Los Niños Valientes

The Vitals

Date: October 31 – November 7, 2017

Location: Bogota, Colombia

Partners: Jose Alberto

Purpose: Work, but with time to be a tourist

Foods tried:

  • Ajiaco – a salty soup with chicken, different potatoes, and corn
  • Obleas – A street food dessert made of two thin wafers sandwiching condensed milk, caramel, raspberry jam, and cheese (if you want it)
  • Chicha – fermented corn and sugar beverage (only vaguely alcoholic)
  • Sancocho – Another soup similar to Ajiaco
  • Mondongo – Another soup made with tripe and globs of fat. Not my favourite.
  • Coca Tea – I drank a cup at the top of Monserrate with honey. People say it helps with altitude symptoms but I wasn’t experiencing any in the first place.
  • Lots of new fruits: Guava, pitaya, starfruit, lulo (naranjilla)…

    Hecho en Colombia

 The Trip

I’ve been on a lot of work trips in the last year and a half: South Korea, Netherlands, China, Wisconsin (multiple), and most recently Bogota. By spanning a weekend, I had a lot of time to be a tourist in a city that’s been highly visible lately with a surge in media related to the narco traffickers of the the late 70’s to early 90’s.

One of my first sights downtown. The manmade watercourse channels runoff from Monserrate through the La Candeleria district.

The trip was arranged very last minute (less than a week’s notice) so I had little time to prepare beforehand. I arrived late on a Tuesday with the big benefit of a company credit card. Instead of scrimping and trying to take a bus in an unfamiliar city at nearly midnight, I could just take a cab to the hotel – another luxury that I would rarely afford myself when travelling personally.

My first day was set aside to get my work visa from the Oficina Pasaportes. The duration of the visa is entirely up to the officer’s discretion and if they choose the maximum of 90 days, a further visit to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be required. As it was, I met a representative of a local company whose business is simply smoothing the process of obtaining the visa for visitors. She handed me an envelope full of money and the copies of the documents I had sent the prior week and I spent the next three hours waiting in a room punctuated by brief visits with an official who asked very basic questions. At the end I had a visa good for 15 days and I had no more obligations for the day despite it being only 10:00 am.

I moved hotels to one near the factory I would be working at in the Kennedy neighbourhood near the airport. Once I was settled at the new hotel, I decided to go to the historic La Candeleria district by taking the TransMilenio bus downtown. Instead of a subway system, Bogota has dedicated roads for buses and platforms that you pay to enter. Once inside the system, you can travel anywhere for one fare (about $1).

Catedral Primada de Colombia

I asked for help at the hotel’s desk in navigating to the nearest station and the attendant advised me it would be much better to take a taxi “looking like [I] do.” With that advice in mind, I headed to the bus station, purchased a reloadable fare card, and got on the bus downtown incident-free to spend the afternoon on a walking tour.

Hail and rain during a typical afternoon storm.

I’m told the weather in Bogota is essentially the same every day of the year: cool overnight and many rainy days with storms rolling through in the afternoon. In fact, the record high temperature is only 28.6 C but the average high for the entire year is 19.6 C. Very consistent.

The city itself is huge – somewhere between 8 and 10 million people – and hemmed in by mountains to the east. One of these mountains (Monserrate) has a paved trail up and gains about 500 meters to 3152 meters in about 2.4 km. A miniature version of the Grouse Grind. I hiked up on the Saturday morning with my Mexican colleague and checked out the church and shopping street at the top which is also serviced by a gondola and a funicular. I titled this post in honour of Jose Alberto’s effort up the trail somewhat against his will.

On Sunday, we took a train from a decidedly unsavoury section of town to the salt cathedral of Zipaquirá. The salt cathedral is a defunct salt mine that has had some Catholic iconography carved in and suddenly, boom! a tourist trap is born. I loved heading over 100 meters underground and looking at the man-made caverns and I gave the wall a lick to taste the salt but the section at the bottom full of trinkets for sale was off-putting.

Tourist train

The train itself was a fun novelty. On the way out of the city the train crosses numerous main streets. Invariably, people were waving to the train patrons and filming on their phones. There were also a number of bands who would travel from train car to train car and play a few songs before moving on. The final novelty was after reboarding the train at the turnaround point after a brief lunch in the town of Cajicá. In our absence, the crew had pivoted all of the chairs so that they now faced the opposite direction. The train engine could then push us back to Bogota but everyone could still face forward.

The end of the line. The train went no further than this.

One more hot day in the factory (35 C on the indoor thermometer) and a late dinner and I was heading back to Vancouver. The itinerary home was nearly 15 hours with a six hour flight to Newark, 3 hour layover, and then 6 hour flight to Vancouver. I was very tired when I crawled into bed after a shower but this was surely the most enjoyable trip in a year of work travel.