Monday, February 21, 2011

Exploring the Athens of South America

Parque Central Simón Bolívar.
Although I’ve been living in Bogotá for about a month now, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of experiencing all that this city has to offer—but this past weekend, I finally got a chance to do some exploring.

Spanning a whopping 612 square miles and filled with over 7 million inhabitants, Bogotá is physically larger than New York City and has nearly the same population. In other words, Bogotá is a sprawling modern metropolis—not the secluded tropical pueblo the American media (*cough Mr. & Mrs. Smith *cough) often portrays it to be. Bogotá isn’t even in the jungle; it’s at 9,000 feet up on a plateau in the Andes Mountains. With its many universities and libraries, Bogotá is known as the “Athens of South America.”

 At the Biblioteca Pública Virgilio Barco.
I set out to explore the city with my friend and fellow WorldTeach volunteer, Zach, and his host mother. Our first stop was Parque Central Simón Bolívar, a major greenspace, entertainment and sports complex named after the Latin American leader who led the Latin American rebellion against the Spanish Empire during the early 19th century. It was refreshing to walk through the park’s open, green spaces and breathe the relatively fresh air, as much of Bogotá is dominated by concrete and smog. My favorite part was the large lake in the park’s center, where people can rent paddle boats and watch concerts at a nearby amphitheatre. I definitely plan to go back there often throughout the course of the year.

Tramcars to the Monserrate.
After we finished with the park, we headed over to one of Bogotá's main public libraries; Biblioteca Pública Virgilio Barco. The library is a clean, modern building with all the amenities of any library you might find in the United States and more. Along with a huge index of books in Spanish and English, the library also features a language learning center and an entire section devoted to cinema. At any rate, it definitely kicks the Burlingame Public Library’s butt back home.

We left the library and took a cab across town to the day’s main attraction—the Monserrate, a large mountain that dominates Bogotá city center. The cab dropped us off in front of the tram building at the base of the mountain. Looking up, I could see aerial tramcars ferrying people up and down the mountain. After buying our tickets, we got in one of the large, orange tramcars and headed up the hill. As the tramcar ascended, the city below seemed to grow larger and larger as the people grew smaller and smaller.

The church.
The view at the top of the mountain was unbelievable—the city stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see; it made the city of San Francisco look like some kind of municipal pimple. Now I knew what the gods of Mt. Olympus felt like as they watched over mankind from their aerie palace.

There was an old church on the top of the mountain, along with monestary-esque structures that looked like they might have been stolen from Tibet. We entered the church and I instinctively dabbed my fingers in the holy water to make the sign of the cross. I am probably one of the worst Catholics on this planet, but I felt I should at least pay my respects. We sat down in the front pew and I silently said a quick prayer asking for the strength to help the children of Nueva Esperanza and, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to make it through this year in one piece.

Overlooking Bogotá.
After admiring the church’s antiquated architecture, we exited and passed through a garden filled with statues depicting the crucifixion of Christ—intriguing works of art that contributed to an ambiance of sanctity generated by the place's natural beauty.  

When we reached the other side of the mountain, I was shocked to see that it was more or less untouched by man and overgrown with lush, green forest—a sharp contrast to the mega-metropolis I had just observed. The sight reminded of one of my favorite spots back home in California—a hill out in the Tahoe National Forrest my family calls the Top of the World.

Once we had gotten our fill at the top of Monserrate, we took a tramcar back down to the streets of Bogotá and headed home.

Getting out to see some of Bogotá’s sights reminded me of one of the main reasons I came down here in the first place—to get out, see the world and at the very least go where no Hower has gone before. This year I plan on visiting many other cities and regions in Colombia—I recently made plans to visit the city of Manizales in the coffee-growing region in April and I also plan on making trips to Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Baranquilla and even the Ciudad Perdida—Colombia’s own little Machu Picchu. Beyond Colombia, I also plan to visit Peru, Chile, Nicaragua and if time permits—Brazil and Argentina.

Not quite the Top of the World, but close.
It’s a big world out there with so much to see and experience. I wish I could see and experience it all.

Well, I'm here in South America. 

It's a start.  

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