Previous trips can be accessed by clicking the following links:

Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Latvia, Lithhuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, U.A.E. and Denmark.

Monday, September 25, 2017

9/18: Bogota Walking Tour: Black Market Emeralds, Chicha & Pablo Escobar

We were glad to leave Medellin and fly on to Colombia's capital, Bogota, our 'home' for the next four days. Long before the Spanish conquest in Sabana de Bogota, present-day Bogota was inhabited by one of the most advanced pre-Colombian indigenous groups, the Muisca. The Spanish era began when Gonzalo Jiminez de Quesada and his expedition arrived near the Muisca capital in August,1538 and named the town Santa Fe de Bogota, a combination of the traditional name, Bacata, and Quesada's hometown in Spain. The town was referred to as Santa Fe until its name was officially shortened to Bogota in 1821. When the town was founded, it consisted of 12 huts and a chapel where a Mass was held to celebrate the town's birth. The Muisca religious sites were destroyed and replaced by churches.

We were looking forward to finding out more about the capital on the three plus hour, free walking tour that began at 2 in front of the city’s Gold Museum. To get a sense of the city, we walked from the hotel downtown. 

A vertical garden was new to both of us.
Judy Russell: I thought of you when we passed by murals and graffiti as I remembered our email exchange from a previous trip about what we were seeing was classified as graffiti or what exactly and you suggested the term ‘street art.’ Seeing the graffiti, I was already looking forward to the Graffiti Tour, one of 31 tours in the city in a few days.
Unlike most capital cities, Bogota has few high-rise buildings but the ones the city does have, seemed particularly skinny. We found out later that Bogota will soon have the tallest high-rise on the continent.

I was taken by the shape of this one.
We encountered lots of vendors selling all manner of things on their push carts. These avocados looked they were on steroids compared to the puny ones we see on the grocery shelves at home.

Interesting name for a place to stay: the Hotel Gun Club.
This indigenous person, likely from northern Colombia, was in Santander Square, near the meeting place for our tour.
Ricardo, our excellent guide, told us Bogota is the 5th highest capital in the world at about 7,500 feet. He warned up to make sure to apply lots of sunscreen because we were that much closer to the sun. He mentioned about the Spanish conquerors forcing the indigenous people to become Christians. What we hadn't known from our prior reading was that, if they didn’t convert after going through the doors of the Iglesia de San Francisco in the background below, they were decapitated and their heads were put in the corners of Santander Square, also known as Shooting Square, as a warning to others. 
The square was now a cultural area with a flea market, men playing chess and an area for lots of protests. He commented that there’s one an average of every four days somewhere in Bogota.
Minutes later, we strolled a block away to Rosario Square where fans of the Netflix series, Narcos, might recognize it as scenes were shot here and other areas around the city. Christine: Does the square look familiar at all?

Since I am writing this almost a week later, both our tour guides were distressed that foreigners may be getting their sense of Colombia from that show. Colombia is now much more than the violence that ensnared the country for decades and how it is portrayed on TV. Many people questioned the wisdom of our traveling to this great country but we had no reservations and would encourage everyone to visit Colombia. Sorry I digressed from the tour. 

In the center of the square was a statue of Bogota's Spanish founder. The white building on the right was where nine Colombian presidents studied law. In addition, it was also a prison at some point in its history.
The square looked alive and vibrant. However, it wasn’t because people had congregated to exchange pleasantries. Ricardo pointed out the square was actually the location for the black market in Colombian emeralds where groups of three or four men would buy and sell emeralds right there in the open after examining them. He said the men were wearing big, bulky jackets so they had room for envelopes containing emeralds. We were, indeed, in another world seeing this happen right in front of our eyes!
The logical question, of course, was why the government allows the black market to continue to exist and why it doesn’t crack down on the illegal activity. Ricardo explained that there are ‘big powers’ behind the black market sellers, i.e. a tacit agreement with the government.
After inspecting the gems, the traders would then take the stones to the office across the street to weigh and check them for clarity, etc. The white building in the background was the Emerald Center which we could tour, Ricardo noted. He advised us it would be foolhardy to buy emeralds in the square as we might well end up with just green glass! Colombia is the number one producer of emeralds in the world.
Angelina Jolie bought these stunning Colombian emerald earrings for $3.5 million! 
The 7th Ave., aka Protest Ave., intersection was important, Ricardo joked, because it contained, on each corner the four major powers in the country: the city's oldest church and the main bank (on the left and right respectively below), the leading newspaper, and, of course, McDonald’s or burger heaven where I was standing and took the photo.
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was the popular Socialist candidate in the country in April,1948 and, according to the polls, he was going to be the first Socialist leader of Colombia. This was the time of the Cold War and Colombia would become a Socialist country. Gaitan was assassinated just before the election which sparked the uprising known as El Bogotazo. The city was partially destroyed when 136 buildings were burned to the ground and 2,500 people died.
Gaitan was killed where the Mickey D’s is now located across from the church. That was the beginning of the guerrilla movement known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, and the civil war that ensued in Colombia for decades. FARC, Ricardo said, was now turning into a political party and speaking out as opposed to killing people. Ironically, Fidel Castro, who was a student in 1948, had come to Bogota to meet with Gaitan on the day he died. What happened in Bogota after Gaitan’s death inspired Castro to start his own revolution in Cuba. 
Photos as we walked to the next stop:

The Muisca indigenous people believed that if you wanted to redeem all your sins, they just had to carry the same number of rocks on their shoulders up the hill to Monserrate. The mountain-top church, which we'd see in a couple of days, was accessible by either funicular or walking up. Ricardo added that it’s a tradition to hike up on Sundays like a pilgrimage. From the top, we would see 75% of the city. 
Ricardo took us to a local cafĂ© in La Candelaria section, the old quarter of Bogota where the chicha beverage was served. 

Ricardo said it was important for us to celebrate life as the indigenous people do and tie the totuma, the small wooden bowl, around our neck and drink from it. Bogota residents often have a variety of sizes of totuma bowls in their kitchens, Ricardo stated.
The delicious beverage was made out of pineapple and corn as everything that comes from the earth was considered sacred. Some indigenous people even shower in chicha to protect themselves against evil influences. He said it was easy to get wasted on the chicha drink as it’s very strong. I had a second serving but didn’t notice any effect at all, likely because the portions were so small!
The drink was forbidden from 1948 until 1991 because the government believed that the chicha was the reason so many people burned down the institutions during Bogotazo. Posters spearheaded by and distributed by Bavaria Beer Company told people not to drink fermented drinks like chicha. The most controversial one stated the drink made people stupid. It was sad to think that it was thanks to the scare tactics of the beer company that beer came to be such a popular drink in Colombia.
I didn't realize that Colombian coffee was almost all exported. The country needs to actually import coffee to satisfy local demand. 
During the prohibition period, this was known as the Street of Chicha because people would sneak into the houses on the street and socialize and drink.

Ricardo stated that the graffiti movement in Bogota is very strong with lots of walls painted, thanks to one Canadian 'artist' known as Justin Bieber!  He came to Bogota to do a concert and painted a mural on the street surrounded by his security detail. Bieber's controversial 'art' is on the right. I feel embarrassed as a fellow Canadian at many of his antics.
‘Real’ graffiti artists rebelled and painted over Bieber's graffiti right away as graffiti was considered illegal in the city. Because of the uproar that followed when the government didn't condemn Bieber for his actions, the government then gave permission for some artists to paint different messages on big walls. Ricardo added that graffiti is now legal in Bogota. Look for a vastly different interpretation of the legality of graffiti in Bogota in an upcoming post on the graffiti tour we took!
I hope you might be as intrigued as we were by these images as the post in a few days will provide information about these works of art and the artists behind them.
At the other end of Chicha St. was Plaza del Churro Quevedo which was where Bogota was founded in 1528 with just 12 houses being built. That number was chosen specifically because it represented the 12 Apostles.
The pink structure in the square also had 12 open windows or doorways.
This was the first of the 'Green-People-Watching-From-Above' figures we'd seen that the Lonely Planet travel guide referred tourists be on the lookout for in La Candelaria area. These unique art projects made in the last decade from recycled materials represented local people and were done by local artist Jorge Olave. I couldn't wait to see if we could spot more of them!

The Virgin of Candelaria Church was painted yellow because the Spaniards stopped in the Canary Islands on their way to South America. The words ‘candle’ and ‘chandelier’ come from that same origin and were the ways to light the way to God. This church was the only one in the area that survived a mammoth 8.1 earthquake, according to Ricardo.

Ricardo joked that 90% of the people in Colombia say they are Catholic because that way they get lots of holidays. Colombia is the only country in the world with so many holidays: there are 18 of them now with 12 being religious ones. Another holiday is being added next year, likely to celebrate a minor religious figure as how many major religious holidays can you have, he asked?!
Across from the church was a massive museum complex which comprised five museums in one and run by the Banco de la Republica.

He showed us part of the Museo Botero, the highlight of the complex for most people. If you've read previous posts, you saw our visit to the Botero Museum in Medellin just a few days previously. Featuring the work of Colombia's most famous artist, Fernando Botero, this was billed as Bogota's most famous museum and one of the most fascinating in all of South America by Lonely Planet. The latter is a bold statement in my opinion. Botero generously donated much of his collection of not only his works but of European Masters to this museum with the understanding that everyone could see them as art should be available for free.

