Colombia’s Capital in the Clouds
Nestled cosily in a wide valley high up in the Andes, lies Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city.
It is also Colombia’s highest and largest metropolis, a hectic, vibrant yet truly welcoming city. Due to its sheer size, it has a few very distinct centres for exploring, eating, drinking and going out. Even those with no sense of direction can’t get lost: with the easy Colombian street numbering system and the Andes (to the east) pretty much visible from anywhere even the worst map readers shouldn’t struggle.
Explore Bogotá’s early history in colonial La Candelaría, or if you’re feeling really sophisticated why not head to chic but cheap bars and restaurants in the artistic neighbourhood La Macarena. If designer shops and posh cocktails are more your thing, then the trendy areas of the northern suburbs of Zona Rosa are calling your name.
Despite all these cool places to go, it can all be done on a budget. Cheap street eats, free or half price museums on Sundays, next to nothing public transport and crazy cheap local beer will let you enjoy this incredible city to the max for a minimal price.
Places to Stay in Bogotá
Most backpacker accommodations are centred around the La Candelaría district of town. This surely is the most attractive part of the city with narrow streets and old colonial-era buildings. La Candelaría is in easy reach of the main attractions of Bogotá as well as the transport to take you all around the city.
Cafés and street eats cater to every backpacker’s culinary needs and the place is full of cool bars perfect for a few aguardientes after dark. Another good place to stay is Chapinero, this cool area id full of students but is just a bit further out of town.
Things to Do in Bogotá
Bogotá has some incredible museums which are either reduced price, or free on Sundays. This means big crowds so make sure to get there early or you’ll find yourself spending the day in line. The Gold Museum is considered one of the best in Colombia but others include the Independence Museum, Botero Museum, the National Museum, Police History Museum, Military Museum and countless others.
Explore the City:
Even though it screams concrete in most areas, Bogotá still has an abundance of charm. Chill in one of the city’s many parks: Parque de la Independencia, Parque 93, Simon Bolivar park (where you can rent boats) are all great places to hang out at all times of day, especially weekends.
Turn back the clock and meander through the labyrinth of narrow streets, munching on tasty empanadas and sipping cans of Club Colombia (the local beer) and aguardiente (the local spirit) along the way. Sit and watch the world go by in the city’s main square, Plaza de Simon Bolivar, or go up one of South America’s tallest buildings, Torre Colpatria and get an incredible 360-degree view of the entire city.
Probably the best way to do a proper tour is through one of Bogotá’s famous bike tours that go beyond the standard tourist attractions and are also a really great way to learn about the city and its history.
Cerro de Monserrate:
The imposing Andes that tower over Bogotá to the east are asking to be explored. You’ve got three options to get to the church on the top known as Cerro de Monserrate: 1) By foot: this usually takes around 45 minutes for someone who’s reasonably fit but remember it’s steep and you should only attempt this after acclimatising to the altitude. 2) By funicular 3) By cablecar. If you’re set on not walking try taking the cable car up then the hair-raising funicular ride back down!
Every Sunday heaps of the capital’s streets are closed off to traffic to encourage Bogotanos to take to their bikes and get out into the city. Why not hire a bike yourself? The main place where it all happens is Carrera 7 stretching from Parque de La Independencia in La Macarena down to Plaza Simon Bolivar (the main square).
Street vendors selling anything from old typewriters to knock-off football shirts cram the pavements with an insane amount of stuff, street performers attract large crowds and musicians’ Colombian beats come from all directions. And this happens EVERY Sunday. Why does this not happen in every city?
Most bars are open all nights of the week but things really get pumping from Thursday night onwards. Great places for chilled drinking are the northern suburbs around Zona T and Chapinero among others. La Candelaría is always buzzing with backpackers and students and is by far the cheapest place to go out.
Big club nights happen mainly on Friday and Saturday where you should expect European/North American entry and drinks prices, but the return is sure to be an incredible night. At these places, you will find yourself socializing with Colombia’s youthful elite who have more money than sense but will take a clear interest in you if you’re quite clearly not from Colombia. Recently opened Billares de Londres is one of the very best places in town, and like most places in Bogota will stay open until 6 am.
