The section on Colombia in my local bookshop in London is not promising. Other countries offer travelogues with evocative titles – Italy, for example, has Under the Tuscan Sun, Spain has Driving over Lemons and France has Return to the Olive Farm. Colombia, by contrast, has My Colombian War, Killing Pablo and At the Devil’s Table. All of which have rather less of a holiday feel to them.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later (and with some considerable misgivings), I find myself in Colombia, being seated not at the devil’s table but at a restaurant in northern Bogotá. The waiter approaches holding a small dish of white crystals. I look at it. He points to the menu. There, listed almost as a separate course, is: “Sal Maldon: 100% artisanal de Essex (Inglaterra).” It is fair to say that if I had associated Bogotá with a white crystalline substance, it wouldn’t have been Maldon sea salt.
This is unfair because Bogotá – though it used to be a byword for cocaine, gun-crime and kidnapping – has undergone something of a metamorphosis in the past 15 years. Streets, once too dangerous to walk, are being colonised by coffee shops and fusion restaurants; narco-terrorism is being replaced by gastro-tourism, and clubs once forced to close early (to save patrons the problem of being shot on the way home) now dance on till dawn. Bogotá has, in short, gone from a no-go city to a boho one.
Gaira Café, one of Bogotá’s most famous haunts, is owned by Grammy-winning Colombian singer Carlos Vives and his brother Guillermo. When the club opened in 1998, “the city was completely different”, says Guillermo. “We were not considered a tourist destination. Nobody wanted to come to Colombia because they were afraid of being kidnapped. Now it’s like we’re opening to the world.”
Ask any of the Colombians on the dance floor in Gaira what has changed and they will invariably give you two names: Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s president from 2002 until 2010, and Antanas Mockus, Bogotá’s former mayor. Elected on a mandate to “recover civility, recover order”, Uribe proved true to his promise. Within two years, Colombia’s murder rate fell 25 per cent; incidents of terrorism 37 per cent and kidnappings 45 per cent. There were dissenters, and accusations that he was in league with paramilitaries. But so effectively did his policies improve the lives of Colombians that his approval ratings remained high – at one point, as high as 91 per cent.
Mockus’s approach was lighter but no less effective. Bogotá’s mayor is a man of such personality that he makes his London counterpart Boris Johnson look bland. A mathematician and philosopher, he came to public consciousness in 1993 when, as rector of the National University of Colombia, he was confronted with an auditorium of unruly students refusing to allow scheduled speakers to address the audience. Finally losing patience, Mockus slowly turned his back on the students, and dropped his trousers. He later said: “Innovative behaviour can be useful when you run out of words.”
It was just such “innovative behaviour” that characterised his mayorship. Frustrated, for example, with the fact that few Bogotanos obeyed simple rules of the road, Mockus hired troupes of mime artists. Whenever they saw someone breaking a traffic law, such as crossing the road in the wrong place, the mimes would follow that person, mimicking them. Traffic fatalities subsequently dropped by more than 50 per cent. Other innovations included a citywide “night for women” (during which men had to stay at home and mind the children) and persuading 63,000 people to pay a voluntary extra 10 per cent tax.
There have been other inventive mayors too. One instituted a policy of closing more than 70 miles of the capital’s roads to cars on Sunday mornings. As a result, a good way to see the sights of this sprawling city is by bike. I book myself on a cycling tour and set out. My tour avoids the usual historical sights, taking us instead on something of a social safari through the city. Our guide describes it as “an adventure tour”.
We cycle past the presidential palace and, instead, head into the red light district, where beautiful women stand bare-breasted in doorways and transvestites teeter in heels. We cycle, too, through fruit markets of Caribbean colourfulness and into poorer, sadder, areas, patrolled by armed police. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, we cycle through suburbs of sudden Englishness, where mullioned windows peer over privet hedges – a legacy, apparently, of British workers who came here in the early 1900s, then left behind a corner of a foreign field that is forever Guildford.
