Carrera 14, Bogotá

Almost everybody who first visits Bogotá is confounded by the street numbering system here. Outside of la Candelaria, the historic district, the streets of Bogotá are not named with the curious poetry of Calle del Divorcio (Divorce Street), Calle del Alma (Street of the Soul), or Calle del Mal Ladron (the Bad Thief Street). For the most part, the streets of Bogotá are named with the subconscious poetry of numbers. We have Calles and Carreras (Streets and Avenues) that crisscross the city and almost all are numbered, not named. There is Calle 68 and Carrera 68, Calle 100 and Carrera 100, for example. Small green two line placards on the facades of buildings at street corners note where you are. They might say Calle 34 on the first line, and Carrera 22 on the second. And then when you turn the corner at the same intersection, the lines are reversed. Carrera 22 will be on the first line, and Calle 34 on the second. If you have never been to the location before, it will be difficult to understand which street is the Carrera and which the Calle. You might just possibly be confused as to exactly where you are!

A friend told me when I first moved to Bogotá that I always need to look for Monserrate, the church high on a hill above the city. Calles run away from Monserrate, and Carreras run parallel to it, my friend told me. Which is all well and good if you are somewhere with a view of Monserrate. More often than not, you are not. To befog matters, the city in its enlightenment decided some years ago to change many Calle and Carrera numbers. So you will often now see a green corner placard saying, for instance, Calle 114 on its first line, and Carrera 19 on the second. The sign however may have a diagonal red line running through it, indicating that this is no longer Calle 114 at 19th. What it is now is anyone’s guess. Sometimes the street signs may indicate the new location, and sometimes not.

I was looking for an apartment, and I had an address and a telephone number. I drove with a friend to the general vicinity of the numbers. We circled street after street, looking for the address in question, without success. I might state here that mysteries abound. You can have Calle 39, Calle 39 A, and then Calle 39 B. There is Calle 45, or C 45. Then, C 45 A, C 45 B, C45 C, and finally C45 C Bis. There are diagonal streets that suddenly become Carreras. Diagonal 35 Bis becomes on the next block Diagonal 36 Bis, and on the next block Carrera 24. There is Carrera 28, or K 28. Then K 28 B (no A) where it crosses C 85 A, K 29, K 30 (a major artery), and then next K49 A. This is followed by K 49 C, and then K 49 D. Go figure! Calle 100 becomes Carrera 68, and so on. So, needless to say, finding the street on which the apartment I was looking for proved difficult. Finally, my friend, a Colombian, called the telephone number that I had saying that the street we were looking for didn’t in fact seem to exist. I heard my friend ask, Are you giving us the old street numbering system or the new?

Building Numbers, Bogotá

It turns out that the street did in fact exist and in the new numbering system, but that it was separated from where we were by a canal that the numbering system couldn’t surmount. The streets on the other side of the canal lived in their own ordered world so that streets that were missing from where we were turned up safe and sound across the canal. I ended up not renting the apartment though not because it lived in its own Shangri-La!

Street Numbers, Bogotá

Adding to the street confusion is the fact that buildings are numbered not by avenue or street but by block only. Someone might tell you that he lives on Calle 119, 11-27. All buildings have dashed numbers, 19-05, 147-34, 55-63, for example. The first number in the address tells you the cross street, and the number after the dash tells you the actual building number. The building number by itself tells you nothing, as along Calle 55, for instance, there might be 20 buildings numbered 35, one on each block. C 55, 22-13, is on a different block from C 55, 24-13, different again from C55 B, 24 -13. Enigmatic, and beyond geography, many of these dashed building numbers are beautiful in themselves, slim wrought iron fonts attached to the facades of buildings from the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s and 80′s.