Getting to Bogotá
By Plane: Starting in 2012, Colombia’s newest budget airline Viva Colombia has unbelievably low fares. My entry to top Bogotá’s club Billares de Londres last night, for example, cost more than my trip to Calí! Flights start from around 39,000 COP ($20/€15/£12). Other airlines have deals too including national carrier Avianca and low-cost Easy-fly to smaller Colombian cities. From abroad the usual carriers fly from North American and European hubs as well as the low-cost US airlines Spirit and JetBlue flights to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
By Bus: Buses are another great way to travel within Colombia. You can get to pretty much every major city in the country from Bogotá’s superb and safe bus terminal. Some of the major companies allow online booking and you to choose your own seat. Two of the more reliable and reputable are Expreso Boliviano and Berlinas del Fonce, but most intercity companies are fairly safe and reliable.
Where to go next?
Zipaquirá: (1½ hours bus journey North)
This small colonial town has one bizarre attraction: an incredible underground salt cathedral built 200 metres underground in the remnants of old salt mines. The journey to the main cathedral is full of chambers with sculpted crosses that depict the story of the life of Jesus. Why not visit the actual salt mines as an added extra to your visit? The town itself is a great place to chill after a visit to the cathedral. Wander round and look at the boutique shops, eat some incredible Colombian meat at one of the reasonably priced parilla restaurants or just sit in one of the old plazas and soak up the atmosphere in this peaceful little town in the hills.
Desierto de la Tatacoa: (6 hours bus journey South West)
Take a bus to Neiva (5 hours) then to Villa Vieja (45 minutes) to see this 330km² desert that is different to pretty much everywhere in Colombia. The cloudless skies at night mean it’s great for stargazing too.
San Gil: (6 hours bus journey North East)
Colombia’s adventure capital. Don’t just assume it’s Peru that is the King of adventure tourism. San Gil has everything you need! Activities on offer include rafting, hiking, swimming, caving, paragliding, mountain biking and paintballing and much, much more. In addition, the incredibly preserved old town of Barichara makes a good walking trip with buses going regularly from San Gil all day.
Villavicencio: (2½ hours bus journey South East)
Fed up with Bogotá’s average weather? Well, just a couple of hours descent down from the Andes brings you to the bustling town of Villavicencio on the Los llanos (the plains). The town hasn’t got that much to offer on paper but a vibrant centre combined with friendly locals and spectacular surrounding scenery makes it a viable option for a steamy day trip from Bogotá.
Advice on staying safe
The security situation in Bogotá has improved dramatically in the last ten years but as with any large city be sensible and don’t flash cameras, wallets and phones about if you can help it in all areas and on public transport. Watch out after dark in backpacker haven La Candelaría where there have been a few instances of opportunistic theft when the police presence disappears.
Hostels are hot on this and have invested in private security guards but still, there is always a risk, like there is anywhere in the city at any time of day. However, you will probably find that the more wealthy northern neighbourhoods are a lot safer at night where most people feel comfortable walking between the glitzy bars and restaurants.
If you’re thinking of going up Cerro Monserrate, why not do it on a Sunday when the cable car is half price and there are plenty of people around if you want to walk up the steep trail. If you go on quieter weekdays try to take minimal cash and valuables as there have been reports of muggings on the walk up the hill and on the short walk up to the cable car/funicular station.
Taxis: when you order a taxi or get it from a taxi rank you’re registered so you’re well protected. This is abetter option than hailing taxis from the streets where you are more vulnerable to theft and other funny business.
South America Backpacker Top Tip: If you have a smartphone download the apps TAAPSI/ EASY TAXI which uses your GPS to call a taxi for you, or if you have no wifi/internet just get the hostel owner/person behind the bar to ring one for you.
Saying all this, these are just precautions that you should take in any large city in Europe, North or South America. Most travellers will have a trouble free stay and remember when your parents try and tell you how dangerous it is: Bogotá has a crime rate lower than Dublin, Rome and Washington DC!
Written by: Harry Van Schaick