14 January 2010

Christmas in Bogota: La noche de las Velitas

I know, maybe I'm a little late for a Christmas post, this one was supposed to be online before New Year's , but a trip to Florianopolis - Brazil got in the middle. By the way, if you're planning on going to Brazil you should definitely visit Ilha de Santa Catarina (or Floranopolis or Floripa for short).... we - that's my fiance and I - spent 10 really  nice days full of astonishing beaches and many many outdoor activities there. We liked the fact that Floripa is still kind of a local destination only, mostly visited by southern Brazilians and Argentineans, so you have a real sense of "immersion". As always, if you need info on that just e-mail me... but enough of my brazilian new year's break, let’s get back to Christmas in Bogota.

Bogota is usually depicted in TV shows and movies as a blend between a small mexican rural village and a Central America jungle town in perpetual war,  houses with fans that give the idea of an unbearable heat and a lack of any sign of urban constructions,  add a drug lord in a white suit and Panama hat (moustaches and cigar are mandatory) called "Garcia" or "Vargas" commanding his minions to bomb "la policia" or "los gringos", mix well and you've got your Colombian capital city Hollywood stereotype. That's why I'm not surprised that when I speak with my foreign friends about Bogota, they don't really know what to expect.  So, to put things in context you have to know that the capital of Colombia has a little more than 7 million inhabitants and is considered among the "World Cities" by the World Cities study group (in the same level as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Berlin and above others like Boston).  Bogota is also the largest city in Colombia, and its altitude (2,640 meters) makes it the third-highest capital city in the world, after La Paz and Quito. I guess that what I want to say here is that we have one of the most organized and well developed planned cities in Latin America and, to get to the topic, Christmas time is not as hot (in temperature) as in other  cities around the continent.

So nights in December are cold (between 8 and 10 C) and in spite of that, every December 7th, we Bogotans stop virtually everything we are doing to go out and light candles.... I'm not exaggerating, at around 7 PM almost everybody in Bogota and surrounding cities is either on their balconies or in the streets with a package of candles of many colors and sizes, homemade lanterns and matches ready to change the city's scenery for a few hours.

This tradition, called "La noche de las velitas" (The night of the candles) dates back to the mid 1800 and started as a religious celebration honoring Maria Inmaculada. Until some sixty years ago it consisted on families getting together starting bonfires in the streets while chanting and praying,   but in the upcoming years the celebration went way out of hand when people started to drink a little more than recommended and then proceeded to burn not only wooden logs, but also tires, old furniture, their old auntie's cats... you get the idea. So Bogotan streets would get very messy and filled with smoke and that started to become a problem, but the tradition was already installed among us. 

Some thirty something years ago someone or someones (I'm not sure who, and my parents and family can't remember) decided to transform this then chaotic celebration back into something much more family friendly, by this time the religious sense of the Noche de las Velitas had already vanished becoming more a gathering between friends, neighbours and families, and a good excuse to have some food and drinks and get to know your neighbours (if you don't know some of them , this night you will certainly do).

So the public bonfires were replaced by the public lightning of massive amounts of candles in streets and plazas,  which  for kids is just a great time to run freely and compete with the neighbours to see how many candles can they light , for youngsters is another bright chance to get together with friends and party all night long and for parents and grandparents is a moment of remembrance and a chance to share with the young ones. 

 Besides that, Bogota's mayor's office plans many family night activities  like concerts and theater plays,  most of the bike lanes are kept open and shopping malls, stores and museums have extended opening hours that usually end with massive firework shows. 

The night of the candles is a magic one, not only because of the beautiful and never ending sight of thousands of candles covering almost every single street of the city - I can imagine how would it be to arrive by plane to Bogota that night and take a look down...hurm...there's an idea there! - but the magic comes mostly from the peaceful ambiance generated  by the gathering of many many people with the common task of making the city look a little brighter and  a little nicer, sharing their time with other people just like them, chatting, partying and getting to imagine that, at least for one night, we all can get along. 


Marcela - Colombia Travel Blog



  1. Que hermoso! Me encanta visitar a Bogota! Si alguien esta interesado en visitar, no lo deleitan :) Es una experiencia maravillosa!


  2. Hola Daniag y muchas gracias por tu comentario.