15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

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Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

Rain, Rain, Go Away

It’s rainy season in Bogotá – insofar as a few weeks can be a season, that is. It can be, though, which is something you learn when you move here: seasons can be hours, or days, and a month can seem like a year when the clouds move fast enough. Coming from a place where seasons are essentially a clockwork three months each, with maybe a stray April snowstorm or extended summer day in October to keep us all on our toes, it’s a tough adjustment. It still seems wrong, for example, that people can squint up at the sky, check to see whether it’s partly cloudy or partly sunny (the meteorological version of water levels in glasses) and say confidently that it’s either summer or winter. It seems to run counter to everything we learn in school, when we study the Earth’s rotation and day length and sunset times. And yet, after two years here, I’ve started to buy into it, too – into the idea that winter can descend over the mountains like nightfall and lift again just as easily, when it’s 2 p.m. or a Sunday, or that summer has nothing to do with temperatures and everything to do with the appearance of shadows.

ughhhhhhhhhhh

Just your average day, dodging raindrops

Sometimes I suspect that Bogotá’s rainy season is the city’s way of testing people. Can you hack it? Can you find ways to stay positive, stay busy, stay upbeat when the mountaintops disappear behind apocalyptically dark clouds that almost make you believe in black magic? Can you find shoes that will bear you across the three-inch rivers rushing through the streets, find ways to jump to the side before the buses whizzing past throw cascading waves of water the height of a small child over anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within the blast radius? Can you keep from fighting back against your alarm clock when the first glimpse out the window reveals only gray, rather than the normal early-a.m. jewel-toned sky?

It’s all a test. The city is testing us, waiting for us to prove that we deserve to make it to the clear light and holidays in June, the kite-filled skies and festival days of August, the shimmering lights and warm drinks of December. We don’t have snow, but we have days so dark that the idea of sunlight seems foreign. We have hailstorms that appear out of nowhere, and roads with insufficient storm drains. We have whiplash-inducing variations in temperature and precipitation strange enough to make you suspect it might really all be tied to the movements of a butterfly in Indonesia, or the mood swings of a three-year old in Portugal.

And if all that doom and gloom isn’t enough for you, well, it’s election season as well. The jury is still out on that one, as far as silver linings are concerned, but we’ve got to hope there’s sunlight at the other end, too.

On Comfort Zones, and How (Not) to Take a Cab in Bogotá

So you may or may not have heard about what happened to the DEA agent here last week. They’ll figure out the full story in time, but what seems to be the truth as far as we know is that the guy hailed a cab near midnight in a busy (wealthy) part of town, was driven a few blocks before some other guys got in and tried to rob him (what’s called a paseo millonario here — normally they’ll drive you around to a few ATMs and make you withdraw as much money as possible before dropping you off on a random street somewhere. This is why I never carry bank cards when I go out at night, as an extra precaution). The guy must have tried to fight back, which ended badly for him — a few stab wounds, taken to the hospital, died shortly thereafter. I’m sure there’s a shitstorm happening over at the US Embassy right now — according to someone I know who works there, the memos have been flying all week, which I think is about as serious as bureaucracy gets — because this guy pretty much did everything they tell you not to do. Never hail cabs off the street, especially not at night; always lock the doors when you get in the cab; make sure your friends see the placa (plate) of the car you’re taking; don’t carry your credit cards with you if you’re out drinking at night; be extra cautious when leaving high-traffic zones frequented by people with lots of money. These are all things people will tell you not to do a million times; whether you listen is your own choice. And many of us really don’t. I know that up until about two months ago, I didn’t. At least not as much as I should have.

So let’s back up a second here, because I’m skipping ahead. One thing that you notice after living in Bogotá for three days, three weeks, three years: everyone has been robbed. Everyone. Colombians, foreigners, tourists, residents — it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story: a bag slashed on a bus, a wallet taken on the TransMilenio, a man with a gun in Candelaria, robbers pretending to be house painters in an apartment building, phone calls describing fake kidnappings and asking for money. The question isn’t if, it’s when.

