TravelRest of World

Forty-eight hours with the party people in Bogota, Columbia

Rest of WorldBy Neil Fetherston
Ola Bogota!
Ola Bogota!

It seemed like a good idea at the time but now, having gotten lost and accidentally ended up in what appeared to be a sleazy brothel on a back street somewhere in downtown Bogota, it suddenly felt that maybe we had made a bit of a mistake.

Just forty-eight hours earlier myself and my buddy Ruadhan, along with another pal Robin, had landed in the Colombian capital for a stag party. 

We were with a bunch of guys who were friends of our Dublin mate Kevin who we had been visiting in Quito, in neighbouring Ecuador, where he runs a bar and restaurant. 

Kevin, who had been living in the  Ecuadorian capital for years, had convinced us to tag along on the stag of an English lad he knew, who was getting married in a few months' time. 

Having just arrived in Quito and tasted its crazy South American nightlife we were up for more adventure although we were a bit unsure of what awaited us in Bogota. I mean, it had a reputation as an even wilder city again and we asked Kevin was it not a bit dangerous but he just laughed and told us there 18-year-old girls backpacking there now. So, finally convinced after downing a few more beers, we bought our tickets.

He was right of course in that Columbia is no longer the violent country it had been during the narcoterrorism of the Pablo Escobar years and the capital Bogota was no longer considered a no-go area for gringos but we were still a little bit nervous as we arrived on a mid-evening Friday flight into a sweltering El Dorado International Airport.

After negotiating our way through the chaotic passport and customs control we were whisked by private taxi into the centre of the city along a maze of streets teeming with people. 

Bogota is a sprawling metropolis. It’s hard to get your head around the pure scale of the city. With a population of about nine million people, only four other cities in the Americas (Brazil’s Sau Paulo, Mexico City, New York City and Lima in Peru) are larger than Bogotá. 

We stayed in a tumbling hostel with rooms surrounding a shady courtyard near the historic centre of the city, in an area of well-preserved colonial houses with protruding balconies, latticed windows, carved doors, and red-tiled roofs.

After dropping off our bags at the hostel and grabbing a case of beer we were off again in our private taxi to see some of the sights.

As the three new boys fresh off the plane we were happy to let our Quito expats who knew the lay of the land give us a free guided tour around the city.

Over the course of the afternoon we would catch glimpses of lush parks and century-old plazas and churches overshadowed by towering skyscrapers in streets that veered wildly from charming neighbourhood alleys to traffic choked motorways.

Meeting some of the friendly locals in the Colombian capital

We stopped off  at the Plaza de Bolívar, the heart of the old city, to gaze at the  beautiful buildings around the square and admire the statue of the liberator Simón Bolívar near the Palace of Justice.

And crowding over the city in every direction are the mountains that ring the capital, dominated by the twin monsters of Monserrate and Guadalupe.

After a quick shower and a fresh change of clothes back at the hostel it was time to hit the town but before we left to go out that night we were advised to take some sensible precautions. While security has improved in Columbia and it is safer to travel there now than at any time before we were told to avoid making some obvious mistakes like wear jewellery, flash the cash and to be careful going to an ATM.

The Quito boys also told us to bring copies of our passports as the police sometimes stopped foreigners and demanded ID and they warned us about hailing taxies on the street as apparently robberies by bogus drivers who stop to pick up unsuspecting tourists was a common problem. The deal was that we were to stick together and, if we got split from the group, we were to make our way back to the hostel.

They are a fun-loving outgoing people, the Columbians and they knew how to let their hair down

In fairness, it’s the sort of rule that most groups of lads in any foreign city, who by their nature can sometimes attract the wrong sort of attention, try to stick to.

On our first night we ended up drinking in the fashionable bar district of Zona Rosa, also known as Zona T, where we bar-hopped with the beautiful people of Bogotá before heading off to dance. 

They are a fun-loving outgoing people, the Columbians and they knew how to let their hair down as they danced on tables to the cheers of the crowd.

It was a wild night but we were more relaxed as we mixed with the locals and joined in the fun.

Some of the Quito crew had been to Bogotá many times before and they also knew where the locals liked to party. 

