It's 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, and already Andrés D.C., a four-floor restaurant and rumba club in Bogotá's Zona Rosa district is packed with a well-dressed crowd, sipping cocktails and paging through magazine-sized menus.
A man in dark sunglasses and a long fur coat begins a salsa dance with a woman draped in sequins and white mink. I'm seated in "hell,'' a themed floor (the others are earth, purgatory and heaven), where red lights flicker and the music thumps. I raise my camera to take a picture, but before I can click the shutter, a hand blocks my lens. I tense up, then realize it's all a spoof. The mysterious drug kingpin, his gun moll and their "bodyguards'' are actors hired by the club to get the party started.
|Bogota's Andres D.C.|
A literal capital of cool - Bogotá sits at an elevation of 8,600 feet in the Andes mountains - Colombia's largest city blends the hip with the historical, its past reputation for crime and violence more suited to kitschy nightclub acts than a reflection of real life.
Pack a scarf and sturdy walking shoes. Nights are chilly and average daily temperatures rarely top 70. Start with funicular or cable car ride to Monserrate, a mountain and religious shrine set in a forest 10,340 feet above the sea level. Looking out over the city, it becomes clear that getting to know a metropolis of 9 million will require some artful neighborhood-hopping.
|Big Picture: The Monserrate cable car|
Best advice: Plan a three-day stay. Spend a day in the historical center of La Candelaria for museums, colonial architecture, and traditional foods; explore upscale North Chapinero for stylish restaurants, shopping, and nightlife; and finally, devote an afternoon to strolling through La Macarena, Bogotá’s Greenwich Village, known for its contemporary art galleries, artisan workshops, and cafés.
In my story for the September-October Issue of Virtuoso Life magazine, I offer this advice on what not to miss.
Leading to some of Bogotá's most important museums are narrow streets lined with low-rise, colonial buildings, some painted in bright colors, others covered with elaborate graffiti, considered a credible form of street art.
|Candalaria street scene|
|Botero's Mona Lisa|
Visitors smile as they walk through the Museo Botero (Botero Museum), housed in a restored mansion surrounding a flower-filled courtyard. The collection includes paintings, sketches and sculptures donated to the Banco de Republica by Colombian-born Fernando Botero, known for his outsized depictions of people, including a chubby-faced Mona Lisa.
Botero also donated paintings by Ernst, Dalí, Miró, and Picasso, adding to the feeling of being invited into the home of a wealthy art collector.
English-speaking art historians offer tours through the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) filled gold ornaments, pendants and helmets used by the Muisca, the indigenous tribe that a lived in the central Colombian highlands before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
A few blocks away at the National Police Historical Museum, young officers guide tourists to a room dedicated to the capture and death in 1993 of Pablo Escobar, former head of the Medellín drug cartel. On display are his wallet, telephone, guns and a confiscated Harley Davidson he gave as a gift to a cousin.
With more sophisticated areas of the city focused on international dining, La Candalaria is the place to forage for traditional Colombian drinks and street snacks. The Pequeña Sante Fe cafe marks the spot on a pocket-sized square where Bogota is believed to have been founded in 1538 by Spanish conqueror Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada. The house speciality is canelazo, a drink made with aguardiente, a distilled spirit; hot water, sugar and cinnamon.
Vendors hawk fresh fruit and grilled corn along the Carrera Séptima, a major artery bisecting the city, closed on Sundays to all but cyclists and pedestrians.
Look for cafes offering "chocolate completo," a traditional breakfast of hot chocolate, white cheese, buttered bread and a biscuit; also soft, cheesy buns called pandebono; and avena helada, a chilled drink of boiled oats, water, milk, cinnamon and salt.
North of La Candelaria, diplomatic offices, art galleries, pubs, and restaurants line the leafy boulevards leading into the newer downtown neighborhood of North Chapinero. Affluent Bogotanos flock to Zona Rosa’s Centro Comercial Andino, a massive shopping mall filled with luxury-brand boutiques, theaters, and restaurants. After dark, the scene shifts to nearby Zona T, a T-shaped pedestrian area packed with young revelers sipping martinis and nibbling on tapas in bars and clubs.
