The Alluring Contradictions of Bogota's La Candelaria Neighborhood

The Alluring Contradictions of Bogota's La Candelaria Neighborhood

“Several years ago, I discovered the essence of  Bogotain its oldest and most traditional neighborhood: La Candelaria,” our new friend Luis Guillermo Torres told us.

“The air, light, silence, streets, plazas, churches, houses and the inhabitants of the area where the city was founded in the 16th century remain the very essence of an urban center that in the last fifty years has grown rapidly,” he explained.

“I decided to own a place in the heart of the neighborhood,” he declared. “A quiet place to get away from the noise and rush of everyday life of office and home. A country house in the middle of the city!”

I was introduced to Luis Guillermo Torres by Maria Isabel Rohmer, who owns the Cartagena apartment my husband Tom and I stayed in during our visit to that Caribbean Colonial city. In the months prior to our visit to Colombia, I made our arrangements via email with Maria Isabel Rohmer, who now works for UNESCO in Paris. In asking her for recommendations, she insisted we must see Bogota, which we had not planned to visit. Having learned the benefits of taking the advice I’ve asked for, Tom and I revised our itinerary to include a stay in Colombia’s capital.

Maria Isabel’s referral to Luis Guillermo Torres was like a key to the city, reminiscent of the Old World custom of formal letters of introduction to society for 18th century travelers. Through him, we got to know not only the quixotic neighborhood of La Candelaria, but a bevy of friendly and fascinating Colombians.

Luis Guillermo Torres was a charming and attentive host who took us under his wing, plotting out our days and Bogota’s historic sites on a beautifully-drawn map. He explainedat one time he served as the president of Sociedad Amigos de la Candelaria. The group collected the street names of the ancient neighborhood, commissioning the creation of an original map, of which only 20 copies were made. Luis Guillermo Torres has an original framed in his apartment and the version he gave us was a later reproduction.

We learned that he lived in the U.S. for many years, attending prep school in Princeton, then going to Georgetown to earn a degree in economics. He went on to work at the World Bank, returning to Colombia for a banking career, then joining Colombian TV station RCN as a finance executive..

Through Luis Guillermo Torres, we met architect Simón Vélez, visiting his home in La Candelaria. Simón lives in a sprawling family compound behind doors scrawled with graffiti. We were buzzed in and greeted by Simón’s daughter Maria Velez, who explained he was en route home. We gladly accepted her offer of a tour and were delighted by the property’s magical ambiance of salvaged ancient stone arches, bamboo beams and secret courtyards—the artistic aura of the immense place was unimaginable from the outside.

Maria Velez gave us some of her background as we wandered through Velez home.

I am 24 years old and I was born in Manizales, a small and elitist city located in the coffee area of Colombia,” she said. “I lived there for fifteen years and then I went with my mom to Arizona, the most racist state of the United States. In huge discomfort with that, I left my mom and came back to my country with my dad, who had this wonderful and original house in La Candelaria where I use to spend my vacations.  That´s the way I came here, during a rebel age, adapting perfectly to the unconventional way of living.”

I learned Maria Velez is a writer, and later invited her to share her impressions of her adopted neighborhood.

To live in la Candelaria means to feel comfortable in a place that isn´t modern, that is not quite neat, not quite secure, not quite organized. It means to have a disposition toward a hippie life. It means not being absorbed by the desire to show off, be glorified or acclaimed by people who compliment your house, your car or any kind of luxury. It just can´t happen like that. Not here. Not in this neighborhood full of contrasts. If somebody has a wonderful house it must be inside the modest walls, underneath the simple roofs. Like a secret. There’s no need to yell it. Being humble is a rule that everyone respects, the rule that governs and keeps the Candelari´s atmosphere intact.

First, not being reserved would be an act of terrorism against the simple, colonial ideal of humility that has persisted for hundreds of years. And second, it will be a mindless action that can awaken negative desires in people who live around and can´t afford luxury. But here, in La Candelaria, even the richest people have a sense of reality. They experience every day Colombia´s force and frailty. They don´t live in an apart island where everything is green, settled and arranged, where people are always full of grace and carriage.