And for some in the know, one of the best places to go dancing appeared to be a nightclub located on the very top of one of the high rise skyscrapers downtown that someone had told us was reserved almost exclusively for members of Bogota’s police force.

After spilling out of our taxies and negotiating our way past the ring of armed paramilitary police surrounding the building, we were whisked up to the top floor where we were treated to a vista of Bogotá laid out before us in a blaze of  lights. 

Gone were the beers we had been downing  for a few pesos with much enthusiasm earlier in the evening to be replaced by shots of Antioqueño, the Columbian fire water.

We were soon caught up in whirlwind of wild samba dancing chaos with the locals and as the sun came up we decided to split for some fresh air.

In a bid to shake off the hangovers and the humidity we caught a cable car up to the top of Monserrate, the 3,000 metre mountain that dominates Bogotá for jaw drooping views over the  city.

King of the hill: Checking out the jaw-dropping views over Bogota from Monserrate

Feeling refreshed we stopped off at a local joint on the way back to our hostel for a traditional Columbian breakfast of Changua, an egg and milk soup, that is way better than it sounds and lots of strong Columbian coffee before it was time for a siesta.

Most of the day was spent sleeping off the hangovers  and when we all finally emerged and regrouped back in the hostel it was already late and time for dinner.

We ate in one of the many restaurants nearby that are made for communal eating, with everyone gathered around long tables, and the one dish we had to try was the local speciality, ceviche. 

Every South American country has its own version of the spicy fish dish and in Columbia it is a heady  concoction of sea bass mixed with lime, hot red peppers  and onion that seeps into the blood. Washed down with bottles of the local rum it proved a lethal combination.

Then it was off into the night and it was at this point that myself and Ruadhan  suddenly found ourselves suddenly  all alone.

Engrossed in our talk we had turned a corner when we realised the others had gone. With no phone coverage we were left with a dire predicament.

We could go back to the hostel where we would eventually have to endure the epic madcap stories whenever the others got in, or we could head off for some adventure of our own. 

Some of the Irish lads hanging out with the party-loving Colombians

Buoyed up with misplaced bravado after the rum and an unwillingness to miss out on some fun we jumped in a taxi on the street even though we had been told not to, and in a very poor, drunken ‘Span-lish’ asked the driver to show us where we could have a good time.

Despite the warnings about Bogotá’s taxies we were relaxed enough to take our eyes off where we were going though soon enough we had driven to an extremely dubious neighbourhood where the driver  parked the car outside what looked like a derelict building, turned off the engine and got out.

By now more alert, we watched as he approached some men standing in a darkened doorway. Motioning us to follow him we nervously got out of the car while the  driver  appeared to be arguing with the men guarding  the door .

Convinced  we were about to be robbed, we desperately tried to convince the taxi driver to go back to the car but he insisted we follow him into the building where, with relief, we could hear the sound of music.

Pulling across a thick heavy curtain we entered a smoky room where large men sat sitting drinking at the bar.

They vaguely give us the once over and went back to their drinking. Glad to have arrived in one piece  we ordered a beer and sat back on an oversized chaise lounge watching as exotic  ladies  would occasionally appear from time to time and take one of the men by the arm and lead them out through another corridor.

With a look of delight on his face, the taxi driver, who by now had become our new best friend, motioned to the ladies, indicating that we should perhaps we would enjoy their company.

Clearly our innocent intentions to have some fun had been lost in translation and the taxi driver, who was determined to show two partying gringos his idea of a good time had decided  to bring us to what had slowly occurred to us was a local brothel.

And soon it was  made quite clear that if we  wanted to stay any longer we would have to avail of the friendly services. Looking  for a way out we declined the urgent protestations of our new friend and with an awkward Irish nod and a few ‘gracias but no gracias’, we used the well-used journalistic phrase and made our excuses and left. 

Baffled and seemingly angry at our sudden exit our taxi driver friend agreed to deposit us back at the hostel although he cursed away at us in Spanish all the way back, where we laughed with relief at our near miss.

When  the others eventually got in with their own accounts of their own mad adventures myself and Ruadhan were relieved to be able to clink glasses with the knowledge we had survived at least one crazy Bogota night on our own.