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A few weeks ago I walked into the leather workshop down the street from my house to say hi to the owner who is a friend of a friend.  A new class was starting that day that I spontaneously decided to join.  So, I have spent the evenings over the last few weeks learning how to make leather bags by hand with two other wonderful women from the neighborhood.  In addition to making our own bags, we have also visited leather tanneries and leather shops in Bogota.  Last week I bought some beautiful green leather for a bag and a huge piece of brown leather for my final project – a larger bag.

The huge piece of leather I bought for my projects

I will have plenty of leftover leather, so I’m also hoping to make some bike panniers upon my return to the U.S.  And, well, I’m gonna break down and make a hip belt with a small bag on it as well…not being a hipster I’ve been reluctant to venture into the realm of hip belts/bags, but the utility of them has won me over : )

I realize how much I love doing creative work with my hands – it’s very therapeutic.  The class has been such a nice routine to  have for a few weeks here.  We all sit around and chat and work on our projects for a few hours every evening listening to great music and drinking wine or hot chocolate with wonderful fresh-baked bread from the bakery across the street.  And since the shop is just down the street from my apartment, I have started to feel much more a part of this neighborhood.

Cesar, the shopowner, with my two classmates

I finished my first bag last week – a small, red handbag with braided strap.  I now understand why hand made leather bags cost so much – they are not easy to make!  Making the mold, cutting the leather, punching the holes, sewing it all together, dying the edges, etc. etc…it’s a lot of work for one small piece!

My first bag


A few pictures from the Paloquemao market in Bogota.  I will miss all the fruit when I leave here!

Peppers and Aloe

People hang Aloe (Sabila) in their apartments here for good luck, so we bought one for ours.

Canela! (Cinnamon)

I love the big cinnamon sticks you can buy.  A trick I learned while living in Costa Rica was to break up the cinnamon and throw it in with your coffee grounds…makes really yummy coffee!

And, finally, what would a post be without pictures of bikes!  You see these cargo bikes all over the city.  I especially see a lot of them on my way to work in the morning.  I love them…if only I could bring one back with me!

Cargo Bikes outside the market

Well, I have figured out that I’m not great at this blogging stuff since my last post was over 3 weeks ago!  I don’t take enough pictures (I’ve never been one to take many pictures), and I have interesting stories but they stay in my head.  I’m enjoying life here in Bogota, but it just takes too much time to write and post pictures!  However, I will try and put up a few more posts in my last month here starting with a short one about my leather class!

“The Tequendama Falls has the dubious honour of being the largest wastewater falls in the world…Liquid wastes from the city are flushed untreated into the Bogotá River at the lower edge of the sabana, a few kilometres upstream of the Tequendama Falls. Downstream from Bogotá, the river is filled with sewage…” (The International Development Research Center, Canada,


Tequendama Falls



Bogota River Tour with Fundacion Rio Urbano

Saturday I spent 12 hours touring various parts of the Bogota River with the director of the Fundacion Rio Urbano, who used to be the head of Colombia’s equivalent of the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).  Thanks to a Colombian woman I met on a hike I was invited along on this excursion (check out her blog about traveling in Colombia –

Looking at the falls with the head of Fundacion Rio Urbano

Investigation crew with Tshirts and hats courtesy of the foundation

German, the director of Fundacion Rio Urbano, picked us up at 8am with tshirts and hats from the Foundation to wear, so I felt like we were this little investigation team!

Bogota River

Development along the river

We stopped off at various points along the river, which has been channelized in most areas throughout Bogota, before coming to the wastewater treatment plant (one more badly-needed plant is currently in construction), located just above the Muna reservoir.

Bogota River

According to German, the largest problem for the Bogota river is what is called pirate developers and/or pirate hookups.  Bogota has grown rapidly and there are new residential developments all over the city.  Many of the water hookups are done carelessly or with complete disregard for environmental compliance in order to save money.  So, construction crews or developers will inadvertently or purposely hook up wastewater pipes from developments to stormwater drainage pipes which flow directly into the river.

