, and within minutes you reach expanses of land with fincas and endless pastures. It is the type of natural beauty that you find in some parts of the US but certainly never within 15 minutes of an urban center. I particularly appreciate these easy escapes to scenic areas because of how they counter the inconveniences of urban Bogotá; there is nothing as refreshing as a weekend afternoon taking in the fresh air of Guasca after a week of many hour wasted on public transit stuck in traffic with pollution puffing into your lungs.
* * *
I’ve already belabored the point that public transit is an issue in Bogotá. But I am surprised that even over 6 months into my time here, I still cannot fully decipher the public transit system. I use TransMilenio daily to get around, and I have a sense of which buses go north and south on the principal streets that I use, but when I want to go somewhere new or go east or west, the problems arise. The main east and west routes in the Chapinero area are via SITP (el Sistema Integrado de Transporte Publico) rather than TransMilenio, and while they’re supposedly part of an integrated system, in my experience, the SITP blue buses have been much less reliable and run much less frequently than the red TransMilenio buses. There are also orange buses which are part of SITP, and these offer service that more closely resembles the red TransMilenio buses.
In addition to these city-regulated options for buses, there are also a massive quantity of independently-owned small buses, called busetas or colectivos that have placards on the front naming neighborhoods along the route. I’ve never used these in Bogotá, they don’t look comfortable or reliable, and since I can’t talk about an experience on these things, my biggest complaint is that these buses are major polluters. They’re all old and rhythmically release giant puffs of smoke that suffocate anyone taking a deep breath in nearby. This makes going for long walks down major thoroughfares head-ache inducing rather than relaxing or even moderately scenic. With the hopes of facilitating ease of breathing while I walk around town, I’ve contemplated buying special protective garments worn by bikers who are in even closer contact with these clouds of pollution.
The lack of an efficient public transit system coupled with the recent proliferation of bike lanes along sidewalks throughout the city has prompted many people to opt for biking are their primary transportation method. When I first arrived, I considered buying a bike, but my neighborhood and the surrounding thoroughfares lack bike lanes, and the traffic and aggressive driving makes it difficult for me to envision myself really using a bike more than weekly (if I had bike, I would definitely do Ciclovia, which is the closure of most roads on Sundays and holidays from 5am-2pm, and a time when hoards of bikers, fitness junkies, and dog owners take to the streets). The many bikers pedaling around town almost uniformly don scarves or some form of facial protection, many of them with special apparatuses inside to filter the exhaust. Local design stores sell trendy options for exhaust-filtering protection, and I’ve even seen cyclists wearing gas masks on occasion, not too much of an exaggeration considering the overwhelming and constant puffs of exhaust.
Besides the intense protection worn by bikers, I’ve noticed several other oddities in appearance of Colombians, and not just in Bogotá proper. Like other Latin American capitals, in the “nice” neighborhoods of Bogotá, both genders pay considerable attention to their presentation. But the personal care habits, specifically the prevalence of men who regularly get manicures, is something I had never seen on such a scale before, and I’m still not fully accustomed to seeing masculine, rugged men in dashing suits with smooth and glossy nails.
I’ve seen impeccably manicured nails on men ranging from young professional men around my age to security guards, salsa dance instructors, elderly taxi drivers, and older distinguished looking doctors and lawyers. And manicures on men are popular far from the capital as well. I will never forget arriving to the coffee region back in April late at night and finding a friendly cab driver to bring me to my hostel an hour away; after chatting the whole ride about his life with lots of outdoor work, I get out to pay him and notice even this outdoorsy man who has lived his whole life in a rural area has perfect cuticles and a fresh manicure!
There is nothing wrong with men getting manicures, and granted that a manicure here costs around $7.000-$10.000 COP ($2-3 USD), the manicure is not an expensive service or signifier of class. And there’s something beautiful about seeing a man who takes pride in his hands as tools for his work also having neat nails. Understanding all this and having spoken to male friends who regularly get manicures (they sometimes claim they just join their mothers or sisters when they go because it’s easy and don’t care so much about the manicure itself), I try not to pull a face when I notice a glisten on the nails of a man. After all, how different is cleaning up with a fresh shave from having well-maintained nails and clean hands? We’ve all heard about the importance of a firm handshake, or seen personality quiz-type articles–“what your handshake says about you.” In a modern society or professional settings without much physical contact, hands are the contact point, so (to be corny and butcher a phrase) why not put your cleanest, nicest looking hand forward.