No. Here, you can breathe Colombia´s authentic air.  Everyone lives together. Everything happens. The richest guy lives next door to a gangster. The biggest house is in front of the smallest. From your house of comfort you can hear some shouts of people being robbed. The beautiful streets are adorned with garbage. La Candelaria is a place of union, of naked existence, where grace and disgrace live together to show reality. It is a place of contradictions and it is that constant contrast that makes it so special.

But, despite the antagonistic emotions that La Candelaria can awake in me, they all come from the same root, the same feeling of love. Here, when you walk, you feel the ground talking, the walls hiding truths, the hills up there, very near us, watching. When you open the window you breathe a bit of mystical wind, a bit of ancestral wisdom, of ancient memory. When I walk, I ask myself what is behind that colonial architecture? Why was Bogotá settled here?

I love to walk and suddenly hear some drums, a guitar, some people singing, the floor shaking from a concert, from some dancing classes. I love the colors, the small houses, the humble roofs, the smell of incense, the handicraft work in the stores, the reggae music like a soundtrack of the neighborhood. I love to be in front of a house wondering what possible mysteries hide behind, whether it´s a big and majestic construction in the inside.  I love to see people without pretentions, foreigners with eyes wide open, being curious, contemplating. I love La Candelaria because it is real, because is like a town where everyone is loyal to their neighbor. I love this social and cultural mixture where people don´t look like toys made up from the same factory.

People that live here appreciate the small things. My dad says that foreigners just come because is cheap, but that´s not entirely true, there are other, much more cheaper places, but they would rather live here because there is something peculiar with these colonial echoes. Because, somehow, the old spirit of La Candelaria, the small and pretty colonial roofs, the surrounding hills, the cultural mix, the non-arrogant faces that match perfectly with their soul. And they chose it, accepting the possible risks. Because yes, there are possible risks. It´s not like you need to be in constant alarm like a maniac, but you do must need to take care, to be a little bit careful every time you go out. But you really learn to do it, and more than that, you really developed the ability of relaxing in front of the danger. People here, despite the possible violence that is around, live carefree.

We too found La Candelaria to be a study in contradictions. And seeing the neighborhood in the context of an adjoining area of Bogota only provided more contrast.

One day, Luis Guillermo Torres and his friend Juana took Tom and me to the Bogota Country Club for lunch. The club is located in North Bogota, a leafy and affluent suburb about a 40-minute drive from La Candelaria, where Luis Guillermo Torres resides when not at his “country home.” The perfectly-coiffed matrons and elegant men enjoying a late leisurely lunch were an entirely different demographic from La Candelaria’s young student and inner-city working class population.

Juana later introduced me to her nephew Gabe Ponce de Leon, 32, who now lives in La Candelaria. I asked him to share a little of his personal history.

“My grandmother took the kids from Bogotá to New York City in the 1950s,” he said. “So my father and aunts grew up in NYC, though were born here. Mother was a straight-up gringa. I was born here, but moved to Brooklyn when I was three.”

Gabe Ponce de Leon graduated from Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He spent about five years in Rio de Janeiro, and has had had a lot of different work experiences–photography, journalism, NGO, business, and tons
of odd jobs.

“When my grandmother moved back to Bogotá from New York about two years ago, I came to La Candelaria for a visit, and wound up staying 5-6 months. Then I came back for another stint of a few months, and have now been here since August of last year.”

Gabe Ponce de Leon is another talented writer, who also generously shared his observations with me.

Of my first night what I remember is the chill. Though I doubt the temperature outside even dipped below fifty, and the apartment came furnished with a couple wool blankets, I cannot recall ever feeling so cold in bed. The following morning, the building’s caretaker ordered me a bundle of firewood from one of the local vendors, a random nail-ridden assortment of scrap wood, broken branches, sawed-off furniture limbs, and floor planks as weathered as the neighborhood itself. Treaded on for centuries, they could have originated on a Spanish galleon for all I knew. I felt at fault almost setting such ancient debris to blaze. The vendor, however, had neglected to include any suitable kindling in the bag. So I passed another night above a frigid hearth.

