What comes to mind when ‘Colombia’ is mentioned?
A failed war on drugs. Gun violence. Vast income disparity between rich and poor. Crumbling infrastructure. A corrupt political class in the pockets of big business and criminals. Poor treatment of the environment and natural resources. But that’s enough about the United States of America…Just kidding!!
Colombia in fact rocks! Despite all the bad publicity it is a safe country to visit. Being guilty of having preconceived notions, I’m now glad to report after one month of ’living’ here that it is reasonably safe (assuming one takes all of the usual travel precautions) and definitely worth a visit.
Bogotá is a huge city. Officially 8 million people but perhaps closer to 12 million. There are many displaced people living here (in terrible conditions) on the outskirts who are not counted on the official census.
The city is high but not in the way you may think! It resides at 2,640 meters (8,660 ft) and the climate is similar to a cloud forest. It doesn’t get hot (the all time max. temp is 24.5 C or 76 F) and it rains almost every day – generally for an hour or two in the afternoon.
One navigates the city by using the mountains in the East as a reference. Cerro Monserrate is the dominant mountain which one can visit by cable car or funicular. You can see its small chapel on the mountain-top in the picture below.
We took the cable car which affords great views of this massive city.
Unlike Buenos Aires and other South American cities, you don’t have to worry about following street directions like:
- Turn left on 25th of July
- Turn right on 19th of October
- Turn right on 28th of February (29th, once in four)
- U-turn on Easter Sunday; left on Ash Wednesday
Instead the streets use a simple numbering scheme. ‘Carreras’ run parallel to the mountain and the numbering increases from East to West. ‘Calles’ run perpendicular with the numbering increasing from South to North. As you can see from the map, this is an important distinction to master!
Taxis are the most popular way to get around and are not very expensive. It’s not too unlike Manhattan in that there is always one nearby. Unfortunately, hailing a cab from the curb, especially at night, is not recommend for tourists. Most locals use a phone app or request one over the phone – in this manner you receive the license plate and an additional security code (2 digit number) to verify that you are getting a legitimate taxi.
Note: You don’t need your own cell phone to make a call – these ‘operators’ are everywhere!
Buses are also widespread and very cheap. A cashless system means you just have to swipe your transit card and jump on. Very clean and safe – we use them all the time. Except when Alina is determined to ‘destroy’ (her words, not mine!) other people using the FitBit steps tracker. (Hi Sabrina! Hi Leya!) Editor’s Note: LOVE YOU!
In advance of our arrival we booked the very popular Fulano Backpackers hostel for two nights. Great reviews. What could go wrong? Unbeknownst to us, Saturday is ‘club’ night when the hostel’s bar (and live band + DJ) play music until 3am which in turn is followed up with an after-party ’til 6am. Needless to say, Grandpa here didn’t sleep very much; Sunday night was marginally better.
Our next pick, an apartment hotel, didn’t work out so well either. After turning up at the reception with a confirmed reservation we were informed that they had no rooms available. I really wanted to explain the difference between taking and holding a reservation but didn’t have time…
In hindsight, this was a blessing in disguise. Not too far away, Hotel Mila, welcomed us with open arms. And one month later, they are still regretting their decision.
No better place to stay – awesome room, great breakfast, fast WIFI and a very friendly staff.
One of the tried and trusted ways to become familiar with a city is to take a walking tour. This one was organized by the city tourism board and the guide did a good job.
Excellent free walking tour highlighting the popularity of street art (graffiti, sculpture etc.) in the city with information given about the artists (they come from all over the world), the collectives (groups of artists), their relationship with local people and authorities.
Street art with a political slant may not survive too long before it is painted over or defaced by another artist with a different opinion.
The bike tour is very highly rated on Tripadvisor. We set off on our bikes with a guide in front and at rear but spent most of our time avoiding obstacles (cars, buses, pedestrians) and constantly switching from road to sidewalk and back again rather than taking in the sights. Alina experienced some technical difficulties with her bicycle and crashed into a small pillar with her pedal. Unbelievably she did not fall. (I guess it’s because I keep her on her toes so much!)