We'd seen huge numbers of copies of this bronze sculpture in souvenir stores - more than any of his works - in each of the previous cities in Colombia we'd visited so it was neat to see the original.
The artist, according to Ricardo, wants to be recognized by the volume of people, fruits, animals, etc and not by the voluminous depictions of people. 
Ricardo commented that Botero always used his imagination and that was why everything in his works is out of proportion. To Botero, the concept of beauty is an inner one and not something to be judged by others. There is no perfection in shapes. He pointed out the size of the knife and fork in this picture relative to the bananas.
Botero's only self-portrait:
In his Adam and Eve picture, Botero painted about the origin of sin with the falling apples. The woman and female child are sitting while the man and male child both stand. Botero used that contrast to criticize the Colombian macho culture where men were always in a position of power above women. Botero used his work to say that you can’t have the divisions of power and labor that exist in Colombian society. This is his most valuable painting, we were told, because of its political commentary.
Ricardo commented that Botero often painted or sculpted naked women because, in the Colombian macho culture, women are criticized and people need to understand the concept of beauty. I was able to appreciate and understand Botero's art much better with Ricardo's commentary. However, Steven and I both agreed we'd had quite enough of all things Botero by that point and had no desire to see more of the museum later by ourselves!
La Casa de Moneda or Mint House was the royal Spanish house used to govern the area and was original to the 1700s. 
The coat of arms is from the Spanish family sent to ‘discover’ Colombia.
One of Colombia’s presidents wanted to simply reduce the extra zeroes from the 20,000 and 50,000 pesos bills to make it easier for people but he soon realized the economic chaos that would ensue if that happened! This area was one of first to be attacked during the riots that followed Gaitan's murder in 1948. Ricardo pointed out the damage still visible on the pillars. Everyone on the tour was given a souvenir coin as a token from the Mint House that are minted every Tuesday!
There was a large police presence directly across from the Mint House at the Military Museum and also up and down the street. 

Just down the street was Teatro Colon, considered the 7th wonder of Colombia, as no damage was done to it during the Bogotazo riots because people wanted to preserve it. We had hoped to take a tour as it’s supposed to be stunning but none were available unfortunately when we were. 
Across from the theater named after Christopher Columbus was the former Presidential Palace. Ricardo told an amusing story - least it was in the beginning - when liberator and independence leader Simon Bolivar was asleep with his mistress, Manuelita, when rioters came to kill him.  
Manuelita looked outside this window and saw them approach the house. Bolivar told her he was going to defend himself against the mob of 60 men and Manuelita told him not to be stupid and jump out the window instead. He heeded her suggestion and quickly ran down the street, only half-dressed, and hid in a barn for two days . He got sick as a result and, as I related in the Santa Marta post, he died there not long afterwards. 
The image of Mick Jagger on the food cart came about when he was in the city for a tour and he stopped at one of the carts on the street for some fruit. Next day, five carts had his image on their carts!
Just a few feet away from the museums and theater was the gargantuan Plaza de la Bolivar which had changed considerably over the centuries and was no longer lined with colonial buildings. It was located in the very historic and political center of the capital.
The Parliament of Colombia, the oldest building on the square, was on our left as we entered it.
To our right was Catedral Primada or Primate Cathedral. We didn't have time to visit it on the tour so made plans to return the next day by ourselves. 
Across from the Cathedral was City Hall which had had the copy of the nation’s Declaration of Independence and Declaration of the Founding of Bogota until the building burned down.
On the opposite end was the modern looking, third Palace of Justice in that location because it was built in 1989. The first justice offices, dating from 1821, were destroyed by fire in April 1948 during the Bogotazo riots. Pablo Escobar, the largest drug dealer in Colombia and known as the King of Cocaine, was so wealthy he offered to pay the country’s debt to the US. For some, he was seen as a sort of Robin Hood when he paid people to vote against an extradition treaty with the US. He paid the M19 rebel group to go into the Palace of Justice in 1985 and burn all documents with his name on them. 
Violence ensued, the Palace of Justice was gutted by fire in a fierce 28-hour offensive by the army in an attempt to reclaim it but not before the Colombian government took 45 hostages into this white building on the corner between it and the Cathedral. The hostages told the officials they were workers but the police believed they were members of the guerrillas and they were all killed. The truth has never come out as to their guilt or innocence and the case was closed 22 years later. Every November 6th and 7th, posters of 151 people who were killed are shown in the square as a protest against the government's actions. The new Justice Building was seen, Ricardo said, as a symbol of hope for the city and country. 
 In the center of the square was a statue of Bolivar created in 1846 by Italian Pietro Tenerani. It was the first public monument in Bogota.
Between the Cathedral and the building where the hostages were taken was Food Alley. 
The small door on the alley side of the Cathedral was built for some to escape the eight-hour long Mass and come to this restaurant called, appropriately enough, The False Door!  I think I would have wanted to have escaped that long a Mass, too!

Our last stop in the fascinating 3.5 hour walking tour was the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center, named for the Colombian writer, political commentator and Nobel-prize winner, and built just behind the Cathedral. The Socialist writer was accused by the government of financing the guerrillas and, so when he later sought political asylum in the US, he was denied. Because he spent the last five years of his life in Mexico, the Center was also financed by the Mexican government. Marquez's book, 100 Years of Solitude, is mandatory reading for all students in Colombia and one I plan on reading when we return home at the end of the year.
Thanks to Ricardo and the free walking tour, Steven and I were drawn to Bogota because of its collection of great museums, interesting architecture, eye-popping graffiti and intriguing history. We couldn't wait to explore of the capital in the coming days.

Next post: Museo del Oro!

Posted on September 24th, 2017, from Villa de Leyva, Colombia.