Even today, for many folks Colombia still conjures up terrorism, drugs, and all sorts of nasty stuff. But that's a far smaller part of the picture these days; in the past several years, this South American country (just a tad bigger than California plus Texas) has been on the upswing, and is finally poised to share its impressive menu of attractions with the rest of the world -- the stunning colonial architecture of Cartagena and Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast; coffee-country highlands growing some of the world's tastiest java; rustic Amazon jungle lodges; highly fetching Pacific and Caribbean beaches; and a growing panoply of eco and adventure offerings. Visitors are responding, too -- there's a hotel boom underway, and even in these traumatic airline times, it seems carriers have been adding flights from North America every month.
And no place is more booming -- in a good way -- than the country's capital, Bogot? (pop. 7 million). With a cool, crisp climate 8,600 feet up in the Andes, it's enough of a sprawl that it can take an hour to get, say, from downtown to north Bogot?. But the two main barrios you'll want to focus on are La Candelaria and Chapinero.
First the former: the 16th-century colonial core isn't just some kitschy, gussied-up tourist zone; its 2 1/4 square miles of sloping, sometimes cobblestone-paved streets are a mix of gritty and charming (sometimes both at once), bustling by day and quietly, dreamily atmospheric by night. There are several hostels here, as well as a fetching pair of upscale boutique properties (Hotel de la ?pera and Hotel Casa de la Botica), and you could spend several days roaming the elaborate churches, the shops (emeralds are a local specialty), and museums (highlights include colonial history; the roly-poly world of Colombia's most famous artist, Fernando Botero; and a razzle-dazzle collection of pre-Columbian gold artifacts). And don't forget to take the cable car up nearby Monserrate hill, for some panoramic city views.
Most of Bogot?'s quality dining and rumba (nightlife) is a few minutes' cab ride away, in north Bogot? areas like the Zona Rosa (check out the offerings surrounding a park called Parque de la 93, they rock), and for homos, Chapinero, which just happens to boast one of Latin America's most happening gay scenes. Chapinero's 800-pound gorilla is a flashy monster club called Theatron -- really seven nightspots in one, and practically all packed. But there are also plenty of great smaller joints, such as Dash, Blues Bar, and Roxy Gogo (plus do check out another panoramic city view along with the gay/straight/whatever crowd of hotties at Cha Cha, in a downtown skyscraper). And for getting straight to the "point," you've always got the option of Babylon Baths and several other steamy boys' clubs.
Judging from all the above, you might think, "hey, homosexuales don't have it so bad here!" Well, yes and no. Traditional Latin culture here, as elsewhere, can still be pretty homophobic; in the bad old days not only was there all the usual discrimination but also violent ?social cleansing? by rightwing death squads targeting gays. It's much better these days, especially in Bogot?.
Thanks in no small part to a group called Colombia Diversa, its allies at Los Andes University, and a supreme court that's more progressive than the society as a whole, in 2007 and 2008 same-sex couples were granted 80 percent of the rights heteros enjoy, and Colombia's best known gay activist, Virgilio Barco (son of a former president of the same name), has reason to expect the rest will come along soon.
"Our whole strategy has been to make this very low-key and unthreatening," he says. The city government has been gay-friendly for years, especially that of the current mayor, Samuel Moreno; meanwhile, one of the city's district mayors is a lesbian. Even pugnacious, rightwingish president ?lvaro Uribe has at least paid lip service to equal rights under the law.
Outside the capital, the picture is way more mixed. I've spotted guys holding hands in public up in the Caribbean coast cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena, but in places like Cali and other parts of Colombia it can still be tough (sometimes even dangerous) to be gay; in fact, the homophobic murder rate seems to be rising in some areas in recent years. In Bogot?, though, you've got pretty much nothing to worry about, and as a gay-friendly, Latin-flavored big-city getaway, this one's a keeper.
BOGOTA 411 Where to Stay (Dial 011-55 from the U.S.) Hotel de la ?pera
Calle 10, No. 5-72; 336.2066; from US$216
A stunning colonial 30-roomer in the old town, complete with pool, spa, and fine restaurant.
Hotel Casa de la Botica
Calle 9, No. 6-45; 281.0811; from US$145
Nearby but with a slightly more modern feel, it has ten well-equipped rooms.
High Park Hotel
Carrera 4, No. 58-58, Chapinero Alto; 753.7724; from US$130
Run by gays for gays, close to the scene.