It was a windswept Saturday in the Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá, and the Plaza de Bolivar was packed.
Troubadours, jugglers, balloon vendors, pineapple sellers and Amazonian fruit-juice pressers vied for the attention of tourists. Grizzled Andean Indians led children around on llamas.
Pilgrims gathered at the Bogotá Cathedral, a soaring Gothic structure that contains the remains of the city’s 16th-century founder, the conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada. Beside a statue of South American liberator Simón Bolívar, a tattooed comedian held an audience of hundreds rapt.
The scene was dramatically different from the last time I was here, five years ago, when the hemisphere’s longest-running insurgency was raging.
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Back then, the plaza, almost devoid of tourists, was dominated by a tent pitched by the father of a soldier held captive for seven years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC. The father had spent the previous two months marching through the country, wrapped symbolically in chains, to rally support for a negotiated end to the war.
Colombia, under its former president, Alvaro Uribe, chose to fight instead, and the strategy has paid off. Since my last visit, the insurgency has wound down. The FARC freed its last police and military hostages in April, and peace talks between the government and the FARC have been announced.
Now 8,700-foot-high Bogotá, once a crime-ridden metropolis plagued by sporadic guerrilla attacks, and a major distribution point for the country’s then-flourishing cocaine trade, has emerged as a cultural capital.
La Candelaria, a centuries-old quarter of restored one- and two-story pastel-painted houses and cobblestone streets, is at the center of Bogotá’s — and Colombia’s — tourist revival.
History with an edge
I first discovered La Candelaria in the mid-1990s when I was based in Buenos Aires as South America bureau chief for Newsweek. Back then, it was home to many freelance war correspondents, drawn by the cheap rents and the frisson of danger that came with living on the fringes of a combat zone.
(The violence has not completely subsided: In May 2012, in Bogotá, an assailant threw a bomb at a former government minister, killing his driver and a bodyguard and injuring at least 39 others.)
Those journalists typically lived in apartments with high ceilings, thick stone walls and charming courtyards. In between visits to the conflict-wracked countryside, they would participate in La Candelaria’s energetic social life.
The parties I attended during that era often went on all night, and they were not infrequently juiced by the very illicit substance fueling the conflict. More than once I would spot the host of one of these affairs pull out a fistful of cocaine.
Today La Candelaria is more law-abiding and upscale, with new restaurants, hotels, cafes and art galleries interspersed among the old houses and beat-up bars. Once-dilapidated homes have been brightly repainted.
The neoclassical facade of the Teatro de Cristóbal Colón, the national opera house designed by Italian architect Pietro Cantini and opened in 1892, underwent major renovations two years ago.
Perhaps the most impressive recent addition to the neighborhood is the Botero Museum, which opened in a handsome villa in 2000 after Medellin-born figurative artist Fernando Botero gave 208 works, including 123 of his own and 85 by international painters, to the Bank of the Republic’s art collection.
Night life, while not as lively as that of the more fashionable Zona Rosa farther north, attracts people from across Bogotá.
University students toss down glasses of chicha, a potent alcoholic beverage distilled from maize, in lively bars that spill off a graffiti-splattered square called the Chorro de Quevado.
Once scorned as the drink of the “Indians,” chicha has become increasingly popular in Colombia. New restaurants, serving Argentine, French, Spanish and Colombian cuisine, draw crowds all week.
Despite the flood of tourists and all the cultural activities, much of La Candelaria still feels like a tight-knit pueblo.
“I like the old village ambience, the architecture and the Spanish-style tiled roofs,” I was told by Roberto Franco, an author and historian who has for years lived in a pastel home that dates back to Spanish-ruled Colombia. “It may be the only authentic place of Bogotá, a place where one gets to know the neighbors and has the opportunity to drink coffee and chat, or play a game of chess.”
I felt that pueblo atmosphere as I wandered around the neighborhood on a summer afternoon. I trudged up a steep street, pausing every hundred feet or so to catch my breath in the thin Andean air.
Neat rows of houses, a palette of pinks, ochers, yellows, reds and greens, lined each side street. Some were decorated with cartoon eyes and other iconography; wooden shutters and filigreed balconies adorned others.
On one alley, where grass and weeds poked between the cobblestones, three elderly men played backgammon on a flimsy table. Smoke puffed out of chimneys protruding from orange-tile rooftops.
On the more commercial streets, locals packed cheap lunch establishments.
La Candelaria’s origins go back to the 1530s, when Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, an Andalusian adventurer who some believe was the model for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, trekked through the Amazon rain forest and the high cordillera, losing almost all his men before arriving on a high plateau populated by Muisca Indians.
Gonzalo Jimenez called his new possession the New City of Granada, which was later changed to Santa Fe de Bogotá, and finally just Bogotá.
Over the next century, the Spanish colonials laid out their city on a grid pattern that remains largely intact. Wide boulevards, called carreras, where the settlers once raced their horses, intersect a dozen narrow streets, or calles, many paved with uneven cobblestones. The calles rise toward verdant mountains, Guadalupe and Monserrate, both Catholic pilgrimage sites.
As Bogotá expanded to the north, the original city became merely a neighborhood, and the name La Candelaria, taken from one of the first churches in Bogotá, Our Lady of the Candlemas, stuck.
Nearby stand some of the major landmarks of early 19th-century Colombia, when the Spanish colony was seething with revolutionary spirit.
Here is the Teatro de Cristóbal Colón, and beside it is one of my favorite hotels in Latin America: the Hotel de la Opera, patched together from a pair of 19th-century town houses once used by Simon Bolivar’s bodyguards.
It is a classic piece of colonial architecture, with butterscotch adobe walls and a leafy courtyard where a burbling fountain provides a soothing accompaniment to breakfast.
Early that morning, I chatted with the hotel clerk, an immigrant from Tijuana, Mexico. I told him I’d stayed at the hotel five years ago.
“During the bad times,” he said, nodding sagely. “It’s a new Colombia now.”