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In what seems like an event from another lifetime, I decided, after staring too long at the ubiquitous railings that are so synonymous with New York’s fire escapes, to take an urban hike through that city. Donning my well-worn boots, I laced up and headed out of my tenement in Washington Heights and struck out south down the entire length of Broadway. It was 11 miles in total all the way to the Ferry Terminal and took me about 5 hours given the inevitable delays at street crossings, construction, stopping to take photos and well, soaking up all of what New York has in profundity, character.
And so, more or less a decade later, relocated to Bogota, I rejoice in the tall cerros (hills) that border the Eastern edge of the Colombian capital. Visible from my office, for me they represent another option to my version of the urban hike. But this time, there’s the possibility of escaping the belching fumes of the heavy traffic in a city. Just as I revel in taking my bicycle out of a Sunday during the ciclovia, I prefer my Saturday morning ascent of the cerros.
I check my backpack, snacks for my dog Monty, leash, water, and raincoat – after all, we are in Bogota and at 2600m above sea level anything can happen even on the sunniest of days – and then make for the point where the Calle 72 meets the Circunvalar.
Monty already knows where we are headed. Predictably he strains at the leash even before we see the entrance to waterworks pathway that provides us with the access point to the mountain. Snap, off comes the clip and my raucous weimaraner is up and away springing over the stones, over rocks, into brooks and investigating the alpine style flowers in bloom.
Referred to locally as the Cerros Orientales, there is a maze of signposted pathways here that hikers can enjoy covering a forested area of just over 14,000 hectares and touching the city’s diverse regions and barrios of Usaquén, Chapinero, Santafé, San Cristóbal and Usme. I mean, you can get almost anywhere if you know how.
So different from Broadway, at times on the hike up the Quebrada de la Vieja, you feel boxed in by the narrowness and perilously slippery ascent. And, come on a Saturday and you are far from having this trail to yourself such is its popularity. I have seen students hiking off their guayabo (hangover), a former President trying to get in shape and appearing as if he could keel over and collapse at any instance, hard core trail runners, couples and of course the ubiquitous Bogotanas of a certain age sporting the all telling bombachon hairstyle.
In short, there’s a true cross section of Bogotano society to be found on a Saturday morning hiking up the Cerros Orientales.
And then, the rules of the hike are in place, people are well meaning, courteous and interested. How different from when they are behind the wheel of their cars, in the queue at the bank or in the supermarket. All is forgotten, and once you have passed through stripped pines so bare that they seem to represent an arboreal cemetery, padded over the bed of pine needles, picked your way around muddy patches and stopped to gaze at the foxgloves and other wildflowers all the while enveloped in the strong scent of eucalyptus trees, you reach the summit.
And here, congregated after a short 45 minute to 1 hour hike are your companions, seated at the base of a Virgen, taking in the breathtaking view of the city. From up here the ills of Bogota are distant, there’s no sound of car horns, no buses careening along the Septima, or the accelerated feel of city living.
Steep in points but always manageable, this hike that shouldn’t take more than two hours in a round trip and serves as a reminder to me of what is available and how close you can be to nature in Bogota. The Avenida Caracas has never seemed so far away. For here, I come I clear my head and breathe in the fresh – albeit thinner – high altitude air and forget what is pending on my desk, my blackberry gets no signal and for a couple of preciously short hours, everything is fine.