Discovering Joy in Bogotá’s Historic La Candelaria

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Bogotá, noontime. I’m here in the Chorro de Quevedo, a sun-splashed plaza abuzz with college kids in the city’s downtown. One peladito with an accordion is coaxing out a vallenato, a Colombian coastal genre that’s tropical happiness incarnate. Duly pierced and tattooed, the undergrads at his feet are laughing uproariously, more shouting than singing along:

Me gustas muchooo,
Ay, déjame deciiiirte
Que tú me encaaantas,
Quiero darte tooodo…

Soon the whole plaza is feeling the young guy’s suin (swing). A second dreadlocked dude joins in on the caja, an African drum carved from tree trunks. Simultaneously two girls who look to be about 15 climb atop one of the benches and start gyrating, arms around each other, even as cans of Poker, Colombia’s cheap beer of choice, circulate among the lookers-on.

The mid-day revel, it would appear, is in full tilt.

Scenes like this are a daily part of the graffitied streetscape in Bogotá’s barrio known as La Candelaria. And no wonder: the hillside ‘hood has a vibe unlike any other in South America. Funky and artsy and college-town grungy and luminously historic and ever-so-slightly sketchy after the hordes of government workers have cleared out in the evenings, it’s a place that melds cobbled-street colonial and raffishly bohemian in a mix that’s a magnet for tourists and rolos (Bogotá natives) alike.

Whence all the exuberance? That’s the question I’ve set myself, as I dedicate my day to mapping the ins and outs of this unique quarter.

El man with the accordion is taking a breather. He’s bemoaning to his friends the hardships of the struggling musician.

“What I need…is to get sponsored by a rich gringo,” he says. Two girls crane their necks, giggling as they peer my way.

“Don’t look at me,” I smile.

The other kids double over laughing. He of the accordion strikes up a sabanera ranchers’ song. He grins, nodding to me as I get up to go.

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Tamales and Tussles

“It started with a fight,” says Carlos Sabogal Rubio, “like all things in Bogotá. But of course, things eventually quieted down, and the result is this.”

“This” is the mezzanine at La Puerta Falsa, the bustling Bogotá institution where the 85-year-old Don Carlos is gesticulating as he sits with me over breakfast, and which by my calculations must be Latin America’s narrowest restaurant, as well as its oldest. At the three upstairs tables, diners squeeze together beneath low-hanging rafters. On the plates before us, massive tamales swaddled in plantain leaves exhale a fragrant steam.

“Two hundred years my family has in this place,” croaks the vigorous patrón. “And imagine: the woman who founded it, my ancestor, did so why? To piss off a priest.”

The priest, as Don Carlos recounts it, was Fr. Juan Bautista, rector of the Catedral Primada, Bogotá’s main church. The woman was La Chozna—a nickname meaning, oddly, “great-great-granddaughter,” her real appellative having been lost somewhere along the generations.

Back in 1816, it seems, Fr. Juan was making preparations for the festival of La Virgen del Carmen, to be celebrated on July 16. As per custom, he solicited the help of the parishioners, who took charge of decorating the statue of Mary to be used in the obligatory street procession. La Chozna hadn’t the wherewithal to contribute artistically. So she thought to whip up snacks for the parish faithful.

Alas, things turned ugly. Fr. Juan’s sense of sacerdotal dignity was apparently offended at her not having cleared the repast with him beforehand. He rejected her offering. The result was predictable, for anyone who knows Colombian mothers: an outpouring of wrath from La Chozna, who in a fit of pique set herself up in a sweet shop right across from the cathedral. Her revenge? To use her goodies to lure parishioners out on the sly during the father’s interminable sermons.

Her shop looked directly across to the church’s side entrance—the “false door,” in architectural lingo. Hence the name of Latin America’s longest-lived eatery.

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“For years, kids came from the cathedral to buy sweets. Today, though, the big sellers are the tamales and the chocolate santafereño. Some gringos aren’t used to it. But I see you’ve finished yours.”

Indeed I have. All that’s left of the tamal, once fat with garbanzos, carrots, cornmeal, and bacon, is the plantain leaf and a chicken thighbone, now picked clean. My chocolate completo, full of melted cheese instead of milk, is down to the dregs.

Energized for the day ahead, I ask Don Carlos if he shares his seventh great-grandmother’s vivacious spirit.