Stormwater drainage pipe through which untreated sewage often flows into the river

You can smell this raw sewage along most points of the river.  The smell was so strong farther downstream near the Muna reservoir and treatment plant that we didn’t even dare get out of the car!


Muna Reservoir

Muna reservoir - "the world's largest open sewer"

Trash on the shore of the Muna reservoir

More trash along shore

Here’s a good description of the Muna reservoir and its history:

“Muna, once a pristine reservoir that attracted tourists for water sports and recreation, is now a source not only of mosquitoes, but also of foul odors, rats and gastrointestinal, respiratory, dermatological and other disorders, residents said.

The problems stemmed from a decision decades ago that allowed the Empresa de Energia de Bogota, a city-owned electricity company, to reroute the Bogota River away from its natural course and into Muna to supply water for two hydroelectric generating plants.

Now, the Bogota River is a stew of industrial waste, heavy metals and raw sewage due to industrial dumping and a dearth of waste treatment plants in Bogota and other towns that use the river to dispose of their sewage. As a result, Muna has become what Sibate councilman Alfonso Gonzalez calls “the world’s largest open sewer.” (Catholic News Service, 2005,


Tequendama Falls

Bogota river just above Tequendama falls

Next stop was Tequendama Falls.  The river here might look like any nice mountain stream, but it is still very polluted.  The white foam you see in the picture below was a meter high a few weeks ago at the same spot.

Unfortunately the river still smelled even here among the lush mountains.

The area around Tequendama Falls is still very beautiful and before the pollution was a very popular tourist spot for Bogotanos wanting a quick escape from the city.  The old hotel pictured below had a gorgeous view of the falls.  Several people have tried to restore it but have not succeeded.  A foundation is now turning it into a historical museum.

Old hotel with a view of the Falls

So far the trip had been quite depressing and overwhelming.  Where does one even begin to help clean up the Bogota river when development goes unchecked, urban residents see it not as a river but as a garbage dump, and there is a severe lack of treatment facilities.


Tanneries and pollution near the headwaters

Our next stop was as close to the headwaters as we got.  The river is still significantly polluted even this close to its source due to the hundred-some  leather tanneries in the town that, until recently, dumped all of their chemical-laden water straight into the river.  This is still a practice I’m sure, but some owners (like the ones we met) are putting in their own water treatment plants.

Bogota River in tannery town

Even though there is a law prohibiting construction within 30 meters of the river there are many houses build right along the banks or this one which just built a driveway over the river!

Unfortunately, the national development agency years ago suggested to the owners of tanneries that they begin to use chemicals to treat the leather instead of more ecologically friendly methods they had learned from their parents and grandparents.  Then, years later, the environmental agency came and closed down their shops for violating environmental regulations.  Unfortunately, the government did nothing to help them improve their operations.  But a family we visited took out a loan and put in their own treatment system and, after two years of being closed, were allowed to open again.


The Leather Treatment Process

Tanks where the hair is removed from the animal skin

Animal hair that will be composted and used later as fertilizer

The compost pile

Experimenting with new composting techniques pumping oxygen into the barrels

the new water treatment system

Wow! The final product! This whole piece was just $25!


Scenes from the tannery town of Villapinzon

Enjoying coffee and almohabanas after a long day

Plaza in the town

Almost all the men I saw were wearing ruanas

Typical ruana that all the men - young and old - in this town were wearing

Pictures from a great ride to a park last weekend.  We rode all over the place – bike paths, dusty country roads, over city highways, through small neighborhoods.  I’ve seen many neighborhoods and sites in Bogota from my bike thanks to this  group.  The quality isn’t the best as some are taken from Facebook and some are ones that I took while riding on my bike.

Arepas are very common here in Colombia.  They are thick tortillas, often filled with something like cheese or meat, and made from corn flour.  They are quite similar to Salvadoran pupusas.  You can find them everywhere on the street and in the stores, but of course they are best when freshly homemade.  And I prefer them grilled like in the pictures below.  We found these arepas on our way back from a hike, and they were amazing!

Arepas on the grill

Preparing the corn masa

Pictures from a hike I did two weeks ago in Sausateca, an hour and a half north of Bogota.  Was a gorgeous day for a hike!

