nytimesbogota

Before Night Falls

The city of Bogota, Colombia is suddenly safe for partying—until it isn’t.

(T: The New York Times Magazine, May 21, 2010. Photos: Domingo Milella)

MY FIRST MORNING IN Bogotá brings disturbing news. There on the front page of El Tiempo — waiting outside the carved doors of my lofty room at the Hotel de la Ópera, in the city’s rambling colonial neighborhood of La Candelaria — is a chilling headline. The night before, some 30,000 people had massed in the Parque Metropolitano Simón Bolívar, the sprawling memorial to the continent’s boldest revolutionary, to see Coldplay.

Coldplay? That’s what I came to Colombia for? The safest band on the planet playing the safest three chords on the planet? You can get that sort of flimflam in Orlando, Fla. I had heard Bogotá was safe for travelers, that the guerrillas who once held the Supreme Court hostage were gone, that the narco thugs had taken up jobs in the booming economy, that galleries and cafes were ascendant. But seriously, Coldplay?

Not so long ago, Bogotá was a dangerous and deeply sketchy place. In the months after the inauguration of President Álvaro Uribe in August 2002, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s jungle-based leftist guerrillas, bombed the city several times, killing dozens of people. A few blocks south of the city’s main square — the Plaza de Bolívar, flanked by the national congress and the Palace of Justice — a vast slum once housed 10,000 people, many addicted to pasta de cocaína, or paco, a paste used to process cocaine that can destroy the nervous system. The city leveled the slum in 2005 and built a transportation hub on top.

The real Bogotá, for my taste, is farther out and up the hill. Past the tourist cafes and candlelit bars — where the 200-year-old walls are three feet thick — past the graffitied doors that read no mas paras (“no more paramilitaries”), lies the Chorro de Quevedo, a tiny brick square where Bogotá was founded in 1538. Its low walls and dirty steps are littered with tattooed skaters, uniformed schoolchildren and partyers waiting for the clubs to open. The narrow alleys are filled with boutiques and bars. At El Balón de Verde, there’s live jazz most days and bossa nova on Sundays. The Merlin, a cavelike cafe in a 200-year-old building with candle wax on the floor and staff in tie-dyed T-shirts, is the gathering place for an underground creative scene — painters, potters, performance artists.

Andres Olaya, a 32-year-old with a shaved head and a tuft of green hair sprouting in the back, greets me on the square like a friend. “There are so many tourists who come here now,” he tells me. Olaya began studying art at age 12 at Teatro La Candelaria, one of the many schools that give the neighborhood its bohemian edge. He runs a small circus troupe called Artefacto that plies the tourist squares, but he says the Chorro “is our backyard.”

Nearby, a chubby young woman in a purple derby practices on a unicycle. A dreadlocked man balances a crystal ball on his forehead. Near a tiny church that flanks the square, a private security guard in a dirty shirt holds a muzzled Rottweiler on a leash. The guards and their muzzled dogs — like canine Hannibal Lecters — are a disturbingly common sight all over the city. “It’s not as safe here as you think,” says Olaya, who has gang-script tattoos on his forearms that read (alternately) cirkus clowns. “The day is O.K., but not the night.” The unicyclist, a street performer from Spain, pulls me over to a dusty tree and shows me blood splattered on the paving stones near the tree’s roots. “Last night, one man stabbed another man right here,” she says. “I never feel safe here.”

Bogotá indeed has deep shadows. As in any city of 7.3 million grappling with drugs and poverty, you can find trouble or it can find you. For me, part of the city’s appeal is this dark, struggling soul. But it is also true that Bogotá is a safer place today than in the days of Pablo Escobar, particularly in the gentrifying northern neighborhoods of Usaquén and Zona T, on the other side of town from the Chorro. In 1993, homicides hit a peak at 4,378. By last year, it had dropped 80 percent, to 1,307. Robberies, on the other hand, have risen from 7,675 in 2000 to 11,057 in 2008. The drop in violence is thanks to tough-on-crime security measures — the Rottweilers, along with riot cops in body armor, who regularly swarm public squares and have earned themselves the nickname RoboCops.

For the most part, Bogotá has a right to proclaim its status as a safer place, even if the attempt can be awkward. The Colombian tourism office goes out of its way to compare Bogotá’s crime rate favorably with Miami’s. Its unusual slogan is: “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.”

“The entire world now looks to Colombia as a place for vacation, conventions, adventure, culture, history,” says Luis Guillermo Plata, Colombia’s minister of tourism. The pitch seems to be working. Foreign visitors who once bypassed Bogotá for the north-coast beaches of Barranquilla or the colonial charm of Cartegena are now putting the city on their itineraries. The number of foreigners visiting the city has nearly doubled over the past six years, and 11 new hotels have opened, with 18 more under construction.

The city’s striving spirit is on full display Friday afternoons, when the city shuts down Carrera Septima (Seventh Avenue), in the central business district, for its weekly pedestrian-only Septimazo. The streets are filled with handicrafts, jugglers, men who make their living polishing leather jackets and businessmen holding briefcases and eating ice cream. The flashy Club de Billares Londres, with its chrome stairway and brass lanterns hanging over its pool tables, is empty as it prepares for another fashion shoot and film party. Nearby, the family-run San Isidro bakery is desolate — but wait until 5 a.m., when the postbar crowd comes looking for breakfast.

