By Pablo Rodero
Photos: Santiago Sepúlveda, María Rado
When Fernando Bernal opened El Patio twenty-five years ago on Bogotá’s Carrera Cuarta, in the heart of the La Macarena, his was the only restaurant on the street. The days of brothels and wild parties hosted and attended by Bogotá’s bohemians were over and the neighborhood was only just beginning to enter a new phase as one of the city’s gastronomic centers. “There was nothing here. There was a very famous brothel nearby called the El Cedro Social Club, but the neighborhood was very quiet and very focused on bull fights, given its location next to the bullring.”
La Macarena was built in the 1930s at the foot of majestic Monserrate, above the Santa María bullring, and right between the aristocratic Bosque Izquierdo residential complex and the working class neighborhood of La Perseverancia.
Towering above the bullring is the famed Torres del Parque residential complex, home to many middle-class artists and journalists who moved in and brought a new spirit to the neighborhood in the 1970s. Popular comedian and human rights defender Jaime Garzón was representative of this new cultural elite and a regular customer at El Patio. “Jaime was my soul mate. That was his table. Every day at noon he’d walk in and there would be a whiskey waiting for him,” recalls Bernal, pointing to a corner with photos of Garzón. This corner of El Patio has become a kind of altar dedicated to his old friend, murdered in 1999, another victim of Colombia’s turbulent history.
Early risers won’t find much activity on Carrera Cuarta. Down on Carrera Quinta, however, the small coffee shop and organic grocery Ácimos is the ideal place to start the day, with breakfast and a “tintico,” as locals refer to their coffee. If, in addition to coffee, you like to start the day with a good read, only a few feet away you’ll find Luvina, on the corner of Carrera Quinta and Calle 26C, whose name was taken from a short story by Mexican author Juan Rulfo. This bohemian bookstore occupies the two-story premises of an old pizzeria and is both a coffee shop and a space for independent painters and photographers. “It’s a bookstore run by friends, for friends, and there’s a film club and a reading club,” explains bookseller Jaime Enrique Hernández. “Our customers are authors, artists, young university people… You can come here to study or browse the books, but if you get even a drop of coffee on one of them, you have to buy it,” he laughs from his chair in front of a towering bookcase.
A Mecca for International Cuisine
In the 1980’s when Bernal opened El Patio, Carrera Quinta was lined with nightclubs like El Goce Pagano and La Teja Corrida, until neighbors put an end to the revelry. Legend has it that one night, a stray bullet finally moved the residents to organize and force the clubs to shut down. El Patio, with its Mediterranean decor and cuisine, paved the way for the many international restaurants that began appearing in the neighborhood, changing it from “party central” to culinary mecca.
Walking south on Carrera Cuarta, we pass a long line of eateries flying the flags of any number of nations. El Gaudí, only a few feet from El Patio, offers Spanish food and a decor inspired by the work of the famous Catalan architect. On the following block, at Sandwich Taller, you can savor Caribbean flavors through a variety of ingredients and types of bread, all for a reasonable price. On the corner of Carrera Cuarta and Calle 27, we stop in at La Juguetería, a unique restaurant with decor that made us feel like we’d stepped inside a child’s toy box.
Along the same street, below a huge Peruvian flag, is Manya, a four year-old restaurant run by Gerardo Gaviria. “La Macarena is unique in Bogotá: the restaurants are small and there are no big chains,” explains this chef from Bogotá who also founded an Argentine churrasquería in the neighborhood. “This makes it easier to compete with other quality family-style restaurants. You’ll almost always find the owners inside the restaurant, cooking and serving, which is seldom the case in other parts of the city.”
Art in La Macarena
But La Macarena isn’t just about food. In the midst of the city’s prevailing architectural disorder, with buildings of different styles, heights, and colors that somehow manage to achieve a certain harmony, art galleries abound. Along Carrera Cuarta, disguised as the entrance to a parking lot, we discover El Dorado, one of the neighborhood’s many art spaces. This gallery hosts a surprisingly daring collection of contemporary Colombian art.
Currently on display is “a group of works by twenty-nine Colombian artists that speak of the violence that has remained the central axis of Colombian history,” explains Camila Duque, a gallery employee. Near El Dorado’s back door on Carrera Quinta, across the street from Torres del Parque, are other contemporary art galleries such as NC-Arte and Valenzuela-Klenner, the first to set up shop in the neighborhood in 1994.
We reach the southern end of the neighborhood, known as Bosque Izquierdo, and approach the Teatro La Macarena, a space that develops new theater works based on research into the theatrical arts, body language, and physical theater. The Theater’s programming is limited, but original shows in their small performance space are well worth checking out.
By the time we leave the theater, night has begun to fall and the sun is setting over the city’s other extreme. The east side of Parque de la Independencia, a short walk from Teatro La Macarena, offers an extraordinary view of the sunset. It’s up to the visitor to decide whether to walk down into La Candelaria, Bogotá’s historic center, or head back to one of the restaurants on Carrera Cuarta, to continue enjoying the cuisine of La Macarena with an intimate dinner at one of its small and cozy restaurants.