Bueno, I think her story is typical of Bogotá. The people here are religious. And that’s fine.

“But if you start a fight, watch out.”

 

Tattooing the City

Plaza Bolívar, the city’s main square. Sidewalks aflutter with pigeons. As I cross the pavement, the cooing birds scatter before me, resettling amidst vendors hawking carts of waffle-sized wafers.

The feistiness of Don Carlos’s forbear has me pondering the bogotano character. If folks here are quick to chafe, they seem even more quick to enjoy, even if that enjoyment comes from bedeviling others. Non-capital Colombians have a mantra that rolos are cold and distant, but my encounters so far indicate that—at least by gringo standards—they’re anything but.

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In an effort to see more of the Bogotá brio, I head up the Carrera Séptima, the downtown’s main commercial drag. My objective: to link up with someone schooled in a rolo renaissance currently in full flower. An anthropologist who’s lived among the urban tribes now tattooing the city with their own, highly colorful, exuberance.

¿Quihubo, hombre, cómo vas?

The salute echoes from the pavilion of the Parque de los Periodistas—Journalists’ Park. Jeffer Carrillo is clicking his bike’s U-lock into place around a lamppost.

“You found me, muy bien.”

He wipes his hand on a rag to shake mine.

Bueno, you’re feeling energized, no? Because we’ve got a lot to see.”

He’s not lying. For the next two hours, Carrillo, 29, leads me on an arduous hillside slog through some of La Candelaria’s artistic showpieces—filling me in on background in the trudges between. His story’s an emblematic one: after studying anthropology at Colombia’s Universidad Nacional, he took up with a non-profit in the “marginal” Bogotá district of Bosa, working with some of the city’s neediest kids. This led to his initiation into an art form that, for several of those youth, was their portal to self-expression: graffiti.

It was a portal broad enough to receive him, as well. Soon he was meeting artists, learning about their work, studying the movement from an anthropological perspective. His current gig, that of guide for Bogotá Graffiti Tours, lets him share his encyclopedic knowledge with 50-plus aficionados, twice a day, 365 days a year.

“Graffiti art saves,” he tells me, flat-out.

We’ve halted before three bug-like figures, psychedelically colored and with six humanoid eyes each. Their balaclava-like faces are vaguely reminiscent of old Moody Blues or Yes album covers from the 70s.

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“You have to understand, here in Colombia we have a very closed and corrupt political system. Right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, the army, drug dealers. These groups control the media, determining who can say what.

“But graffiti gives people a means of expression that the official system does not.”

The artist we’re looking at, street name Ródez, is a case in point. In Carrillo’s retelling, this classically trained university instructor arrived in his barrio one day to discover his two sons blasting away with spray cans on a nearby wall. After the requisite tachycardia, curiosity prevailed. He accompanied his boys to a street-art expo. There, the freedom he witnessed was so invigorating that, throwing prejudice to the wind, he grabbed an aerosol can and started free-styling.

He never looked back. Today his murals—at times insectoid, at other times evoking a pre-Colombian bestiary—are visible on walls all over Bogotá.

“One contributing factor [to the current boom],” Carrillo points out, “is that graffiti has been decriminalized in Bogotá. It’s still a civil infraction. There are fines. But you can’t be locked up like before.”

The turning point, he asserts, was the murder of Diego Becerra, a 16-year-old tag artist, back in 2011. Surprised during an outing with friends, the teen was shot in the back by a police patrolman, provoking a national outcry and official condemnation from the UN. Bogota’s then mayor, the 2018 presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, responded by depenalizing graffiti in many areas, going so far as to offer patronage to qualified artists.

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“Currently there are 8,000 grafiteros active in Bogotá,” Carrillo states. “Many receive public support, though the more radical ones reject any hint of commercialization. That includes the graffiti tours: they think art should keep its anti-establishment edge.”

Not all artists are so monastic. As the tour nears its denouement, Carrillo parks us in front of a stencil portrait in Calle 20 by Stinkfish, a near-mythic figure whose designs graced the runways in a 2013 Prada fashion expo.

“Stink is our most recognized artist internationally. His designs are all over Europe, Argentina, Mexico. The rest, well, they’ve got to keep their day jobs.”

And the block-length mural just down the street? I ask.

