Bogotá: A Diamond in the Rough

If it hasn’t been obvious from my previous blog posts, Colombia has a certain je ne sais quoi (yo no sé que???) to it that completely captures you. Some kind of way the Colombian people, their way of life & manner of being, & their storied history makes Colombia itself something palpable. I remember crossing the Colombian border by bus from Ecuador after months away & how that unexplainable Colombian magic took hold of me in that moment - I could feel it in my veins. You’ll probably have to experience it to believe it…

 Central Bogotá (the edge of la Candelaria).

Central Bogotá (the edge of la Candelaria).

... Which brings me to my experiences in Colombia’s bustling capital city of approximately 8 million inhabitants - Bogotá. My first time in the city, I stayed in the colorful historic district known as la Candelaria - in recent years, the area has been renovated & it is now brimming with quaint, inexpensive hostels & delicious restaurants. Located in a charming colonial-style building with a B&B feel, the hostel I stayed at in la Candelaria, Alegria’s Hostel, was nothing short of a dream. With community breakfast & common spaces for enjoying, Alegria’s made it easy to connect with your fellow traveler - a godsend on an extended trip that included a lot of solo travel.

 A street in la Candelaria.

A street in la Candelaria.

 My friend Monika & another traveler - Alegría's hostel.

My friend Monika & another traveler - Alegría's hostel.

 Alegria's hostel.

Alegria's hostel.

I recommend taking the time to explore la Candelaria by foot (definitely with a cup of Juan Valdez coffee in hand); the neighborhood has a different vibe than the rest of Bogotá (& you’ll want to soak it up & get some great pictures). One important piece of advice - there are neighborhoods on the far edge of la Candelaria that you shouldn’t venture into as a tourist for safety reasons (I made this mistake & wouldn’t do it twice); be sure to ask someone who works at your hostel where you should & shouldn’t go. It’s also important not to be flashy in Bogotá - in other words, pay attention when using expensive items like phones & cameras. If you want to travel long distances within the city, use the Tappsi or Easy Taxi app to get a safe, registered taxi ride. The TransMilenio bus system is also an incredibly easy & fast way to cover large distances in Bogotá - you can buy a ticket at any TransMilenio station. I wish I had started using the TransMilenio as soon as I arrived... but you live & you learn!

 Exploring la Candelaria, Juan Valdez coffee in hand!

Exploring la Candelaria, Juan Valdez coffee in hand!

 The Cathedral of Bogotá at the Plaza de Bolivar, within walking distance of la Candelaria. (The same plaza that houses the Palace of Justice stormed by the M-19 rebel group in 1985.)

The Cathedral of Bogotá at the Plaza de Bolivar, within walking distance of la Candelaria. (The same plaza that houses the Palace of Justice stormed by the M-19 rebel group in 1985.)

Within & near la Candelaria, you can visit the Botero Museum & the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) which are both things visitors to Bogotá rave about. The Museo de Oro is particularly impressive & features an extensive collection of pre-Columbian treasures, including the largest collection of gold in the world.

 Botero Museum, Bogotá.

Botero Museum, Bogotá.

 Monika & a Botero work of art.

Monika & a Botero work of art.

And without a doubt, you must do the Bogotá Graffiti Tour (http://bogotagraffiti.com/). In recent years, artists have completely transformed the city of Bogotá (especially la Candelaria) with displays of graffiti that are not only beautiful, they most often reflect a political opinion that gives great insight into the Colombian mentality, political climate & history. Tolerance & the abundance of graffiti artwork in the capital city is the result of a tragic 2011 incident in which a young artist was killed by police while tagging & the subsequent public outcry. No stay in la Candelaria would be complete without doing the tour, which is truly eye opening.

 One of the oldest buildings (now a pub) in Bogotá, complete with a recent graffiti mural.

One of the oldest buildings (now a pub) in Bogotá, complete with a recent graffiti mural.

 Enjoying the graffiti tour.

