Lights, thumping reggaeton, a windowless bus and not a seatbelt in sight… Join James Pengelley on a wild ride through the streets of Bogota, and find out why Colombia is the happiest country on earth.
You know you must have had a great weekend when Monday morning begins with the question from a colleague:
“Were you, at any stage of Saturday night, dancing like a gorilla?”
For a split second I desperately rack my brain for a conversation, a context – oddly enough, I can’t entirely rule out the possibility.
We have a busy night planned. A farewell party that is to include a Colombian nightlife rite of passage, a chiva tour, and we’re kicking things off from Chorro de Quevedo.
Chorro is in fact, the site of the foundation of the old city of Bogota during the 1500s. Today it is the bohemian heart of the colonial district of La Candelaria. Almost every night of the week students squirm along the tiny cobbled street that runs down the hill from the plaza to a small collection of pizza and empanada outlets on carrera 2 and calle 12c. You’d be unlucky if you didn’t see street artists, small groups of friends with a guitar or two sat around an open box of aguardiente (a clear anise liquor that comes in bottles, casks, or shots) or the odd open-air theatre performance on any given night.
Here, the beer is cheap, but the chicha (a South American fermented delight, usually made from fruit, with the consistency of smooth porridge and the tang of greek yogurt) is cheaper and comes in bowls, not glasses. Pokey bars and an enthusiastic energy trickle from corner to corner to the rhythms of reggaeton, salsa, and the occasional haven for glam-rock fans, trapped in the 70’s.
Una Club Colombia, porfa. I ask for one of the local beers.
The bar man looks confused. No hay, no tenemos.
Hay de Aguila?
No, no hay. I begin to resign myself to a night on chicha. I swallow. Hard.
No, no hay. It was like living the nightmare of a pub with no beer.
Ok, una michelada.
Ok, con gusto.
Micheladas are Colombia’s solution to watery lager – just add salt and lime. The kind of thing that looks like it should taste like a margarita, but doesn’t. Just how our friend manages to make a michelada when he doesn’t have any beer confuses me. He explains that to make it, he’ll have to go outside, down the street and buy the Club Colombia from another vendor, which begs the question….
Glancing at my watch, I already have a sense of the evening running away – the farewell chiva is booked for 9.
“Meet us at 7:30!” read the invitation. As I have a friend visiting from Australia who was due to be at the airport at 9, I ask if he can tag along for an hour. It’s then that Sam explains that the 7:30 part was merely for the benefit of our Colombian friends, to avoid delays and late arrivals. Cunning.
As the big hand passed 9:20, the congregation stumbled down carrera 3 to our meeting point just next to Las Aguas station. I remember our first day in the city and being warned by our Colombian friends.
“You have to be super careful in this area.” They caution. I realise now that there are two types of Bogotanos: those who go to the centre, and those who don’t. As resident of La Candelaria, I admit it’s not the world’s safest place, especially in the late hours of the weekend, but it’s certainly not the Armageddon that the non-centre-dwelling Bogotanos would have you believe.
Tonight the area around calle 19 is crawling with students. As we walk alongside the station entrance, a young boy is doing his best version of Carlos Valderrama, balancing a football on his forehead. Ahead, a gaggle of tightly jeaned (and I mean jeans a gringo wouldn’t fit in after the age of 9), high-heeled and lusciously haired colombianasare making their way out for the evening. The little fella lets of a wolf whistle. Before I realize the who or the what, I see three heads flick over shoulder, look me and my girlfriend straight in the eye, a giggle or two, and another flick of that dazzling latino hair. Cheeky fecker.
Colombian foreplay is a dance for the patient: many a maladroit gringo has been known to take his chances on the dance floor, succumbing to his insecurities about grinding it like a latino – with very mixed results, but the clear message I take from my friends – go with the flow, and sip your aguardiente slowly – it comes in boxes with little cups for a reason. It’s much more of a social thing than your average vodka shot, or cocksucking cowboy, so embrace the sharing process – you’ll be thankful in the morning.
