I say Bogota, you say Bo…gota!
Another late night arrival into a notorious Latin American capital city – Bogota. The taxi driver into the city centre practically guaranteed us we’d be subject to an “unpleasant incident” and encouraged us to go to one of the American hotels closer to the airport.
I hate arriving in large cities late at night: they loom and threaten. Street art that is actually very accomplished and poignant instead suggests seediness. At midnight on a week night the people on the streets seem like they must be criminals, homeless, drunk, streetwalkers or a combination of the four. So we pulled up to our hostel in the La Candelaria district of Bogota after a final pothole-filled, narrow, dark conclusion to our taxi ride…and I was on edge. As we stepped out of the taxi three guys from a doorway up the street started to approach. The taxi driver made sure we entered the hostel before scampering off, mumbling again how much he hated this area.
Inside: dilapidated, crumbling and smelling faintly of cat piss. But a warm welcome from a scruffy chap called Herman who led us to our room in the hostel and sold us a beer. We made it quickly to bed and whilst reading before drifting off (quick research into where the hell we’d gotten ourselves) I learned that in 2011 multiple hostels were raided by robbers at night. The article suggested that we ensure we were in a hostel with CCTV and a solid steel gate. Shit…I forgot to take note on the way in. Sleep was slow to come and broken on the 4th of March 2014.
This has happened before (I guess I am a worrier by nature), fortunately daybreak and a cup of tea places everything in a whole new light. You see other guests, hear their stories and realise it cannot be that bad. And in fact it turns out that Bogota is a phenomenal place, so much so I could imagine living there.
So, what to do with 3 days in Bogota?
Once we’d acclimatised to our hostel, rough around the edges but incredibly friendly, it was time to head out into the city. First stop Monseratte.
Monseratte is a large steep hill (527m) overlooking La Candelaria and Bogota in general. It may be climbed in one of three ways: on foot, cable car or funicular railway. On the top is a Church and Sanctuary, lovely gardens, a small tourist market and some restaurants. The view is spectacular and it’s from here that you realise how large Bogota is, it really does stretch as far as the eye can see. Behind Monseratte are more mountains, and in the distance another be-shrined hilltop containing the Virgin of Guadalupe. Both are lit up at night in vivid blue and green colours.
On our first morning, we rose to the challenge: exited the hostel and strode out past the University to the base of the hill, where we immediately took the funicular. Walking is the preferred ascent method of pilgrims but being entirely free of such religious notions we took the easy way.
Once at the top, we explored the area in bright sunshine above the haze and smog of the city below. It’s well kept with beautiful flowered gardens and a series of bronze statues depicting the Passion of Christ leading you up to the Sanctuary proper. But of course it’s the views that blow you away.
Once we’d taken it all in we decided to walk down, gravity seems to work better for you that way. Passing all manner of joggers (I think you’d have to be mad to run up this hill) and panting pilgrims on their way up, it took us a full fifty minutes to get down and definitively consolidated our view that we’d made the right decision on the ascent.
La Candelaria is a colourful and easy place to be. Our hostel was on Carrera 3 just below the University and the area was filled with students during the day. One street up towards Monseratte, Carrera 2 leads into a scenic area full of small shops, restaurants and bars with a very lively, bustling but laid-back feel. In this area a fellow hostel resident discovered an artesan guitar-maker that I obviously had to visit. It took quite an effort to find his workshop which was like a time warp inside. Had we stayed in Bogota longer, he would probably have received a commission from me, you can never have too many guitars.
Most afternoons there was a combination of thunderstorm and torrential rain. Each time we were lucky to be fairly near the hostel to hole up for the evening. We had a very tasty lunch in a natural restaurant as we ducked out of the rain one afternoon. In the cafe it was musical chairs, since the roof leaked and very few spots were entirely dry. Nobody really seemed to mind. A small umbrella might have been a good idea, but we don’t have one (the downside of trying to travel super-light).
Looking up around Carrera 2 and 3 you can spot a series of statues/figures on some of the building. A man fishing for a banana, an actor, a craftsman. They’re not everywhere but it’s fun to find them dotted round. Most people seem oblivious.