By day the Candelaria is temperate as any neighborhood in the city, but its night has to be the coldest. Though elevation must play some role, many of these buildings predate modern amenities such as insulated walls or centralized heating. It’s sort of a hustle acquiring satisfactory firewood to stay warm. That first vendor, for instance, had a knack for coming through with thick tree branches and other bulky scraps, but never serviceable kindling. Another specialized in just the opposite: small branches, twigs, dried brush, bits and pieces of rubble. In the evening, he would buzz every apartment in the building. His bundles were smaller than those of other sellers. His health was not great. I think he drank. It’s been a while since I saw him around.

I discovered that the grocery store down the block sold dismembered fruit and vegetable crates, a few bucks per bundle. Though quick to burn up they got a fire going.

For a couple months, I lit my fireplace just about every evening. Then my grandmother gave me a hot water pouch to sleep with, which kept me even warmer after turning in for the night. Before long, I could coax potent flames out of scrap wood any shape or size: a splintered baluster, crown molding, or moldy old beam. Even moist wood I could ignite. Rain is, after all, the perennial curse of this town, heavy skies, clouds a regular backdrop to life. Some mornings a dense fog conceals the mountaintops to the east: the resulting visual is almost mythic, like a forest overspread with mist rising from the heart of the city. But when it really pours, the streets will flood. Everything gets damp, for days on end you may barely glimpse the sun. What I am getting at is: if you find a wood seller whose supply always arrives dry, he is a keeper. Ditto one who integrates both large and small pieces in each bundle. Dismiss the sellers who disassemble police barricades, in general those who peddle painted debris. And always scan for old nails before dipping your hand in a bag.

 I do not know where they sleep, or collect their discarded merchandise, but a couple months back after a decrepit building collapsed I spotted three or four vendors scavenging the rubble. In another neighborhood they might trade in used bottles and cans, but in historic downtown these rugged, wandering salesmen dedicate themselves to the vital enterprise of keeping the neighborhood warm by the glowing embers of its own crumbled past.

No sooner had I reached the pinnacle of my prowess than the nightly ritual of kindling fires grew tiresome, rote. Lost its novelty. I began to sleep with just the hot water pouch. I rarely used the fireplace anymore. But leaving my building in the evening, I would sometimes catch a whiff of a neighbor’s smoking chimney. For some reason, that charred fragrance drifting through the cool air always transports me back to past winters in my native borough.

There are other ways the Candelaria reminds me of Brooklyn—that is, certain historic sections of the borough, 12-15 years ago. Though gentrified in recent years—a process well underway by the time I showed up—the neighborhood has preserved a good measure of its earlier character. It has probably benefited from the arrival of smart new restaurants, gourmet pastry and coffee shops that pass muster even with well-heeled visitors from up north, and may in fact have reached that happy medium between rundown zone of neglect and a more manicured, sybaritic scene.

The current moment, however, has that tenuous feel of a tipping point. In 2011, Bogotá Beer Company set up shop on the same street as Crepes & Waffles. Last year, an OXXO opened its doors on Calle 11, and then Café Oma a block away. Most residents see it as a question of when, not if, all the other chain and boutique stores follow suit. In this day and age, is it not axiomatic that a neighborhood like ours in due time will evolve into a spiffed-up facsimile of its former self? For the time being, though, you can still go out and enjoy yourself, no need to constantly ask the price. You still find an eclectic mix of residents: creative types, foreign students and expats, young professionals employed in nearby ministries and government agencies, and a lot of down-home people who were here before the rest.

 At night, after the stores have closed and university students gone home, the streets are all of a sudden “lonely,” as they say in the local parlance. Or “sinister”—an adjective others might apply. It must be this vision of impending danger—not all together illusionary—that holds the neighborhood back; if not by now it might have already morphed into a Cartagena of the capital, a charming but kind of irritating tourist trap. Indeed, people from other parts of the city often ask me about safety here after dark, as if they routinely stroll the empty streets where they live in the wee hours of night. This is Bogotá. If you like the neighborhood, live there.

Having spent only a week in Bogota, I experienced just a brief glimmer of La Candelaria but Maria and Gabe’s perceptions validated my own.

Luis Guillermo Torres summed up how many come to see the neighborhood.

“Family and friends say that La Candelaria is the perfect mistress,” he exclaimed. “She is beautiful, and is always waiting for me!”

She waits for you, too.