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):
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
Start 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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 Amaranto – 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.
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.