But though some areas are relatively rough – and though we present, in our helmets and bicycle clips, a frankly eminently tempting target – we are perfectly safe. Had we gone to these places 10 years earlier, we would probably not have been. At one point, we stop a few hundred metres from Bogotá’s handsome central square, in an area that used to be a slum. From here, during the 2002 inauguration of Uribe, explains our guide, Farc [the leftwing guerrilla army] fired mortars at the Presidential Palace. Today, the slum has been cleared and the area is a park.
The tour ends in La Candelaria, the oldest part of the city and easily the prettiest. Brightly coloured colonial houses cluster on the steep slopes of the Andes. The sun sets as we climb cobbled streets. A white mist starts to roll down the black mountains. La Candelaria is often said to be the most bohemian part of Bogotá, a sort of Colombian Montmartre. In many ways, with its bars, live music, and whiff of gentrification, that is an apt description.
But in many other ways, it isn’t. Later that evening, I go to a tiny, candle-lit restaurant. I arrive late, as the owner seems to be closing. However, far from sending me away, he greets me like an old friend, welcomes me in and makes friendly conversation over my meal. When I leave, he calls me a taxi, opens the door of it for me, then stands in the street waving as I drive off. It is hard to imagine that happening in Paris.
In northern Bogotá, the clubs and bars are equally friendly, but somewhat more chic. With their stripped-wood floors and clever lighting installations they could easily be in Madrid or Barcelona. But Bogotá offers much more than just a South American version of Spain. As well as a new-found pride in their capital, Colombians are, according to Vives, enjoying a new-found pride in all things Colombian.
“High society here was always looking outside the country. We were educated to think that everything outside Colombia was better.” But recently, he says, young Colombians have started embracing their own traditions. So the music at Gaira Café is not canned, bland pop but live Colombian vallenato, a sort of Colombian folk music. And while you may find Maldon sea salt on menus in northern Bogotá, it will often be being used to season traditional Colombian arepas and tamales.
However, the real appeal of Bogotá is less its food or music, lovely though these are, than its people. Bogotanos seem exceptionally happy, and – an even rarer trait – exceptionally pleased to see tourists. As one Colombian explains, tourists are seen as a “sign of hope”.
Back in Gaira Café, the band is starting up again, and diners are getting up from their tables to dance. “We are sick of being considered the most dangerous place in the world,” says Vives. “But you don’t get anything changed by complaining about it. So I’m trying with my work, with my cooking and my music, to fight against that. I want to be able to say to everyone, out loud, that Colombia is not that bad!” And indeed it isn’t. Not that bad at all.
Catherine Nixey was a guest of the Ultimate Travel Company (www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) which offers a week in Colombia from £1,459 (or £2,280 with flights from London). The trip includes five nights in Bogotá (split between the Hotel de la Opera and Sofitel Victoria Regia) and two at the Posada de San Antonio in Villa de Leyva, plus transfers, guides and bicycle city tour
Bold, beautiful and bulletproof
The restaurant: La Despensa de Rafael
This elegantly designed restaurant serves equally elegant Peruvian fusion food. Its founder, the award-winning chef Rafael Osterling, served for part of his training in London’s River Café, and it shows. The grilled scallops with lime butter are particularly delightful. No guinea pigs, though. www.rafaelosterling.com
The shop: Miguel Caballero
A reminder of the bad old days and now a tourist must-see, Miguel Caballero is a shop selling bulletproof clothes that offer “discreet protection for people with top fashion requirements”. Many of the garments are fireproof and waterproof, too. www.miguelcaballero.com
The hotel: Avia 93
The Bogotá sky, with its dramatic daily advances and retreats of Andean clouds, is a thing of great beauty and should, from midday on, be admired or at the very least acknowledged. Avia 93, with its chic roof-terrace bar, allows you to do just that. The hotel, which opened in 2010, has 40 sleek bedrooms, with a black and white colour scheme and floor-to-ceiling windows. Doubles from 390,000 pesos (£139); www.hotelavia93.com
The bar: Andrés Carne De Res
Somewhere between bar, restaurant and art installation, Andrés Carne De Res is a Bogotá institution. You are as likely to find a live band surrounding your table as you are to be accosted by a transvestite witch (which is more fun than it sounds). www.andrescarnederes.com