Formerly named the Plaza Mayor by the ruling Spaniards, the first design was made in 1539 by the conquistador and founder of Bogota, Jimenez de Quesada (whose remains are laid to rest inside the Catedral Primada). The central location was used over many centuries for civil, martial and religious gatherings; it also hosted a public market.
The plaza is steeped in Colombian history: including the 1810 revolution against the Spanish, which started in the nearby Casa del Florero (House of the Vase); the visit of Pope Paul VI in August 1968; and the shocking M19 guerrilla attacks on the Palace of Justice in 1985. The plaza has also seen blood on the paving stones at the executions of the Comunero Movement leader Jose Antonio Galan. Other distinguished citizens such as Camilo Torres and Manuel del Socorro Rodríguez were also publicly executed in the main square.
In 1819, huge crowds welcomed the national hero Simon Bolivar to the square that would one day take his name. Officials and victorious patriots accompanied him from the Battle of Boyaca, which sealed the liberator’s quest for independence.
In 1821, the Plaza Mayor was given a name change to the pro-republic Plaza de la Constitucion and a facelift, with a fountain known as ‘El Mono de la Pila’ built in the centre of the plaza that would remain until the mid-19th century when the square was remodelled and an English-style garden was created. The statue of Simon Bolivar that you see today was sculpted by the Italian Pietro Tenerani and erected in 1846 as the first public monument dedicated to the Liberator of the Five Nations.
By the middle of the 20th century, the plaza, which should have stood out as the centre of administrative and political life of the capital of Colombia, had lost its significance. It had been converted into a rectangular space with the central figure of Bolivar’s statue enclosed by four fountains, one in each corner, all surrounded by steps and an outer road for cars.
In 1960 the grounds of the plaza were levelled in preparation for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Independence. The landscaping project overcame topographical and drainage problems and was heralded as a great urban and architectural accomplishment.
Plaza Bolivar has now returned to its original identity as a prominent meeting place in the city centre. Its sobriety now highlights the commanding buildings that stand around its boundary. An interesting mix of colonial and contemporary architectural styles make up the important historical buildings where the powers of Colombia converge.
The city square is no longer the tranquil tree-filled green zone it once used to be, there are no soothing sounds of running water from the old fountains and there are certainly no cafes or restaurants to sit and relax near the plaza perimeter.
Today, Plaza Bolivar is an influential space in the centre of the country where Colombians can mobilise – a place for marches, protests, political rallies and celebrations – all under the watchful gaze of their Liberator Simon Bolivar.
Plaza Bolivar is included in Uncover Colombia’s Walking Tour of La Candelaria.
Get to know more about Colombian history by booking our Historic City Tour of Bogota.
The Uncover Colombia Team