History of Bogota

Mother Earth Travel > Colombia > Bogota > History

Three and a half centuries after Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada founded Bogota, the Spanish writer Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo referred to Bogota as 'The Athens of South America'. Needless to say, Quesada's intention was not precisely to reproduce ancient Greece in the New World. Like all his fellow Spanish citizens, he arrived in search of El Dorado, and although he went away without it, the only important city he founded, eventually became famous for precisely the reasons he stood out for himself. Jiménez de Quesada was no violent man; he was a Law graduate, a writer, and one might even say, a poet.

When Jiménez de Quesada first saw the land in 1538, he immediately understood he was on good land. Impressed by the savannah with its rivers, protected by enormous hills surrounding it, he immediately decided this would be the site for the city. Not even the difficulties in building at such heights above the sea made him doubt whether it was a good idea.

Thus, on the 6th of August, 1538, Santa Fe was founded, on the West Range of the Andes, at 2,640 metres above sea-level, 700 kilometres from the Atlantic Ocean and 370 from the Pacific. The city was named after Santa Fe in Granada, Spain, where Quesada was from. Soon after 'de Bogota' was added to the name, after 'Bacata', the name the natives gave to the place. In 1819 it became simply 'Bogota'. And when it was 453 years old, it went back to being Santa Fe (or Santafé) de Bogota, its official name now.

Santa Fé did not remain a quiet place for long. The gold-seekers came and went incessantly. The city changed hands, from Santo Domingo (Now the Dominican Republic) to Lima (the capital of viceroyal Peru) in 1550. The great distances between Nueva Granada (as what is now Colombia was then known) and the centres of power in Hispanic America meant that the local governors often worked independently, and the situation became somewhat chaotic at times, with an almost complete absence of government at times.

In 1739, a new viceroyalty was established in Santa Fé. Here is when the cultural flourishing of the city started, and towards the end of the 18th century, there was a period known as the 'Ilustración Granadina' (Granada Enlightenment). People such as Celestino Mutis, who taught Newtonian physics and founded the Botanical Gardens and the Observatory, or Antonio Nariño, precursor of Colombia's independence.

Santa Fé was the site of the first movements for independence. In 1810, the first insurrection took place and on the 20th of July the first step towards New Granada's independence was taken. The fight continued over the years and in 1813 a brief period of independence commenced. However, Santa Fé fell once again to the Spaniards in 1816. The following years were full of panic and terror, which nevertheless ended on the 7th of August 1816, with Simón Bolívar's triumph in the battle of Boyaca. One of Bolívar's plans was to make Santa Fé the capital of Gran Colombia (a confederation of states which stretched over most of the continent). However, Bolívar's dream didn't come true, and the city simply became the capital of the Republic of New Granada, which would eventually be renamed Colombia in the second half of the 19th century.

After the country's independence, Bogota became not only Colombia's geographical centre, but also its historical centre, and, as such, has been witness to further fights and battles. Towards the end of the 19th century, the civil wars between federalists and centralists, feed later disputes between the Liberal and Conservative parties.

During this period the feeling of resentment towards Spain and everything Spanish becomes blatant. There seems to be difficult contradictions to deal with: a feeling of familiarity together with resentment, a desire both to imitate and to break with Spain. Examples of colonial architecture may be seen in areas such as La Candelaria. Very nearby, however, at the beginning of the 20th century, several French style palaces are built. It was the start of the Republican period. The population of the city was already at 100,000. A new cultural flourishing takes places, with the creation of universities, and the traditional Bogota character appears (men dressed in black drinking coffee, speaking about politics and other issues). At the same time, the tram starts working, and the gaps between social classes starts widening, with the immigration of people to the city.

The cold and rain in Bogota also start to become famous. Bogota's history is, one might say, rather wet. The legend says the mythical Bochica separated two stones to empty the lake which covered the savannah, and thus prepared the territory for Jiménez de Quesada to build the city many, many years later. During the Republican period it wasn't the lakes, but the rain which gave the people of Bogota their identity. While the architecture started acquiring a Parisian feel to it, the people started looking more and more like Londoners. Historians have written about the rain in Bogota on many occasions. For a long time, at certain times in the afternoon, Bogota was a river of umbrellas. However, although it still is rainy and cold, this image of the capital has almost disappeared. After all, the increase in population and the pollution have had an effect on the temperature here, as in many other places.

On the 9th of April, 1948, Colombia's 20th century history was split into two halves. It all started in the capital, with the murder of the political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, a liberal loved by the people and despised by the governing class. The people took to the streets, raided the shops, burnt the churches and official buildings. Until that day, the city of 400.000 people had withstood many earthquakes. But the 'Bogotazo' as this is known, left behind a ruined city. That was the end of the tram journeys and the end of a city which aspired to be like London or Paris.

From then onwards the North American influence is clear. The first modern buildings went up, and twenty years later, the first skyscrapers and shopping centres appeared. The migration from the provinces continued its course and the contrasts between the rich North and the poor South became even more striking.

Recent local governments have concentrated on bringing people back to the city centre and improving the transport system to take 9 million citizens to and from their destinations every day. At the moment, the underground is being extended, new transport systems are being established and roads are being built.

Bogota is a city where energy and chaos, insecurity and emotion, violence and creativity come together. It is certainly not a quiet place, but then one could never say it was boring either. Those who enjoy Bogota find that strange fascination by its chaos. The city is full of contrasts, as we have said. Grey by day, and colourful by night, surrounded by green mountains protecting the vast valley, sunshine announcing rain, professional beggars, abject poverty next to modern shopping centres, a true synthesis of classes, styles and regions. People sip coffee while waiting for the rain to stop. At once, modern, classical and primitive. Bogota is what you call an authentic city.