I love riding at night through cities.  While I often will ride at night in the U.S., normally I would not do this alone in Bogota.  However, much to my surprise and delight, there are a couple of groups who organize night rides in this city!  And last night I went on my first excursion organized by a local bike shop.  Even though we had some massive rains earlier in the evening, there were still about 50 people who showed up for the ride out of the 120 that had RSVP’d.  Normally they say they have about 80-100 riders and have had up to 180 riders on one night!

It was quite amazing.  The organizers all had whistles and flags and at the major intersections, they would go out into the street and actually stop traffic for us (no easy feat in Bogota!).  We rode about 30 km on wide ciclorutas following a river, crossing many bridges to end up at a reservoir in a suburb, and finally back through the city where we rode through neighborhoods with some great graffiti and murals.

Murals seen on the night ride

Although I planned on leaving my bike at work after the ride so I wouldn’t have to ride home alone, the organizers have a great system where each one leads a group in a different direction of the city so no one has to ride home alone.  I rode back home with a small group of guys who do mountain biking every weekend.  They asked me if I wanted to go the hilly way back…of course I said yes!  However, I forgot I was on my used beater bike, not the road bike I’m used to in DC, and I forgot that I am now living at 8600 feet above sea level, not at DC’s altitude of only 25 feet.  While I made it up the hills, I was definitely feeling it!

Folding Dahon bikes are popular here - there were 8 of them on the ride!

Even though I live on the other side of the city from work, and my commute is 45 minutes in the morning and over an hour in the evening, I decided to live in a neighborhood called La Macarena, near the city center.  You can read this NYTimes article about the neighborhood.

I mostly chose it because friends of a friend had found an amazing apartment here, and I didn’t want to have to look for someplace temporary in Bogota.  I was worried about the commute, but now that I’m here I love it.  The neighborhood is known for being an artsy, hippie neighborhood with great restaurants, cafes and bars.  It does have a neighborhood feel to it, and I love being able to walk through the park down to the National Museum, the Planetarium, and the market.

View from our apartment balcony

One of the things I’ve been most impressed with about Bogota so far is the bike culture.  According to one Bogotano I talked with, cycling is second only to soccer for a national sport.

I’m really missing my road bike here.  Last weekend while heading out of town for a hike, I saw well over a thousand cyclists on road bikes heading out on a highway north of the city.  I assumed it was some sort of race, but nope, a local told me that it was like that every Sunday!  They all ride up to the mountains to train.  Had I known, I would have brought mine with me and sold it before I left since nice road and mountain bikes are definitely more expensive here than  in the States.  But, instead, I bought an old beater bike from Bogota Bike Tours, a small outfit run by an American guy in the historic center of Bogota.  I love it because it’s green!  Although I need to fix it up a bit, I did manage to ride about 30 miles today on it during the Ciclovia.

The used bike I bought in Bogota - getting the brakes adjusted during the ciclovia

The ciclovia happens every Sunday and holiday when the city shuts down 200km of roads from 7am – 2pm for cyclists and pedestrians.  It’s really amazing and does feel like the whole city is out on their bikes.

Bogota's Ciclovia early in the morning

The best part is that there is no need to bring the normal riding staples: power bar, fruit, tools, Gatorade, etc. because every  half a mile or so  there are mechanic stands sponsored by the city (see the photo above of me getting my brakes adjusted) and little food stands selling juice, food and water.  I drank orange-carrot juice, ate an empanada and had some mango salpicon (a cup full of cut up fruit and juice)…yum!

Cicloruta in northern Bogota

While the city has Ciclovia, they also have hundreds of kilometers of “ciclorutas” – lanes on the sidewalk reserved for bikes.  My commute to work is about 6 miles on the cicloruta.  Unfortunately, I can’t go as fast as I would like to because there are still many pedestrians walking on the cicloruta and I need to stop for all the traffic.  But even with the pedestrians, cars and all the exhaust from the buses, I’d still rather be riding for 45 minutes to work than sitting on the bus.