Urban revival – Bogota & Medellin

16 Mar

Mentioning that you plan to spend some time in the big Colombian cities of Bogota and Medellin usually causes a sharp intake of breath from all of those who have heard about their infamous reputations. For years, drug cartels, civil war and violent crime grabbed the headlines and now linger in the memory banks. But times are changing. Whilst we weren’t looking, these cities were evolving economically, socially and culturally. Much needed investment was being rapidly pumped into these hubs and the proud population was determined to make a difference. Today, Bogota and Medellin remain distinctly different in character – Bogota the historical and cultural heartbeat of Colombia, whilst Medellin is a modern hub of industry and commerce. One thing they do have in common is these über-cool metropolises are now on the up and crying out for exploration.

But which one is most worthy of your attention?

CLIMATE

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Medellin has a consistent Spring-like climate which has earned it the nick-name ‘City of Eternal Spring’. It’s not as hot as other cities located this close to the equator due to its elevation of 1,500 meters, but its location does help to stabilise the climate offering an average year round temperature of 22 degrees.

At 2,640 meters, Bogota is the third highest capital in South America after Quito and La Paz. The average yearly temperature is 14 degrees but cool morning fog and occasional hail is not uncommon. Most people from Bogota carry umbrellas with them, even on the sunniest of days, as they have come to expect four seasons in one day.

Winner = Medellin

THE PEOPLE

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The people from Bogota are nicknamed Rolos. Historically they are known to be industrious, cultured and politically minded. The people of Medellin are known as Paisas, a name which comes from the coffee growers. Traditionally they are known to be entrepreneurial, hardworking and very hospitable. There is a huge rivalry between the Rolos and Paisas who both love their respective cities and try to belittle the other. But how welcoming are they with visitors?

We’d read in several forums that the Rolos can seem less friendly than the Paisas but we concluded the weather has a huge impact on this. Being frequently chilly and wet in Bogota, people are unlikely to hang around in the streets chatting as they often do in Medellin. In reality we found both city residents to be friendly, kind and helpful. Tourists and ex-pats are welcomed with open arms by people who want to share their beautiful country. The civil war and dark times have affected the nations psych but not as we had imagined. Rather than being insular and bitter after years of living in fear, we found the people to be warm, easy-going and open-hearted. These city slickers are particularly industrious people who know how to let their hair down and welcome you to join the party.

Winner = Draw

LIFESTYLE

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Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia but it feels relatively small with 2.4 million inhabitants compared to the sprawling metropolis of Bogota with 7.4 million. In 2013, Medellin was chosen as the most innovative city in the world due to its recent advances in politics, education and social development. In the same year it was also given the accolade of the preferred corporate business destination in South America. The opportunities to work with international firms means better wages and ultimately a higher standard of living. Medellin has its fair share of poverty and slums but in certain neighborhoods, Medellin looks and feels every bit like a prosperous westernised city with modern apartments, boutique shops and funky eateries. There is a superficial side to Medellin with many turning to plastic surgery and heavy make-up to enhance their beauty. It’s not for us but many believe the Paisa women are some of the most beautiful in the world, which is never a bad thing. It’s very easy for travellers and ex-pats to feel instantly at home here.

Bogota feels more South American. It’s big, it’s noisy, it’s dirty and it’s gritty. Coming from the outside, it takes slightly longer to relax into the City’s rhythm but once you do, you see that its residents thrive on the sensory pleasures of art, culture, music and creativity.

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Many people imagine Bogota as a war zone but the capital has come a long way since the dark 90’s and nowadays it’s every bit as cosmopolitan as the rest of Latin America’s major cities and its safety is much improved. Bogota is vast but an efficient and far-reaching transportation system takes residents and tourists anywhere they need to go. The art and culture scene could rival Paris or New York and the night life is vibrant and varied. Bogota is divided into twenty districts and six zones and many of these neighborhoods are currently experiencing regeneration which will eventually result in a higher standard of living in the city.

Winner = Medellin

FOOD & DRINK

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South America has never been renowned for its culinary prowess but a number of cities such as Lima and Sao Paulo are stating to make a name for themselves globally, serving a locally sourced food with an international flavor to a growing number of wealthy locals and tourists. Throughout Colombia, traditional home-cooked fare is still the predominant meal of choice, and within Bogota and Medellin small cafes and street stalls serve up inexpensive dishes of pork and beans or arepas (thick, corn-based pancakes) filled with cheese. However, increased prosperity within the country, the arrival of travellers and a new generation of Colombians are forging the way for a foodie revival.