Numbers. All taxis in all cities in Colombia, and there are thousands upon thousands in Bogotá alone, are numbered with license plates as they might be in any other city or country. However, here these license plate numbers are repeated large on both sides of the taxi. The numbers are written large again on the roof of the taxi, large enough to be visible from the air so that in case of emergency the taxi might be easily located. Motorcyclists, of which again there are thousands upon thousand in this city alone, weaving in and out of traffic like so many salmon rushing upstream, have the license plate numbers of their motorbikes writ large across the backs of their reflective jackets and also on their helmets, a legal requirement. This seems to stem from an earlier time when purse snatching and robberies by motorcycle were common. Having the numbers easily visible makes the motorcyclists easily traceable. Police also have their identification numbers writ large across their reflective backs, for their own inscrutable reasons.

Police, Bogotá

Transmilenio buses in Bogotá are lettered and numbered. B 1, H 74, D 80, and so on. The first letter refers to the destination. C indicates that the final destination is Portal Suba. Why C for Portal Suba, I don’t know. B Transmilenio buses are going to end up in el Portal Norte. Now, here is the fun part. These same buses on their return trip change their letter. Unlike in New York, let’s say, where the A train goes north and south, back and forth, in Bogotá the same bus going north will say B 5 while southbound will say H 5. Street buses go one better. There are route numbers, 184, 669, 231, C-15 and so on, but these routes are closely guarded secrets. There are no maps. The route numbers are shown atop painted signs on the bus windshields though in such minuscule form that they are impossible to read as the bus approaches. Waiting for a bus is a guessing game in Bogotá, especially in the evening or at night when a bus needs to be almost level with you for you can read the destination. Better to wave a bus down whatever its destination, and if it’s not the right bus for you, just wave it on.

Bus Sign, Bogotá

Not all areas of Bogotá are created equal, and the government here recognizes that fact by dividing the city not into geographical zones but into economic strata. There are 6 strata within the city of Bogotá. In Estrato 1, services such as electricity, gas, water, and phone cost a lot less than in Estrato 6. The basic concept is that those who can most afford it, those in Estrato 6, will subsidize the services for those in Estrato 1. Needless to say, the economic stratum of a building is essential information when choosing an apartment. Buildings that have some sort of historic designation, be they in an exclusive area of the city or not, have their services billed at the least expensive level. And strata can change block by block, or even building by building. Your building may be designated Estrato 4 while the building directly across the street may well be Estrato 3.

Phone Minutes, Bogotá

Numbers. Lottery sellers and their lucky numbers are on block after city block. Also, on block after block are casinos with their own magical assortment of numbers. Minutes, another kind of number, are for sale everywhere for 100, 150, or 200 pesos (5, 8 or 11 cents) a minute. PBX or landline numbers are on every store front. The emergency number to call the police is 112, should you ever need it.

For car owners and commuters, numbers are a whole other ball game. In an attempt to regulate traffic congestion, Bogotá has something called Pica y Placa in place. With Pica y Placa, the last digit of your license plate rules. In Colombia, you do not choose your license plate number after you buy a car. You buy your car according to its already assigned license plate number. And your license plate number determines on which days of the week you can use your car. To circumvent the restrictions, some people buy motorbikes, or for those who can afford it, a second car with an odd as opposed to an even last license plate digit. While it may often seem that Pica y Placa does little to alleviate traffic, Saturdays beg to differ. Trying to get around town by car here on Saturdays when there is no Pica y Placa in place can be exceptionally painful.

More numbers. I went to buy paint at a local paint store. Fine. I found exactly the color I wanted, but the purchase had to be invoiced before I could go to a cashier. I was paying in cash, but I couldn’t do that before first providing my cédula, my national identification number, for the invoice. A cédula number is everything here. I really had to laugh when, at a different store days later, I wanted to buy some new underwear. It couldn’t be done without first giving the cashier my cédula. Now, why in God’s name does the Colombian government need to know how many pairs underwear I am buying? But apparently, the government’s needs are great. To make a doctor’s appointment, I need my cédula. To pay by credit or debit card, I need my cédula. To pay in cash in many stores, I need my cédula. Surprisingly, I ordered pizza delivery by phone last week, and the pizza store didn’t ask for my cédula. How can that be? Come on guys, don’t you need my cédula? Doesn’t the Colombian government need to know whether my preference is for Caprino or Traviatta or plain ole Margarita?