Further down the hill moving towards Carrera 7: lots of small shops, houses, restaurants, museums and libraries dotted throughout the orthogonal rabbit warren that is La Candelaria. We challenged ourselves each day to find lunch for less than 6000 Col ($3) each and most days we succeeded to find a local place with the day’s menu at a low price. Frequented by locals you can generally get a good hearty meal, including soup and main course.
Carrera 7 is somewhat of a main avenue, a shopping street that runs into Bolivar Square the central Plaza. This is an impressive square with a very rich history and surrounded by the Cathedral, Palace of Justice, Congress and the seat for Bogota’s Mayor. The Palace of Justice is modern since the original was attacked by M19 in the 1980s and shelled by the Army as M19 occupied the building. Now some former M19 members sit in the Congress just across the square. Further along from the square is the Presidential Palace and, whilst very accessible, the area is also heavily guarded by the Presidential guard.
La Candelaria, a mix of old, new; military, students; church and state; commerce and culture wrapped into narrow pretty-but-grotty streets with a friendly atmosphere. What’s not to like!
The grid system used in Colombia is easy to get the hang of, so you always know how to get back to base camp. Calles and Carreras are perpendicular to each other and numbered. Addresses reference both, starting with the street the location is on and then the distance in meters from the referenced perpendicular street (this tells you how far along, both by giving you the nearest crossing street/junction and the distance from it).
Following a recommendation from multiple sources (Chris & Gayle and our Hostel) we booked a bike tour with Bogota Bike Tours. They take you on a 4-5-hour tour around the centre of the city pointing out the obvious and the more eclectic (the cost is around 35,000Col or $17.50). Our guide was Mike, a savvy American journalist who has lived in Bogota for many years and in South America for more.
- Tasting weird-looking fruits at the largest fruit market in Bogota
- Taking in lots of street art and learning of its providence. Lots of references to the displaced and victims of violence/assassination as well as pieces intended to provoke thought. Bogota has a lot of very cool large murals.
- A brief tour of the red light district. Use your imagination on this one. Not the kind of place you take photos (in fact, we were specifically instructed not to).
- Visit to a small coffee factory.
- Seeing some street rap. Local kids rapping their own material related to the violence they see about them. They have all lost friends, so it is very real.
- Checking out the old cemetery and surrounding district of stone masons and flower sellers.
- A visit to the bullring, where the riot police seem to take their tea breaks. Fortunately (especially for Alison), no bullfighting was going on.
- Some historical assassination spots and the stories behind them
- Visit to a part of town where a well known Catholic church is surrounded by abortion clinics. Bet the church loves that.
Mike is a wealth of knowledge on all these places and the tour flew by. We absorbed a lot more than we would have done just walking and we got much a deeper sense of the flavours of the city. I desperately wanted to take a photo of a riot officer in full body armour eating a small red cherry lollipop….but I didn’t have the cojones.
Check out some Museums
Bogota is awash with museums and most have a very good reputation. There are also free entry days for most (that your hostel can advise you on). We visited two and, while both were good, the Botero museum really stood out for us.
Gold, gold, gold. Lots of it, buckets of the stuff: the history of it, the mining, the smelting, the working and artesanal aspects and many many artefacts from across the ages. Also, I imagine, a very high insurance premium (entrance is a more respectable 3000 Col or $1.50).
We’ve variously heard this museum described as the best in the world and boring as hell. We are probably on the fence, leaning slightly over the boring side. It’s impressive and informative, the exhibits are beautifully laid out and explained; but you cannot avoid the fact there is quite a bit of repetition. How many gold nose rings do you need to see?
That said some pieces are stunning. It deceives as well because gold doesn’t tarnish, so you have to tell yourself that these shiny new looking things are really very very old.
There is one circular room on the way out that you enter and are shut into… in total darkness, to the sounds of Shamanic chanting. Then commences an atmospheric light show to illustrate the artefacts. That was fun.
Beautiful setting in lovely galleries around a courtyard garden, fun artwork from Mr Botero, a bunch of contemporary and very old works from major artists, it’s free and just when you think you’re at the end there’s another free museum related to banking and minting. Apologies, that was a brain dump not a sentence. 🙂
This was a museum we enjoyed a great deal and we spent a very chilled morning wandering from gallery to gallery taking it all in. Alison also managed to set off some alarms by getting a bit too close to one of Mr Botero’s artworks. Watch out for the Mission Impossible laser beams, folks.
