My first trip to Colombia was spectacular, to say the least – a perfect 10-Day Bogotá experience. Though I had a problem with my flight and arrived in South America one day later, the time that I spent in Bogotá was amazing. Colombia has a bad reputation that should have died out several years earlier. Many foreigners perceive Colombia to be full of dangerous drug cartels and violence that is out of control. However, this is far from the truth. Colombia might have had its share of problems back in the day, but its major cities have been very successful in stomping out many of the problems. If you don’t want to run into a FARC rebel cell, simply stay away from the Amazon region and other areas which are not so densely populated.
After arriving at El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá and venturing into the city, your first impression of the city may not leave you feeling too enthusiastic. The streets are dirty, homelessness is rampant, and stray dogs seem as common as pigeons in New York City. However, do not be deterred; there are many fun and exciting things to do around every corner.
Bogotá Attractions & Activities
If you are looking for touristy things to do in Bogotá, you will find yourself well-rewarded. Often given the nickname “Athens of South America”, Bogotá has an abundance of world class libraries and museums to sustain your appetite.
The Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum, is a great place to start your adventure. Gold was the major force behind colonial Colombian civilization, and the role that gold played in those early years can be experienced in its entirety here. Exactly half of the Colombian national flag is yellow, representing the dominance of gold here, so you can imagine just how important it really is. The museum houses the largest pre-Hispanic gold collection in the world.
The Museo Nacional de Colombia, or National Museum of Colombia, is another must-see attraction, as it presents you with a solid background to the country. The history of many of Colombia’s early and original natives, as well as the Spanish conquest that provided much of the country’s identity as we know it today can be found here. There is also a large portion of the museum that is dedicated to many of Colombia’s great artists.
To get a stunning bird’s eye view of the city, head a few blocks south of the Museo Nacional to the Torre Colpatria, or Colpatria Tower. The building, as of 2010, is the tallest building in Colombia and the second tallest in South America (though it doesn’t make it on our list of tallest buildings in the world). The 50-story tower is named after Colpatria bank, which has its headquarters inside. The view from the top is stunning, and you can go all the way around the top of the Colpatria tower to essentially get a 360-degree view from the heart of downtown. At 3,000 COP (roughly $1.60 USD as of 2010), it is well worth the admission.
If the top of the Torre Colpatria did not satisfy your craving for sky-high panoramic vistas, you best visit Cerro de Monserrate. The summit of this mountain is a popular trek for tourists and pilgrims alike. There is a picturesque little white church built on the top of the mountain, 3200 meters high, and many make the pilgrimage to give thanks to El Señor Caido, the statue of “the fallen Lord” inside the church. Take the funicular (a rail car that feels as if it’s going straight up) or the teleferico (cable car) if you are not inclined to walk. There is some nice restaurants and a quaint little market at the top, as well as some well-kept gardens and a story of Christ’s death.
No tourist can miss out on La Candelaria, a neighborhood of Bogotá that has much historical importance, including the capture and escape of Simon Bolivar, as well as being integral as the starting point of the area’s revolution. This colorful district, filled with pastel colored houses, has many of the city’s most important museums. Check out the Cultural Heritage Museum, Museum of Colonial Art, Museum of Religious Costumes, and the National Police Historical Museum, though there are many more just as significant in this area. Most of the hostels are located in La Candelaria, which is why this is where the majority of the budget travelers and backpackers stay.
To complete the tour of Bogotá’s must-see tourist attractions, swing on over to Plaza de Bolívar, or Bolivar Square, named after Simon Bolivar (it seems as everything in this city is named after him) who has a statue in its center. This is a gorgeous square surrounded on all sides by massive and architecturally stunning government buildings. On the southern side, you have the National Capital building, where the seat of Congress is located.
The eastern side of the square has the Holy Chapel and the Primate Cathedral. On the northeast corner is the Vase house, and on the southeast side is the Mayor School of San Bartolomé, a secondary school originally established by the Jesuits in 1604. Finally, on the western side of the plaza is the Liévano building which is the seat for Bogotá’s Mayor. Though the buildings may capture many of your photographs, the Plaza itself is a relaxing sight to behold. The square seems to be the default gathering place of the city’s pigeons, and you can usually find many locals feeding them. Even as this photo gets duplicated hundreds of times every day, it is still quite the shot when you capture the pigeons newly taking flight, freshly disrupted as someone walks amongst them.