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Medellin looks to the United States for inspiration and many of its restaurants and bars have an American chain feel to them, preferring to serve char-grilled burgers, ribs and tex-mex rather than local specialities. We were surprised to find a large number of funky microbreweries and passed many a pleasurable hour sampling delicious real ales. The neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles are the most popular for dining out in the evening, as parts of the city center can be dodgy after dark. El Pablado in the southwest has the highest concentration of upmarket restaurants, bars and nightclubs and it’s a hugely popular area for backpackers and ex-pats. It’s more likely you’ll find pop and dance music in Medellin rather than pulsing salsa beats but the young crowd keeps the party jumpin’ well into the night. For cheap eats, pick up a tasty Shawarma from one of the many kebab houses around Avenue El Poblado, or join the locals on the street outside hole in the wall eateries selling empanadas (baked or fried stuffed pastry) with a squeeze of fresh lime and chopped chilli. Fine dining is still a relatively new concept in Medellin but foodies rest assured, changes are afoot.

Bogota is brimming over with cool, quirky and sophisticated eateries. There’s something to suit every taste. Fusion is the name of the game with chefs taking classic Colombian dishes and giving them an international twist. Different districts in the city have their own scenes and unique style. There’s a lively student vibe in Bohemian-chic Macarena, classical looking and history filled establishments in La Candelaria, high-class contemporary dining in Zona G and an all out ‘party ’til you drop’ attitude in Zona Rosa. As Bogota can be chilly, many classic dishes are warm and comforting with thick soups and stodgy potato dishes the order of the day. Several traditional cafes in the city centre also serve up hot chocolate with a slab of cheese to help you pile on the calories.

Winner = Bogota

HISTORIC BUILDINGS

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Bogota’s grey, block-like buildings stretch in every direction with little courtesy for planning laws, but at its centre colonial La Candelaria district is a beautiful surprise bursting with history and fascinating stories. The spacious and pigeon filled Plaza de Bolivar is surrounded by impressive buildings with distinct styles.

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The seat of congress on the south side of the plaza has a neo-classical feel and Cathedral Primada is very pleasing on the eye especially when the sun lights up its sandy colored stonework. There are many well-preserved streets filled with brightly painted colonial houses and old churches dating back to the 1600’s adorned with beautiful stained glass and gilded frescoes.

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Looking at the serenity and neatly uniformed guards at the Palace of Justice it’s difficult to imagine this is one of the most troubled buildings in the city having been burnt down by a mob in El Bogotazo (major riots that followed the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948) and taken by guerrillas in 1985, sparking a fearsome 28 hour offensive by the army to reclaim it.

Medellin has a thriving street life and buzzing markets in the inner city but it lacks the historical charm of Bogota’s well-preserved old town. Some history is captured in Medellin’s many fine churches with one of the most interesting being the Romanesque Cathedral Metropolitana, which sets a world record as having the highest number of bricks used in one building – 1.1 million. Parque de la Luz (Park of Light) is also surrounded by grand buildings and filled with cool sabers of light which shoot high into the air, but the overriding vibe is of modern living.

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It’s clear that Medellin looks toward the future in terms of construction. Medellin is currently outpacing any other Colombian city in the construction of new sky scrapers. The history of the city’s architecture is being forged now with progressive architects who will alter the city’s skyline forever.

Winner: Bogota

RECREATIONAL SPACES

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Medellin  has a markedly greener feel to it compared to Bogota. The city is surrounded by seven green hills with great viewpoints and space for recreation, and within the city’s boundaries there is a grand total of 21 public parks. One of the most popular parks is Arvi and with an area of about 20,000 hectares, it’s an outdoor enthusiasts paradise, filled with lakes, forests and streams. In the centre, the Botanical gardens burst with tropical plants, flowers and a vast collection of orchids. The outdoor sculpture garden displaying beautiful bulging bronzes by the world-famous artist Botero is also a neat space to wile-away some time. The Paisas are very proud of their city and they attribute their pride in keeping the city clean to the 1980’s campaign slogan where residents were told “It depends on you to give love to Medellin”.

In Western Bogota, Parque Simon Bolivar is a huge green space filled with lakes, walkways and bike paths and draws the crowds at weekends. However, central Bogota feels somewhat lacking in recreational space. It’s possible to grab a few minutes peace and quiet in the cobbled streets and spacious squares of the old town but the overriding vibe is a gritty, grey urban landscape. The Rolos have recognised the need for communal space and every Sunday a large area of the city is closed to vehicles so that families, couples and friends can stroll, cycle, skateboard and roller-blade their way through normally hectic, fume-choked streets to visit pop-up craft markets, sample specialities from food vendors or enjoy a punt on which guinea pig will win in one man’s organised race day!!

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Winner = Medellin

VIEWS

Medellin has 50% fewer residents than Bogota and it’s set in a narrow valley with imposing mountain views. Even in the heart of the city, the countryside seems close at hand. Some of the best views over the city can be had from the new Arvi metrocable which was initially installed to connect poorer people living in the hill’s shanty towns to the city, and was later extended to reach Arvi Park.