Undaunted we cycled onto the next stop where we literally felt an earthquake while the guide was speaking. Small earthquakes are a common occurrence in this region. Shortly afterwards, Alina did have a small fall from the bike and decided enough was enough. Fed up with the bad equipment, the poor terrain and dealing with lots of cars and pedestrians, she downed tools and said ‘Adiós’. And not unlike Lance Armstrong, her cycling career ended prematurely under a dark cloud. Editor’s Note: I blame my father, Gregory Basin, for never teaching me how to ride a bike and only learning in my mid 20’s, thanks to a friend.
Like every other year, Alina put me in a hole by setting a very high bar with my birthday celebration two weeks prior. This time, I didn’t plan a trip to a maximum security prison (Alcatraz seemed like a good idea at the time!) – instead I showered her in cake and chocolate.
Note: Inflating balloons at altitude is a hazardous exercise; especially when you have a 15 minute window to inflate 12 balloons.
Later we enjoyed a great dinner at the very popular Andrés Carne de Res restaurant which has a live band & dancing. And cake!
South America is football mad and Colombia is no exception. Bogotá has two teams – Sante Fé and Millonarios. Both play in the premier division and share a stadium. We went to watch Sante Fé represent Colombia in the Copa Libertadores – a competition for the best club teams in South America.
While the standard of play wasn’t very high, it was an enjoyable night out with a great atmosphere in the stadium. Safe enough that we walked to and from the game without any problems. The hotel staff were impressed and surprised.
The Bogota Beer Company was only established in 2002 and now has 15 pubs in Bogota. It is a great place for draught beer which is difficult to find in this region. BBC is now the 2nd biggest brewery in the country.
Beer vendors come in all forms – you’ve got to start somewhere!
As mentioned earlier, we’ve had no security issues while in the city. However, we are very mindful of where we walk and are never out drunk. (Alina generally has her 3 shots of Vodka in the morning and sleeps it off in the comfort of the hotel. L’chaim!)
That said, one afternoon we did witness a cell phone robbery. On the opposite side of the street a thief grabbed a girl’s cell phone and ran off into traffic. A bystander, perhaps her friend, immediately set off in pursuit and forced him into crossing a dangerous intersection where he was duly apprehended by police. That didn’t stop random people from giving him a few punches while he was being restrained. Mob justice and fully deserved.
The main drawback of visiting museums in South America is the lack of translated literature for English speaking visitors. Sometimes even the Spanish literature appears lacking!
The Museo del Oro (Gold museum) is an exception. A very modern building with lots of printed material and audio guides if desired. It showcases goldsmith work from various cultures which inhabited Colombia before the Spanish conquest.
The Museo National is the biggest museum in Colombia. It has lots of artifacts, sculptures and paintings – I couldn’t tell you much about them as nothing was explained in English. On the plus side, entrance was free.
The Botero Museum houses the art collection of Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero. At his insistence, the entrance is free. When it comes to art museums, Alina & I are normally avoiding them or passing through them faster than Hillary Clinton can delete her inbox. To our surprise, we really loved his collection – he has such a fun style, both in canvas and in sculpture.
He likes to paint his subjects in large form.
Botero explains it as follows: “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why. You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”
St. Patrick’s Day
Not surprisingly, the city does not shut down for St. Patrick’s Day. We ventured out to the nearest Irish pub imaginatively titled “Irish Pub”. A large crowd had gathered and green beer was flowing. They tried. Bless them.
We moved on and found another bar with locals eager to chat. The can of Murphy’s went down well. Meanwhile, Alina was sampling Bailey’s “Dulce de Leche” and she was not pushing it away either!
Bogotá is great place to slow down and unwind for an extended period of time. It’s a modern city with all of the comforts of home but with enough going on to keep you entertained. The locals are super friendly and they are delighted to have tourists back. For the casual traveller, it is well worth 3 or 4 days of your time in addition to visiting other parts of the country.
Wait. What? No mention of FOOD?
My co-editor will be submitting a food report shortly. Stay tuned!