What to Do in Bogota, Colombia
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Many flights to destinations in South America pass through Bogota, the capital of Colombia. But, Bogota itself is a destination not to be missed! Make it part of your itinerary if you are planning a trip to South America. Give yourself at least a two-day layover. I decided to linger a few days here on my way to Peru. Now I can’t wait to come back. Most travelers are completely unaware of all this world class city has to offer. So, here’s what to do in Bogota.
Bogota, Colombia is high up in the Andes Mountains. It’s a bit colder than you would expect for a destination so close to the equator. Have a pair of long pants on hand and a sweater or flannel. Even though it’s chilly, beware of the sun. The altitude and latitude combined mean you can burn in under 20 minutes, as I discovered the hard way! You may even consider a face stick for your sunblock, like Sun Bum’s Signature Clear SPF 30 Face Stick.
The city is a beautiful blend of influences including Pre-Columbian, Spanish, French, and English. It is lively and vibrant, with music, art, and food permeating the streets. You will find modern skyscrapers next to colonial villages, and high-end stores offering the latest in fashion next to humble street merchants. This city and country have been quick to move forward from the violence of the past and embrace a prosperous future.
Colombia Travel Precautions
Take note: For the most part I could change the destination on this list to London, England and it would be sound travel advice! I want to encourage you to visit Colombia with a little know-before-you-go. As a whole, Colombia is becoming safer every day. By the time you read this list of precautions, it may already be obsolete. However, it’s always wise to travel safely!
Unfortunately, you still can’t trust the safety of taxis. I used Uber, which is in legal limbo in Bogota. Be willing to meet your driver around the corner or sit in the front seat so they don’t get harassed by the police or upset cabbies. Other than waiting patiently to connect with my Uber driver at the airport, it was safe, convenient, cheap, and easy to get around. As a side note, I’m all about traveling the cheapest way possible. The relatively new bus network called the TransMilenio is safe and can get you anywhere you want to go. I only used Uber to make the most of my limited time.
Use your common sense when sightseeing. Like most tourist destinations, there is the risk of pickpockets and petty theft. Just bring the cash you need and leave your expensive items behind. Avoid walking alone at night and stay in popular areas. Last and most important, cocaine is not funny or safe to ask for in any of Colombia! Colombians are not happy about the misery this drug has caused them for decades. The problem with the drug cartels has only recently begun to subside. Please be sensitive and respectful to the proud Colombians who are genuinely excited to show off their beautiful country to you.
What to Do in Bogota
Thanks to Colombia’s new-found safety, La Candelaria is safe to explore during the day. It is the oldest part of Bogota and was built by the Spanish to be the capital of their growing South American Empire, simply because the climate here is closest to Spain’s, or so I’ve been told. It is the tourist hub of Bogota, featuring colonial buildings and churches, trendy restaurants, bars and shopping. Wind your way through La Candelaria to Plaza Bolivar, the government center of Colombia. You’ll feel like you have been transported to one of the great capitols of Europe – until you notice you are standing next to a llama. The Primada Cathedral dominates the square, along with the city hall, the Colombian houses of congress, and the supreme court.
When considering what to do in Bogota, there are a number of free walking tours available. Be sure to give a generous tip at the end of the tour. I chose to follow my love of counterculture with the graffiti tour. Street art is one of the defining features of Bogota. My trendy tour guide, Anna, was a street artist herself who researched the political language of graffiti in college, so she had some serious street cred.
She took us on a journey through La Candelaria and the surrounding city, pointing out famous artworks along the way. She helped point out the political statements in the art by explaining the various culturally significant images found hidden in the art. It was fun to learn about the technical skills required to quickly create beautiful murals with nothing more than a brush and a spray can. For the rest of my stay, I couldn’t help but admire the graffiti hidden under bridges and plastered across highway walls.
Enjoy the Mountains
The Andes Mountains loom dramatically over Bogota’s city center. A small church perches on the top of the most imposing peak, Cerro de Montserrat. Even in Pre-Columbian times, the locals believe this peak and the adjacent valley to be a spiritual place of miracles and a UFO sighting or two. It is popular with locals and tourists alike for its stunning views of the sprawling city below. Getting there, however, is half the adventure! The locals will all recommend taking the hundreds of steps and enjoying the fantastic views along the way. I don’t recommend it simply because you probably haven’t had time to adjust to the altitude. The trek would exhaust even the fittest traveler.
