Despite Controversies, Colombia's On the Upswing -- and Bogota's Cool

No, this isn't a piece about politics, drugs, terrorism, or foreign or trade policy. This time I bring kinder, gentler tidings: that this sprawling Andean capital of 7 million is a safe, under-the-radar gem with plenty of nifty surprises up its municipal sleeve. I found that out first hand recently when I jetted in on an all too brief visit direct from Fort Lauderdale on the 3½-hour maiden flight of Spirit Airlines' new route; it's the first lowfare carrier to serve Bogotá but just one of several currently launching or expanding service from North America to Colombia, even in the teeth of draconian service cuts and plummeting profits across the rest of the industry.

So what's up with that? Bogotá, you see, has been experiencing something of a boom -
- er, renaissance of late, in tandem with much of this country, a little bigger than Texas plus California, with a population just over twice the Lone Star State's. For all its controversies and dubious associations, in its six years so far Álvaro Uribe's government has more importantly to most locals presided over an economic boom and made major security inroads that have made more of Colombia secure, accessible, and prosperous (if still often unequally so). Bogotá is exhibit A, with a bustling street life; a rollicking club scene; excellent shopping and dining; and a progressive -- and more or less anti-Uribe -- city hall which has produced imaginative urban planning such as the well received TransMilenio bus system and weekly, now world-famous ciclovías, which close major city streets to cars and treat millions of bogotanos to Sundays full of strolling, biking, and rollerblading.

Nowhere did I notice the optimistic present overcoming the grim past more than at its sixth annual food festival, Alimentarte, which on two recent weekends crammed north Bogotá's Parque El Virrey with relaxed folks enjoying an impressive array of international cuisine from the city's restaurants, equally multi-culti entertainment (ach, who knew Colombians could pull off bagpipe-tooting and the "Riverdance" thing so well?), and kids' diversions like rock-climbing walls and trampolines. It was only the charity event's beneficiary, the Green Heart Foundation, that reminded me of the bad old days: its mission is helping the families of those killed in the line of duty against terrorism and narcotrafficking.

Furthermore, for visitors this Latin capital makes for a surprisingly compelling and certainly fun getaway. Not that it's, say, Buenos-Aires-level handsome -- yes, the valley setting delivers some inspiring views of surrounding peaks (not to mention year-round cool weather and a touch of breathlessness to visitors not used to the 8,600-foot altitude), but at street level this is a mostly unexceptional urban sprawl mixing downtown highrises and undistinguished, red-brick-heavy architecture. The big exception is La Candelaria, the 2¼-square-mile colonial core. Its sloping byways are a lyrical world apart, one dynamically blending the 21st century with an intensely atmospheric colonial backdrop dating nearly back to Santa Fe de Bogotá's founding by conquistadors 470 years ago; the old's occasionally interspersed with the new, sometimes graceful, sometimes not so much. Rahabbed in recent years from moldering neglect, it's now a vibrant, un-touristy working neighborhood filled with not just museums and churches but also shops, eateries, lodgings, and pedestrians.

After breakfast in the arcade-lined atrium of the gorgeously renovated Hotel de la Ópera, whose three stories elegantly match neoclassical flavor with up-to-the-minute perks like a pool and spa, I stride up the cobblestones past street vendors, one hawking exotically spiky tropical fruit, another whose cart's practically a mini-bodega, bursting with bags of potato chips, chewing gum, soda, bottle water, cigarettes, and candy; perched atop the whole business is a cardboard sign reading "minuto celular 2.50 pesos" (in a country where the average income's still just over $6,000, those who can't afford mobile phones have to rent by the minute).

