It's raining when I arrive in Bogotá-- not a surprising occurrence. The city is located in the Andes Mountains at an average elevation of 2640 meters / 8612 feet and never sees a cloudless day. Sometimes, big cumulus puffs drift across a cornflower sky. Sometimes, a deep grey haze wraps the city like a shroud.
A steady rain patters as I lug my bags up to my room on the second story of a seventh-floor apartment.
My host, D, notices my strangled gasps and insists I drink mate de coca.
"This will help with the altitude sickness," she explains.
"Thank... you..." I feel like I'm sucking air through a coffee straw.
"And maybe you should rest for a few days."
The bedroom features a panoramic view facing south over downtown Bogotá. The mountains tower to my left and recede from view as they wrap around the perimeter of the city. Through the drizzle, I see the haphazard angles of the densely-packed buildings. The streets are laid out in a grid (más o menos) that is easy to navigate once I figure out the nomenclature, but from this vantage point, they make an incomprehensible maze.
There is no city in the world that is both higher and more populous. My heart pumps so hard that my blood throbs against the sides of my head. The most activity I can handle on my first day is venturing down the street for dinner.
The apartment is in a centrally-located neighborhood called El Chapinero. My area, specifically, is nicknamed "Chapigay" because it is known as the queer epicenter of Bogotá. Theatron, the largest gay club in Latin America, sits one block away. D tells me that the club's owner bought a bunch of apartments in the area and rented them exclusively to gay folks during a time when other landlords wouldn't rent to them.
Trash litters the cracked sidewalks. Graffiti colors nearly every building. A sleek fetish store displays elaborate leather straps on bulging mannequins. The nearby Parque de los Hippies serves as a hangout spot for teenagers smoking weed, addicts, families, skateboarders, and people scrolling idly on their phones while they wait, for something. The first openly lesbian mayor reportedly lives in one of the buildings overlooking the park.
I head to Las Cazuelas de la Abuela, a nearby restaurant highly rated for Ajiaco, the quintessential dish of Bogotá. It's a next-level chicken soup which contains three varieties of potato, corn, shredded chicken, and an herb called guasco. The savory broth tastes rich and almost creamy from the potato starch simmered with chicken fat and aromatics. I garnish with the optional capers and avocado slices, and I finish my meal in a frenzy.
The warmth of the Ajiaco spreads through my body in a pleasant flush, like I climbed a mountain, or fell in love. I can see why this soup is so popular in a place that sees 200 days of precipitation per year.
The rain has stopped by the time I return to the apartment. A pink sunset bleeds through the streaky clouds. On the horizon, the houses on the mountains sparkle like string lights hung for a celebration. I am a little breathless from the stairs. I am still a little breathless.