These six places are important for any first-time itinerary to Bogotá, and you could easily fit all of these attractions into one weekend, with time left to spare for others. However, do not limit yourself to these six places, as there are many other sites to see that can further your knowledge of Colombian community, culture, and way of life.
Experiencing the Entertainment
Bogotanos love to have a great time, and they do have quite the enviable nightlife. If you are looking to dance, unwind after a long day of touring the city, and throw back a few beers, there are many options in Bogotá to satisfy your disco fever. Make sure you dress up, because the locals really go all out with their outfits on Friday and Saturday nights, and so should you.
Andrés Carne De Res seems to be the unanimous popular vote when you ask a Bogotano where the best place to go at night is. Though there is a newly built 3-floor one in the Zona-T, you should check out the original one, which is located in Chia, a municipality right outside of Bogotá to the north. The taxi ride back to Bogotá can be long, just to forewarn you.
The Bogotá Beer Company has many locations throughout the city, and is a nice place with loud music from the 80’s and 90’s. Palos de Moguer is a similar joint with several locations as well. The Bogotá Beer Company serves its own brew, which is produced in a distillery nearby, and Palos de Moguer serves the popular beer Colon. Both are great little bars, with indoor and heated-outdoor seating.
Parque de la 93, or 93 Park, is the hippest of all the bar and club areas. It is named because it is on the 93rd Street, or Calle 93, with Carrera 13. Around this small square park are many chic restaurants and bars, that all stay open late every night to receive the affluent and wealthy crowd that heads there.
Many of the trendier restaurants such as Balsamico has live artists and bands at night, and the atmosphere is perfect for unwinding after a long day, with good food and even better cocktails. Many other pubs and restaurants offer great music, such as, but not limited to: The Beer Station, Irish Pub, Rock Garden, and London Calling.
In addition to nightlife, there is always the feria in Bogotá, which is similar to a street fair or bazaar, though some are indoors. These can be found all over the city, and you can locate many special trinkets at a great price. This is the perfect place to buy your souvenirs, as the prices start low, and you can usually haggle it down a bit lower. My favorite things are the masks, but you can find key chains, jewelry, food products, and other gifts here, as well.
The reason that I listed these ferias under ‘entertainment’ is because, many times, you can receive some sort of street entertainment or another as you pass through. For example, there is a fairly large street feria near the Torre Colpatria downtown every Friday evening, and as you pass different people with their wares for sale on rugs, you can catch jugglers, break dancers, and the human statues, all trying to get a bit of the money you had allocated to the event.
Chivas, such as the ones from ChivaRumba, used to be a form of transportation for families that lived in rural areas, such as on farms and plantations. On the weekends, you used to be able to see a chiva arrive in Bogotá with rolled up rugs on the roof, ready to sell the bananas that are hung from every possible place. These tackily-colored buses are usually seen in Bogotá only at nights, where they have been transformed into party buses, tacky colors still intact. You can grab a few tickets, or rent the entire chiva, and the driver will drive you around the city while pumping loud music and serving you rum or aguardiente.
I find Bogotá to be a very entertaining place anyway, so though I have listed only these few, there are many other things to do to keep entertained. Go to the cuentería and hear some comedy or stories, or you can visit the Jardin Botanico, if gardens of beautiful flowers excite you. Personally, as a New Yorker, I appreciate the way drivers in Bogotá drive and find their sense of urgency entertaining, though driving seems to be one of the only activities where Bogotanos display a sense of urgency.
Bogotá Food and Drinks
I am a big foodie, and Bogotá has not let me down when it comes to local and national delicacies. Where do I begin? I guess I should start with what 99% of Colombians deem as Bogotá’s representative dish: Ajiaco. Ajiaco is a greenish-yellow thick soup primarily consisting of three different kinds of potatoes, as well as chunks of chicken and corn, and the spice guasca. It is served usually with heavy cream and slices of avocado, which each individual can dump in according to his or her preference. Though it is a soup, it is so heavy that most consider it to be an entire meal, so please do not order this dish as a side to another dish, at least until you know!
