Strange and wonderful doings are afoot in this city that not so long ago was a touristic no-man’s land

Por: Jayne Clark, USA TODAY
17 de abril de 2010

In March in the otherwise staid Plaza Bolivar, hundreds of 3-foot-long ants appear to skitter up the imposing Colombian Congress building.

On a recent Saturday, feathered warriors, stilt walkers and dancers strut and gyrate and flash their way down one of the city’s main avenues in a display of bawdy jubilance that rivals the most extravagant Mardi Gras parade.

And on Sundays, traffic on 75 miles of normally jammed thoroughfares miraculously vanishes, making way for thousands of free-wheeling cyclists.

The days when Colombia’s bad-boy image as a land of narco-terrorist turmoil are waning. Officials are actively courting tourists with the slogan «The Only Risk Is Wanting to Stay.» And nowhere is the transformation more apparent than in its capital city. An increase in flight arrivals from the USA makes getting here relatively inexpensive. A boom in international hotel chains (as well as budget lodgings) is beefing up a once-anemic tourism infrastructure. And an exuberant cultural, nightlife and dining scene is luring foreign visitors who previously considered a trip here as tantamount to scheduling their own kidnapping.

What a difference a decade makes.

Nationally, Colombia is touting eco-adventures, such as birding and whale-watching, and forays into its coffee-growing regions, along with beach and cultural tourism. (Cartagena, the Caribbean jet-set paradise of the ’50s and ’60s, has undergone a renaissance after years of neglect.)

But thanks to Bogot’s emerging status as a Latin American gateway, most visits begin in the sprawling city whose eastern edges scale the lush wall of the Cerros Orientales. The city is home to 8.5 million residents, but most visitors stick to the colonial downtown area, La Candelaria, and affluent northern neighborhoods with high-end shopping, dining and nightlife. In between is the International Center, with its high-rises and bullring, a remarkable 1931 brick structure that accommodates 25,000 spectators.

«Little by little, Bogot is becoming an important Latin American city not only because it’s a business hub, but because of cultural activities and restaurants,» says Jaime Echavarria, the U.S. director of Proexport Colombia, which oversees tourism promotion.

Locals are upbeat about these developments and seem particularly welcoming to the growing number of foreign visitors and residents.

«This city has so much to offer,» says Michelle Yopp, an English teacher who moved here from Tampa in August. «I’ve never felt uncomfortable here.»

Still, the U.S. State Department warning against travel to the country persists, despite somewhat softened verbiage. It’s «something we have to live with for the time being,» Echavarria concedes.

Tourism rebounds, residents return
Nevertheless, in 2008-’09, foreign-tourist arrivals were up almost 11% (at a time when tourism dropped 4% worldwide). And almost a quarter of those visitors were from the USA. Many credit Colombia’s turnaround to tough security measures taken during lvaro Uribe’s eight-year presidency. In Bogot, a series of reform-minded mayors have injected new vitality and order.

«There’s a tourism boom going on. New restaurants. New hotels. It’s not Denmark or Sweden, but it’s coming,» says developer Abdon Espinosa, walking along a northern street lined with Dolce & Gabbana, Bulgari and other international luxury brands.

In the past five years, 25 shopping malls have gone up, he says. Sidewalk tables fill a pedestrian-only area called the Zona T that by night is jammed with youthful throngs strutting to pulsing club music. In its colonial center, artists and others are moving into once-derelict buildings.

As in other big cities, there’s homelessness and street crime. And security appears to be a thriving industry it’s not unusual to see armed military personnel on the streets, and private guards conduct cursory bag checks on customers entering some establishments, for instance.

«Bogot has problems, like any other city. But a decade ago there was a feeling of being under siege and that’s gone,» says Mike Ceasar, an American journalist who last year opened Bogot Bike Tours. «The war (against narco-terrorists) hasn’t directly impacted tourists for years, and I’ve met lots of students who’ve come down here for holidays, senior citizens, theater groups and honeymooners.»

Many affluent residents who, weary of kidnappers and drug lords, fled the country in the late ’90s, are returning. And a creative culinary scene has emerged, led by talented chefs such as Leonor Espinosa, owner of Leo Cocina y Cava, where native ingredients fuse Spanish, Indian and African influences. The inventive chef pairs lobster tail with sweet red pepper sauce; whitefish ceviche with coconut milk vinaigrette and mango puree; and blends corozo, a tropical palm fruit, into her signature martinis.

Pride blossoms along with the arts
The city also boasts a vibrant performing-arts scene. This year’s just-ended Ibero-American Theater Festival (held every two years and catalyst for the grand parade) attracted about 80 theater companies from 40 countries, the largest contingent in its history.

La Candelaria, which, despite its status as Bogot’s colonial heart, had become a seedy backwater, is re-emerging with new boutique hotels and budget hostels in rehabbed historic buildings along its warren of cobbled streets. (Though locals still warn you to watch your belongings by day and take cabs by night.) It’s a youthful district populated by several universities. It’s also home to a fine collection of 12 museums, including the stellar Botero Museum, featuring Colombia’s premier artist, Fernando Botero, along with works by Picasso, Mir, Degas and others.

Also here are Bogot’s 19th-century cathedral and important government buildings, including the Colombian Congress, where earlier this year, local artist Rafael Gomezbarros affixed hundreds of giant fiberglass ants to its monumental faade. It’s a curious sight. But for many, no more unexpected than the metamorphosis of the city itself.

«Fifteen years ago, people didn’t like Bogot not even the people who live here,» says Espinosa, the developer. «But something curious happened. And now, everybody is proud of this city.»