To my right, I pass an impressive red-and-white striped church, the Iglesia del Carmen; ahead, cloud-wreathed peaks loom over red-terracotta-tile roofs and balconies -- some elaborately enclosed, others open and flower-bedecked. I spend a delightful morning mingling with a sidewalk bustle of schoolkids, businessmen, nuns, and very few turistas, popping into a heartbreakingly beautiful courtyard restaurant here, a shop selling Catholic icons or emeralds (a local specialty) there. I tour the presidential palace, Casa Nariño, with its restrained neoclassical elegance, and watch the changing of the diminutive guards in their spiky Prussian-style helmets. In the expansive Plaza Bolívar, lined with impressive government buildings, I feed pigeons in front of the cathedral.

And of course I hit the museums. Around the corner from my hotel, a long, weathered brick building houses the Museo de Arte Colonial, with some extraordinary examples of art and furnishings dating back nearly half a millennium. Museumwise, the highlight is the Casa de la Moneda, whose stars are the Botero and pre-Columbian gold museums. The former is a nine-room collection donated by Colombia's most famous artist, Fernando Botero, he of the pleasingly plump subjects (none of his Abu Ghraib stuff here; I did crack a smile over his zaftig re-imagining of the Mona Lisa). The latter's the best of its kind in Latin America, nothing short of breathtaking with pieces including a dramatically crumpled mask more than 2,000 years old from the Pacific coast and an equally ancient trumpet in the shape of a conch shell from the Calima-Yotoco culture in today's western Colombia (they're soon moving to new digs).

Come nighttime, I explore more modern precincts. Friends take me to north Bogotá's Parque de la 93, a square whose perimeter's jammed with bars, clubs, and restaurants from humble (McDonald's, but with a fancy bakery) to chichi (El Salto del Ángel, a cutting-edge paean to Latin fusion). A mostly under-40 crowd strolled and milled about as chivas (brightly painted rolling "party buses") cruised by, their pickled passengers writhing and yelling out the windows. Golly, when I was up in the Caribbean city of Barranquilla earlier this year reporting on its huge, rollicking Carnaval, they sniffed that bogotanos were cold fish, but tonight you coulda fooled me. We end up at the three-story La Casa de la Cerveza, whose translated name ("beer hall") does nada to capture its cool, blue-and-white sleekness; those who weren't boogying to the upbeat and eclectic soundtrack were sitting at tables schmoozing and sucking down suds from "giraffes," three-liter lucite tanks with spigots. The menu's mostly familiar but with some funky local twists; our platter of bar snacks includes little tubular thingies called chunchullos -- fried pork intestines (not bad, but definitely an acquired taste). Then it's off to Cha Cha, a four-year-old club in a downtown skyscraper, 46 floors up. Here some of the city's prettiest people -- straight, gay, and whatever -- are clutching Day-Glo cocktail glasses and enthusiastically partying to house and electronica amid red-velvet curtains and crystal chandeliers, the glittering cityscape at their feet.

The next morning, after somehow prying myself out of bed I head up to a sweet little north Bogotá neighborhood called Usaquén, where lanes off the leafy main square are lined with vendors every Sunday. Dubbed a pulga (flea market), it's more akin to a crafts fair, with some high-quality merch indeed -- my favorites are Miguel Pino's original and reproduction pre-Columbian ceramics; Juan Camilo Acevedo's exquisite pre-Columbian-inspired gold and silver jewelry (his gold-plated copy of a famous Muisca museum piece, a small but elaborate raft, seems like a deal at $68); and Cielo Buitrago Hidalgo's line of coca products -- leaves for tea, of course, but also creams, sprays, soda, flour, cookies, even wine (all totally legal here in Uncle Sam's drug-war ally, but you'll have to consume it before returning to the "land of the free"). So what are coca cookies and wine like? Not bad -- but remember that expression "an acquired taste"?

That afternoon my friends whisk me into the countryside, to an impressive salt-mine-turned-underground-cathedral in the town of Zipaquirá, and we spend another couple of days roaming the Zona Cafetera (coffee country) in the highlands west of the capital before I regretfully have to catch my plane home. But now that I'm so clued into how close is Bogotá and what it has on offer, this is high on my list of "gotta go back, and soon."