Tag Archives: Bogotá

how to spend three days in Bogotá

In a previous post I wrote about my week in Bogotá and the impression it made on me. If you are planning your visit and looking for tips and ideas, here you go (with a few repeats from the previous post):

Start Here

If you are planning a trip to Colombia (or South America) and wondering where to start, start in Bogotá. Logistically, it might not make sense as it is in the middle of the country. But domestic flights are cheap and I think it was good to experience Bogotá before moving onto better weather, better infrastructure, and more welcoming people. It would have been hard to visit Bogotá after Medellin.

I chose Bogotá because it was the cheapest destination in South America to buy a one way ticket from Toronto. Note: if you do a similar search and discover that Panama City is slightly cheaper and not too far away, take the time to research how to get from there to Colombia – it is not as simple as the map would have you think.

Come Prepared

Bogotá is colder than you think it will be. I was comfortable in long sleeves, long but light pants, a rain shell, socks and shoes.

The elevation is 8,675 feet (2,644m), and there is low humidity which makes for crisp air and chilly nights. Don’t underestimate the weather like I did: bring a sweater and a scarf. You’ll also need them for bus rides throughout the country, which are famously frigid. If you are used to a warm climate, add another layer.

I am carrying a 40L pack, which is quite small. In hindsight, I would have used my 70L pack and just not filled it, so I could carry a few bulky/warm items.

Arrive Efficiently

You will need Colombian Pesos as soon as you arrive. Do not use the money exchange desks in the airport, you will get a terrible rate and they charge a commission plus other fees. It is usually best to take money out of an ATM (“Cajero”); there are a few in the baggage claim area and more outside.

I use Revolut to save on fees and get a better exchange rate, I won’t go into details here but recommend you look it up – by the time I click “Publish” on this post there will be even more similar cards but I like Revolut and friends give good reviews as well. If you don’t use Revolut (or similar), take out as much as you are comfortable carrying around, as your bank will charge you a fee for each withdrawal (up to CAD $7 at some banks in the city).

Get Around

I recommend a taxi to your hostel, don’t try to navigate the bus system to save a few pesos, right now it is COP 25,000 which is less than USD $9 or CAD $12. Some hostels have shuttle services, which might be a good option if you’re traveling in a group.

You will be swarmed by men offering you rides as soon as you walk through the doors – ignore them and go to the line for authorized taxis. A man with an official vest may approach you and say it is COP 68,000 to La Candelaria. Tell him you want a taxi and he will look disappointed but will point you to the right line. If my hostel hadn’t told me to pay 25,000, I would have thought CAD $30 seemed reasonable because I had not yet adjusted.

I had written down the address of my hostel and the amount I wanted to pay. Our conversation went like this:

Me (in overly exaggerated accent): ¿Como Estas?
Driver: [I have no idea what he said]
Me: *points to address* Por favor…
Driver: [I still have no idea what he said, and he was not smiling]
Me: *points to 25,000* ¿Bien?
Driver: [Still no idea, still no smile]
Me: Yo quiero… voy…
Driver: [More things I don’t understand]
Me: *points to 25,000* Por favor
Driver: *rolls eyes, nods, starts driving*

When we arrived at the hostel he gave me 15,000 change from a 50,000 note. I said “no” and once again pointed at the number. He begrudgingly handed me another 10,000. I am terrible at mental math, so I always try to figure out how much change to expect before handing over any cash (“effectivo”).

Uber works in Bogotá, but the wifi in the airport is unreliable. Note that the app has an option to pay by cash and it might default there – I took one ride where at the end I needed to fork over money unexpectedly. I told my friend who lives in Bogotá that I used UberX, and he urged me to never do that again.

Your best bet is to have the hostel call a taxi for you – they usually arrive within ten minutes and are from reliable companies.

Stay a While

I recommend two or three days, five was too many for me. If you happen to be in town on a Friday night, visit Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo – it was my favourite part of my visit.

If you asked me to plan an itinerary for you, I would recommend:

Day 1

Arrive in the afternoon if possible, or late enough that you have already eaten. On my first night, I had to venture out in search of food. It was dark, I was disoriented and tired. I went with some Russian Crepes which, but for the excessive use of dill, were actually pretty good; but I would rather have been able to shop around.

Use your first day to orient yourself and settle into your hostel. Find a meal nearby and get a good night’s rest. DRINK WATER and go easy on alcohol. Most people aren’t used to such a high elevation and altitude sickness will ruin your day.

Day 2
Bogotá Street ArtStart with the 10:30am Graffiti Tour. It gives you an excellent orientation to the neighbourhood and you start to learn about the impact of the political conflict and drug trade. You will never look at street art in any city the same way again. Or drugs, for that matter.

