How can you get to grips with an entirely strange city and its history in three days, or five days, or however pathetically brief your visit has to be?
You can’t, of course. But everyone has devised their own short cuts: visit the old thing, the highest thing with the view down to café umbrellas far below, the famous monument thing and then the museum, which may be marvellous or terrible. I have a couple of others too. I like to go to the big cemetery, and to ride on public transport, preferably the metro. On the metro you see shift workers nodding off on the way home, giggling lovers and students and soldiers and doughty old women with ruined feet. You can spin stories until the end of time. And foreign cemeteries often have those oval pictures of the deceased, staring back at the fragile mortal and facing down their vulgar scrutiny. You can deduce a lot about the culture of a country from the style of funerary momunents and memorial inscriptions its people favour.
In Bogota, however, at almost 9,000 feet of altitude I was gasping after climbing a single flight of stairs and didn’t fancy a demanding trip out to the boneyard. Nor could I go on the metro because there isn’t one. Hard to believe with a population of six and a half million people. Rapid mass transit is provided by Millenium Buses, unpopular giant bendy buses that race through the city on special dedicated lanes and stop only at stations isolated on traffic islands between the roaring traffic. It seems to work, though. Bogota as a whole seems to work, in fact. There is a heavy amount of private security in better-off areas, and places like the photogenic Candelaria in the old town centre are really not safe after dark, but in general there was an atmosphere of cheerful modernity and prosperity.
We stayed in the Zona Rosa, the city’s official gay-friendly quarter. The town’s mayor is a fully out lesbian. There were quite a lot of chic little restaurants and a really dazzling shopping mall. And the derelict black man who lay in some sort of drug-induced fit on the pavement outside, his jerking hand bang-banging a corrugated iron fence in a parody of rhythm, did not in the least disturb the line of office workers stepping past him on the way to the sandwich bar.
After three days we flew to Cartagena. The night before I had been out to dinner in chilly Bogota wearing a hat and a pair of gloves. The Caribbean enveloped us in ninety degrees of heat and eighty per cent humidity. My clothes and I wilted like an old lettuce and it was a few hours before we recovered sufficiently to venture outside the aircon and investigate the gem of the old city. The walls built by the Spanish conquistadores enclose a small but perfect and extremely beautiful network of old streets and squares. There are dim churches and bright painted houses with masses of blossom tumbling from their restored wooden balconies. There are lots of shops, and tiny but smart hotels and inviting bars and coffee shops, and many Cartagenans trying to sell us sarongs and Panama hats and bracelets and improbably jewelled sandals, as anyone would. Beyond the barrier walls, past the labyrinthine and pungent town market, sprawls a huge and very poor port and industrial city.
The old town, therefore, is rather like a golden pimple on the tip of a misshapen sweaty nose. I could see how lovely it was, but it was one of those places that made me feel bad about being a tourist.
After four days we flew on again, three hops via Bogota and Sao Paolo, into Rio.