But the thing is, sometimes the when takes a long time to arrive. Sometimes you’re here for a year, and yeah, you get bad vibes from sketchy dudes on the bus sometimes or worry that someone is standing too close to you and move away, but that’s it. And you start to forget to keep two hands on your phone, to watch your bag, to be careful where you go to the ATM. You start to get comfortable.

Comfort is a good thing, of course. We all want to be comfortable where we live, and this is as good a place to be comfortable as any. But comfort can’t come at the cost of safety and awareness, and that’s where we start to slip. That’s where my friend slipped when she didn’t keep an eye on her bag while out dancing; where I slipped sitting by the ocean in Cartagena; where this guy probably slipped when he opened the door to the first cab that came by. We forget that our happiness doesn’t put us in a bubble, and that it can happen at any time. That if it happens to Colombians, it will happen to us. That all we can do is take every reasonable precaution, and listen to the people who know better when they tell us to, for the love of god, just wait the extra three minutes it takes to call a cab.

But let’s be clear about this, Colombia is not a hotbed of daily kidnappings and stabbings. This is not Mexico. It’s not Pakistan. Bogotá is not Aleppo. The vast majority of people here are wonderful and well-intentioned, taxi drivers included. I’ve been lectured on several occasions by fatherly taxi drivers who are concerned that I’m not taking enough precautions to be safe. I once had a half-hour conversation about life, travel and the national university at 2 a.m. with a cab driver who is probably younger than my brother. Yes, the security could be better, overall, but it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people in any given place and job are just trying to do that job and keep moving on. We all just need to pay attention to where we’re going.

Queremos Paz

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This past Tuesday, April 9th, was an important day here in Colombia. It was the 65th anniversary of the 1948 assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which set off the riots known as the Bogotazo, which killed between 3,000-5,000 people and destroyed much of downtown Bogotá in just 10 hours. That riot and the ensuing instability led to widespread violence across the country and set the stage for the beginning of the civil conflict that still exists today.

As if that weren’t enough, Tuesday was also the Day of Victims, created by the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which was created to facilitate the process of remittances and returning land to the millions of internally displaced refugees across the country. Of course, this law has yet to actually accomplish much, but some recognition is better than none, right? Across the country, people commemorated this day in different ways — and here in Bogotá, almost a million people marched to the city center to demonstrate their support for peace (here’s an article in English for you gringos). Both the president and the mayor of Bogotá participated in the march, as well as several other famous Colombians and a whole lot of people from a whole lot of different places on the political spectrum. No matter your feelings about the politics of the situation (and, as always, there are more than enough feelings to go around), it was an impressive show of citizen participation and expression.

Now, people have different definitions of what peace means, and how they go about supporting it. For some, it means getting on board with the ideals of the talks currently taking place in Havana between representatives of the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. Others may believe in the end more than the means, or take action on a more local scale. Yet others, like those who criticized the march as apologizing for or even supporting the FARC rebels, may believe that the road to peace does not lie through these kinds of negotiations. And for others still, it is less political and more personal — a goal that every Colombian can work toward in his or her private life.

Ending a war is not like winning a video game — you don’t just beat the last level, save the princess and suddenly it’s all over. Not in the DRC, not in Syria, and not in a country ravaged by decades of civil conflict. These things take time, and effort, and extraordinary amounts of courage. They take forgiveness — for the fighters who may hope to reintegrate back into civil society, for the military and state police apparatus that have committed serious crimes in the name of winning the war, for the perpetrators of violence that has driven millions of people from their land and family homes. These things are not easy. These things are beyond the capacity of many people, and hard for many of us to even imagine. I’ve never lost a family member to drug violence, answered the phone to hear a voice on the other end tell me my father’s been kidnapped, driven around in an armored car full of bodyguards because it’s the only way to feel safe, or wondered whether today is the day I’ll be in the wrong place when the newest bomb goes off. Most people here have grown up or lived under the shadow of violence. It’s always been there, just like the mountains.

