The Real Bogotá

We arrived in Bogotá just after midnight. I had arranged for a driver to pick us up, but after we exited the airport, we found that no one was outside waiting for us. The taxi counter was inside the airport behind the ‘do not enter’ sign so we were stuck eyeing the drivers eagerly lined up outside the airport. We were trying to decide which driver to go with when a woman approached us about needing a taxi. She had a badge that looked official, so we agreed on a price and followed her to a car in a nearby parking lot. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have that ‘oh shit what did we just get into’ feeling as we pulled out of the parking lot in an unmarked car.

But our driver that the woman paired us with looked as if he could be someone’s grandpa, and this put me at ease. He tried to talk to us in English, and we tried to talk to him in Spanish. With each American hotel chain we passed, he tried to convince us that it was a nice hotel and that we should stay there.

“Holiday Inn? Nice hotel. You go there?”

“No. We have a hotel.”

“In Centro?”

“Yes. In Centro.”

This same conversation was repeated as we passed the Sheraton, Marriot, Ramada, and a few other hotels that I am unfamiliar with. I couldn’t tell if there was an incentive for him to bring guests to these hotels, which is common in many Asian countries, or if he just didn’t want to drive to the center of the city. Either way, the routine seemed familiar, and I was quickly becoming annoyed.

As we turned into the center of Bogotá, though, I begin to think maybe he was just looking out for us.

The streets were deserted. The buildings looked shabby with garage-style doors covered in graffiti. It didn’t look like any place I wanted to spend time.

But as we neared our hotel, the streets narrowed, the buildings became colorful, restaurants and coffee shops lined the streets, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

The guy who checked us in at our hotel assured us that the city was safe for walking (we had heard otherwise) during the day and into the evening, but he advised that “zombies” tend to come out after 10 pm, so he recommended taking a taxi if we planned to be out.

We spent our first morning exploring Central Bogotá. The streets were packed with locals and yet no one paid us any attention. After spending so much time in Asia, this was a welcomed surprise. No one tried to sell us anything. No one asked for money. Even as I’m typing this, I still can’t believe it. The only person who spoke to us gave us directions after he overheard me tell Emma that I thought the museum was nearby. (It was.)

I overpaid at a café, and the cashier gave me back the extra bills.

Today we visited Monserrate, a mountain that’s perched over Bogotá, offering a bird’s-eye-view of the city. As we neared the base of the mountain, we couldn’t see where to go so we stopped to ask for directions. The man helped us find our way and advised us to put all our cameras away for the walk.

These occurrences seem small, almost trivial, but they show the real Bogotá, the one you don’t hear about in the news. It’s a city that is actively working to shed its negative reputation and reinventing itself into an art and culture hub in the process.

Before I left the states, my dad asked me, “What’s going on down there?”

The question was vague, but I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know about the safety situation.

I didn’t know exactly what was going on in Bogotá, but I had heard stories. Just last week on a travel group page I follow on Facebook, a girl shared that she was walking down from Monserrate when three men wearing masks and carrying machettes appeared out of the brush and robbed her.

Another friend advised me not to walk around the city because it was unsafe. She suggested I hire a driver for my entire stay.

I don’t take these stories lightly. I use them to prepare myself as best I can. Because of the story on Facebook, we booked roundtrip tickets on the tram, so we wouldn’t walk down the path where robberies are fairly common. I also had my mom sew a tiny envelope, slightly larger than a credit card, so I could pin it to the inside of my clothing. If I was robbed, at least they wouldn’t get my large bills and credit cards. (They would get my cameras, but that’s why I purchase travel insurance and upload my pictures each night.)

I was prepared to hire a driver if I felt it was necessary, but I never did.

When my dad asked a second time about the safety of the area, I reminded him that I live in one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S.

In the same way that I would hate for people to not visit St. Louis because of something they heard, I would have hated to miss out on Bogotá, a city that really impressed me.


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