Botero is #1 artist in Colombia, born in 1932 and still going as far as I can tell. He has a very recognisable style of painting and sculpture where basically everything and everyone is fat. It appears humorous and playful but we are reliably informed that many also contain political statements. Children tend to look like adults in his paintings, so a picture of a breastfeeding mother is a bit disconcerting. He sculpted some cats, so Alison has given him a seal of approval in addition to his numerous plaudits from around the world: not least a piece installed in Park Avenue, New York.
Amongst the collection you can also find Picasso, Degas, Monet, Chagall, Renoir, Moore and others. My favourite moment was stumbling on a Dali piece in a dimly lit alcove. Most people didn’t even realise it was there.
Worth a visit without a doubt!
In our hostel, Wednesday was suddenly and arbitrarily declared Karaoke night and one of the residents – a hyperactive musician from Bucaramanga – was master of ceremonies. It took a while to kick off due to the complexity of the set-up. When our compÃ¨re seemed puzzled that he couldn’t connect a TV to a computer using an old USB cable I felt obliged to step in and eventually we got up and running.
After a demonstration consisting of four Frank Sinatra classics with mixed language renditions, Alison was first up with a bit of Gwen Stefani which she nailed. Although they made her do it twice because the youtube started buffering halfway through rendition one.
Slowly more people accumulated in the shoddy old lounge (some also fled on various pretexts) and the proceedings got rowdier and rowdier infused with lots of rum. After it was clear that all had turned to Spanish and German we made our excuses and crept away.
Bogota is big. It sprawls over 613 square miles (1587 sq km) and is home to upwards of 8 million people. That would be a square ~25 miles by ~25 miles, or 100 miles to walk around.
Bogota is high, 2,625 metres (8,162 ft) above sea level. High enough for altitude to affect you. It is sited on a high plateau in the Andes and partially surrounded by mountains. So tourists may want to acclimate for a couple of days before undertaking any type of exercise (another reason it was a good idea for us to take the funicular UP Monserrate).
And you thought I was referring to the Cocaine that Colombia is infamous for. We were never offered any, but we were offered Emeralds (the green precious stones) on the street and we did smell a reasonable amount of dope.
Bogota is old, it was founded in the 1500’s by the Spanish conquerors. So there is a mix of new, old, Victorian and other architectures and influences from many European countries. We saw skyscrapers, Spanish terracotta roofed terraces, an ex-German brewery, a Spanish bullring, what looked like Tudor houses and much more.
It had a reputation for crime and in the 1990’s was among the most dangerous cities in the world. Now it has dropped off the top 50, you are more likely to be killed in New Orleans, Detroit or Baltimore. There are police everywhere, especially in tourist or transport areas.
It’s easy to get around, has a clean and friendly bus service and a very modern international airport.
So over three days I managed to move from feeling like a rabbit in headlights to becoming a big fan of Bogota. We certainly wouldn’t hesitate to go back… but for the moment new places beckon.
- These require extreme caution apparently
- Best to call (or have someone call on your behalf) a reputable company
- Don’t pick one up in the street unless at an official taxi rank, as there are many apparently many fakes and some horror stories
- Negotiate/check price up front before you get in (~30,000 Col from airport into Bogota)
- Don’t necessarily take first price, try to ask a local in advance what fare should be
Buses within Bogota – Transmilennio Buses
- They are much cheaper than taxis. A 45min journey cost us <$1 (1400 Col)
- There are lots of clean and modern stops/miniature bus stations dotted around the city
- Pay up front at the kiosk in each station, then pass the turnstyles with the card you just received.
- Make sure to get the correct exit at the station where you get off (particularly in Portal del Norte) or you risk having to pay to go back in and exit correctly. We learned this the hard way. Doh!
- There are very helpful staff in each station, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are confused.
Buses out of Bogota
- Check which of the main terminals services the city you want to get to. The terminals tend to be on the edge of town. This website here can help you figure out which terminal (and bus company) you will want to use.
- The bus terminal is like an airport’s moving walkway: buses come in, move along and exit at the other end.
- Multiple companies may service same place. Ticket touts patrol the length.
- If you haven’t already figured out using the website above which bus company to use, find one and negotiate. Or find two and compare. Purchase the ticket.
- Be sure to figure out (or ask) which is your bus as it comes in: the signs on the front aren’t always clear. Hop on and off you go.