Houses on the hillside in Soacha on the oustkirts of Bogota

Aerial photo of Bogota

Bogota, Colombia

Back to Bogota

May 1, 2010

Poor man eyes a rich man, denigrates his property

A rich man eyes a poor man, and envies his simplicity

- The Rolling Stones

It is always interesting to return, several years later, to a place you have visited. The passage of time allows you to see the effects of development and the slow or rapid process of change, depending of course on the place. What adds another layer of complexity to this is the chance to return on a business trip to a place you had once visited as a tourist. This was the case for me on this trip to Bogota and it was especially different as my first and second visits to Bogota had been during my long backpacking trip through South America in 2008.

Compared to backpacking on a budget, visiting a place on a business trip allows for the chance to stay in nice hotels, eat at relatively expensive restaurants, and in general experience a higher and more luxurious level of local life. During this visit to Bogota I experienced a large range of those levels of society. My days were spent in Soacha on the outskirts of Bogota, a very poor neighborhood that had received government funding for the construction of a technical school for the local children. Behind the school dirt paths led up the hillside to an unofficial community where people lived in makeshift houses with few if any official services. On rainy days the kids would have a hard time reaching the school as the runoff from the rain turned the dirt paths into rivers and waterfalls of mud.

The daily ride from the affluent Marriott hotel led us through the dirty and chaotic streets to Soacha where the neighborhood was always bustling with activity. There was no shortage of vendors and businesses on the sides of the road. Butcher stalls hung their cuts of meat in the open air and vegetables and fruits were colorfully visible through the dusty air. The glances and stares that I received clearly indicated that this area was not frequented by tourists or outsiders. It always seemed safe to me but then again after all of my travels I have a high tolerance for these types of areas. One day after work, while waiting for our car I walked past the building security guard to explore the street outside the gates. The security guard told me not to wander too far. I asked him if it was safe and he pointed to his gun and said that with that it was. He told me not to worry because he would shoot anyone if there was any trouble. He seemed to be joking but I also didn’t doubt him.

Soacha is no stranger to violence. Many years ago Andres Escobar a Colombian national soccer team member was murdered here after a mistaken own-goal in the 1994 World Cup in the USA. The excellent documentary The Two Escobars documents the link between Colombian drug money and the country’s resurgent soccer team.

The inequality that we witnessed was not something that was easy to become accustomed to. From our fancy hotel rooms in the evening, to trendy restaurants and bars we transitioned to days in close proximity to the hard lives of the impoverished people in Soacha. It was welcoming to see that the government was investing in education to provide the children with skills they could hopefully utilize to gain an economic advantage for their families. In order to utilize those skills the Colombian economy needs to continue on its path of development. The country has made great reforms since its days as a narco-state and is now one of the most rapidly developing countries in the region. The legacy of the gross influx of drug money and the rampant corruption and graft is the country’s high level of inequality. I hope that a focus on cleaning up the government and reforming some of these corrupt and unfair practices can be coupled with increased spending on education and public healthcare to further boost the opportunities for the nation’s poor. In the end that will be Colombia’s best chance to further increase the standard of living for everyone in the country, not just for the elite.