With only 12 days and much to see across Colombia, it was a toss up between flying into the newly transformed Medellin or the capital city. I took the recommendation of my friend Nadia and decided on Bogotá. The best city views are atop Cerro de Monserrate.
Beloved as a religious site, locals make the arduous climb to attend mass, dine at the many restaurants or watch the sunset. I took the funicular up, which had full cars even at 7:30 am on a Saturday morning. I can’t imagine the line on Sundays when tickets cost less!
I really enjoyed the free walking tour by Beyond Colombia—offered daily! We met outside of the Museo del Oro at Parque Santander. This plaza, like every other major square in Colombia, is surrounded by a business center and church.
Museo del Oro boasts over 30,000 pre-Colombian pieces. The pieces were stunningly intricate and reveal much about the culture and traditions of the indigenous tribes. For example, “When the chieftain covered himself in gold, he appropriated the seminal, creative powers of the sun. He embodied on earth the powers of this deity from the upper world.”
Gold used to be so plentiful that Spanish colonists believed in the legend of El Dorado, a hidden city of gold. This city was never found…because it doesn’t exist. However, treasure hunters are still searching the ocean floors to find sunken ships said to be carrying loads of gold.
Edificio Avianca, also facing Parque Santander, was the first skyscraper in Bogotá. On the ground floor and 23rd floor, you can tour Museo de Las Esmeradas for a fee or shop official emerald markets. Jewelers are willing to negotiate on price and can turn around custom designs in 24 hours. I also saw a number of emerald shops on Carrera 6. Although I tried on an emerald, diamond and white gold ring valued at $20,000 USD, I didn’t leave with any souvenirs (HA!). But if you do, know the Colombian government refunds VAT. (Also know the refund process at the airport is incredibly time consuming and that refunds take three months to process.)
I highly recommend a stroll through the free museum, Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica. It used to be home to a Spanish viceroy and now holds a few pieces by the great impressionists plus an extensive collection of Colombian artist Fernando Botero. His signature style is based on smoothly connected spheres, and Botero often painted naked women who were prostitutes. Botero donated most of his artwork to his hometown of Medellín.
Before my trip, I binged on the Netflix series Narcos. It was surreal to visit Plaza de Bolívar where the tragic and infamous “Palace of Justice siege” took place. SPOILER ALERT! Unlike how this scene was portrayed in Season 1 Episode 4 where the M19 guerrillas drove tanks into the Palace of Justice, in reality the M19 dressed as diplomats and kitchen staff to enter the Palace of Justice and it was the military’s violent reaction to their intrusion that killed civilians and ultimately finished off the guerrillas. Today, Palacio de Justicia has a new and completely different facade from the one during the siege.
I loved wandering the hilly cobblestone streets lined with two-toned colonial houses in La Candelaria. This area is the biggest historical center (by square meters) in all of South America. The government chips in $13MM USD annually to pay local artists to paint street art and also fund the six coats of paint each year that keep homes in this area looking pristine. The street art community in Bogotá is very accepting of visiting and foreign artists and invite them to adorn the walls with new works. Advertising from local businesses—in the form of street art, of course—is welcome too.
A great place to see street art is Calle Jon del Embudo, also called “funnel street.”
At the end of Calle Jon del Embudo is Plaza Chorro de Quevedo where Bogotá is said to be founded. A gate with 12 openings represents the 12 apostles.
While in this area, don’t forget to look up! You’ll see statues fashioned after the people of La Candelaria, such as a juggler, shoeshiner and a girl fishing.
The colonial charm of La Candelaria makes it popular among tourists—but also among those targeting tourists. Avoid going out late at night unless you want to encounter pickpocketers, thieves, drunkards and people who are homeless. Worse, the narrow streets trap smog and vehicle exhaust; that plus the city’s elevation make it hard to breathe easily. I spent one night in La Candelaria to see the sights and then headed up north near Zona T. There, I had an unexpected and wonderful reunion with my friend Jenny at Bogota Beer Company. We then nibbled our way through the neighborhood before having dinner at the local food truck park.
Especially compared with other parts of Colombia, the variety and quality of food in Bogotá is excellent with options for every budget. In Zona T, Andres DC is a hotspot. In La Candelaria, I loved the Parrillada Babilonia platter at Nativa Arte Natural and healthy and fresh menu of the day at De Una Travel Bar. For local flavor, visit one of the Chicha bars on Calle Jon del Embudo. Chicha is a fermented corn drink that only became legal after beer production started to rise; and it’s still illegal to mass produce it. Also try coco tea and my favorite snack, plantain chips.
If I were to live in Bogotá, my neighborhood of choice would be Chapinero, which is locally referred to as “Chapi.” Ideally, I’d move straight into the Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina Bogotá!
A couple of blocks away, Impact Hub Bogota has a small but charming farmers market on Sunday mornings.
If you visit Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Lourdes, one of Chapinero’s main attractions, buy some cookies (specifically the raspberry-filled shortbread cookies dipped in dark chocolate) at San Fermin Pasteleria, just to the left when exiting the church.
On Sundays, several main roads are closed for Ciclovia, allowing bikers, rollerbladers, joggers and walkers to safely and freely circumvent the city.
Two popular day trips from Bogotá are Catedral del Sal and Guatavita, a lake where locals used to perform ceremonial rituals to return gold to the earth after they fashioned it into intricate symbolic art. Learning of this ritual, the Spanish colonists dried the lake to retrieve the gold. Beyond day trips, Colombia appears to have pretty awesome festivals!
As I leave Bogotá, it seems most appropriate to quote Gabriel García Márquez, Colombian author who is best known for Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude):
No llores porque ya se terminó; Sonríe, porque sucedió.
Don’t cry because it came to an end, smile because it happened.