“The workers who come from the south will stay in the center all night dancing,” says Margarita María Bedoya, a 35-year-old former commercial TV producer who moved here from Cali a decade ago. We are having a heavy lunch at El Envigadeño, an out-of-the-way place hidden behind a pair of blue corrugated doors. The restaurant serves a meat-rich, northern Antioquian cuisine and is never mentioned in guidebooks.

Bedoya likes to salsa dance, but she never goes to the fashionable clubs in the north of the city. “In the north, you have to be beautiful, and maybe they don’t let you alone, the men,” says Bedoya, who is plenty pretty herself. She left Cali because of the drug wars there but has seen many of her countrymen return to Colombia in the past few years. “Everybody is coming back.” A wooden plate the size of a wagon wheel arrives at our table, packed with beef, pork, chorizo, rice and beans. “Do you know this music?” she asks, gesturing to the speaker at our table. “It is called música del despecho, music of bad woman and broken hearts.” I ask if there are dance clubs here in the center where we can go. “No, it is dangerous for foreigners. You are better off in the north.” Then she begins to sing to the music, wagging her finger at me, mouthing no, no, no, no.

“Foreign people come here to escape safety,” says Richard, a 32-year-old Scandinavian seafood importer. “Western countries are too arranged and safe. There’s nothing to be done, no more adventure.” (Richard asked that I not use his last name because he’s careful to keep his professional and social lives separate.)

It is a chilly spring Saturday night, and we are in a bustling club in the Zona T, the upscale neighborhood in the north named for the T-shaped pedestrian strip at its center. The area has about 50 clubs and bars, each pulsating with reggaetón, dance, salsa or house music. Richard, a tall, friendly and good-looking blond, is yelling over the chatter of Bogotá’s yuppied classes, fresh from work in blue suits or demure skirts, or else pimped out in Adidas sneakers (men) or sparkly heels (women) and cleavage-baring tops (both).

The street is congested with thousands of revelers, each one better looking than the last. By my count — and I am counting closely — women outnumber men three to one. “Women are the main tourist attraction here, don’t let anyone fool you on that,” Richard says. “That and cocaine.” He gives me a knowing wink. “You know cocaine, ya?”

Well, ya, I say. But I tell him I had the impression that while Colombia is the largest exporter of the drug to the United States, it is frowned upon by polite society here. We are with a crowd of a half dozen people, and a young woman looks at me appalled. “Why do you people always speak of cocaine?” she says. “Where do you see cocaine?”

I mutter an apology, but a young Colombian pipes up: “Give me 60,000 pesos right now and I will get you cocaine.” I try to explain that I am only doing research. Everyone laughs. “60,000 pesos!” the man says. “It is no problem. Enough to fill a child’s sock!”

Partying in the Zona T means three things: drinking, dancing and chasing the opposite sex (or the same sex, depending). To this end, the people I have fallen in with are well disposed to offer their advice and their example, but mostly by way of failure this night. Anders Westman, a 53-year-old Michiganite with tanned model looks and a rooster tail of blond bangs, just arrived in Bogotá after attending Carnaval up north. He is a South American playboy by nature and by admission. “I had more game in Barranquilla than any place,” he says good-naturedly. “The women in the north are wonderful. They never see gringos.”

The streets are mobbed with glamour packs checking each other out, looking for the next disco, for more aguardiente — a local sambuca-like liquor — and dancing. We pull into a cavernous club called Spin and sit outdoors beneath a large leafy tree. On a nearby street, Ninja motorcycles roar past, the drivers wearing the distinctive orange vests emblazoned with license-plate numbers that are required by law, to fight drive-by thefts and killings. The night air is aromatic with flowers, cigars, perfume and the drifting exhaust of the bikes.

“Can I use your cellphone?” asks a young American man I’d just met. He had recently discovered that his Colombian girlfriend of eight months is married. (He asked not to be indentified because he fears for his safety.) He texts her an angry missive and regrets it. “I’m starting to feel this place close in on me,” he says. “I need to move to Costa Rica.”

Inside the bar, the D.J. in his glass booth is blasting Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” A hundred girls are on the dance floor while a two-story-tall projection screen shows incongruously calm images of beach and surf, like the B-roll video in a karaoke bar. The bartender looks like Kim Cattrall. A member of our party excitedly introduces me and she smiles broadly while shaking a cocktail, asking about New York.

While the bartender flirts with me, Westman comes in from outside and starts talking in my other ear: “Your American friend needs to learn about Colombian women. He needs to ask what their daily life was like — growing up in poverty with a complete breakdown of safety.” He looks around, his dazzling teeth breaking into a smile as a group of teenage girls staggers past. “We will never understand Colombians.

You fall in love with the first beautiful woman you would never get back home. You must ask: What does she want?”