My favorite was the funicular, an old fashioned train car pulled up the steep mountainside by cables. It mixes a little fear factor with spectacular views as you get pulled straight to the top. It only runs on Sundays so it is worth joining all the locals who didn’t want to walk. There is also a gondola that will zip you to the top any day of the week. As you would expect, it has fantastic views of the mountain and surrounding city.
Besides the breathtaking vista and church, there are coffee shops, restaurants, and even a full market with local dishes and souvenir shops. On Sundays it will be in full swing. For the adventurous foodies out there, check out the more exotic local street food here. Venders sell popular snacks like chunchullo (intestines) and hormigas culonas or “big-ass ants” that have been soaked in brine and then roasted. Think of day old popcorn if you are daring enough to give them a try. The ants were far better, mostly because chunchullo is chewy.
Eat World-Renowned Food
If you can still trust me after the street food, know that Colombia is world famous for its cuisine. There are countless restaurants serving cheap but absolutely amazing dishes from any style or nationality of food you could imagine. One truly memorable and fun dining experience was at Traiteur Tapas Gastronomica Sant Just. Just outside of La Candelaria, they offer a daily menu that belongs in a fancy French restaurant. This was five-star French cuisine for a fraction of the cost!
I stepped in off the street and sat at a little counter in the kitchen. Watching the chef was quite a show, with dishes flying in and out of the oven. Flames shot in the air for every order of duck that passed through the kitchen. I ordered the duck, which was beautifully presented on a bed of ratatouille with a delicate side salad. Delightfully unexpected for a little restaurant tucked away on a nondescript side street.
Since I was surrounded by all this amazing food, I did splurge for my 40th birthday and treated myself to an actual five-star experience at the world-famous Harry Sasson Restaurant Bogota, voted one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. It didn’t disappoint! It was strange that the surrounding financial district and restaurant looked and felt like I was in Hollywood. The service was flawless. I enjoyed baked yucca with blue cheese and a lamb shoulder that actually melted in my mouth. It was accompanied by a Chilean Cabernet that the waiter recommended. The entire experience was one of the best meals of my life! I know it’s not classy to worry about price when enjoying the good life but the low prices in Colombia made this experience an amazing value.
Enjoy the Museums
While we are on the subject of being classy, the city offers several great museums. If you are limited on time, make sure you at least visit the Museo del Oro, which features room after room of intricately crafted Pre-Columbian gold artifacts. The museum features such a dizzying amount of treasure that by the end you forget that the objects are all solid gold. The most famous artifact is the tiny Muisca Boat, an intricate solid gold sculpture that depicts the ritual of throwing gold into Lake Guatavita to appease the gods.
For a free glimpse at a fantastic collection from Colombia’s most famous painter Fernando Botero, head to the Botero Museum in La Candelaria. An impressive display of paintings and sculptures from Botero’s private collection along with other famous artists will give you a taste of Latin America’s fine art influences. Sponsored by the Bank of the Republic and housed in a beautiful colonial mansion, this museum is free to the public.
Take a Short Trip Out of Town
Salt was once as valuable as gold and the Catedral de Sal Zipaquira, or salt cathedral, is just an hour and a half drive outside of town. The cathedral is built in a salt mine that dates to Pre-Columbian times. The huge, cavernous cathedral was created in the 1920s. It is a truly impressive structure of interconnected caverns. Elaborate hand-carved sculptures, statues, and columns chiseled from the huge underground salt deposit fill these caverns. Huge chandeliers made of salt crystals provide light for some parts of the cathedral. Colombians love to tell tourists that there is still enough salt in the mine to supply the world for 100 years, and after seeing it I might believe them.
Bogota left a lasting impression on me. It had the ability to take me back in time one minute and make me think I was back home in California the next. I enjoyed the city’s counterculture and its world-renowned food. So many parts of this city made it such a special, unique, and diverse place, and I know I only scratched the surface! I can guarantee a return to Bogota and the rest of Colombia are in my immediate future.