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EXPLORING
BOGOTA
Mark Chesnut
Gay Bogota

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On any list of gay-friendly Latin American cities, Bogotá would have to be near the top. After all, it's the capital of one of South America's most progressive nations in terms of gay rights. Add to that an array of impressive cultural and historic attractions, fine dining, and a lively gay nightlife—which includes what must be one of the hemisphere's largest gay dance clubs—and you've got plenty of reasons to pay a visit.

Bogotá, which is officially called Bogotá DC, as it's in the "Distrito Capital," or Capital District, has made great progress not just in terms of gay rights. As Colombia has become an increasingly safe, stable, and economically growing nation in recent years, Bogotá has become the gateway for a flow of investment that has brought many infrastructure improvements. The city has become safer and greener. It even has an award-winning mass transit system (the TransMilenio) that is being copied in other countries. The airport is being upgraded, and there is an increasing presence of international hotels as brands like Hilton, JW Marriott, and Radisson have hung their flags in what has become a true economic boom town.

Situated in the eastern region of the Andean plateau, Bogotá is both Colombia's capital and largest city with some seven million residents. The Muisca people lived here long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, who founded the city in 1538 and gradually built what is sometimes called the Athens of South America because of the large number of educational institutions.

In recent years, this fast-growing city has been garnering praise for its efforts to become more ecologically friendly. Smoke-belching public buses, some with profiles that resemble the monster from the movie Alien, are gradually being replaced by the sleek, modern TransMilenio bus system, which debuted in 2000.

In addition, the city has installed some 186 miles of ciclorutas, which are pathways built for bicyclists. On Sundays, locals and visitors alike can enjoy Ciclovia, when 74 miles of roads are closed to cars so that bicycles and pedestrians may rule the streets. You can even join a bike tour with Bogotá Bike Tours (www.bogotábiketours.com), a company that offers tours in English and Spanish.

Before you rent a bike, however, a good place to start your tour is at the Cerro de Monserrate, the city's iconic peak that rises 10,341 feet above sea level and offers a panoramic view. Considering that this is the third-highest capital city in the world after La Paz and Quito, it's not surprising that you might be a bit short of breath as you take the funicular up the hill.The view is worth it, as are the attractions at the top: the Basílica del Señor de Monserrate, a church that has attracted pilgrims since its opening in 1925, and Casa San Isidro, an elegant, candlelit French restaurant set in an historic former home, where at night you can hear live piano music.

Looking out from this vantage point, you get a good overview of the city's bustling traffic and eclectic array of new and old architecture. Back down the hill, the logical place to begin sightseeing is La Candelaria, the city's historic heart. At the stately Plaza de Bolívar, you'll see a bronze statue of Simón Bolívar, the man who led the region's struggle for independence from Spain. Bordering the square are the impressive Capitolio Nacional, the massive Alcaldía Mayor, and the Catedral Primada de Colombia, a cathedral built between 1807 and 1823. Just a few blocks away is the Museo Botero, which showcases more than 120 drawings, paintings, and sculptures by Fernando Botero, by most counts Colombia's most internationally famous artist. Just as impressive here is Botero's personal collection of some 85 works by artists including Renoir, Dalí, Chagall, Picasso, Miró, and Pollock.

The world-class art on display at the Botero museum may be memorable, but the city's most renowned museum on an international scale is the Museo de Oro, which exhibits some 34,000 artifacts from pre-Columbian cultures including the Calima, Quimbaya, Muisca, Tayrona, Sinu, Tolima, and Magdalena. Nicely renovated and upgraded in 2008, the museum offers stunningly detailed examples of work dating back thousands of years, offering fascinating insight into ancient ways of life in the Americas.

CLICK FOR SLIDESHOW OF BOGOTA

You'll travel several thousand years to the present if you go next to La Macarena, one of the city's hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods. Decades ago this was one of Bogotá's most upscale residential areas. Now, after several years in a downturn, its shady, sloped streets have become the hub for a growing gallery and culinary scene with a decidedly Bohemian vibe. Start your art-focused tour at Alonso Garcés Galería, which was the neighborhood's first art gallery when it opened in an abandoned church in 1977, and the Valenzuela Klenner Galería, a multilevel venue with contemporary exhibits that tend toward political and social statements. Among the newest art facilities in La Macarena is Galería Mü, which opened this year and is billed as Bogotá's first gallery to focus solely on photography. For the latest cultural, arts, and entertainment information in Bogotá, pick up a free copy of Ciudad Viva, published by the city government, or check out GO Magazine (www.goguiadelocio.com.co).

Also worth a visit is the Zona Rosa, one of Bogotá's most upscale neighborhoods for shopping and dining. Name-brand retail goods are easy to find at the Andino and El Retiro malls, but you can also find more unique, Colombian-made contemporary home décor and housewares at Bojanini Art Gallery and more traditionally elegant handmade baskets, masks, and dishes at Colombia es Bella, both of which are at El Retiro. For dining, one of the most popular, and liveliest, venues in the Zona Rosa is Andrés DC, the capital's branch of the renowned Andres Carne de Res, which is located outside the city limits. The names of each of the four floors at the Zona Rosa branch, tierra, purgatorio, infierno, and cielo (earth, purgatory, hell, and heaven) are a good indication of the restaurant's sense of humor. While it's not inexpensive, it is casual. The good-looking young wait staff, both male and female, tends to be generously tattooed and sport long aprons. Here, I savored appetizers including arepas (corn meal cakes) and patacones (fried plantains) to the beat of music designed to keep the energy level high. There is no telling how the entertainment staff might be dressed on any given night. During my visit, they were marauding pirates who wisecracked with guests and spontaneously broke into song with their accompaniment of drummer and clarinetist. The "pirates" inspired some patrons to dance with them before doing acrobatics while hanging from thick cords between the floors.

Another neighborhood on many tourist itineraries is Usaquén, popular for its dining and shopping. Its narrow cobblestone streets and distinct village-style architecture give this area an ambiance distinct from the rest of the city, which makes sense, as this was once a farming community separate from the capital until it was annexed after wealthy city dwellers began moving here. Homes are graced with large courtyards, and the colonial-era square is anchored by Santa Barbara Church, which dates to 1665. Antique shops, restaurants, bars, and cafés keep strollers entertained; the best time to visit is on Sunday, when the Toldos de San Pelayo and Carpe Diem flea markets fill with articles including antiques, collectibles, glassware, jewelry, handicrafts, and handmade clothing.

GAY RIGHTS, GAY LIFE
It's Saturday night, and the enthusiastic crowd is dancing up a storm on multiple dance floors at Theatrón, what must be one of the largest gay clubs, if not the largest, in the entire Western Hemisphere. Its ho-hum exterior belies the scale of what awaits inside: a multi-level entertainment complex with multiple venues set in various interconnected buildings, including a massive former-theater-turned-disco, lounge-style bars, and various open-air roof bars. There are men, women, go-go boys, drag queens, shows, and a different kind of music in each section. It's a spectacular place and is far larger than any gay club operating in my current hometown of New York City. Indeed, Theatrón, which opened in 2002 and keeps growing, is nothing short of massive in scale, measuring 6,000 square meters and fitting up to 6,000 people inside. Each section has its own name; in Plaza Rosa, you'll feel like you're at a Walt Disney-inspired outdoor village. The 360º roof deck, meanwhile, has great views and, in colder months, a fire crackling in its open-air fireplace. The 25,000-peso admission (a bit less than $15) includes an open bar and countless possibilities for an evening of fun.

Continued
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