THE RAIN POUNDED the front of our car, “We Will Rock You” bleeding softly from the speakers. We drove up and down hills, past soldiers with machine guns milling around in front of gated houses, and under towering stands of eucalyptus trees. As we rounded a sharp turn, the view opened suddenly and a misty Bogotá spread out beneath us.
Bogotá is a very large and very urban city that sits on a plateau, nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, at the top of a verdant mountain. The backdrop feels incongruous, as if someone dropped New York onto a set from The Hobbit. The silhouette of the mountain range looms above the city, dominating almost every view: Rising above the end of a narrow street, peeking out from behind the corner of a building, reflected in a store window, the mountains are always there.
When my wife and I left San Francisco, it was 58 degrees and raining. When we arrived in Bogotá, it was 58 degrees and raining. Hard. The rain was savage, punishing the sidewalks and overflowing the gutters. Should you find yourself wandering the cobblestone streets of the historic La Candelaria neighborhood, soaked and wondering what Bogotanos have against awnings, you might discover, as if by magic, a nice man standing next to you who wants to sell you a $3 umbrella. He solicitously holds open his own $3 umbrella over your head while you dig for change. (Was that 6,000 pesos? 60,000?) You take the umbrella triumphantly, and then an hour later the rain stops as quickly as it started.
In contrast to the greenery that surrounds it, much of the city presents itself as a maze of drab gray stone and concrete walls covered in fantastically imagined graffiti, as if Bogotá’s many museums were not strong enough to contain the current explosion of artistic talent. I saw angry teeth chattering inside a tomato; a disembodied head floating over a coca plant; a giant, smiling bat in a color that can only be described as “Satan red,” wearing the name of an art collective across its outstretched wings. This is not the impotent tagging of wastrel teenagers but hundreds of years of social and political turbulence bubbling up through the artists’ work.
I am still haunted by La Violencia, a 1962 painting by Alejandro Obregón. Like Picasso’s Guernica, it expresses the pain of a country tormented by war: a pregnant woman’s body sunk into a darkened landscape, a hill that is a stomach, a breast dripping blood, a melancholy sky. I would return to Bogotá just to see it again.
If La Violencia and the other contemporary artwork we saw at the Museo Botero illuminated the realities of a devastated country, the Museo del Oro told the beginning of that story, starting with the Muisca, a pre-Hispanic agricultural people who harvested not only corn and potatoes but also gold. The ceremonial and decorative pieces on display in the museum were enchanting, so pure and well-crafted that they glowed as if from within. The Muisca lived more or less peacefully until the Spanish explorer Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada found them, and the gold. War, theft, and destruction ensued, and by 1538 Bogotá was founded as a Spanish colony. Spanish rule was cast off in 1810, but the city and country have been roiled with violence for much of the past 200 years: the Thousand Days War at the turn of the 20th century; La Violencia, a brutal political conflict that started with the assassination of a presidential candidate in 1948 and lasted for 10 years, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives; the recent decades of drug wars; the Medellín Cartel, the U.S. funding of anti-drug operations and dumping of Agent Orange on the rainforests, the execution-style killings.
Now Bogotá is safer. The art scene is on fire. A vibrant restaurant scene is emerging. Over the last 10 years, the city, long isolated by its geography and history, has become more cosmopolitan, more open to outsiders. But the scars remain, both perceptual and real. It’s hard to tell someone that you’re visiting Bogotá without them rubbing their finger under their nose or telling you about the shoot-outs in the street. The reality is that Bogotá is a city in transition, bound to its past while trying to imagine a better future.
I have spent the last three decades obsessively studying food—not just the fancy stuff served in expensive restaurants but the way culture expresses itself through cuisine. What I found in Bogotá was unsettlingly familiar: The European imperialism that once spread across the globe continues to have a stranglehold on local restaurants, where French, Italian, and Spanish cooking dominate.
Our search for a beloved local place turned up Andrés Carne de Res, a steak house that started many years ago as a roadside grill. It sounded perfect. So we braved the afternoon traffic and took a long, smoggy ride to the neighboring town of Chía, only to find a restaurant masquerading as a small village: Every night it serves 2,000 to 3,000 people. This is where Bogotanos go to party. We bought tickets and lined up in a cattle-chute-like waiting area, which led to a room festooned with Christmas lights and illuminated hearts, every corner stuffed with random knickknacks. Once we were seated, our server handed us a menu that ran to several volumes, with no explanation as to any sort of ordering protocol, and then disappeared. From there it got worse. There was overcooked steak. There was dry, unseasoned grilled corn and oversweetened cocktails. There was the vague feeling that we’d stumbled into a college bar in Key West during spring break.
“Historically, the restaurant industry has been mediocre,” my friend David, a commercial photographer born and raised in Bogotá, told me later. “So people just want to have a good time. When I was growing up, no one went to restaurants during the week. It was only on Sundays and only for social reasons. Burger King and McDonald’s were considered nice restaurants then. Now there’s a bit more to choose from.”
Although Bogotá is in the middle of a restaurant boom, the city’s growing middle class seems to be looking more for stimulating experiences than for adventurous cuisine. Wandering through Zona G (think Soho), we found beautifully designed restuarants, bakeries, bars, and coffee shops, almost all of them looking to Europe for their inspiration. Ironically, one of our tastiest meals was in the restaurant with the homeliest decor. At a spot called La Condesa Irina Lazaar there were six tables, no sign, and a locked door to greet us. But the food was great: well-seasoned liver that was soaked in buttermilk for a few days and then grilled over a wood fire; onion soup with thyme and pine nuts (“more Italian than French,” the chef told me); a perfectly cooked chicken.