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The 20 minute cable car ride glides above squat buildings with corrugated roofs and allows a glimpse into a maze of alleyways and stone staircases below. The inner city’s skyline shoots into the sky with futuristic looking offices and smart apartments with penthouses. Travelling over the mountains, the cable car soars high above the tree tops offering unique views of the green canopy and hiking trails in the park.

Bogota’s most iconic viewpoint is Cerro de Monserrate on top of the 3,152 meter peak. Its white church, which has become famous for its many miracles, can be seen from all around the city.

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There are two fun options for reaching the summit – the first being the funicular which generally runs in the morning, and the second, the cable car running in the afternoons. From the top the sheer scale of the city becomes evident.

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A concrete jungle stretches as far as the eye can see and leaves you feeling very small. Non-existent planning laws mean it’s not uncommon to see a colonial building wedged in-between two seriously ugly, grey high-rises.

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Mirador Torre Colpatria, situated on Carrera 7, is another super spot to take in city views. This functioning office building opens its door to the public at weekends. Don’t be put off by the queues as it’s well worth the wait. The 162 meter sky-scraper is the tallest in Colombia and once inside the lift whizzes people up to the 48th floor for great 36o degree views of the city.

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Take a leisurely stroll around the outside deck and peer down at the many office buildings, reach out and touch the surrounding mountains and get an interesting perspective on Bogota’s Colosseum-like bull ring.

Winner: Bogota

MUSEUMS

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Colombia is steeped in rich history and interesting cultures and there is no better place to immerse yourself than in these two cities.

Bogota is the heavyweight when it comes to history and art, offering 58 museums and over 70 art galleries. It’s possible to spend many days perusing their displays and widening your understanding of the country and its people. Museo Nacional is a traditional style museum housed in a beautifully converted old jail. It offers chronological displays of Colombia’s past including its oldest relics, some gruesome Muisca mummies, dating from the 1500’s. Art lovers won’t find much better than the Botero gallery displaying works by the world-famous Colombian artist and sculptor whose career spans six decades.

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The world Botero creates is voluptuous and often offers political criticism and humor. Several works display intimate glimpses of his own life with wife Gloria Zea and his beloved horse. We challenge you not to leave the gallery feeling thinner than when you arrived!

Bogota’s piece de resistance is the fascinating Museo del Oro (Museum of Gold) which houses 55,000 pieces of gold from pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. The museum offers interesting insights into how gold was used in ceremonies, including one of the most famous pieces, a gold boat with tiny gold figures on board, found at the bottom at Guatavita lake where it had been thrown by a Chief before he himself dove in to obtain God-like powers. Make sure to visit the final exhibition which is a sound and light extravaganza.

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Medellin, although having fewer options, holds its own. Its most important museum is the Museo de Antioquia and their collection includes pre-Colombian and colonial artifacts along with artwork and sculptures by Botero. Medellin also has a modern art gallery with changing contemporary Colombian art and a rather cool science museum with hands on exhibits and an aquarium that children and big kids alike will enjoy.

Winner: Bogota

TOURS

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Both Medellin and Bogota have a range of unusual tours. Free walking tours leave from selected points in both city centres and take groups to places they may not venture independently, offering historical insights and humorous anecdotes. A small donation to the guide is always appreciated.

Arty Bogota boasts a graffiti tour where hidden urban art work is uncovered and for those who enjoy touring by pedal power, Bogota Bike Tours takes cyclists all over the city to see the sights and to visit edgy neighbourhoods.

Everyone knows a little about Medellin’s dark past under the violent control of drug cartels led by infamous Pablo Escobar, but to delve deeper into this terrifying past, it’s possible to take a tour which explores noteworthy places from his bloody strangle hold on the city and even takes participants to meet members of the Escobar family to ask probing questions. Medellin also has the Turibus, its own version of the hop-on, hop-off bus, which offers good value tours of the city’s most famous sights.

Winner = Draw

VERDICT

It’s undeniable that both cities have come a long way in just a few years. From featuring high on the world’s murder rate lists in the 80’s and 90’s, they have developed into funky, innovative and industrious cities. It’s an exciting time to visit. These cities are emerging as some of the coolest in the whole of Latin America. When it comes to picking a winner, we’re stuck sitting on the fence as the cities are markedly different but both have so much to offer. We’d highly recommend spending at least three days in each to discover your own favourite.

2 Responses to “Urban revival – Bogota & Medellin”

  1. infused exposures March 20, 2014 at 11:25 am #

    Great post guys! You make a tempting case for both cities. I’m glad we have both in our itinerary and it sounds like the each offer interesting things for the visitor. I wonder if either of them would be a good place to open a B&B!!!

    • latinchattin March 20, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

      You’ll be spoilt for great food options in both cities. We’ll look forward to reading about the funky establishments you guys visit. Book us in for the opening night of your B&B!

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