Bogotá – The bicycle shop owner won’t rent me the mountain bike I’m pointing at. Instead, he pushes a 1950s fixed-gear cruiser with rusted fenders and a big-ass granny seat, which I’m wary of because it’s not rugged enough to tackle Bogotá’s steep hills, nor dextrous enough to dodge the careening traffic outside.
Pesos negotiate what my broken Spanish cannot, and soon I’m hopping onto my choice bike. I zip my hoodie and slip on gloves; although I’m in South America, Bogotá is high-altitude and maxes out at 18°C, completely nullifying the suitcase full of tank tops I brought.
I’m excited to pedal through this city of 7 million people – rather than to find the nearest washroom stall and snort wholesale prices into my left nostril – because here in Colombia’s capital unspools a Toronto cyclists’ dream: 303 kilometres of bike paths, integrated into every major artery from the suburbs to downtown. That’s only 2 kilometres shy of all the TTC’s streetcar tracks combined.
I start at Zona Rosa, the Yorkville of Bogotá. The outdoor cafés, name-brand stores and clean, charming tree-lined streets hint that it’s a tourist spot. For lunch I step into El Corral, a local hamburger chain more ubiquitous than McDonald’s. The cheeseburger is thick like Harvey’s, the fries spicy like Popeye’s and the bill is a kick in the face – a staggering $10 Canadian for a combo, including a Diet Coke! I resolve to eat only street empanadas for the rest of the week.
I hit Avenue 11, one of the main arteries connecting the suburban north to the central south. The bike path is built into the sidewalk, not the street, where there’s a chance you’ll be sideswiped by a bus. Although there are hardly any cyclists in sight, pedestrians miraculously stay clear of the path anyway. They cautiously look both ways before crossing it, as if it were a busy street – an unadulterated respect for cyclists that you won’t get from the dog- or stroller-walking assholes at Kew Beach.
I fly down a long stretch, and the juxtaposition of modern glass buildings and old colonial buildings turns into a blur, though at the end of each block I come to a complete, textbook stop because South American drivers are fucking psychotic.
There are three times more vehicles here than in Toronto, and Bogatános drive in the requisite developing world fashion: on the yellow lines and popping curbs to swing sharply around corners. The cacophony of honks means everything from “Go fuck yourself,” to “Thank you kindly, sir,” even though they’re all playing the same tune.
I hit Avenue 7 downtown, and since it’s Sunday, the road is closed to all motorized vehicles; it’s all pedestrians, cyclists and rollerbladers. Imagine Yonge Street being car-free from Eglinton to Queen: it’s an incredible sight, and Bogotános take full advantage, coming out in droves to enjoy it.
Every downtown block has the same things: a bookstore, a street cart selling books and a shady character with a quick-getaway-blanket atop of which sit bootlegged DVDs next to a selection of bootlegged books. It’s like an old Flintstones cartoon with a repeated backdrop of books passing me by. No wonder Bogotá was UNESCO’s Book Capital City last year; even the criminals contribute to the promotion of reading.
Avenue 7 leads me to La Candeleria, the old town. This is the South America I recognize, where each massive colonial-era building serves as either a museum or hostel. I tackle the steep hills before admitting defeat to the cobblestones and the assload of tourists in my way.
I collapse onto the steps of the massive Primate Cathedral that faces Bolivar Square. To my left is the National Capitol, to my right the Palace of Justice and directly across the square the Alcaldia de Bogotá.
I could flip through the Lonely Planet to find out what actually happens in these buildings, but instead my eye is caught by a 10-metre banner dangling from the Alcaldia that reads, “No al secuestro.” Among the masses of pigeons, tourists and a man blowing bubbles for whatever reason, several large groups are in a frenzy – jumping, screaming, crying – and chanting those same words. I quickly grasp the translation: “No more kidnappings.”
I pedal back to the shop, sighing heavily with First World guilt. Mind you, in a week, when I’m back on Queen West, I’m sure to be hit with a more jarring culture shock in the form of a driver’s-side door opening into my goddamn face.