The shadow is beginning to fade. But it won’t disappear on its own. Chasing away the darkness requires positive actions. It requires hope. It requires faith. It requires people who truly believe in the potential of peace, and who are willing to work toward that, who are willing to cooperate and help one another move through and past this painful history. It requires people with great strength of character and the ability to remain positive through dark times. It requires, in other words, Colombians.

I wasn’t born here. I’m not Colombian by birth, and I have no right to claim any sense of belonging to this process. I recognize that. This situation, both the positive and the negative, is their birthright, not mine. But I live here, I love it here, and I care deeply about the people I know here. They deserve this. They deserve to wake up and go to work in horrible traffic and arrive home at night to see their family together and safe. They deserve to work in good jobs without worrying that they may be jeopardizing people they love. They deserve to travel through their gorgeous country without feeling threatened or avoiding certain regions altogether. They deserve their land back. They deserve their livelihoods back. They deserve to be seen as more than narcos. They deserve to be treated with the same dignity and afforded the same opportunities granted to citizens of other countries, not interrogated at every border and repeatedly denied visas based only on their nationality. They deserve the opportunity to make their country what everyone believes it can be, to rise to their potential instead of being held back by jungles filled with men with guns and destructive wars on drugs inflicted on them by foreign powers. They deserve their real birthright: not the one dripping with blood money and long-held grudges, but the one that moves to the rhythm of salsa and cumbia and bursts with the colors and joy of the country’s natural beauty.

They deserve peace. Merecen la paz. Que la llegue.

Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy

One thought that kept coming up during my valiant (and ultimately successful) quest to get myself a visa was how much worse the whole thing could’ve been. Sure, getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go stand in line at DIAN and then sit inside the freezing building for 4 hours wasn’t exactly my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me in Colombia, but it also wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I survived. And from then on, everyone was so nice to me that it made the entire ordeal feel significantly less challenging than it could have.

I guess by now I shouldn’t be surprised that people in Colombia are just pleasant, even when they work at undoubtedly mind-numbing desk jobs, but there’s a part of my brain that’s still firmly lodged in the American (or at least Northeast region) mindset of only being civil when absolutely necessary, and definitely nothing ever past civil. We are exactly as polite as we need to be to get things done, and you can be sure you’ll know if you’re inconveniencing us. Not so here.

As I mentioned, the first time I went to register myself as a business at the Cámara de Comercio, I didn’t know I needed a copy of a utilities bill. I had all my other documents ready to go, but this one little thing was missing. It was too late in the day for me to go home, get it and come back before the office closed, so it was going to be one more day of delay in the process. But instead of just waving me away from the desk, the extremely helpful young woman working there (who, as I said, was as pregnant as she was helpful) sat down with me and filled out the entire document I needed, reviewing all the sections to make sure I was doing them correctly and telling me the smallest possible amount I could give as the value of my company, to limit taxes. “This way,” she told me, “you can just bring in the bill tomorrow and you’ll be all set!” And that’s exactly what I did.

She didn’t have to be that helpful. She could’ve just let me wait until the next day — it certainly wouldn’t make any difference for her job. But she did the good thing, and that’s the only reason I left the office that afternoon smiling instead of growling in frustration.

It was more or less the same at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, where I actually got my visa. I made damn sure to show up there with every single document I could ever potentially need, partly because I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with and mostly because you have to pay $50 every time you go there and I was sure as hell not going to pay $50 just for being a forgetful idiot. Even so, the guy I talked to there was so friendly and asked me questions like he was genuinely curious, rather than trying to trick me into saying the wrong thing. If I were a foreigner applying for a visa in the U.S., the process would be somewhere between a jail interrogation and a private investigator background check, and I would probably feel like a criminal without having done anything wrong. The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is so much easier to deal with in these kinds of processes — I was already nervous enough about applying for the visa. A mean agent probably would’ve made me burst into tears. Instead, I left with the world’s biggest grin and a promise to my interview agent that I would write nice things about Colombia.

Promise kept.

