December in Bogota, Colombia

Drew Tulchin is Managing Partner of Social Enterprise Associates, He enjoys travel to far flung places and eating foods he doesn't recognize. He can be reached at

What do you know of the country of Colombia? Have you been there or know someone directly who has? For many people, at least many Americans, there has been little direct contact in the last generation. Other than a nice country with good soccer/football, beautiful women, good dancing and some of the Amazon forest, you probably don't know much.

Maybe, you have heard a bit about ‘revoluntionaries', poverty, the drug trade (cocaine especially) and related crime. You might know the city by its former self - a sprawling city ravaged by drug-war crime and reminiscent of Miami in the 80s.

But, while the U.S. and Europe have been stuck in an economic quagmire, Latin American has been taking off, and Columbia is right in the lead. In the last few years, Bogotá has garnered attention as having crossed the line "from drug-war battlefield to hip bohemian city" (NY Times) and as South America's newest culinary darling (Condé Nast Traveler).

A brief visit to Columbia's capital in December enlightened my vague misconceptions. The city struggles with poverty and unsightly sprawl, but I encountered many positive surprises during my stay showing an entrepreneurial city taking full advantage of a Latin American economic boom.

Colombia's well being as a country
The country is doing better in this century and even better in this decade. Unemployment is listed approaching first-world levels. Per capita income is $9,000, although there is great wealth disparity, with the GINI index the 15th worst in the world. Speaking broadly, people have access to education, have access to clean water, and electricity works - for the most part, at least in the capital.

The country is a leader in a startling statistic. Can you guess what? Millions of people are classified as displaced, the highest percentage of a country's population - more than war torn Africa or Middle Eastern places. The protracted violence of drugs and revolution drove people from rural, forested and mountain areas to more urban and coastal locales. Largely women, these people are trying to organize to develop stability and health. As you can imagine, it is an uphill battle with government indifference, political marginalization, poverty, lack of education and mental health scars from violence.

If you follow indigenous issues and cultures, learn about the new constitution - passed in 1991. Indigenous populations and minorities in Colombia still struggle to preserve their livelihoods and culture in areas threatened by military operations and resource extraction. The new constitution was very advanced and granted extensive rights to indigenous, Afro-Caribbean communities that have been there for 100s of years, and women. The government just had to catch up and pass laws that defined what these rights actually meant.

Bogotá is the capital in the middle of the country on the high plains. Its elevation is 2,625 m (8,612 ft), which is high for a city, but in Latin America, it doesn't even place for a medal. The latitude near the equator leads it to be known as springtime City - with a temperate climate all year round. This leads to interesting architecture with open windows, plazas and fewer windows than in places that have weather extremes.

Entrepreneurship & Christmas Shopping
Shopping was happening everywhere. Like many cities, there is no shortage of people selling stuff. While locals said it is usually busy, the Christmas season brought folks out even more. (cellphoneminutes pic) I encountered a large Christmas market in and around Plaza Bolivar, which also featured an impressive display of decorations. Colombians are crazy about Christmas, verging on extravagant when it comes to Christmas displays, and this year was no exception.

From my work with Grameen Foundation, I am familiar with the Phone Ladies in Bangladesh. Colombia has its own version, with folks passing cell phones tethered to a pole available by the minute 150 ‘cents' is about 5 cents.

As an American, I knew very little of the colonial and post-colonial period in South America, and especially Columbia. Bolivar and the experiment in democracy is pretty impressive, and happened shortly after the American Revolution in the early 1800s. Sadly, Bolivar lived the end of his life away from it all, disillusioned that the entrenched power structure of Spanish heritage took charge and muted a vision of an egalitarian participatory populous of a truly Latin advancement.

Museo Botero
Fernando Botero, the artist, (known for big round figures) is from Medellin, Colombia and has donated 100s of pieces of work to a museum bearing his name. Museo Botero, also known as the Art Museum of the Central Bank, is free. It houses an impressive collection of impressionists and modernists.

The museum itself was different. The collection was in an old colonial house, where the rooms were open to a central courtyard. When I say open, like wind blowing in and no windows open. There was no furniture -- just a room full of Boteros with a guard sitting bored in the corner.

The other half of the museum was in a modern wing, with a similar style. Each room was its own entry and self contained. Security was a huge thick door that came down over the opening of each room with a big padlocked. Apparently effective in an old school way.

This museum was across from the national library - another treasure. This public resource is open 12 hours a day every day. While the architecture was brutish concrete of an era, the cultural resources were fantastic for anyone to use. Internet, discussion halls, music hall, a children's floor, and more. Impressive.

Urban planning
If you follow urban planning, you might have heard about some of the city's mayors and the advances in urban living from their efforts. Bike trails, direct bus lines, pedestrian streets, kids in schools, community centers and other advances have fostered Bogota's reputation as South America's "comeback capital."

Bogotá is a monstrous, sprawling place, with the city oozing all over, framed by mountains and home to nearly 7 million people in a country of 50 million. The city center is an interesting contrast of old architecture and new. 17th century churches and buildings are next to skyscrapers. It is polluted, but there are some green efforts.

Upon his election in 1998, Mayor Enrique Penalosa invited residents to imagine "a city that seems utopian." His administration greatly improved public spaces, restoring over 1,000 city parks, planting 70,000 trees and making wide scale improvements to pedestrian infrastructure. These improvements ‘paved' the way for subsequent administrations to improve city infrastructure.

Urban planning has made some interesting and positive advances. Bogotá's reputation for bike friendliness is well-deserved. The city began recreational paths in 1974, and today boasts 376 km of dedicated lanes - 120 km of recreational paths (More than 308 miles of bike lanes). The city closes vehicle traffic on Sundays and holidays on major roads for cyclists. A recent Inter-American Development Bank study found 2 percent of Bogotá's population uses a bicycle as their main means of transportation.


Bike Map of Bogota

(click map for close up)

Bogota was ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the world less than a decade ago. Today, statistics indicate it is safer than many US places - Detroit, DC, and even NYC. It felt safe - at least in the old town, although we could see the shanties up the hill where I am sure things are less lugubrious.

The protection industry certainly is a major part of the economy and employment generator. There were lots of police and guards. It was common for a guard to be on a corner or outside a building with a big gun and/or a big dog. You hope such strength is only used for the ‘right' reasons - deterrence mostly, not population control.

Food in the capital was great - and affordable. I found all types of cuisine, but the real stand out were native Arepas. These corn cakes are a staple in Colombia and Venezuela and are served with butter, jam or cream cheese for breakfast, or with meats and cheese for other meals. We need a place that sells them here in Santa Fe, where I live, and our food is really good. Heck, Arepas everywhere, please.

Other highlights include many kinds of beer and local spirits - Chi-cha, drunk out of a bowl.

Empanadas were awesome. Here's a local corner guy who makes them fresh for 40 cents each. He had awesome sauces. Here he is displaying his spicy guava. It was tasty.

If you like beaches and tourism, Colombia has options for you, too. I didn't get to Cartagena on the coast, or the islands off the mainland, but people in the country and outside speak highly of it. Next trip - who's in?


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