As a resident for nearly twenty years of this essentially modern and middle-class district, I have witnessed the growth of a community to its current sophistication. You have only to flip through period photos of its landmark buildings to see that, only up to a generation ago, it was mostly fields merging into the wooded foothills of the cerros and happily unmarred by the Circunvalar. I refer to the Plaza de Santamaria bullring (1920s), the marketplace (1940s) and its contemporary police station (where Fidel Castro got his start during the Bogotazo).
Urbanization only took off with the Torres del Parque, built in the 1960s by renowned architect Rogelio Salmona. And the house I live in is a reminder of the low-scale family residences built on lots by the owners themselves, a far cry from the visually-brutal apartment blocks developers are now putting up across the city.
The attraction of La Macarena to the hip and cultured is not new. While its traditional nickname, the Barrio Bohemio, is now hardly in use, it is a reminder that many of the leading figures of that generation of now elderly or extinct artists and intellectuals who first put Colombia on the world cultural map either lived or hung out here when they were getting their start, roughly from the fifties to the seventies. I’ve been told that it was in an apartment in the Macarena that Gabriel García Márquez narrowly escaped an attempt by the secret police to arrest and probably eliminate him.
Despite shifts of location and an enormous expansion, La Macarena’s reputation for quality restaurants is decades old, witness the famous El Boliche. The pioneer of the gastro boom is El Patio (Carrera 4A No.27-80) which, about a decade ago took over the site of a tienda on a street virtually without restaurants. Now, as then, its Italian cuisine, good wine list and slightly crammed dining room, draws those from the city’s elites.
Iberian classics such as a potato omelette and chorizo as well as homemade Sangria to accompany a plate of tapas are popular at Gaudi. Across the street, there’s an honest and reasonable Mexican, La Verdad (Carrera 4A No.27-57). For more signature Mexican based on market-selected recipes, there’s Agave Azul (Carrera 4A No. 26B-22). A philosopher turned table turner, chef Tatiana Navarro serves delightful slow cooked ribs and organic salads to her food conscious clientele. Looking for a bowl of fresh mussels, then try La Gloria, a cozy venue located next to the black iron door of a Macarena heavy weight: En Obra.
En Obra turns up the heat with Asian fusion cuisine (Carrera 4A No.26A-37). Both late nightclub and urban restaurant it caters to an upwardly mobile thirty-something crowd, who dress in black, delight in samosas and sip Bombay Sapphire. Hearty dishes from the former Yugoslavia make for a traditional lunch at Beograd (Calle 26 No.4-76). This quaint eatery is run by Serb Katarina Markovic and her pastries are as authentic here as in Vienna or Budapest. For great burgers and a pint, the Bogotá Beer Co. (BBC) has opened a small pub helping the barrio boost its informal and locally brewed beer culture.
For healthy habits, there are typical panaderias and specialty bakeries with organic breads and cookies such as Azimos (Carrera 5 No.26A – 64). Café Andante in the Torres del Parque is a popular cafe with the local bohemia. Café La Castaña next to Andante has delightful and robust empanadas inspired by chef Andrea Carrillo’s time in Buenos Aires. For sipping a glass of wine while browsing through the latest books, there’s Luvina bookstore. A venue dedicated to a enjoying a hot cup of chocolate, Lachoco Latera, opened its doors and sells artisanal chocolate concoctions.
Art galleries have deep roots here and La Macarena has long appealed to thoughtful foreigners because of its unique offer of a downtown location that is neighbourly, uncontaminated, lively and cheap yet also safe. For art buffs there are many fine galleries worth visiting within blocks of each other. Facing the Torres del Parque there Alonso Garcés Gallery with its collection of leading Colombian artsists such as Edgar Negret, Luis Caballero and Beatriz Gonzalez. Next-door an industrial space on four floors is home to the cutting edge NC-Arte gallery. Valenzuela Klenner, another door just south, showcases contemporary fine art from highly talented and possibly less well-known artists. Galeria MU (Carrera 4A No.26B-29) is run by husband and wife team Carolina Montejo and Andrew Utt. They have established themselves as an alternative space for photographers to exhibit their portfolios.
La Macarena retains an authentically Colombian flavour. If it is high-toned in parts, its sophisticates are only one ingredient of a mixed population of working stiffs, shopkeepers, householders, street people, academics and students from nearby universities, media folk, who, taken together, keep it from being too gentrified and overpriced.
Though no defender of Colombia provincialism and someone who likes to sample exotic cuisine from time to time, my fear is that the rush towards sophistication, if it gets out of hand, may drive out the free souls, young families and long-time inhabitants responsible for its charm and result in its monopolization by yuppies. I know whereof I speak, since I’ve seen the phenomenon at first hand in my native New York, as well as London. As a kid in the fifties, visiting my dad’s store in lower Manhattan, I remember when Greenwich Village was still little Italy, Soho a factory warehouse district and the Lower East Side an embarrassing reminder of our immigrant roots. Now their lofts, commercial premises and even their tenements are the exclusive preserve of millionaires. I don’t want this to happen to the Macarena, because something important will be lost, call it a humanism, which still graces Colombia and makes it livable.