I landed at El Dorado Airport in Bogotá at 5:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but full of anticipation. I had heard many accounts of the great changes Bogotá had undergone since I left this city, eight years ago, and I was eager to see them for myself. The first surprise would be at the airport.
Bogotá’s airport, I discovered, had transformed from a single tumbledown terminal into a giant greenhouse flooded with light filtering in through expansive windows. Inside, it gleamed with silver, from the escalators to the rafters to the shiny conveyer belts spinning merrily in the baggage claim. At each checkpoint– first at Immigration, then at Customs—the jumbled masses of the past had disappeared, replaced by short lines and calm efficiency.
Outside the airport, an ample roadway hummed with multiple lanes of orderly traffic. There, my husband’s family waited for me at the designated place for a curbside pickup, a shocking innovation for an airport that until recently ejected its passengers into a chaotic lot milling with taxi drivers and panhandlers. Even the pickup zone had an air of grandeur and modernity. Tall columns imposed order and supported a second story with its own roadway and orderly lanes of traffic.
As we drove from the airport towards the heart of the city, a cloud of smog engulfed us. Soon, we merged onto a large artery clogged with traffic. Gaudy buses of all shapes and sizes, from stunted blue minivans packed with passengers to enormous half-empty clunkers bursting with festive colors and loud Salsa and Vallenato music, wheezed by on the verge of collapse. A bright yellow river of taxis inched along slowly, honking impatiently as they attempted to bypass the buses. Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia. Ah, this is the Bogotá I know!
In the midst of this maelstrom, slick red buses emblazoned with the logo “TransMilenio” whizzed by in their own lane, stopping to pick up passengers at compact boxes of translucent glass similar in style to what I had seen at the airport. This was the city’s attempt to combat the snarl of traffic, a rapid transit system that functions like an aboveground metro. Yet, a lane away from the fleet of evenly spaced red buses, the throng of vehicles lingered. As I would discover repeatedly during my ten days in Bogotá, impressive as the city’s evolution may be, the past is never far.