Like every history-loving traveler, I’d like to go back in time to experience the past in person. I’ve often imagined, like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, the experience of rounding a street corner, passing through an alleyway, and finding myself in a long-gone time and place. I think that this is the only, limited way that we can experience the past – in local, specific, hidden places that history has forgotten.
Such a place is the Café-Bar San Moritz, founded in 1934 in the urban heart of Bogotá, Colombia. These days you wouldn’t find the café on your own. It does not appear among the more than 1,100 Bogotá bars and restaurants on TripAdvisor. Its entrance is an unadorned concrete passageway on the narrow Calle 16. Only a simple sign, hidden well within the entryway, advertises its presence to the world. It takes you by surprise.
We descended into the Café last Thursday at twilight, following our guide Camilo Andrés Monje of the University of the Andes. Camilo warmly greets the staff, who recognize him instantly. As Bogotá’s resident expert on the history of cafes, he knows the importance of this place better than anyone. We gathered in a back room to have a drink. Old, unfamiliar music plays through the speakers. Crates of Poker, Aguila, and Club Colombia beer pile high in the corners. Locals gather and converse quietly at the tables around us, with collections of empty bottles implying that they had been there for hours. A single light illuminates the space, and a picture of Libertad Lamarque smiles down on me while I take in the scene. For a brief moment, I’m going back.
In its heyday, the San Moritz was part of a vibrant café culture the likes of Buenos Aires or Paris. Cafes numbered in the thousands, and were frequented by the city’s political and intellectual elite alongside ordinary people. One might even have found a young Gabriel García Márquez, then a newspaper reporter who sometimes worked in the capital. The San Moritz sat just across from the Gun Club, one of Bogota’s most prestigious social clubs. Cafes were perhaps the soul of the Calendaria, Bogota’s historic urban core.
The “Bogotazo” of 1948 struck a mortal blow to the Calendaria. The assassination of former presidential candidate and populist champion Jorge Eliécer Gaitán set off a brutal riot that wrecked the neighborhood. The wealthy fled to the hills and to the suburbs. The Gun Club closed up shop and relocated with them. The glamorous storefronts of the Carrera Septima dimmed. The Montreal-style underground city by the Parque Santander was shuttered. And cafes – now symbols of conspiracy – were relentlessly driven out of business.
The Calendaria is making a comeback. Crews work busily to restore monuments and repave streets with handsome khaki stone. The Plaza Bolívar is as monumental as ever. Many of Bogota’s famous universities are only a short walk away, as are world class museums. Property values are on the rise again. As an American who has seen firsthand the rebirth of Boston and Washington, I am an optimist about the future of the Calendaria.
What remains to be seen is whether Bogota’s once-iconic cafes will make a comeback too. Perhaps more than any other institution they embody the richness, the tragedy, and the sociability that made the Calendaria not simply a wealthy and powerful neighborhood but also a place with character.
Nostalgia is a powerful force – in the imagination of a single traveler, or in the memory of an entire city. One hopes the answer will be yes.
Randal Drew (WG ’17) is an MBA-MA candidate at the Wharton School and the Lauder Institute. He is a member of Lauder’s Spanish Language and Culture Program.