Tamales are another mainstay in the diets of Bogotanos, though they differ in style from the Mexican dish that many Americans are familiar with. They are much larger than their Mexican cousin. Basically, a tamale consists of masa filling (a sort of cornmeal dough), eggs, pork, peas, chicken (still on the bone – be careful!), carrots, and hogao sauce. It is wrapped up in plantain leaves and tied with string, and then wrapped again in aluminum foil and steamed for a few hours. This is a delicious dish, and is usually a full meal; again, do not order this as an appetizer thinking it may be as small as its Mexican counterpart! Tamales are served typically around Christmas and for breakfast, most commonly on Sunday mornings. Eat it with a cup of hot chocolate on the side to feel like a true local.
Speaking of hot chocolate, I need to touch on this for a bit. Though it is a common drink in many countries throughout the world, Colombians drink theirs with breakfast consistently, as an American has a coffee. And that’s not all. It seems that hot chocolate is a base to throw other food into. Hot chocolate, though served with a meal, also has cheese or bread that it is usually served with. No one seems to drink it straight; instead, Bogotanos like to take slices of cheese or pieces of bread, and tear it up into little pieces and allow them to drown into the drink. Then, when the person has finished drinking the hot chocolate, they dig out the prizes at the bottom with a spoon: soggy bread and melted bits of cheese.
Another typical dish is Bandeja Paisa, or Paisa platter. This dish is named for paisas, the term given to inhabitants of some of the northwest departments in Colombia, including cities such as Medellín, Pereira, Manizales and Armenia. Though it is not natively a Bogotano dish, it is still quite popular throughout the entire country. The bandeja paisa is an unbelievable amount of food, and usually is served on a large platter, or two or three dishes, to include everything.
The bandeja paisa has many ingredients, including: white rice, red beans cooked with pork, chicharrón (pork rind), ground meat, patacones (plantain pounded until flat then fried) or fried sweet plantain, a chorizo (sausage), an arepa (I’ll talk about that next), a fried egg, a slice of avocado, hogao sauce, and black pudding, which is blood that is mixed with flour and cooked until thick. Yum! Also, on the side of bandeja paisa, you could be served ground panela, which is the byproduct of the sugar-making process and deliciously sweet, and mazamorra (also known as peto), which is a drink made with maize grains and soaked in water, and then cooked.
An arepa is a Colombian staple like tortillas are in Mexico. An arepa is a flat and round biscuit-like patty that is unleavened and made of cornmeal. There are many styles; some are flat, and some are very thick. I enjoy the thicker ones from the street vendors that are fried with cheese or an egg in the middle. I have eaten arepas many times for breakfast or as a snack later in the day. If you eat it for breakfast, try dipping it in your hot chocolate for a few seconds and then eating it.
Empanadas are a Colombian specialty, and many cafes and restaurants and street vendors serve them. There are many varieties, such as pulled pork and pulled chicken, cheese, and egg. They are either baked with a flaky crust, or fried. Some guys even make up their own version. It seems to be just as popular as arepas, some may say that it is more popular.
Morcilla, or rellena, is another food item that is common in Colombia. It is a type of blood sausage, and usually consists of pork blood that has congealed mixed with rice and spices. This mixture is stuffed into a pig intestine or cow intestine, tied off, then deep fried. It is very rich and delicious when it comes out, despite the disgusting appearance.
Colombians seem to have a sweet tooth, and it is evident in many of the desserts and pastries. Arequipe is a dulce de leche-like spread, and it seems to be filled inside everything, including Dunkin’ Donuts’ donuts. Almojábanas are sweet balls of dough that sometimes have melted cheese inside and are delicious when dipped first in coffee or hot chocolate. Buñuelos are similar treats, though there is cheese mixed into the flour, and it is fried until the shell is golden-brown, and served traditionally during Christmas time.
Coffee is know in Colombia to be of very high quality, and served in very small amounts. A “large” coffee in Bogotá is about the size of a “small” in America. Every variation of coffee beverage there is made with shots of fresh espresso, so the smaller size will have that large effect. If you are looking for the American-style drip or filter coffee, ask for a tinto, which in other Spanish countries would mean “red wine.”
