Speaking of crime, I had read warnings while planning my trip in Canada against staying in La Candelaria, the historic cobblestoned neighbourhood south of downtown that is packed with students, government workers (the presidential palace and many ministries are located here) and tourists during the day, but has a reputation for being dodgy at night, when it largely empties out. I am glad that I didn’t heed those warnings. Not only is my hotel, the colonial-style Hotel de la Opera, an architectural gem, but the district, which requires no more safety precautions than you’d take in many other world capitals (being alert to your surroundings, travelling by hotel-summoned cab after dark), is also home to some of Bogota’s leading cultural sights, from the impressive Plaza Bolivar to the magnificent Gold Museum to the linked gallery complex that contains both the National Museum and one dedicated to the work of artist Francisco Botero, a national favourite son. And La Candelaria is where you’ll find La Puerta Falsa, Bogota’s oldest café and one of the best spots in the city to indulge in a pastry, a tamal or, tastiest of all, ajiaco, a ribsticking soup/stew that functions for Bogotanos as comfort food, hangover cure and much-debated delicacy in one.
“Did you add the cream? And the rice?” Juan Sabagalo, the seventh-generation proprietor of familyrun La Puerta, asks after I sample his establishment’s version, which is served in a traditional clay bowl and includes the usual three kinds of potatoes and mounds of shredded chicken as well as side bowls of white rice, sour cream, sliced avocado and capers. When I tell him that I passed on the rice, he nods approvingly, saying: “Some people like to add rice, but I prefer it without.” A handsome recent widower who worked for eight years in the financing department of a car dealership in Mississauga, Ont., Sabagalo has only recently moved back to Bogota to assume his role at La Puerta Falsa. “This café has been in my family since 1816,” he tells me matter-of-factly, suggesting that he might not have returned last year if his life hadn’t taken the turn it did, but that he is where he belongs at the moment, running this pocket-sized landmark in a fast-changing city.
If La Puerta Falsa is a shrine (complete with an on-site statue of the Virgin Mary) to Bogota’s culinary heritage, Club Colombia, the vaster, flashier restaurant operated by the company that produces the popular beer of the same name, is the city’s upstart temple. Located in a restored former mansion in the trendy Zona Rosa area north of the business district, Club Colombia may be corporate-smooth and deliberately chic, but its commitment to authenticity is far from prepackaged. This is evident when I settle down for lunch there on one of my last days in the city. After a caveman-worthy appetizer of chicharoncitos, great hunks of crunchy/ tender pork with their rinds still on them, I tuck in to an expertly grilled lomo de res (beef fillet) that stands up to any steak Buenos Aires has to offer. At a nearby table in the bustling ground-floor dining room, a corpulent businessman settles down happily for a mid-afternoon dessert-and-coffee break. My own sweet finale is a coconut pie with a tinto de anis, black coffee with a shot of anise liqueur.
The morning after I arrived in Bogota, I had set out on a tour of La Candelaria, Chapinero and other neighbourhoods with Bogota Bike Tours, an outfit established by former journalist Mike Ceaser to provide visitors with unique perspectives on the city from astride two wheels. During my ride, we took in not only a host of cultural highlights (the bullring, the Catholic cemetery, the newspaper office where Gabriel Garcia Marquez once plied his trade), but also a number of edible ones, from street food such as mazorca (freshly toasted corn cobs served on their own husks) in Parque Nacional to La Merceria, a food and flower market where I sampled a wealth of tropical fruits, including lulo (a pleasantly tart cross between a kiwi and a lemon), uchuvas (a lot like gooseberries), local dragonfruit (green instead of purple) and grenadilla (like passionfruit, but smaller and sweeter).
As I stumble out of Club Colombia in a food haze days later, it occurs to me to that, maybe, I should have scheduled that bike tour for later in my stay. Yes, it was a great introduction to both the city and its food. But after pigging out all week on Bogota’s bounty, a little calorie-burning cardio might not be such a bad thing.
Where to sample Bogota’s traditional best (and what to have)
Leo Cocina y Cava (www.leonorespinosa.com) for its ceviche de pescado blanco.
Chicharoncitos at Club Colombia, which also makes a fine martini (www.zonak.com.co).
Ajiaco or tamales at La Puerta Falsa, the capital’s oldest café (1-286-5091).