Quieter, with a more sophisticated vibe, is Zona G (the “gourmet zone”) where France, Spain, and England meet Colombia along streets filled with Tudor-style houses and European-inspired architecture. The Hotel Charleston Casa Medina, built as a private home in the 1940s, has been beautifully restored and named a monument of cultural interest by the Colombian Ministry of Culture. Surrounding the hotel, in the upscale neighborhood of Rosales, dozens of Bogotá’s best restaurants serve everything from gourmet pizza to Peruvian fare.
|Starbucks Not: Zona G's Juan Valdez|
Preparing for Starbucks recent entry into Bogotá, the Colombian-based Juan Valdez chain recently opened a three-floor cafe decorated with lounge chairs and gas fireplaces. Waiters and waitresses in kakis and blue button-downs pass out leather-bound menus to customers sipping lattes made from coffee grown in a rotating selection of regions. A block away, a lunchtime crowd fills the sun-splashed terrace at Masa, a cafe known for its European-style breads, pastries and smoothies blended with milk and exotic fruits (Ask for "mora,'' Spanish for blackberry).
The editors of "Art Cities of the Future" put Bogotá on their list of 12 cities destined to shake up the world art scene in the 21st century.
The international art fair artBO draws artists from the United States, Europe and Latin America to Bogota every October (Oct. 24-27 in 2014). Other times, visitors can sample what's new by exploring the gentrifying hilltop neighborhood of La Macarena overlooking a park near the Santamaría Bullring.
|Jario Valenzuela looks for artists with a political message|
Tucked into houses and historical buildings are galleries featuring the work of contemporary Colombian artists. Jairo Valenzuela of the Valenzuela Klenner Galería lends space to artists with a social or political message. A recent exhibit featured the work of Edgar Cortes who grew up in the slums of Bogotá, and created works from scrap materials used residents to build shelters.
|Handcrafted leather bags at Taller Manual Del Cuero|
A few doors away, at Taller Manual Del Cuero, craftsman César Giraldo welcomes visitors into his workshop where he cuts and hand-stitches leather for purses, wallets and overnight cases selling for $100-$600.
For those who don’t manage to snag a reservation in heaven, hell, or purgatory at Andrés D.C., lunch awaits at the Museo Nacional de Colombia, an art museum designed as a prison in the nineteenth century. Visitors to the museum’s El Panóptico, a café named for a type of jailhouse architecture, sit at tables surrounded by brick walls and barred windows looking out over an outdoor sculpture garden. No worries. The inmates, like the drug lords, are long gone, replaced by diners happy to be doing time over plates of shrimp and coconut rice.
WHEN TO GO:
Bogota has a cool, subtropical highland climate, with daytime temperatures averaging in the 60s most of the year. Best times to go are December, January, February and March when it rains the least. April and May are usually the wettest.
WHAT TO KNOW: Pack a raincoat, umbrella, scarf and sturdy walking shoes. The weather can change throughout the day, and walking is the best way to go sight-seeing.
WHERE TO STAY: The 58-room Charleston Casa Medina, originally built as a private home in 1946, combines historic architectural touches with the conveniences of a modern boutique hotel. Drawing on his studies in fine arts and architecture in Paris, Medellín-born Santiago Medina Mejía oversaw a classic French and Spanish-influenced design that incorporated wrought iron, clay tiles, stone floors, columns and hand-carved wooden doors salvaged from two colonial convents. Restored and opened as a hotel in 1988, Casa Medina features suites with wood-burning fireplaces for Bogota's chilly nights. Doubles from $230, including airport transfers and breakfast.
GETTING AWAY: Guidebooks point visitors to Colombia to the town of Villa de Leyva, a historic colonial village, 95 miles north of Bogota, known for its fine dining, boutique hotels and huge central plaza built by the Spanish in the 16th century. The square is picture-perfect, but there's an even more intriguing reason to come this way: Casa Terracota, or Casa Barro in Spanish, is a 5,400-square-foot Hobbit-like house made entirely of clay, a project literally cooked up by architect and owner Octavio Mendoza who calls it "the biggest piece of pottery in the world.''