Some Thoughts About Visas and Victories

So my grand plan to move triumphantly back to Colombia and have a life here as a strong, independent woman (or at least a woman who really likes coffee and arepas) hinged upon one very important detail: getting a visa. As those of us hailing from the Great White Devil know all too well, working under an illegal visa is generally frowned upon by governments, and can lead to scary consequences like alarmingly large fines or even deportation. These are not consequences I want to face at any point in my life, and certainly not now, when everything else is proceeding according to plan. So then. A visa was required.

But how, one might ask, does a brunette gringa with a serious addiction to maracuyá ice cream go about obtaining a visa? They’re not exactly handing them out like candy these days, although it’s certainly easier to get one here than somewhere like my dearly beloved homeland. Of course, I had one last year through WorldTeach, but it expired in December, and I couldn’t renew it because I wasn’t going to be doing the same kind of work, or working with the same organization. So renewing was out.

This left me with three options, which are the three basic options facing any foreigner who wants to be able to work for an extended period of time in Colombia:

1. Stay on a 90-day tourist visa, renew it once at the immigration office for a maximum stay of 180 consecutive days, and then leave the country for 72 hours and come back in on another (non-renewable) 90-day visa. Wash, rinse, repeat every 90 days until the Colombian government catches up with you and asks you to cease and desist. This is a perfectly acceptable choice for people who don’t intend to be here longer than 6 months or so, or people who are only looking to pick up part-time, under-the-table work like private classes or manning the desk at a hostel or something. I am neither of those people, and this was going to add totally unnecessary amounts of stress to my life, so this wasn’t ever anything except an absolutely last resort.

2. Find work with a company willing to sponsor a work visa. This is what the vast majority of people end up doing, and it works fine if you find a good, dependable organization that actually keeps its visa-sponsoring promises (which is more difficult than it sounds). If you come here with a school or organization, you already have this set up; otherwise, if you manage to find an institute or other business that’s willing to commit to sponsoring you, great. The company I’m teaching with actually did let me know that they could sponsor a work visa for me if I needed it, which was good to have as a fallback plan. However, from my personal point of view there are a few issues with this option. The first is that, once you have a visa with a company, you are tied to that company. As far as the Colombian government is concerned, you are only allowed to work in Colombia if you are working with that company. The minute your job status changes (and it will, for most of us expendable, commitment-phobic foreigners), that visa is no longer valid. Of course, lots of people ignore this, and I know people that are here on work visas from places where they no longer work, and they probably won’t get caught, and it’ll be fine, but you know, it’s still not what you’re supposed to do. I’ve never been a massive stickler for rules, but when it comes to things like international work status requirements, I like to stay on the right side of things.

The other issue with this kind of visa is a logistical one. For some inexplicable bureaucratic reason, you can’t actually get this visa issued in Colombia, which means you have to go to the consulate in a neighboring country: Panama, Ecuador, or Venezuela, which is where most people go. This is a pretty significant hassle and you lose at least a whole weekend, if not longer, going back and forth to the border and waiting in a bunch of lines. Obviously it’s not the worst thing in the entire world — I certainly wouldn’t cry about going back to Ecuador for a few days — but I preferred to get the whole thing taken care of without having to leave Bogotá.

3. Which brings us to option #3: apply for an independent worker visa. I will readily admit that I am not smart enough to have thought of this by myself — I borrowed the idea from the fabulous Zoë over at La Blogotana, who, in addition to having a great name for her blog, wrote an invaluable series of posts last summer about this very process. She (and several other people I know) applied for this visa as independent English teachers, which seems to have worked for most of them. However, I decided to apply for it as an independent journalist, since that’s what I’m planning to do this year, more so than teaching. From everything I’ve heard, it’s much easier to apply for this kind of visa when you can show past experience and, even better, a degree, since Colombians are all about appearances and seeming official. Well, lucky me, with my college degree in journalism and published clips, I thought I had a pretty decent shot at it. Which is to say, kids, unless you have a journalism degree, don’t try this at home.