Enjoying the graffiti tour.

 Unreal graffiti in the Colombian capital.

Unreal graffiti in the Colombian capital.

Near downtown (& where the graffiti tour starts), you can also take the cable car up to Bogotá’s famed viewpoint, Monserrate. I promise you can’t imagine the scale of Bogotá until you’ve done this - it’s unbelievable!

 My friend Natalia & our amused llama friend at the entrance to Monserrate.

My friend Natalia & our amused llama friend at the entrance to Monserrate.

 Monika & I at Monserrate.

Monika & I at Monserrate.

On a second visit to Bogotá, I stayed near Zona T - a more modern area of the city replete with tons of shopping & nightlife. On this visit, I stayed at Urbana Hostel - also a hostel I highly recommend & whose owner, Nati, became a friend. The location of Urbana is perfect for going out & accessing a whole new area of Bogotá (& very close to a convenient TransMilenio station). Parque 93, a popular park with many restaurants & fun pop-up events, was within walking distance as was La Villa, a club that hosts Gringo Tuesday (which is exactly what you think it is).

 A weekday pop-up market at Parque 93.

A weekday pop-up market at Parque 93.

And, of course, you won’t get out of Bogotá without being told you have to spend a night at Andrés Carne de Res - and you have to! I would describe the vibe of the Andrés restaurants as city-of-Austin “weird,” taken to an extreme - every nook & cranny of these monstrous eateries is covered in colorful trinkets & Colombian flair & servers entertain you while decked out in the most elaborate of outfits (think high-class, over-the-top Día de los Muertos). At these establishments, the drink flows & the food never stops arriving but you will be dancing.. and eating.. and dancing.. and eating the whole night.  If you don’t want to venture to the most famous of the Andrés restaurants in Chía (on the outskirts of Bogotá), there’s also one just across the street from Urbana - I can’t recommend it enough! The night I spent at Andrés was the most fun of all my time in Bogotá. Although not in Zona T, BAUM & Theatron are two other clubs that offer experiences unique to Bogotá & both are worth checking out for a good night on the town.

 Andrés Carne de Res, a true Colombian experience, with friends.

Andrés Carne de Res, a true Colombian experience, with friends.

Further north than Zona T, you’ll find Parque Usaquén - another charming Bogotá park that features a Sunday market, live performances & many restaurants with trendy atmospheres. It’s easy to spend several hours chatting with vendors & enjoying the entertainment & establishments near Usaquén. Ciclovía is also a Sunday event that takes place in Bogotá; for this, a major thoroughfare is shut down from the morning to the early afternoon to allow people to get in a nice long bike ride or to enjoy cycling with the family. Ciclovía is a great way to get familiar with Bogotá.

 

A day trip by taxi outside of Bogotá could easily include a visit to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, an impressive underground salt mine that has been transformed into a massive cathedral, & the Laguna de Guatavita. The village of Zipaquirá (near the salt cathedral) boasts a typical Colombian town square (lined with white two-story buildings with beautiful, colorful balconies & terracotta tile roofs) that seemed to be the center of all happenings when my friends & I visited. And the Laguna de Guatavita, the alleged birthplace of the legend of El Dorado, is apparently a breathtaking natural wonder; I wish I could confirm - somehow, we showed up to the park during a drought when no visitors were allowed to hike to the laguna. Make sure to double check the park is open before you make the trip! :/

 Underground Salt Cathedral Zipaquirá.

Underground Salt Cathedral Zipaquirá.

Bogotá completely took me by surprise, especially considering the international reputation of the city. Even though I have family that has spent a good amount of time in the city, I didn't expect it to be so colorful & trendy nor that it would have so much to offer. After about six weeks there, it was a place that was hard for me to leave. On top of that, Bogotá is an incredible place to learn Spanish - the dialect in Bogotá is much more understandable for foreigners than in Medellín, for example. It's a destination that is worth a visit & I'm certain will surprise you as well.