Bueno, that’s one of the city’s masterworks. Four full-sized projects by four different artists [Guache, DJ Lu, Toxicómano, and Lesivo]. It’s full of political themes: assassinations by the military, the homeless, the corruption of the media.”

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I stand back, taking in the mural’s mohawked youth, bearded street people, piglike politicians.

“Street art isn’t just about flowers and birdies, you see. As long as Colombia’s problems persist, its role in the culture will remain vital.”

 

Pagan Pleasures

La Carrera Séptima again. Early-evening crowds. My tour of La Candelaria’s urban artworld—really, the best I’ve had in Colombia—has left me invigorated. I start back up the hill, anxious to explore the remaining facets of the neighborhood’s buena onda.

A pitstop for empanadas at a corner stand, doused with spicy ají. The warm pastry streaks my fingers with oil.

Moments later, with night falling, I’m ready to continue—this time, on a quest for a brew considered to be Bogotá’s signature.

That brew, known as chicha, is a potation with a history. Six hundred years of it, to be precise, dating back to the Muisca, the pre-Hispanic people that originally inhabited Bogotá’s altiplano. For that matriarchal tribe, the golden elixir was sacred, to be made painstakingly by pounding maize kernels in a bowl and fermenting them with holy women’s saliva. Later, after the Spanish arrived, it was the grog of choice for poncho-clad muleteers in the capital looking to line their innards against cold Andean nights.

And today? Today the sacramental spirit is illegal. Prohibited by government decree 1839 of 1948.

Prohibited, at least, technically. As I arrive at la Calle del Embudo, or Funnel Street, a narrow, cobblestoned alley back near the Chorro de Quevedo, I find there’s nothing speakeasy-like about the chicherías clustered there. Every establishment, it seems, flaunts a placard openly hawking the legendary libation.

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I duck into Chalett, a shadowy rock bar with Rolling Stones lips and Judas Priest cudgels lining the walls. There, beneath a ZOSO symbol, I order up the house version of this heathen hooch.

I sip. It’s tart, acidic, with a yeasty fizz. Like a genetically modified pilsner.

I envision bands of gold-adorned natives, pouring it out in a chthonic ritual to the Earth.

Gabriel, the bartender, provides a history lesson.

“When Colombia went through a period of sustained violence back in the 40s and 50s, the authorities tried to clamp down on everything that was felt to be contributing to the anarchy. Back then, chicha bars were seen as seedy. So boom: the 1948 law outlawed them.”

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For a time, law-abiding rolos were left without their ancestral liquor. But sub rosa, Bogotá’s chicha culture continued to flourish, acquiring in the process the glamor of the forbidden.

Chicha never really went away. Today, it’s having a resurgence, mostly due to hipsters, who see it as an edgier alternative to beer. Also college kids and hippies, who see it as ‘mystical’ due to its indigenous history.”

That hipster element is certainly out in force tonight. Nose rings, ruanas, girls with milkmaid braids: bohemian Bogotá looks to be piling en masse into the innlike bar. I lean back against the wall, to watch the human pageant.

After a couple hours—and uncounted classic-rock smash-ups—I glance at my watch. Almost 11. Time for one more La Candelaria encounter. I pay my tab, hitting Gabriel with a homie handshake before stepping into the street.

It’s eight blocks to my final stop in Bogotá’s most inspirational barrio. I step quickly, as much for the desolation of the dark streets as for the cold night air.

When I arrive at Quiebra Canto, the bouncer slaps me on the back, waving me in immediately. It’s Wednesday, meaning this legendary disco is going full blast with another variety of pagan pleasure. On the stage, brassy salsa blares. On the floor, sweaty couples twist and whirl.

I shout at the bartender, “What’s on tap tonight?”

He smiles. “Big party, hombre. We’re in our glory here, can’t you see?”

Indeed I can. A Colombian glory, joyous and pure.

The band’s singer whoops: “¡Epa! All dancers out on the floor!” I obey, surrendering to the happiness around me.

A smiling rola holds out her hand. I take it.

Muy bien. Now everybody—”

 

Chorro de Quevedo
Carrera 2 con Calle 12b

La Puerta Falsa
Calle 11 #6-50

Bogotá Graffiti Tours
Parque de los Periodistas

Chalett
Carrera 2 #1-58

Quiebra Canto
Carrera 5 #17-76