The guide will point out some nice places for lunch, and you will likely see some things you would like to go back to. The tour ends around Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo which has several affordable options. The Graffiiti Tour is a “free” tour which means he works for tips. Most people pay around COP 20,000 – 30,000. Check out my photos of the graffiti tour.

Manuel was kind enough to explain his position to me, in Spanish. I have no idea what he said but he needed to be heard so I sat and “listened” until he started trying to hold my hand.

In the afternoon, visit the Botero Museum and Bolívar Square. I am not a “museum person” but I quite enjoyed the Botero museum (you will know him from his paintings and sculptures of voluptuous subjects including the Mona Lisa) – maybe because it was free and I was alone and I didn’t feel pressure to take my time appearing to interpret the art. In Medellin you will learn more about Botero and see his sculptures everywhere, you might as well start building your relationship now.

In Bolívar Square, I found a spot to sit and people watch during a labour related demonstration. I imagine that on most days it is quite peaceful, unless you hate pigeons. It looks like any square you would find in Europe, complete with vendors selling junk and people begging for money. On second thought, maybe just walk by Bolívar Square. It is close to the Botero Museum and you might as well.

Go up to Montserratte at sunset and watch the lights come on. Go with a group, pack an extra jacket and a scarf and maybe another extra jacket. It is over 10,000 feet and is bitterly cold. Try not to google “Montseratte at sunset” because you will find a lot of warnings about people being mugged in the area at night (mostly a few years old). While I was there two weeks ago, a girl at my hostel got mugged in broad daylight in the area. Go with a group if you can, I guess. The Graffiti Tour went right by the cable car entrance so I felt a little more oriented when I returned that night.

Word is, one can walk up to the top. The path was closed while I was there and that is the only reason I didn’t climb the 1800 feet to the peak </sarcasm>. We took the Funicular (train) up and the Teleférico (cable car) down for COP 18,000.

Montseratte at Sunset

Day 3

Museo del Oro is only COP 3,000 and is worth a visit. I had written it off, picturing something resembling a cross between a jewelry store and and an antiques market. The exhibits themselves are interesting, but the narrative found on the plaques is quite fascinating. I think they also offer tours in English.

img_2435The artifacts tell the story of a culture that celebrated women and respected harmony. I wonder how much of this is true, and I wonder what museums will say about our society in 3,000 years. The third floor (Cosmology and Symbolism) is the best, don’t wear yourself out before making it up there.

On the second floor, when you are invited into what looks like a theatre, go in. I almost skipped it because I thought it was a screening room, but it is actually an immersive shamanic experience. That makes it sound way more amazing than it is, but I can’t think of another way to describe it. Just take my word for it.

Have lunch (my favourite restaurant in Bogotá was Quinua y Amaranto, a hearty vegan fixed lunch for only 16,000) and take the Bogota Bike Tour. I didn’t do it because it was rainy the day I would have, but heard wonderful things about it. You go to some markets, taste exotic fruits, and again learn a lot about the city and the culture. If I had another day in Bogotá, this is how I would spend it based on a number of glowing reviews from others in my hostel.

¡Appender un poco de Español! (Learn some Spanish)

You will not enjoy your time in Colombia without at least a few key phrases. Very few people speak English, likely because there are very few tourists there. I think people are still afraid to visit, and La Candelaria is certainly not a good place to vacation as a family. That is part of the appeal, and part of the challenge.

Do not count on being able to use Google Translate on your phone. There are some (many) situations where the last thing you want to do is to pull out your smart phone. I do recommend you download the Spanish dictionary for offline use, it is free and has been a life saver during more difficult parts of my trip so far.

Learn some basics, carry a sheet of paper if you need to. Colombians are wonderfully patient and will gladly help you. They will appreciate you trying. In an Arabic restaurant one of my friends resorted to making animal noises to try asking about ingredients, and the waiter responded with charades. “Cordero” is lamb, by the way. An older couple nearby was laughing, I suspect they were bilingual but enjoying the scene too much to intervene.

I had originally planned to go from Bogotá to Caño Cristales, but diverted to Medellin for a week of Spanish classes because I realized I could not get by without. You can take Spanish in Bogotá, but I was ready to leave.

