Bogotá’s Bohemian Renaissance

I’m an impatient museumgoer, not big on jostling with others in hushed halls to see paintings that look, to me, just as good in a book as on canvas.

But for one artist I make an exception: Fernando Botero, “the most Colombian of Colombian artists,” as he styles himself. It may be asserted that Botero has single-handedly put Colombia on the world map of art. It is a fact that he put the home of the Museo Botero (Botero Museum), in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, on my personal radar.

From the lookout atop 10,341-foot-high Monserrate this summer evening, Bogotá 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 Bogotá 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 Medellín cartel, with his Learjet, submarines, and zoo.

“Things are different now, very different,” says my Bogotá 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 Bogotá of Simón Bolívar,” 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 pale-skinned 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.

Bogotá, 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 Bogotá, 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 Bogotá 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 señorial 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 Bolívar, 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 Bogotá, 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, the 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.

La Candelaria remains an outpost of antiquity on the east edge of new Bogotá’s shambolic urban sprawl spreading north and west from the Andes’ base. The city originated here, either at the stately Plaza de Bolívar—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 Bogotá’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 Bolívar, who envisioned Bogotá as a world-class capital, would have wanted. Born in Caracas, the capital of present-day Venezuela, and a European-educated scion of its upper crust—he was an unabashed Europhile—Bolívar made a gallant insurgent.

His cherished refuge, shared with Manuela Sáenz, a comrade-in-arms and his mistress, was the Quinta de Bolívar, his estate in La Candelaria’s upper reaches which is now 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 Bolívar and his Manuelita, and how happy they were here. But it didn’t last.” Bolívar would depart for self-imposed exile, and Manuelita eventually was exiled by the new government.

BolÍvar 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 Bogotá’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 8,660-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 Bogotá 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 café of the peach-colored Hotel de la Opera, a throwback to colonial times. At 28, Uribe is the second youngest deputy on Bogotá’s City Council. He also happens to be a grandson of former Colombian president Julio César 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 firefight. (Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez 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, “Bogotá 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 right 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 Bogotá 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, gourmet 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 Garzón, 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 Bolívar.

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 Bogotá’s more ludic 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 eres sabio, ríe—If you’re wise, laugh” and “Los feos tenemos más estilo—We ugly folks have more 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 Bogotá’s resurgent, and spirited, café life. I’m immediately drawn to Mitho Café, 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 Bogotá.” El Gato’s menu of cocktails features, appropriately, a sketch of surrealist Spanish artist Salvador Dalí 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 Bogotá, I return to a nocturnal haunt in La Candelaria that I’ve come to love above all. The night is chill and breezy, alive with sleekly attired young women, and men sporting combed-back hair. Every other car seems to be a taxi disgorging couples for festivities that are just starting. It’s exciting to watch all this, although, dressed in jeans and a bomber jacket, I’m feeling terribly deficient in Latin flair. I’m also at least a decade older than most of those I see.

Then I remember where I’m going: the wood-beamed, umber-walled Casa de Citas Café Arte. I step into the jeans-friendly club with a Venezuelan friend, Nelvis Navas, who does have Latina flair. A liveried waiter, whom I recognize from an earlier visit, motions to us. We cross the tiled dance floor to a table and take seats. The place echoes with warm-up taps on bongos and tentative trumpet toots as musicians on the small stage prepare for the night’s entertainment. Patrons here appear to differ from the partygoers outside. Many of the men wear horn-rimmed glasses and cotton scarves, rakishly tossed back; women strut cloche hats and fingerless gloves. They aren’t smoking but look as if they should be.

“Bohemians,” says Navas. Bogotá has, of late, become one of her favorite cities, mostly because of La Candelaria.

“Walking around here,” she’d told me earlier, “I feel a sense of tranquillity, of being taken into the past,” nothing like her native Caracas, an overbuilt modern capital. “In Bogotá they take care of the historical sights, especially the Bolívar ones. In Venezuela, though Bolívar was born there and was so important to Hugo Chávez, we just let everything go.”

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In all my days in La Candelaria, I’ve felt most at home here, in Casa de Citas, the “house of rendezvous.” I’ve visited it several times, to talk politics and books over bottles of grapy Spanish tempranillo with owner Carlos Adolfo González.

“Did it ever serve as a brothel, as the name implies?” I ask González. It’s easy to imagine painted ladies beckoning to boozed-up patrons.

He smiles. “That is a fabrication. This was a family house.” However, he adds, the association is in a way apt. “I’m trying out a different concept of brothel here, one involving men and women getting together, yes, but for drinks, music, dancing, and tertulias [literary chats].”

“Tertulia” is not a word one hears a lot anymore, but it suits Casa de Citas, now the hangout of some of Colombia’s great poets. González, a rail-thin impresario with fervent brown eyes whose loves are music and verse, has seen to that. Famed Colombian bard Juan Manuel Roca is Casa’s current muse and a frequent host of literary soirees. The poet and cultural activist María Mercedes Carranza, who helped draft Colombia’s modern-day constitution, came here until she ended it all in 2003 with a fistful of pills—in despair, some maintain, over her nation’s violent conflicts.

A server brings us a starter of toasted and salted corn called cancha tostada. The cuisine here is Peruvian; in La Candelaria, sophistication does not, I realize, require European influences.

When our seviche entrée—marinated in lemon juice, cilantro, and onion—arrives, the server leaves us something else: a jar of ají sauceají sauce, pickled, viscid, and fiery, brimming with garlic cloves. Just a touch of it burns my tongue. I spoon it lavishly over my seafood.

The band, tuned up, starts in on a salsa cubana; the music draws the sober half of the crowd onto the dance floor. There is nothing more Latin than salsa—for which, alas, I am not perfectly suited.

But as my mouth ignites, I can’t stop watching the couple next to us as they dance, the nimbly spinning woman, the fluid yet precise stepping of her partner. Suddenly, I’m seized by a sad thought: I’ll never again have the sprezzatura of youth that would have allowed an honorable showing alongside these superb salseros. Navas comes to the rescue.

“Her partner is dancing faster than the rhythm,” she comments. “They are out of sync.” She shakes her head. “He’s not nearly as good as you think.”

Then, perhaps, I am not as bad as I imagine.

Feeling impulsive—feeling, finally, like a Bogotano—I decide I’ll hit the dance floor after all.

This piece was written by Jeffrey Tayler (on Twitter @JeffreyTayler1) and first appeared in National Geographic Traveler’s October 2014 issue with photographs by Raymond Patrick. Tayler’s most recent book is Topless Jihadis: Inside Femen, the World’s Most Provocative Activist Group.

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