Lingering with the literati

Bogota: Colombia’s capital is a welcome haven of universities, libraries, bookshops (yes, people read books in this country) and cosy cafés and bars. There’s something incredibly reassuring, to me, in seeing people reading books for pleasure. I don’t know why, exactly – surely playing video games, watching movies, listening to music, cooking, daydreaming, and so on, offer as rich a fuel for the imagination as reading a novel. But, coming from a place where commuters can’t board a bus without immediately diving between the pages of a book, I find the absence of reading around the world rather unsettling.

Pre-Colombian bracelets on display at Bogota's gold museum
A street in Candelaria, the old part of town

And the city is ideally suited to readers: its chilly, rainy, high location (the world’s third highest capital after La Paz and Quito) make outdoor activities unattractive, and its welcoming cafés with their wood-burning stoves and hot spiced wine encourage citizens to curl up with a book.

Sunset view from our window
Bolivar Square in Bogota, with the man himself in the centre

The city has several museums, including a few good art galleries and a great gold museum, which exhibits a wealth of pre-Colombian metalwork.

Pre-Colombian gold raft depicting the indigenous chieftain of El Dorado, who would float into the middle of a volcanic lake and sacrifice gold and emeralds to the gods.
A schematic shows how this bird pin was made
Gold dog

We stroll around, sadly witnessing a mugging but otherwise feeling remarkably safe in a well-patrolled city with clean streets and orderly traffic. The walls are decorated with interesting murals and the kids all have brightly dyed hair and great mish-mash clothes.

Street art
Graffiti in the street

Bogota owes some of its success as a liveable functioning city to its former mayor, the remarkable Antanas Mockus, a guy who possesses the ingenuity, creativity and honest leadership that his political peers around the world so obviously lack. Mockus, a mathematician and president of Colombia’s National University, who’s full name is the improbable Aurelijus Rutenis Antanas Mockus Šivickas, left his academic post to become Bogota’s mayor in 1995, and again in 2001.

Botero's Mona Lisa at the Botero museum
One of many pretty colonial courtyards
11 Street

During his 5-year mayorship, homicides fell by 70%, traffic fatalities by 50%, water use by 40%, drinking water and sewerage was provided to all homes, and when he asked citizens to pay a voluntary 10% extra in taxes, 63000 people did so. Mockus used unconventional methods, including the use of mimes to mimic bad drivers and pedestrians, which humiliated wrongdoers and dramatically cut traffic fatalities. He initiated a Women’s Night, in which men were encouraged to stay home to do housework and look after children while women partied in a safe atmosphere. And he dramatically improved public transport in the city.

Fab Leunig-esque bird

In 2003, he resigned the post to run for presidency as leader of the Green Party, and he narrowly lost to Santos in the 2010 elections. Not bad for a maths prof.

Salt miner statue
Entrance to the salt mine and cathedral in Zipaquira

We take the TransMilenio (bendy buses) rapid transport system, put in place by Mockus’s successor, and head an hour out of town to an underground cathedral, built within a working salt mine.

A cross in one of the chapels
View through to the main aisle of the cathedral
Side chapel bathed in gold

It’s a pretty incredible structure, honed out of the salt left by the pre-Andean ancient sea that created the incredible salt flats of Uyuni.

A miner chips away at the cathedral's salt wall
Great lighting makes this underground cathedral look fantastic
The main aisle with pews

Clever lighting produces veils of colour on the vast white interior, and we tour the maze of tunnels and chapels, noting that the miners here pray to God, not to the devil, like their Bolivian counterparts do in far far more grim circumstances.

Blue-ceilinged chapel in the underground cathedral
Salt stairs

The next day, we rise above the city on a cable car for a panoramic view of Bogota. There’s a strong military presence protecting visiting dignitaries. Politicians and oil barons are in town and one of the topics under discussion is lucrative new oil production in Colombia. The nation is poised to match Mexico as the continent’s top oil exporter, with Venezuela’s decline in production.

Panorama of Bogota, nestled in the hills, from the top of a cable car ride
Pre-Colombian clay pot
Ancient burial practice

It’s a massive turnaround for Colombia, where it has, until recently, been too dangerous to produce oil. Many oil fields have been inaccessible, because of FARC guerrilla activities, and those that did produce oil were frequently attacked. Pipeline attacks by guerrilla groups over the past 40 years have spilled 3 million barrels of oil on Colombian soil – for perspective, the BP Deepwater Horizon spill totalled 4.9 million barrels; Exxon Valdez spilled around 300,000 barrels.

Decorated wall in Candelaria district
21st-century donkey transport in Bogota

Now that FARC has been quelled in much of Colombia, the government is eager to tap its oil wealth, but despite my attempts, I can’t find any sign of a clean-up initiative. Colombia’s land, rivers, streams and valleys have been poisoned through decades of oil, and while the world and its experts focus on cleaning the Gulf of Mexico, poor farmers in Colombia battle in oblivion. The oil companies do carry out some level of scoop-up, but the cost coupled with FARC violence has hampered their efforts.

Battling it out
Colourful street
Dali's homage to South America

Here’s hoping that the new security will lead not just to greater oil revenue, but to improved efforts to clean this damaged land.

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