It’s not the easiest or most fun process in the world, but dealing with government offices rarely is. To make a labyrinthine story somewhat short, getting an independent worker visa requires three steps:

  • Going to the DIAN office at 7:30 in the goddamn morning on a Saturday because that’s the only time you’ll actually be able to see a representative, still being the 232nd person in line despite getting there before the office even opens at 8, sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a huge freezing room for 4 hours while freaking out that you’ve somehow missed your turn as the one mean guy in all of Colombia reminds all of you at least every five minutes that if you miss your turn it’s too bad, finally getting to actually speak to someone around 11:30 and explaining to him that you want to work as a freelance journalist, waiting for him to pick some mysterious code that identifies this activity and then finally taking your shiny new RUT form that qualifies you to exist as a commercial entity in Colombia and getting out of there as fast as humanly possible. Eating an enormous brunch-type meal is highly recommended after this step.
  • Going to the Cámara de Comercio (Chamber of Commerce) office to register yourself as an independent business, forgetting one crucial document that you need, having to go back the next day because of course there isn’t time to go home and come back with it before the office closes, submitting the application, waiting four days for the certificate to arrive, going back a third time to pick it up, only tolerating this whole process because the incredibly pregnant young woman working at the CC desk is possible the sweetest and most helpful person in the entire city of Bogotá. Eating arepas from the cart on the corner outside the office is highly recommended during each journey.
  • Two weeks after starting this whole shenanigan, taking all of these forms plus a massive pile of other documents (including, but not limited to, copies of three different pages of your passport, official visa request form filled out, formal letter stating why you’re applying for this visa, resumé, copy of diploma, letter of recommendation from a potential employer [optional but helpful], copies of published clips, recent bank statement and several unflattering photos) to the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriories office near Calle 100, getting a number, sitting and trying to read a book but failing because you keep checking the screen every ten seconds to see if they’ve called your number yet because they seem to call them in an order similar to the bombing pattern in Gravity’s Rainbow, finally getting your number called after a surprisingly short wait of less than an hour, thanking all the higher powers that you got assigned to a youngish guy (this is why you showered and brushed your hair this morning!), explaining to the very nice youngish guy why you want this visa, making sure to include the phrase “I just love Colombia” as many times as reasonably possible, handing over all of your documents, getting sent back to the waiting room while he reviews them, trying not to gnaw off the two existing fingernails you have left, getting called back in less than 20 minutes, watching with ferocious glee as the guy controlling your destiny prints off a new, shiny visa that qualifies you to work as an independent journalist until February 2014 and attaches it to your passport, and trying not to hug the dude or do an obvious victory dance until exiting the doors. Going to the awesome vegetarian restaurant around the corner and eating a giant lunch is the only way to celebrate this resounding victory.

So there you have it. One month and a lot of smiling at government employees later, I am legally allowed to be here working until one year from now. I can’t imagine going through this process without speaking at least a competent level of Spanish — it certainly makes explaining your case significantly easier. Plus, sometimes people find accents endearing. Whatever the magic key was (maybe it was the lucky underwear? Who knows?), the point is that it worked. I can finally take a deep breath, relax, and start doing all those things I’d been putting off until I was legal.

Now I just have to go get my Colombian ID card…

Guess Who’s Back for Round Two?

¿Qué más, friends and lovers?

Yes, so I’m back in Bogotá, if the Spanish wasn’t a clue. I’ve actually been back for almost a month now, occupied with moving into the new place, job-hunting, figuring out the closest place to buy avocados (2 blocks away) and beer (3 or 5 blocks away, depending on price point), dealing with floor remodeling, playing with our kitten and so on. It’s been a busy month, as moving time tends to be, but I’ve still had time to be overwhelmingly gleeful about my return.

Sure, moving to a foreign country with the intention of working as a freelance something-or-other is not exactly the wisest move when it comes to job security (or health insurance, for that matter — miss you, Obamacare!), but it’s a pretty wise move as far as my happiness level is concerned. The proverbial “they” keep coming up with these studies showing Colombia is one of the world’s happiest countries, and whether or not those studies include misplaced gringas, they’re on to something. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to be back here, even when I’m sweating on a packed bus stressing out about being late for a meeting (maybe a little less so then, but hey, price of admission and so on).

