Historically famous for its precious gems, Bogotá is now gaining a deserved reputation as a hip art-and-culture capital.
With its looping streets, brick buildings covered in graffiti and brazen drivers weaving through traffic that never seems to die down, it’s easy to describe the city of Bogotá, Colombia. “Bogotá is a beautiful mess,” says Camilo Fidel López, a Bogotáno and founder of Vertigo Graffiti. No tunnel or wall is safe from taggers, who leave everything from quick splats of paint to elaborate, large masterpieces. Anywhere else it might be a nuisance, a sign of a city falling to its knees, but not in this mountain city of nearly seven million. Local law on the subject is as gray as the skies in Bogotá, but the takeaway is that graffiti is not illegal.
In fact, the urban streetscapes couldn’t be more fitting for a city whose origins are shrouded in adornment and legend. The first inhabitants of Bogotá were the Muisca people, who traditionally would cover themselves in gold, emeralds and other precious gems and take a raft to the center of Lake Guatavita, leaving the treasure at the bottom of the lake to pay homage to the gods.
In a legend, the tribal leader, or cacique, discovered his wife in the arms of one of his soldiers. He immediately killed the soldier, and the queen was so devastated and ashamed she drowned herself in the lake. However, the local holy man assured the cacique that the queen had not killed herself, but rather was asleep at the bottom of the Guatavita — if he brought her gold and jewels, she would wake up and come back to him. From there spawned the legend of El Dorado. “Our new treasure is graffiti,” López says of his city. Through Vertigo Graffiti, local taggers are hired to create works of art, including the mural in the lounge of the one-year-old W Bogotá Hotel depicting the beautiful queen at the bottom of the lake. It fits with the theme of the hotel, paying homage to the legend with its dark hallways reminiscent of mines, flecks of green and gold in the tiles, a misty swimming pool-like Lake Guatavita and a spunky “Gold Digger” throw pillow in each guest room.
“It’s much more complex than simply the legend of El Dorado,” says Anthony Ingham, global brand leader for W Hotels. “The design narrative pulls in all sorts of different aspects of Colombian culture (and) personality.” The business district is home to the W as well as a number of other international hotels, but a popular tourist spot is La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood paved with cobblestone roads and street names painted on rustic tiles on the sides of the buildings. Police officers with dogs patrol the streets while children in blue-and-white school uniforms walk home, holding hands and munching away at a guava treat from a street vendor. At Simon Bolivar Square, the center of it all, pigeons cover the ground surrounded by the city’s Supreme Court, Capitol building, and the towering Cathedral of Bogotá. In fact, steeples and spires poke their heads at every block in the neighborhood, towering over more graffiti art. La Candelaria also boasts an emerald road, where tourists can get their hands on the precious stones that have made the country so famous — up to 90 percent of the world’s emeralds come from here. The country’s other valuable treasure, gold, is on full display at Museo del Oro. Beautiful works of art made entirely of gold by the Muiscas vary from masks and medallions to the most famous, a miniature recreation of the raft carrying the cacique to the center of the lake. These items all survived the Spaniard search for the city of gold, going as far as draining Lake Guatavita.
No matter where you are in the city, you can see the mountains surrounding it. But most notable, looming 10,000 feet above sea level, is Monserrate. It’s here that El Señor Caido, a sort of Colombian version of Christ the Redeemer, stands adjacent to a white church built in 1640. Visitors can reach the site by cable car. However it’s what the city has to look forward to that makes Bogotá so exciting. The burgeoning art district is bubbling over with galleries showcasing local artists, including Casas Riegner. Mateo López, a Bogotáno, turned his own home into a gallery of sorts, mingling his mixed media pieces inspired by classroom supplies with his office, bedroom and kitchen. It’s the art scene that has opened up Bogotá to the rest of the world, López says, and it continues to bring people to the city — in search of their own El Dorado. Whether covered in a layer of gold dust or a stream of spray paint, El Dorado can be found in the Colombian capital’s beautiful mess.