From the lookout atop 10,341-foot-high Monserrate this summer evening, Bogota resembles a glittering crazy quilt tessellated with flickering lights and obsidian shadows. The vista, magnificent in scale, awes. My eye searches for the Botero Museum, somewhere directly below, in the Candelaria quarter, the city’s colonial heart. Only 15 years ago Bogota was being convulsed by a decades-long civil war. Left-wing guerrillas, many from Colombia’s working class, were gunning down officials and seizing government buildings; right-wing paramilitaries were killing leftists. And, of course, revenues from narcotics enriched a few beyond all imagination; think Pablo Escobar, the now deceased chief of the Medellin cartel, with his Learjet, submarines, and zoo. “Things are different now, very different,” says my Bogota friend Carla Baquero, a 33-year-old graphic artist, as we walk along the lookout’s steep path to the cable car for the ten-minute descent to the city.
The car sways to life, and we slide almost vertically toward the darkest part of the otherwise bright cityscape: La Candelaria. The quarter, she tells me as she brushes aside a stray black curl, “is where Colombian poets have always lived and where you still feel the Bogota of Simon Bolivar,” the heroized 19th-century liberator of Colombia. The larger-than-life art of Fernando Botero couldn’t find a more appropriate home. Baquero and I reach the entrance to the Museo Botero, which occupies a colonial residence on Calle 11. I’m intent on seeing a Botero painting that has long intrigued me: “Pareja Bailando” (“Couple Dancing”). It depicts a duo mid-step, she with horselike haunches and a mane of reddish hair, he paleskinned and rotund.
We find the artwork in a room devoted to Botero (the museum also shows works by other modern artists, including Pablo Picasso and Robert Motherwell). Like most Botero subjects, the two appear obese. However, the artist wouldn’t term them so: For him, they’re possessed of a volumen hinting at a surfeit of sensuality, a Colombian trait. All appears normal in the scene. Then I notice that neither figure is reflected in the mirror behind them—a vampiric portent of perdition? — and that the man is unshaven, suggesting this may be a brothel. Things are only superficially as they should be, intimating layers invisible to a casual observer.
“In his work,” Baquero says, “Botero hints at the problems in our history, the corruption, the falsity in our private lives, the violence beneath the surface.” We stop at “Una Familia,” a portrait of what appears to be a normal family, though the wife, husband, and two children look humorously corpulent. (They can’t be obese, Baquero notes; no folds crease their body fat, confirmation, perhaps, of Botero’s explanation of “volume.”) Then Baquero points to telling details. “The man has two wedding rings, which suggests he may be cheating. The woman seems to have a wandering eye, which for some Colombians means she can’t be trusted, so she too may be cheating.
And look at how ugly the family dog is; we think a dog’s character reflects that of its master.” I notice a scarlet snake in a tree behind them, poised to bite the woman. “That’s Catholic iconography,” Baquero observes, another implication that the two are sinners. Bogota, Botero gives us to think, is, like the rest of Colombia, Catholic yet sensuous. Much is concealed for religious propriety’s sake. Yet gazing at his lighthearted “Man on Horseback” (the man looks as heavy as the horse), I sense a playfulness, a Colombian passion for outsize moments and distrust of seriousness. Botero paints so deftly, even daftly, that his oeuvre, like Bogota, occupies a middle area between beaux arts and pop art, or, in culinary terms, between an elegant tarte tatin and Pop-Tarts.
I HAVE ALWAYS FELT BOGOTA was in my blood. Maybe it’s ascribable to a familial tie to the city: My mother spent a few years here as a teenager, in a grand casa senorial somewhere on a mist-mantled mountainside above town, where, she told me wistfully, she was never happier. In 2009, I began visiting Colombia to research a book about Bolivar, the flamboyant liberator of five countries from Spanish rule. With “El Libertador” I felt a visceral bond: His life was as peripatetic as my own, his wanderlust as insatiable, his sense of history as tragic. I fell in love with Bogota, set dramatically beneath the steep-sloped Andes, its climate often forlornly cool and rainy, its people, emerging from decades of terror, eager to learn about the world and have others learn about them.
Most of all, I fell in love with the colorfully painted Candelaria neighborhood, cradle of Colombia’s most recent renaissance, where poncho-clad campesinos share sidewalks with stylishly dressed (and newly relaxed) elites, and horse-drawn carts rattle alongside sports cars. By immersing myself in its life on this visit and meeting Candelarianos who are helping revive their city, I am hoping I will find my own place in this proud Latin culture—and derive inspiration for another book, which would come from deeper within me. I’m hoping, in other words, that maybe some of Colombia’s rebirth will rub off on me—and that I will make the city my own.
The city originated here, either at the stately Plaza de Bolivar— where Colombia’s capitol and supreme court preside—or by the quaint Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo, with its marijuana-scented alleys and folksy raconteurs. Today mostly a picturesque warren of cobbled streets and low, gable-roofed homes and businesses, La Candelaria long suffered infamy as a dilapidated, dangerous no-go zone sheltering El Cartucho, one of Bogota’s biggest drug markets (now a public park). The area’s renaissance as a hub of cultural life, at once laid-back and sophisticated, blends the Old World and the 21st century. This is what Bolivar, who envisioned Bogota as a world-class capital, would have wanted. Born in Caracas, capital of present-day Venezuela, and a European-educated scion of its upper crust—he was an unabashed Europhile—Bolivar made a gallant insurgent.