Eat

The cuisine in Colombia is a lot like the cuisine of a truck stop in the Midwestern United States. It is cheap, fried, and there are better places to eat. I recommend the following based on personal experience; I have also heard of good sushi to be had in other neighbourhoods but didn’t try it. The following are great tasting, healthy, hearty, affordable meals (under COP 20,000 / CAD $9 / USD $7):

  • Quinua y AmarantoQuinua y Amarante I wandered into this restaurant near the Museo Botero and was thrilled when the waitress started bringing me amazing vegan food before I could figure out how to ask for a menu. I had a three course (soup, tofu + salad + noodles + potatoes, apple sauce) mean with juice for only 16,000.
  • OPA! Gyros Restaurant – even the half portion gyro is filling. I ate here twice, ordered the vegetarian gyro once and lamb once, both were great. If you want a drink, buy it next door at the supermarket for half the price.
  • Sahara Pastelaria – another option if you are looking for something healthy. The plates are massive, I ordered an appetizer and could not finish it. The staff is also lovely, they worked hard to communicate with us through charades and farm animal noises to interpret the menu. It is kind of difficult to find. It sits across from a parking lot and between a lot of business that are closed at night, and the restaurant itself is not well lit.

If you are looking for a calm place to have a drink, you might be looking for a while. There are endless tiny bars playing dance music at migraine inducing volumes. But Céfiro Tejido offers refuge in the form of a cozy little room at the back of a clothing boutique. There are two levels: a nook with bean bag seats and a comfy couch, and a loft with more seating that is conducive to conversations or reading. There is a bar selling beer and coffee drinks for around 4,000.

I usually try to sample local cuisine in any new city. In Bogotá, I had empanadas (by the time I left Colombia I was happy to never see another empanada in my life) and tried the fried ants. Unfortunately I missed out on Chicha (a fermented maize drink) and Coca Tea because I was trying to drink as much water as possible. I had some coffee, which was terrible. Throughout Colombia, you find awful coffee as they export the good beans they are known for.

Sleep

I chose La Candelaria (the Old City), and you should too. If you are backpacking, this is the place to stay. When I was researching neighbourhoods I narrowed it down to Chapinero and La Candelaria, and I am glad I chose the latter. Chapinero is posh and a nice place to go out, walk around, shop, and eat. Walking around in Chapinero, you wouldn’t necessarily know which city you are in. If I haven’t gotten my point across: there is a T.G.I. Friday’s there.

Browse the online forums and you will find arguments for and against every neighbourhood. People swear each one is more dangerous than the other – I felt safer in Chapinero. The streets are wide and well lit, people tend to walk with purpose rather than hang around in groups, residential neighbourhoods are quiet with houses set back from the street, and the shops and restaurants are just nicer (and more expensive). I went to a very nice dinner at Alimentación General with a friend who lives in Bogotá. It is way outside any backpacker’s budget but it was a nice occasion (and his treat). If you are looking for a nice dinner, that street is a good place to start. If I were coming back with a partner or for work, or with more money to spend, I would stay in Chapinero.

I am happy to recommend Hostal Sue Candelaria (I booked a 4 bed mixed dorm for 36,000 on hostelword.com. If you book in person, it is 32,000). The breakfast is great, the staff is lovely, and the atmosphere is friendly. The beds are too firm, but the showers are always hot. The wifi is unreliable, but the location is perfect and the common areas are nice. It is not a “party hostel” (most nights). On the night it did become a party hostel, I joined a group in the courtyard to bitch about the people inside partying. I got some terrible spider bites while I slept (they were not bed bugs, trust me) and so did other guests. I am not sure if this was related to the hostel or the city, but I decided not to move hostels on the chance that it was the latter. If you can, get a room in the courtyard as it is much quieter than those adjacent the ping pong table and bar.

There is a Party Bus that leaves from the hostel on weekends, it is 90,000 and takes you to a huge restaurant/bar complex an hour away. The hostel staff recommended Saturday over Friday, even though it goes both nights. I obviously didn’t go (because I hate crowded places and loud noises and long drives) but some cool people did. I heard good things, even from someone nearly as skeptical about it as me.

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Bogotá: impressions and observations

I arrived in Bogotá around dusk on a Monday. From the window of the plane, you can’t see where the city stops, and you can’t miss where the mountains begin. It is easy to see why they call it “La Atenas Suramericana” (the South American Athens). There are about eight million people in Bogotá, accounted for. A tour guide told me there are likely at least two million more who are homeless and not included in the population – literally and figuratively.

Bogotá is the capital and largest city in Colombia, for many travellers it will be the first stop as it has the largest international airport. If you are planning a trip to Colombia (or that includes Colombia) and wondering where to start, start in Bogotá. Logistically, it might not make sense at first, as it is in the middle of the country. But domestic flights are cheap and I think it was good to experience Bogotá before moving onto better weather, better infrastructure, and more welcoming people. It would have been hard to visit Bogotá after Medellin. I have outlined my recommendations for how to spend three days in Bogotá in another post.