Aguapanela is a traditional Colombian hot beverage made by mixing blocks of panela in hot water and possibly adding some lime juice. Aguardiente is the national alcoholic beverage of Colombia, and each region has their own variation. Aguardiente tastes heavily of anise, and Colombians are very proud of this beverage. Salpicón is popular drink on the streets of Bogotá and many street vendors serve this beverage, consisting of diced fruits mixed in Colombiana soda.Chicha is a fermented beverage made with maize, yuca, quinoa, pineapple, rice, potatoes, etc, depending on where you are. I had some as I was walking up towards Cerro de Monserrate, and it was quite good, though sour. Be careful, as some Colombians add coca and/or marijuana leaves, to further the “good times” you will experience with this alcoholic beverage.
Many fruits are consumed in Bogotá as well. You can find exotic varieties such as guanábana, chirimoya, carambolo, lulo, maracuyá, guanábana, and many more. These fruits are often freshly squeezed and served as a beverage.
As Colombia further modernizes, a slew of restaurant chains have been gaining popularity. Crepes & Waffles seems to be the most famous chain, virtually found in every mall and many streets. As hinted by the name, this restaurant serves variations of crepes and waffles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The atmosphere is classy, and is a great place to go, though not quite cheap, as it is not considered fast food. El Corral is almost as popular as Crepes (which is what most refer to the restaurant to shorten it). El Corral is a hamburger joint with a southwest US feel, but they have several burgers that combine ingredients from specific regions of Colombia. Great burgers, about $10 USD for a combo as of 2010.
Other popular chains include Presto (another burger joint), Kokoriko (more traditional Colombian dishes as fast food), Pan Pa’ Ya (bread and pastry shop), Oma (coffee shop with pastries), and of course, Juan Valdez (the more popular coffee shop with pastries).
I love street food, and almost all of the foods that I have mentioned here can probably be found on a stolen shopping cart-turned-makeshift-oven. You can get great prices on delicious and fresh arepas, empanadas, ajiaco soup and pastries, as well as have a tall glass of salpicón or coffee. Just be careful, as I had one hell of a stomach virus after I ate an arepa from a street vendor during my 10-day Bogotá tour. That was a nightmare that I do not want to remember.
Bogotá Way of Life
People in Bogotá are very friendly and calm. There does not seem to be any trace of stress in the air, even during midday in the downtown financial area. A great divide is evident between the lives of the lower class and the middle and upper classes. For the most part, people of the middle and upper classes are very well educated, and they tend to steer clear of any association with the lower class, other than perhaps grabbing an empanada from a vendor.
Though Colombia still is working to shed the image of being a dangerous and drug-infested country full of civil wars, Bogotá is far ahead of the country as a whole. The city is very safe, and its inhabitants are definitely lovers, not fighters. Though I did not personally experience even the slightest hint of danger while I was there, my friends in Bogotá told me to keep away from any areas where the poorer lower class may reside, especially the mountains along the east of the city. These places, so I’ve heard, may potentially pose a threat to the traveler. This poor, lower class seems to be degraded by the majority of the social stigma that Bogotá produces.
Bogotanos, or Rolos, as they like to be called, love to enjoy a good time. Friday and Saturday nights cause all of the bars and clubs to be packed with yuppies. Though everyone here seems to love to dance, they also seem to equally enjoy a sit-down conversation with good friends and a beer. They also have other kinds of clubs, such as strip clubs where you can actually pay for sex, but I stayed away from those.
Bogotanos are a very ambitious bunch, if I am allowed to generalize, and everyone that I came into contact with was quite the hard worker. Given that I am in my mid-twenties, many of my friends who showed me around went to university full-time, found time to give me a tour of something or have a drink with me, and then went off to work. Not only do they work very hard towards their goals, but the pay that they receive does not seem adequate in relation to the hard work that they do. For example, one girl who I met is at school from 7am until 3pm, and then works from 5pm until 8pm during the week, and another 6 hours on Saturday. Her total pay per month comes out to $400,000 COP, or a little over $200 USD. Per month!