His cherished refuge, shared with Manuela Saenz, a comrade-in-arms and his mistress, was the Quinta de Bolivar, his estate in La Candelaria’s upper reaches, today a museum dedicated to the Liberator. Wander the low-slung manor house, stocked with antique chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors, or the neoclassical gardens abounding with such regional botanical curiosities as Andean blueberries, and you may understand Carla Baquero’s feelings about the place. “I’m always overwhelmed by the Quinta,” she tells me. “I think of Bolivar and his Manuelita, and how happy they were here. But it didn’t last.” Bolivar would depart for self-imposed exile, and Manuelita eventually was exiled by the new government.
BOLIVAR WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE much of the city he helped put on the map. The ride in from the airport had whipped me down an expressway toward Bogota’s phalanx of skyscrapers, their windows aflame with the midday sun, set against the green mass of Monserrate. As we shot beneath bridges streaked with graffiti, I felt short of breath from the 8,66o-foot altitude. But the clarity of the light washing over the scene, enriching all the colors, infused me with optimism. One morning I have a meeting with a young man who, from what I’ve read, is doing all that he can to change Bogota for the better. On my way to our appointment I manage to get lost in La Candelaria’s tapestry of streets, and soon am hurrying down sidewalks, sidestepping manholes, dodging roaring buses. Miguel Uribe greets me in the courtyard cafe of the peach-colored Hotel de la Opera, a throwback to colonial times.
At 28, Uribe is the second youngest deputy on Bogota’s City Council. He also happens to be a grandson of former Colombian president Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. Uribe knows more than most about Colombia’s grievous past. In 1990, drug lord Pablo Escobar ordered the kidnapping of his mother, television journalist Diana Turbay. Five months in captivity ended with a botched police rescue attempt and, in 1991, her death during a firelight. (Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez immortalized the tragedy in his nonfiction masterpiece, News of a Kidnapping.) Uribe, who was four at the time, professes no bitterness; he prefers to focus on the encouraging changes he’s seen recently. “In the 1990s, we were prisoners of narco traffickers and guerrilla groups in our own city. Now, it’s no more dangerous here than in other urban areas.” He sips a soda before adding, “Bogota has been modernizing, but La Candelaria has kept its identity, with its houses restored, security improved, excellent bars and restaurants opening, and lots of good new hotels.”
He’s light about hotels. I’m staying at the Abadia Colonial, a sleepy inn fashioned out of a colonial home, with an Italian restaurant in the courtyard. The Italian owner, Paolo Rocchi, proudly describes to me La Candelaria’s burgeoning artistic community and the French and Italians who are moving here to enjoy it. “It is like living in the center of San Francisco—the San Francisco of South America.” La Candelaria’s revival has incorporated touches of the cosmopolitan, which are welcome in a Colombia that has only recently ended its relative political isolation. “A night out in Bogota was once about arepas [flatbreads] and rum,” says Yolima Herrera, one of two Bogotanas who join me for dinner at the neighborhood restaurant El Patio. “Today, people also can order wine, goimnet cheeses, and hams.” We toast the evening with a South American Cabernet Sauvignon as good as any from France and pore over a menu of Europe-inspired dishes. “Tourism has been vital to our revival,” adds my other dinner companion, Angela Garzon, who works in city government. “We were on the blacklist of nations.”
HOWEVER MUCH LA CANDELARIA is changing, reminders of Colombia’s turbulent past remain. As light floods down from a sun burning brighter here in the tropics than anything I’m used to, I walk, still a bit short of breath from the altitude, across Plaza de Bolivar. On this spot in 1817, Spaniards put to death Policarpa Salavarrieta, a seamstress who spied for the movement for independence from Spain. Now honored by a plaque, she is her country’s revolutionary heroine; at her execution, she refused orders to kneel and turn away. Instead, she defiantly stood and faced the riflemen as they fired.
Just steps away, on pedestrian-only Carrera 7, I find an example of Bogota’s more ludie spirit. A man is playing, simultaneously, a drum on his back, a flute attached to his chin, and a guitar hanging from his neck. He manages, with contortions, to produce a salsa tune that couples dance to, skirting concrete flower planters painted with wry sayings such as “Si eressabio, rte— If you’re wise, laugh” and “Los feos tenemos mas estilo—We ugly folks have moi-e style.” Just south of the square, at the artisanal market Pasaje Rivas, vendors greet passersby with figurines of the Virgin Mary—and the Simpsons.
Then there is Bogota’s resurgent, and spirited, cafe life. I’m immediately drawn to Mitho Cafe, a wood-paneled space warmed by a freestanding fireplace, which I nestle next to one drizzly afternoon with a crema de whiskey and a crusty picada of chorizo sausage and baby potatoes. Another afternoon I experiment with absinthe at El Gato Gris, which dubs itself “Bohemia in Bogota.” El Gato’s menu of cocktails features, appropriately, a sketch of surrealist Spanish artist Salvador Dali with his signature pencil mustache. Sitting at a small table under a wrought iron chandelier, watching a failing sun gild rococo church belfries, I sip from my chalice of absinthe, which has been sweetened with chocolate and a stick of cinnamon. My favorite drink, however, will turn out to be a Colombian standard: a shot of aguardiente (“fiery water”) preceded by a quick chomp on a slice of lime. My final night in Bogota, I return to a nocturnal haunt in La Candelaria I’ve come to love above all.