After sitting on board for 15 minutes waiting for scragglers, and the one Colombian friend who was apparently “just around the corner”, the reggaeton suddenly bursts onto the stereo, and with a collective essssssoooo! we set off on our chiva adventure only 40 minutes behind schedule. Everyone is on their feet, tucked into the middle of the dance floor, hanging on the rails attached to the roof, and swinging with the rhythm as the chiva takes each successive corner. For the less rhythmically inclined (i.e. any of the gringos), there are benches around the perimeter of the dance floor. Any doubt as to whether we’ll actually all fit standing, clinging to someone or something that might be attached to the frame of the bus is instantly quelled by Don Omar’s Danza Kudra and like a bizarre game of twister on wheels I discover there is room, standing, dancing, bumping, grinding, for everyone. Only in Colombia.
A chiva is about as much fun as you should never have, and if you spend the first little while aboard thinking “this really is quite illegal” then, well, join the club. But then what would you expect from a bus with no windows, two poles that run the length of the roof, a pumping sound system and oppressive use of LED lighting? Originally adapted from buses that serve public transport routes in rural Colombia and Ecuador, they are yet to evolve into a 7-foot Scandinavian stature-friendly version, but chance are you’ll be bumping and grinding and overly invested in trying not to fall over as it takes each corner, for this to worry you.
After 30 minutes of booty-shaking, we disembark at el mirador, half way up to La Calera for a quick pee stop (you won’t find toilets on a chiva!) and little more aguardiente from the tienda next to the mirador. In a city like Bogota, it is so easy to be resign yourself to the insular complacency of the district you live in and all the creature comforts and all the quirks that come with it. But from up atop la Calera, it is very hard not to be impressed by the force of life of a creature much, much bigger than me. The trail of Avenida Las Americas running away into the west, there isn’t a cloud in the sky and not a star to be seen, but for the countless streetlamps and headlights that stretch out in all direction before us. Bogota really is enormous.
We continue with our merry bump-grind-bang-apologise routine for another hour or so, descending into the depths of Bogota’s nightlife in Zona T at a tick before 11:30. Zona T has a life of its own – boutique shopping by day, highbrow ghetto by night. We decide to freshen up at the Bogota Beer Company, on calle 85 and Carrera 13, the bigger of the two outlets in the area and get stuck into some of the universe’s most spectacular fries and blue cheese dipping sauce.
The night is cool and dry and we huddle under a gas radiator on the patio as the clock ticks over to a new day, and the pints slowly sink away. The bell for last drinks rings, and, feeling like there is plenty of life left in the evening, we head for something a little more familiar.
“There’s only so much reggaeton and salsa you can take in one night!” Says a fellow foreigner, and we cram into a cab and head downtown to Radio Berlin. Electronica certainly isn’t mainstream Colombian fare, but those in the know are certainly tuned in to having a jolly old time. Tucked into a basement on Carrera 6 and cale 26, Radio Berlin is the most convenient clubbing smorgasbord in el centro. Two floors, each dedicated to reliably chunky house or a slightly more original salsa-meets-tango-meets-electro, and a very welcome rest area just inside the main door that occasionally catches a fresh breeze.
I lead the way downstairs to the main floor, charging through the crowd to set up shop on prime dance floor realty. My friend, having ignored my aguardiente warnings on the chiva through the early hours of the evening, clings to my arm for a little stability.
“You know,” she says, grinning lopsidedly. “You are awfully hairy.”
“I had to get a special leave of absence from the zoologico.” I give her a wink, but realise, given her current state of mind and curious, tilted frown, that I may have just crossed a very ambiguous line that bounds her reality.
By 5:45, the adrenaline is waning. We ask to leave, but have been under lock and key for over an hour now.
La policia. Says the doorman, gesturing outside. Prowling? Waiting? Searching for people who keep popping out to sneak nips from their bottles hidden in the bushes across the road, I suspect.
We return to the main entrance a little later and this time, the doorman smiles and obliges. The crackling sunshine of a new day confuses me, and the silence of a misty madrugada is welcoming, as we stumble home through parque de la Independencia, past plaza de toros de Santamaria – Bogota’s recently retired bullfighting ring in silence, and without a single gorilla in sight.
Chivas Tours have a range of deals and tours for the curious, the brave and the energetic. Most tours include a trip to La Calera and finish of at Zona T and some packages include a BBQ (una parrilla) and a bottle of rum or aguardiente. If you’re staying at a hostel, chances are you’ll have the opportunity to jump on board one of these bad boys during your stay anyway, just ask at reception.
For more Colombia travel adventures read James’ guide to Bogota here, check out his profile, or follow him on Twitter.