The crowd is now jumping up and down to Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” Kim Cattrall comes out from behind the bar and starts fist pumping and swinging her hair around. She pulls me onto the dance floor. But I don’t dance and it’s awkward. She doesn’t seem to mind or even notice. Westman comes by and claps me on the back to tell me he and his friends are leaving and says, “So now you have a Colombian girlfriend.”

On Sunday morning, with my head aching from too much aguardiente, I hop into an S.U.V. and cruise the deserted but oddly clean streets of Zona T. The driver is Berny Silberwasser, a 36-year-old Bogotano I met through a friend who lives in Usaquén. He’s one of the city’s biggest success stories. In 2001, Silberwasser (whose grandfather immigrated to Colombia from Germany) started the Bogotá Beer Company. Today the brewery has 10 pubs throughout the city, and his business is still growing.

We are headed to Usaquén, a charming and remote-feeling little neighborhood farther north, where one of the city’s most vibrant and eclectic flea markets sets up every Sunday. A former town that is now part of the city, it’s where rich Bogotanos had weekend homes and ranches. Its green is dominated by a colonial church on the north, and it still feels like a rural village.

On Sundays the neighborhood is thronged with tourists and locals escaping the city center. They come to hear cuenteros, or storytellers, who draw crowds of up to 200 people on the steps near the church. They come to buy indigenous bracelets from dirty-fingered little girls, who braid them into images of Che Guevara or scorpions. The sun-drenched streets today are filled with people selling puppies, pushing schnauzers in baby strollers or draping Labradors over their arms as they pass through the crowds.

“There is a generation of Colombians who have never seen parts of Colombia,” Silberwasser says when we get to Abasto, a cafe in Usaquén where we are having brunch. “They could not travel outside the cities because, rich or poor, you would get kidnapped. Now people have little farms outside the city and they can travel freely.”

We are sitting on vintage stuffed couches and large leather chairs, classical music playing overhead, in the back of the restaurant, a house built in the 1940s. Fresh bananas hang from the ceiling, and the walls are done in Caribbean blues and reds. One of Abasto’s owners and its chef, Luz Beatriz Vélez, appears in a white cook’s coat. She is slight and gentle and friendly and looks an awful lot like Joan Baez would if she cooked.

Vélez knows Silberwasser well and makes small talk with our group, asking about families. Manuel Maiguashca, a former deputy minister of energy and mines, has taken me aside to praise the work of President Uribe, under whom he served for six and a half years. “The security has led to the opening up of oil and energy exploration,” says Maiguashca, who biked here from his house 20 minutes away and is wearing jeans and a zip-up sweater.

“Did you hear?” Maiguashca says to the group. “There were 23 private jets from Argentina that arrived for the Coldplay concert. If that doesn’t tell you Bogotá is safe, I don’t know what does.” We all dig into our eggs and arepas as Vélez brings around fresh espressos. I ask if it’s at all unusual, having a large band like Coldplay play outdoors in Bogotá. “Oh, it would not have happened five years ago,” Maiguashca says. “And do you know who is coming next week?” I’m afraid to find out. He leans close. “Metallica,” he says happily.

Among the seediest neighborhoods was La Candelaria. Gunfights and knifings were once nightly tragedies. Residents would rush between home and work, then back again, and largely stay indoors. Today the area’s narrow streets, lined with Spanish-tiled roofs and Creole iron balconies, some dating back 400 years, are home to a lively mix of artists, activists and students. Upscale cafes sit beside redolent religious icon shops, and local peasants selling fresh grilled corn or loose cigarettes to gringos stand in the shadows of stately museums.

The Hotel de la Ópera turns out to be a good starting place to explore La Candelaria. Set in a pair of 19th-century town houses that once garrisoned Simón Bolívar’s personal guards, the hotel is a block from Plaza de Bolívar and one door down from the Teatro Colon. (I woke to the sound of a fellow guest warming up his vocal cords for that night’s opera.) From the top-floor cafe, you can see the Escher-esque maze of terra-cotta rooftops and domes and, if your Spanish is good, eavesdrop on the breakfast patter of a congressman and his pretty assistant.

Bogotá sits on a plateau nearly two miles high in the Andes. Its largest peak, Monserrate, looms directly above La Candaleria, topped by a white church where hundreds of pilgrims celebrate Sunday Mass (some crawling on their knees to get there). Along the narrow streets heading up toward Monserrate sit several cultural institutions: the Botero Museum, with its whimsically corpulent mistresses and Madonnas; the two-year-old Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, a modernist structure of blond brick with a bookstore, art galleries and a cafe; and, a few blocks over to the north, the Gold Museum, commemorating Spanish greed and colonial conquest.

Around lunchtime I stumble into a 250-year-old courtyard lined with iron balconies and palm trees, thinking it was a museum, only to discover La Sociedad, one of the top Colombian restaurants in the city. The tilapia with plantains is excellent, but I have to endure the flat patter of my white-haired Ohio neighbors, lavishly praising their young waiter’s broken English. After a quick glimpse of the statues of the divine infant Jesus at the Almacén Relicario, a few doors down, I grab a tamarindo pastry from La Puerta Falsa, the city’s oldest confectionery, and begin my own pilgrimage.