“Do I have legs in my teeth?” asked Magnolia.
It was a fair question. She had just eaten the hind quarters (or, more accurately, hind third) of an ant, a Colombian delicacy known as hormigas culones (or, ants with large behinds). It was a day full of discovery as Bogota Bike Tours took us all over the center of Colombia’s capital city.
The tour gave us a bit of modern Colombian history to help explain the city. One of the first stops on the tour was the site of the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, a popular leftist leader who was killed in 1943. After his death, there were riots throughout Bogota, with streetcars burned (which was the end of the streetcars in Bogota). Later in the tour we visited Gaitán’s home, where he is buried standing up, so that his ideas may take root and spread again.
One of our last stops was at the Plaza Bolivar, where leftist militants took the supreme court hostage in 1985. The government, taking a tough stance of not negotiating with terrorists, sent in tanks which went in firing. 11 of the 12 justices were killed, along with most of the militants, and the building was destroyed. Interestingly, the current mayor of Bogota was a member of the militant group at the time. Many young people in our tour group stood with mouths agape when learning of all this complex recent history.
Mike explained that though Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, its politics lean to the left in many areas. Though same-sex marriage is not legal, same-sex partners have most of the rights of married couples in Colombia. Until recently, possession of “personal amounts” of drugs was perfectly legal. Prostitution is legal in Colombia, but limited to certain areas of town.
Mike took us through Bogotá’s red-light district, where the mid-day traffic was brisk, and the prostitutes were none to happy to see us cruising through the neighborhood. Mike had given us the heads-up before we headed this way, so that we could duck out or prepare the girls for what they would be seeing. Even with preparation, it was a little shocking to see the very young, scantily-clad women displaying their wares on the sidewalk.
From there we went to another site that would provide us with some lively family discussion later. We stopped by the Santa Ana Church, which was surrounded by abortion clinics. While abortion is illegal in Colombia except in cases of rape, incest, risk of life of the mother, or severe abnormality of the fetus, this neighborhood was home to quite a few clinics where illegal abortions could be obtained by anyone, anytime.
A fascinating and scenic stop on the tour was the Plaza de Toros, or bullfighting ring. When we arrived, we found young boys and men practicing their moves with several types of artificial bulls. They were happy to show us some moves. Bullfighting is a controversial sport, but quite popular in Colombia. The current mayor of Bogota outlawed bullfighting, and converted the ring to an ice skating rink last winter, but the bullfights will continue soon after public outcry.
Outside the ring there was a statue honoring a famous Colombian fighter. It was impossible not to notice how well-endowed both the bullfighter and the bull were portrayed. Mike told us that the suit worn by the toreros is known as the suit of lights, and that many people point to the torero’s privates and call them the batteries for the suit of lights. Hah.
At another point on the tour we visited a café and coffee roasting operation for a coffee break and a bit of education. Did you know that 90% of the coffee grown in Colombia (and ALL of the high-quality Arabica coffee) is exported? And that 80% of the coffee consumed in Colombia is imported? The remainder is the lower-quality Robusto coffee grown in the country.
At the food market, Mike led us from stand to stand, cutting up strange fruits for us to try. Patilla, or dragon fruit, was utterly unlike the ones we tried in Thailand. The latter had no flavor at all, just a lovely deep magenta color, while the former had a nondescript yellowish skin and a subtly sweet flavor. Uchua, or orange gooseberry, was slightly tart and sweet and delicious. Ica, or cactus pear, which we had come across as tuna in Peru, was a little mushy and flavorless. Guanabana, or soursop, was a favorite with a perfect balance of tart and sweet. One of the oddest fruits was the tomate de arbol, or tree tomato, with a yellowish skin and a savory tomato flavor and firmer flesh than the vine-grown version. Mike told us that you can sometimes find tree tomatoes that have been crossed with mango and raspberry, which is going to be my goal for the rest of the week.
AND FAT-BOTTOM ANTS
Toward the end of our tour, Mike spotted a vendor selling hormigas culones, a delicacy from the Santander region of Colombia, where locals harvest the ants that emerge after heavy spring rains and roast them for snacking. Never one to pass up an opportunity to eat something that might be gross if it were not fried and salted, I grabbed one when offered, and, with just a single thought of “I hope this is crunchy and not gooey,” chomped the big ant butt. Unlike the crickets we had sampled in Thailand, these ants were not crispy, but had the consistency of a boiled peanut. They had a distinctive flavor – salty with a little tang – and I could see how one might enjoy this if one had grown up with it. For me, I probably don’t need to try another one.
The Bogota Bike Tour gave us a great overview of central Bogota, and we were amazed at how much ground we covered. For the most part, the terrain is flat, though there were a couple of tough hills, including the toughest one at the very end of the tour. But by then I was not ashamed to get off and push my bike up the hill. Mike was a great tour guide, and another man from the bike shop, Fabio, came along to help with any mechanical problems or flat tires. Though it was sometimes a little tricky riding down sidewalks through pedestrian traffic, and intersections were not always easy to navigate with a large group, we felt safe throughout the tour. I would have liked a bit of an introduction and review of traffic safety before setting out, but we all managed pretty well without.
Bogota Bike Tours is located at Carrera 3 between Calle 12 and 13 in the Candelaria neighborhood. Tours leave daily at 10:30 and usually also at 1:30. Children’s bikes and baby seats are available, but you should reserve in advance to be sure there are enough to go around.