People here in Bogotá seem to all be just the right weight. Everyone looks good here, and obesity is all but nonexistent. One of the city’s efforts to get people moving is the Ciclovía. Every Sunday and major holiday, many of the streets are closed, and from around 7am until 2pm, cyclists, rollerbladers, and pedestrians all get out and walk. At the same time, parks are set up with tents and booths for yoga instructors and fitness gurus, and the whole city becomes one giant fitness center. This Ciclovía seems to be one of the biggest factors for Bogotanos maintaining their figure and relaxed attitude.
Fact is, residents of Bogotá have a great lifestyle. They have all the potential stress factors that come with being one of the world’s largest cities(over 8 million inhabitants), yet they all seem relaxed, fit, and happy, overall. And it’s contagious; spend a little time here and you very likely will begin to let loose yourself.
Getting Around & Taking Transportation
Transportation in Bogotá is a mess. Streets are clogged throughout the day, and there seems to be no order or method to its madness. Taxis rule the road here, and the streets are a virtual sea of yellow, not unlike my New York City. I love the way the taxi drivers here drive, as they seem to be the only ones in Bogotá who display a sense of urgency. Every car seems to be the size of a golf cart, and taxi drivers use their small size as an advantage to squeeze through the tightest of spaces. Taxis are very cheap here, but again, I come from New York. A twenty minute ride will cost you about $10,000 to $15,000 COP, which is like $5 to $8 USD. The same ride for me back home would cost me $35 to $50. And nobody tips the drivers in Bogotá!
The TransMilenio is a huge system of buses that provides rapid transit throughout most of the city proper. The TransMilenio runs above ground on the same highways as ever other car and truck, but they have their own dedicated two lanes that actually make them faster than taxis sometimes. As of late 2010, during my 10-day Bogotá trip, the city is full of construction sites, as they are constantly adding new lanes and lines of service to expand the network. The current fare is $1,600 COP, or about $0.85 USD. Not bad, huh?
Other than the TransMilenio, there are numerous, and I mean a TON, of private bus companies that run around the city. There are large regular buses for longer trips to the outlying towns in the metropolitan area, mid-size busetas which serve longer distances throughout Bogotá, and colectivos, which are these tiny buses the size of a large van that seem to own the streets equally with the taxis. These colectivos were for me a tourist attraction in itself, and no civilized transportation back in the states can prepare you for the jarring ride from hell that you are in for. Colectivos run around small distances, usually confined to a few neighborhoods or along one long highway.
Everything Else on the Bogotá Experience
Weather in Bogotá is a perpetual autumn, staying about the same year-round. Daytime temperatures average 19°C (68°F) and at nights get down to about 10°C (50°F). The city has a subtropical highland climate, which seems about right, as it sits 9000 feet up but is basically on the Equator. Bogotá gets a lot of rain, and many days look pretty dreary because of it. December through March are the driest months, but they, too, seem wet in comparison to most other cities. When it rains here, it pours, and with it comes sleet and light hail at times. The umbrella was more important to my daily strolls while touring than even my camera, just to give you an idea.
The currency in Colombia is the Colombian Peso (COP) and as of late 2010, is about 1850 Pesos to 1 USD. A simple way to figure out the general cost of something off the top of your head is to just divide by 2000. If something costs $100,000 COP, I knock off three decimals and then divide by two. That gives me $50 USD, which I’ll then add with a few bucks to make it more accurate.
Cellular phones are a big business in Colombia. The three major carriers are Movistar, Tigo, and Comcel. These carriers have better rates inside their network (Tigo to Tigo) than they do to other networks (Tigo to Comcel). Thus, many people carry two or three phones, as they carry one for each network. Area codes are distributed to these three carriers, and depending on the area code, some calls will cost more than others. There are also street vendors everywhere who have about 10 cellular phones each, all secured by twine or a cable to their belts. The going rate is 200 pesos per minute, and this allows you to call another network that your SIM card may not get great rates to. The availability of these cellular vendors makes renting a phone in Colombia unnecessary.
I fell in love with this city during my 10-day Bogotá tour, and was somewhat sad to arrive home. Bogotá has an allure to it that is very difficult to explain, especially because it looks bleak and dirty from first glance. However, as you’ll find once you give it a few hours, it is definitely a city that you do not want to pass up. The food, culture, and the people will make you feel at home in no time.