Bogotá is cold and gloomy, which happens to be my favourite kind of weather but is not for most (I arrived on August 29 as the Southern hemisphere moves into Spring). It was a welcome respite from Toronto’s sweltering summer but I wasn’t prepared. I was comfortable in long sleeves, long but light pants, a rain shell, socks and shoes; but I bought a sweater because a girl in my hostel had one and she looked cozy. The elevation is 8,675 feet (2,644m) and there is little humidity which makes for crisp air and chilly nights. It also makes for being embarrassingly winded half way up a flight of stairs. Don’t underestimate the weather like I did: bring a sweater and a scarf. You’ll also need them for bus rides, which are famously frigid.

La CandelariaI spent most of my week in Bogotá in La Candelaria, the Old City. If you are backpacking, this is the place to stay. When I was researching neighbourhoods I narrowed it down to Chapinero and La Candelaria, and I am glad I chose the latter. Chapinero is posh and a nice place to go out, walk around, shop, and eat. Walking around in Chapinero, you wouldn’t necessarily know which city you are in. If I haven’t gotten my point across: there is a T.G.I. Friday’s there.

p1010067La Candelaria is what I pictured before coming to Bogotá, and I use the following descriptors with utmost affection: chaotic, loud, lacking infrastructure, poor, and slightly dangerous. After a week there, I validated those assumptions and narrowed my opinion to that small area of the city. There are gaping holes in the “sidewalks”, which is a generous term for the narrow paths on the edges of the narrow streets where motorcycles weave between vendors pushing carts full of fruit, shoe laces (yes, shoe laces), and other wares. Occasionally, a yellow taxi beeps his way through without regard for pedestrians. If it seems sensible to find a wider street, be prepared to inhale clouds of black smoke spewing from the Busetas barreling past.

In La Candelaria, you will be on edge. Period. Everyone there seems to be watching everyone else. They stand on guard, vigilant, aware of their surroundings; no one seems to be caught up in their own experience, and that kind of energy is contagious. They have a saying in Colombia, “No dar papaya”. It means, don’t make it easy for people to take advantage of you. Perhaps that is part of the collective unease – knowing that you are seen responsible when bad things happen. I can think of another context in which that way of thinking does immeasurable damage to victims and the societies they live in.

On Friday, a delegation from my hostel went out in search of live music near Carrera 2. No one called it that; we all seemed to understand when someone referred to “The Hippie Street”. It is the oldest street in Bogotá and lined with shops selling Chicha, Coca Tea, and marijuana related clothing and paraphernalia. At the top of the Hippie Street is Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo square.

On Friday evening, the Plaza was packed with young people both young and old. It was like a music festival, but instead of groups sprawled out, lounging in the grass, people sat shoulder to shoulder on the cobblestones. Almost everyone fit one of two profiles: gelled-hair/puffy-jackets/tight-jeans/at-least-one-Chanel-accessory, or dreadlocks/ponchos/stretched earlobes/body-odour. It was as if the cast of Jersey Shore visited Portland. The latter played drums and the former took selfies. Everyone passed bottles of miscellaneous liquor around their respective circles.

You can’t walk (or sit in a square) for five minutes without being offered cocaine. Sometimes subtly with a sniffing noise and a whisper, sometimes like a hot dog vendor at a baseball park. Although, it does not seem that many locals are using it. Learning more about the impact the drug trade has had on Colombians, I am not surprised.

One afternoon, I sat in El Parque de los Periodistas with some girls eating lunch and one of the ubiquitous security guards with dogs came and stood near us. When the guard broke his stern facade to oblige the dog when he put his paw up for a handshake, we giggled and cooed. We enjoyed our gyros (Colombian food is…well…we were eating Greek) and commented on how nice it was to have the guard close by. In less than an hour, we were offered drugs by three different men. We could not believe the dealers had the nerve to do it right in front of the officer. After the third time, the officer and his dog left us and we realized he wasn’t looking out for us, he was watching us. We were being set up, we later heard this is common. Long story short: don’t buy drugs, for many reasons.

If it sounds like I don’t like Bogotá, it is because there are a lot of things to dislike about it. But I had a good time there and it was a great place to kick off my trip. I made some friends whom I met up with in Medellin and our paths will probably cross again. I recommend you go and see it for yourself, I am glad I did.

