A city reclaimed

With the drug wars of the 1990s behind it, Bogota is bursting with creativity, writes Vicky Baker.

'This is not a hairdresser's," says a sign on the wall of a place called La Peluqueria (The Hairdressers).

"OK," I think, trying to overlook the fact that a woman is most definitely holding clippers to a client's head, as she stands in front of a retro dryer.

"This is not a cultural centre, or a museum, or a gallery, or a cafe," it continues. I look around to find customers sipping coffee at a counter covered in work by local artists.

So what is it? This is what modern Bogota is doing best: making artistic ventures work by combining them with other activities. La Peluqueria (lapeluqueriabogota.com) is certainly not a conventional hairdresser, with its graffitied walls and reclaimed mannequins. The stylists are visual artists rather than trained hairdressers. On Wednesdays haircuts are free, provided you let them do as they please. If you'd rather not take a radical Colombian hairdo home as a souvenir, you can amuse yourself in the design shop or bar.

This is the first of many new hybrid venues I find as I explore the capital that, for many years, was off travellers' wish lists, deterred by the crime rate associated with what became known as the Cocaine Wars.

To the north of the centre, the Parkway in La Soledad neighbourhood doesn't strike me as obviously creative - the "park" is a thin strip of grass down the middle of the main road, Carrera 24 - but I'm assured that good stuff goes on behind the doors of the 1940s buildings that run its length. This was once a hangout for the city's most artistic residents and is undergoing a major regeneration. At No.37, bar La Trementina has expanded to include a bookshop-gallery-cafe, with space for live music and poetry readings (trementinacultural.com).

At No.41 is the art-deco theatre Casa Ensamble (casaensamble.com), which also hosts art exhibitions and has a retro bar with occasional cabaret. Hiding behind it on Carrera 25, the struggling Arlequin Theatre has turned half its premises into a branch of a trendy burger diner, La Hamburgueseria (lahamburgueseria.com).

Bogota is changing rapidly. People who abandoned its centre for safer, outlying neighbourhoods at the height of the conflict in the 1990s are returning. Meanwhile, tourism is moving beyond La Candelaria, the old colonial quarter, and making inroads into the city centre, which is where you'll find La Peluqueria (on Carrera 3) and a new vegetarian restaurant, Reverdeser (Calle 17, 2-46).


Magdalena Baron already had a successful vegetarian restaurant in La Candelaria (Quinua y Amaranto), when she opened Reverdeser in April. "This part of town was the epicentre of the violence, so it had been abandoned," she says. "But now foreigners are buying property here and people aren't just using it as place to work. What we're trying to do [by opening here] is give importance back to the centre."

We're talking in her kitchen, where I'm washing vegetables. I've taken advantage of a 35,000 pesos ($18.20) cooking course that allows customers to learn macrobiotic recipes while making their own lunch.

Baron isn't proprietorial about her recipes because her priority is spreading the word about Colombian cuisine: "The Spanish prohibited a lot of our indigenous foods, so now we are reclaiming them."

Following a similar principle is Mini Mal, a restaurant combined with a design shop. This is located in another emerging area, Chapinero Alto in northern Bogota, which is also known as Gay Hills (Carrera 4A, 57-52, mini-mal.org). The name Mini Mal is a play on the Spanish phrase "menos mal" (least bad) in a nod to their aim to do minimal damage to the environment, while recognising that no business is footprint-free.

"We wanted to make Colombian food more sophisticated, but then we realised our work was already done," says owner Manuel, as I tuck into king prawns dyed with seeds that Colombian Indians traditionally use as face paint.

He says Colombia is the second most biodiverse country on the planet, pointing out that juice menus in Bogota - featuring fruit from the Amazon, the Caribbean and the Pacific - often run to a full page.

With such a range of ingredients, the city's culinary scene has improved hugely in recent years. There are some great, middle-ground places that combine tradition, innovation and value. One example is La Esquina in La Macarena neighbourhood (Carrera 4A, No.26A-04, cevicherialaesquina.com). The chef trained with Gordon Ramsay but decided to specialise in affordable food that can be shared among friends, such as crab claws for less than 50,000 pesos.

Home to a mix of actors, artists and students, La Macarena is a good area be after dinner. Bars range from old-school Vasquez y Cebollas (Calle 26, 4-68) to industrial minimalism at En Obra (Carrera 4A, 26A-37). Later, you can head to the more established nightlife areas around the pedestrianised Zona T, which is packed with people looking for a rumba (party). Two new places to try are El Coq (Calle 84, 14-02), a popular DJ bar nearby with a tree growing through its middle, and La Destileria (Calle 85, 12-91), a martini lounge with drinks that come with champagne chasers and a garnish of edible ants.

Safety in Bogota is now much like in any other South American city. The same rules apply: don't flash expensive cameras, avoid carrying valuables on the streets and order radio taxis after dark. Bogota, and Colombia in general, still has some no-go areas, so get advice from a tour operator or trusted local. Most are very protective of foreigners.

On the whole, the tourism board's campaign ("The only risk is wanting to stay") seems to be working; the number of foreign tourists visiting Colombia rose by 16 per cent in the first five months of this year.

Before leaving the city, I stop at what has become one of Bogota's most famous sights, aside from the Gold Museum and the Plaza de Bolivar. Part steakhouse, part nightclub, Andres Carne de Res is a local institution that is hard to describe (andrescarnederes.com). Imagine one of those houses where the owners almost bankrupt themselves by putting up excessive Christmas lights. Then combine that with a quirky little trattoria where every inch has been covered in surreal memorabilia. Now times that by a hundred.

With a capacity of 2500, Andres Carne de Res is a spectacle and it's well worth driving the 45 minutes out of town to its original site in the town of Chia, now a suburb. (The newer version in the city centre is a bit TGI Fridays.)

Opened almost 30 years ago, it took off in the mid 1990s during the city's crime-fighting curfew, known popularly as la hora zanahoria (nerds' hour). When normal bars closed at 1am, the parties shifted here. Now, even though the curfew days are over, it remains hugely popular, so be sure to make a reservation, and expect to pay about 40,000 pesos for a steak.

Insanely decorated steakhouses aside, the most interesting places in Bogota almost all hide behind modest exteriors. Perhaps that's the thing about this city: it hasn't got a longstanding tradition of tourism, so it doesn't feel the need to play up to it and signpost its assets.


Getting there

American Airlines has a fare to Bogota for about $3150 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. You fly to Los Angeles on Qantas (14hr non-stop), then American Airlines to Bogota via Houston (9hr, including transit). Australians flying via the US need to obtain travel authorisation before departure at esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Alternatively, you can fly LAN via Santiago in Chile, which is a one-stop flight from Sydney.

Staying there

Hotel Casa de la Botica, in the historic La Candelaria district, has rooms from 175,000 pesos ($87.50); see hotelcasadelabotica.com. Alma de Bogota is a gay-friendly, converted mansion in Chapinero with doubles from 265,000 pesos; see hotelboutiquealma.com.

More information

See colombia.travel.

Safety there

The website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Smart Traveller, advises Australians to "exercise a high degree of caution in Colombia, because of the high threat of terrorism and criminal activity". Australia does not have an embassy in Colombia.

- Guardian News & Media