The most distinctive flavors we found were at the Paloquemao Market plaza. A massive airplane hangar of a space chaotically stuffed with produce, meat, fish, and flowers, Paloquemao had a lot to say about regional ingredients. I recognized almost nothing. There were berries from the Andes and tropical fruits from the nearby Amazon and the coast; gulupa, like a sweet version of passion fruit; and lulo, with its heavily perfumed scent and bright acidity, like the love child of a guava and a kiwi. We left with a few large wooden spoons, several bags of fruit, and a question: Why are so few of those ingredients on restaurant menus?
That night we ate at El Bandido, one of the hottest reservations in town. The second we walked in the door, we knew why. It was magic, like a pleasantly crowded dinner party in a room that could have been anywhere, where you go to drink and laugh, where the radiance of the room washes away the vagaries of the quotidian world. The restaurant served solid bistro fare, but I’m not sure anyone was there for the food. They came for that perfect moment when life is transformed into something better, without the beheadings, protests, murders, injustice, and fear that dominate current headlines. When that moment hit us, my wife leaned across the table and said, “We’re so lucky to be here.” And we were.
We spent the next day on bikes borrowed from David. Sunday is ciclovía, when many of Bogotá’s streets are closed to cars. We meandered through La Macarena, along back roads and main streets, and through the Parque Nacional, with its manicured lawns and majestic skyline of trees against a pale blue sky. We ate arepas (a kind of corn cake) and corn on the cob (blackened, crunchy, and not at all sweet) served from open-air grills. We passed on tripe that smelled like old socks. We dodged pedestrians. We checked out a flea market and rode south to see the government buildings in La Candelaria.
For all the talk of a growing middle class, Bogotá’s culture is still remarkably stratified. The government has actually established a system of rating wealth, from 1 (poor) to 6 (rich). Designed to create affordable-housing opportunities, David explained, it has become an easy shorthand for social status, one that is hard to change. Ciclovía is one of the few occasions during which people from different estratos mingle.
We dumped our bikes back at David’s house and went to a nearby chicken place for lunch, the kind where a meal costs $5. I was excited. It showed every sign of being a local find: not in any guidebooks, patronized only by Colombians happily enjoying their meals, open-fire cooking, wide wicker baskets lined with plantain leaves and filled with chicken, taro, plantain, and potatoes.
There was a consommé with herbs to start. Fantastic. Then there was the chicken. “Dry” and “flavorless” would hardly do justice to what had to be one of the most depressing destinies that a bird has ever encountered. I took a bite. Two bites. I washed it down with a local drink called refajo, a mixture of beer and soda. It was like washing down sawdust with artificial sweetener. I pushed away the basket, and the drink.
“You see?” David said. “No flavor. This is what people grew up with, what they’re used to.”
On our final day in Bogotá we took the funicular, a cable car that starts in La Candelaria and rises an additional thousand feet to the top of Monserrate. I had resisted the ride because it was a touristy thing to do, as if I were somehow better than a tourist. Low to the ground, the view was dominated by the churches and tall downtown buildings we’d spent the last four days exploring. But as we rose higher, the familiar area quickly started to shrink, like Borromini’s forced perspective in reverse, becoming smaller and smaller as the city beyond it grew ever larger. By the time we reached the top, the downtown area resembled a tiny sliver of beach abutting a vast ocean. I was still thinking about the fact that everyone in Bogotá was branded with a status number, like Yelp run amok. It was not the inequity but the transparency of it. As I looked down at the vastness of the city and the tiny area where we had spent all our time, it struck me as a physical manifestation of Bogotá’s enduring social divisions.
“How much of the city is off-limits?” I asked David later, as we ate delicious tamales outdoors at La Puerta Falsa, a small consolation after the chicken fiasco. “You know, too dangerous.”
He thought for a moment.
“About 50 percent,” he said. “Maybe a little more. There’s still so much corruption, and so little of the money gets to the people who need it most. Many areas in the south have terrible conditions, no electricity or running water. And even here they don’t do a good job with basic services. Maybe,” he said, pointing to a small crater in the asphalt, “they could at least fix some of the potholes.”
That morning there had been a long, loud taxi protest about Uber that honked and wheezed in front of our hotel for what felt like hours. Uber has had its share of problems around the world, but in Bogotá, at least when we were there, it was hands-down the best mode of transportation. Because of the protest, we walked. The air along the main drags was redolent of spilled gas and exhaust, the sidewalks were packed with pedestrians, and, to make it more interesting, there was a bicycle lane down the center of the sidewalk that suggested what might happen if the Tour de France were reimagined as a contact sport.
“Taxis here are terrible,” grumbled David when I asked what he thought about the pro- test. “They’re rude, they overcharge, and every weekend it seems like someone gets kidnapped at gunpoint. I like Uber.” A few weeks after we left, Uber was declared illegal. Richard McColl, in the City Paper, wrote a sort of requiem, not just for Uber but also for the innovation and new ways of thinking that it represents.
This collision of tradition and modernity seems inevitable in a society that has fought so long to free itself from its past. In a visit to the colonial Plaza de Usaquén on the northern edge of the city, we found, among the French and Italian places, a restaurant called Mercado that served the kind of fresh, bright Colombian food I had imagined would be everywhere. The restaurant was founded by Leonor Espinosa, one of the pioneers of the local food movement. That night we went to her Leo Cocina y Cava, where we started with an icy, deep-purple cocktail made from corozo, a fruit from the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The tasting menu that followed, full of imaginative dishes based on native Colombian ingredients such as pipilongo (peppers), guayusa leaves, and piangua mollusks, was the best meal of the trip.
“Colombians tend to look to other countries with admiration,” David told us on the drive back to the hotel. “We look outside and think it’s cool, but not inside our own country. That’s starting to change.”