Bogotá so far, in numbers

Three days ago I wrote that I am cold, old, vulnerable, and unsure what to do. Only one of those things can not be easily changed, and I’m well on my way to addressing the others. Yesterday I bought a flight to Medellin and enrolled in a Spanish language school. I have heard that Medellin is a wonderful city, slightly warmer than Bogotá, safe and clean. Most people say I am at risk of getting stuck there, as it is hard to leave. I fly on Saturday afternoon and start school on Monday. I have enrolled for one week and will decide how long to stay. I will be less vulnerable, less cold, and I will know what I am doing with my time. I am still feeling old, but from what I can tell that won’t change.

Here is an update of my trip so far, in numbers:

1 – Number of entries in my journal

Normally, I spent a great deal of time reading and writing when I travel. This time, I have barely started my book and written only once in my journal (on the plane). Most of my trips are an opportunity to take a short break from “real life”, take in a new city (mostly by eating), and enjoy solitude. All but one of my trips last year was at the beginning or end of a long work week, so I needed the break from people.

This trip, however, is my real life. My real life is now being unemployed and my goal is to meet other people and figure out my identity outside my career.

4 – Days in Bogotá

P1010059I have been in Bogotá for four days now, and am starting to settle in – not to the city itself but to traveling. It always takes a few days, I think, to adjust to life without a schedule or obligations. I don’t need to set an alarm, I have no dog to walk, and no one expects anything from me.

The longest vacation I have ever taken was two weeks in India a few years ago. There, it took me a week to settle into vacation mode and a week to prepare to go back. I already knew I had meetings and deadlines the week I got back. When I had henna painted on my arm, I had to consider whether it would be gone by an upcoming conference.

I get up early most mornings, have breakfast and listen to others talk about their plans for the day. I’ve been spending a few hours on the computer researching my next destination, and then venturing out to wander around the city.

I have made friends with some people in my hostel. Last night we went to the top of Monserrate for sunset, and today we will go to a museum and then check out a new neighbourhood. Photos of Monserrate

5 – Disgusting spider bites I have gotten while I sleep

I won’t go into detail. I know the bug situation is only going to get worse from here and that soon I will yearn for this point where I only have 5 giant red bumps on inconvenient places. My knuckles, FFS!

8 – Billion dollars allocated as part of Plan Colombia

P1010086Yesterday I went on a graffiti tour which was absolutely fascinating. We learned about the way that the city of Bogotá has embraced street art and celebrates its status as one of the world’s best canvases.

Looking at the art, it is impossible to ignore the messages behind it – dark and powerful. I was completely ignorant of the political situation in Colombia, most people are as it is suppressed in media coverage. I’ve since been reading about the US Initiative, Plan Colombia. The most disturbing thing I have learned about so far (and I am sure it barely scratches the surface, is Falsos Positivos. I’ll let you read it on your own, but be warned it is quite upsetting.

More photos here

9 – The street at which you should turn around

I went out shopping with two girls from my hostel yesterday, someone had drawn us a map to a nice pedestrian area. We got caught up talking, however, and walked past a turn. A few blocks later (at Carrera 9), an older woman approached us with urgency and told us to stop. She insisted that we turn around now, that we were about to walk into a very dangerous area. We thanked her and walked briskly back to an area we were certain was safe, and shared a moment of gratitude.

I am still trying to find the right balance between being afraid and being alert. I feel like am leaning too far toward the former, but I often lose track of my surroundings and get wrapped up in the moment. I’ll find my stride, in time.

22 – Average age of the people at my hostel

I’m still feeling old. Every time a new person arrives we go through the standard introduction:

  • Where are you from?
  • Where have you just arrived from?
  • When are you leaving Bogotá?
  • Where are you going next?
  • How long is your trip overall?

Once we have formed a group of five or more, someone asks how old everyone is. The oldest girl I have met is 29. I have been spending most of my time with her and a few girls who are 22 and really enjoying it. I don’t usually have younger friends as there is no natural context in which to meet but it is nice to get to know them and hear their perspective. When I tell the group I am 32 and they are intrigued. They are surprised I am backpacking and want to know why, they don’t ask anyone else that question.

I have met a lot of Dutch people, a few from England, and several Kiwis and Aussies. I have made a few connections but making friends has never been easy for me. On this trip, I am trying harder than I usually do but I don’t have the energy to keep up. Every night at the hostel a group parties loudly, doing shots and singing and dancing. Tonight they are going on a party bus to a big club an hour away from the hostel. I feel internal pressure to go, to try to fit in and to make the most of my experience here. But I won’t – it is expensive and I hate crowds and loud music. I’m 32 years old, I know what I like and it isn’t that. I like writing and reading and enjoying my solitude.