Bogotá, Colombia: What You Need to Know

Bogotá, Colombia is 2640 meters (8300 feet) above sea level. This means you arrive and get headaches, sniffles, nosebleeds, and you suddenly can’t walk up ten stairs without wheezing like a fat kid with asthma forced to run the 100m at school sports day. It takes some getting used to. While you’re walking up a slight incline clutching your stomach with one hand and wiping your nose with the other, a Colombian woman might jog past you, smile, and say “Hola! Buenos dias!” and you can’t tell if she’s being nice or mocking you. You wheeze, “Buen…os…di…” Ah fuck it, save the energy.

Bogotá old city Candelaria
Random street in the old city of Bogotá.

Therefore, taxis become your friend. There are two kinds of taxis in Bogotá. Yellow ones and white ones. White ones are mostly private, with seat belts and intact windows. Yellow ones are driven by toothless men who treat roads as battlegrounds. The yellow ones, being more likely to kill you, are therefore cheaper. Dangerous is cheaper. This theory works in opposite with careers – more dangerous careers tend to have higher wages. Just look at ice truckers in Alaska who get paid extravagant amounts of money to drive trucks across ice for days at a time. But please don’t look at Thanh Đinh, Vietnamese child slave working for Samsung, who gets paid twelve cents and two aspirin a day.

You find hundreds of taxis on the roads in Bogota because the roads in the city are heavy with congestion. To try to combat this, one day the government in Bogota decided to have a brainstorming session to try and fix the problem. Nothing wrong so far. However, many an intern must have been at this brainstorming session because the best solution wasn’t “Invest heavily in infrastructure to combat this problem long term and make the roads better for everyone!” Or even something much simpler like “Buy more buses!” In fact, somebody must have said, “Let’s only let half the cars use the road at once!” and everyone applauded wildly.

That means that today, only cars with license plates that end in an odd number are allowed to use the roads between 8-10am on Mondays and Wednesdays, even numbers get 8-10am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I guess Fridays are casual Fridays where everyone can use the roads but only if the driver wears his pajamas. It’s a strange system and presumably unenforceable — I did see a few license plates that ended in 8 that looked suspiciously like a 3 where the other half had been drawn on, the way school kids try and forge grades on school reports.

The view of the city from our office.
The view of the city from our office.

We were in Bogotá for work, and that meant working 1-10pm. By the time we got home each night, it was 10.30pm. At 11pm in Paris, New York, Barcelona, Tokyo, Sydney, or basically any major city in the world that doesn’t start with B and end in this mutated form of the letter á, you wouldn’t have a problem. But in Bogotá you do. Most of the time we were okay, but most of the time wasn’t all the time. On one occasion we were past closing time but our puppy dog eyes and rain-sodden clothes convinced one nice place – Gato Negro – to stay open just for us. On another occasion, we slumped into a flooded McDonald’s and ate burgers and drank Coke that was diluted by rain dripping from a hole in the ceiling. On another, we gave up entirely and got room service at the hotel, where we could listen to the rain outside and the leering, grotesque businessmen who partied in their rooms until the early hours.

Okay, enough chit chat. Let’s get serious and talk more about the weather; I am British after all. It rains every day in Bogotá. Literally. Like literally literally. My knowledge of weather systems is limited at best – I think I missed the class at school about high altitude weather systems in urban South America with a particular emphasis on those in the Andes, or I fell asleep during it, I’m not sure – but it rains a lot. There are always clouds in the sky. I read somewhere that in 1997 there was the first clear blue sky anyone in Bogotá had ever seen; there were riots, the government declared a state of emergency, and one family sacrificed their first born son to appease the gods to make the clouds come back. And lo and behold, by the afternoon it clouded over and everyone went back to work.

Virrey Park, Bogotá. Not the nicest park I've ever laid eyes on but we went here no less than four times.
Virrey Park, Bogotá. Not the nicest park I’ve ever laid eyes on, but we went here no less than four times.

In the hotel room there was a guidebook. In it were some underwhelming suggestions about where to eat; a list of stores I could buy things at, all of which were nicely collected in a nearby shopping mall, and the mall, coincidentally, had several full-page ads in this guidebook; and some information about the city. It told me, with some pride, that the climate in Bogotá “varies widely from 50F to 70F.” I looked for the rest of the sentence. Presumably they meant the climate varies between 50F and 70F in one season, and other seasons feature ice storms, searing temperatures, and hurricanes. I looked and looked but I never found the rest of that sentence. Apparently in Bogotá there is a wild, astonishing swing of 20F during the entire year. Or put another way, the warmest day of the year you could wear jeans and a sweater, while on the coldest you’d have to wrap up warm by putting on a very thin jacket. There are no seasons in Bogotá. The weather is functionally identical every day, each day relentlessly alike to the previous one. I think LA is similar, but where LA is the cheerful, sprightly young ragamuffin, Bogotá is the depressed uncle Larry who talks to his goldfish every night.

Needless to say, Bogotá was far from my favorite city. That said, there was some fun stuff to do, and more if you went a bit further afield, which we did when given the opportunity. I’ll tell you all about those later. For now, I’ll leave you with the knowledge that we took one yellow taxi and we didn’t die. We almost killed several pedestrians and a cyclist, but who cares about them?

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. John E. Hunt says:

    Haha, I can relate to your experience in Bogotá; you’re right- the yellow taxi cab drivers drive it like they stole it. (They might have stole it). Check out some of my writing/pics on the topic! wandrlustr.com

    Like

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