The wonderful Brighid — who has abandoned me for the warmer embraces of Barranquilla (more on that later) — and I were talking about honeymoon phases this week, as one is wont to do after moving to a new city. It’s almost inevitable when relocating that you go through this part of the “culture shock curve,” for lack of a better term. You know — when you’re first there, and everything is NEW and EXCITING and DIFFERENT and you just can’t stop staring at everything (and sometimes everyone). The honeymoon phase is wonderful, but it almost always ends, sometimes with an abrupt crash.

 

But what if it doesn’t? What if it never ends, or if it never happened at all? What if you’re just happy from day one, and then you just… keep being happy? Because I think that happens. I think maybe it happens more often here than in other places, like the steppes of Siberia. And I think it’s happened to me. And I couldn’t be more pleased about it.

Bogotá, todavía te quiero. It sure feels good to be back.

actually, I miss snow. but not that much snow

I’m sorry — do you guys at home have a lot of snow or something?

 

Bogotá, Te Quiero

So it’s finally happening. Tonight, at 11:59 p.m., I board a plane at Bogotá El Dorado’s shiny new international terminal, bound for JFK. Touchdown at 6:02 a.m., the usual customs wrangling (potentially with a few more pointed questions than usual), and a transfer to the equally shiny JetBlue terminal for my connection home to Boston. Logan homecoming should happen right around 10:40 a.m. tomorrow morning, as long as the world is still here.

For the record, I’m not dealing well with this. Overall, I like change, but I’m not a big fan of the enforced kind, and plane tickets are nothing if non-negotiable (unless you have lots of money to throw around). The idea of reverse culture shock has always been something that I didn’t think really applied to me — I love travel, but I also love homecomings. Coming home is much easier when you love your city so much it’s like a physical affliction. Mostly, though, I’ve never really experienced it before. I’ve been sad to leave places before, and I have a long list of planned return visits to places that I left too soon (I’m coming for you, Amsterdam and New Zealand), but the only other time I lived outside of the country for a significant period ended with a feeling of relief more than sadness. I was so happy to come home from Argentina that I didn’t even have space in my heart for culture shock. You can’t be shocked by something that’s welcome.

But then this year happened. This year, where I’ve been happy and comfortable, challenged but able to deal with it and grow with it. I didn’t realize how attached I was here until my plane ride from Lima to Cuzco, about two weeks ago. I was sleepy and my hostel only had instant coffee (practically a cardinal sin to me, after a year of Colombian tinto), so I wasn’t in the best frame of mind from the outset. And then my flight — my flight was full of people like me. Full of loud, enthusiastic, poorly dressed American tourists. Everyone speaking English. Nobody saying “chévere” or wearing totally age-inappropriate clothing. After spending this year surrounded on all sides by Spanish, by friendliness and disorganization, this sudden immersion back into almost-America felt like parachuting into a suddenly foreign region. It was strange and uncomfortable, and I sank into my chair, protected by my headphones, to hide from it all. All I can remember thinking right then was, “I want to go home.” Home, in this case, meant Bogotá. Because maybe it is home now, in a way.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m super excited to be capital-H Home for Christmas, to see my parents and my brother, to sleep on my friends’ sofas, to drink good beer and stay out late and have normal conversations with people in bars without the immediate need to justify my presence there, to walk through Boston and take the T and eat the entire stock of the breakfast cereal aisle at Stop and Shop and watch college football for like 3 days straight and touch snow again and mostly just be home. A year is a long time to be out of one’s comfort zone, and despite the extent to which I’ve fallen in love with Bogotá, a little comfort couldn’t hurt.

The underlying layer of that comfort, though, is the knowledge that I’m coming back in three weeks. That might be the most comforting thing of all.

Happy Holidays and a festive New Year to one and all! If you need me, I’ll be at a bar drinking as much Sam Adams as one can reasonably consume in a three-week period. God bless America, indeed.

Hasta 2013, Bogotá!