Colombia is sea and sand, mountains and jungles, hot and sultry, full of tropical excitement, right? Wrong. And one trip to Bogotá will set you free of any broad stereotypes about Colombia. High up in the mountains, 8,612ft to be exact, is Colombia’s dynamic but broadly misunderstood capital city. It’s cold, with an average temperature just below 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15C) and a whole lot of rain. Its staid, its denizens (they’re called rolos) the most buttoned up of otherwise fun-loving Colombians. And many of the nicer parts look they could have been imported from the tonier neighborhoods of Madrid, rather than neighbors Caracas or Quito.
Simply put, there’s nothing flashy about the place and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of rewarding experiences for visitors. For most first-timers, 36 hours is plenty of time to get a sense of what modern Colombia is shaping up to look like and to understand why Bogotanos stay so high up in the mountains.
6pm – The Beautiful People
I like nothing more than to take a seat in the outdoor café at Il Pomeriggio to watch Bogotá’s fanciest residents put on the ritz. Under the watchful gaze of suited waiters, this is the place to hear tomorrow’s scandals unfold and see the high and mighty unwind after a long week at work. Get a light cocktail and a plate of their signature red chips and revel in feeling more important than you’d ever feel at home.
8pm – Andes Oysters
Right around the block on Carrera 13 (more here on finding your way around their New York-like numbering system) you’ll find a strip of Bogotá’s finest restaurants including Central Cevicheria. Now you’d be right to think, seafood in the mountains? But Central will show you it’s possible, particularly when all of Colombia’s delightful seafood needs to pass through the capital to be shipped out to the rest of the world by air. Make sure to try the tiraditos (thinner, carpaccio-like ceviche) and their ever-elusive hamburguesa de pescado (fishburger). Take in the beautiful people once more. Dinner for two with drinks will run a bit north of $60.
10pm – Rumba, Rumba, Rumba
If you’re up for it, and remember to take it easy on the alcohol and heavy twerking this high in the mountains, head around the block to Armando Records, one of Bogotá’s chic rooftop bars. With DJs and live music most weekends, you’ll be sure to find the highest possibility of good fun in one place. Bogotá bars often charge a cover on the way in (to keep you in one place, and often to keep out riff-raff with free will-altering drugs) so come prepared with 10,000-20,000 pesos or (US$6-$11).
Just want to take in more people? Sidle up to any one of the bars in the Zona T (principally on Carrera 13) and watch the world go by.
9am – Early to bed, early to rise…
Yes, 9am. An equatorial city, the sun rises and sets dreadfully early here (6am-6pm every day, all year) so you have to get up early to take full advantage of your sightseeing time. After breakfast, take a (hotel or authorized) taxi down to the colonial district and government heart called “La Candelaria”. Here you’ll find a Bogotá that looks a bit more like you imagined, colonial, hilly, half-falling apart, and altogether charming. Start at the Fondo de Cultura Económica (1 on map), a delightful Colombian outpost of the Mexican bookstore and think tank, and head uphill from here.
Your first stop will be the Museo Botero (2 on map), with the most important collection of the chubby-loving painter and sculptor’s works. Attached is the Casa de la Moneda which has a free exhibition of Colombia’s history of treasure and financial management. Entrance is free, so linger as long as you’d like and admire the beautiful colonial restorations.
Afterwards, take a stroll along the red line past interesting churches, old storehouses, and current bohemian apartments and hang a right on Calle 7, going downhill until you reach the San Agustín Church (3 on map). Inside, gawk at the Virgen de Altagracia, and the charming woodwork in the walls and ceilings. (If you’re really into churches, find a more detailed rundown of the whole area’s cathedrals here.) Across the street, pose with the soldiers protecting the Casa de Nariño, where Colombia’s president lives and works.
Pass by and make a right on the next street, walking by a bizarre mix of Colombian military and police gear shops, where you can find that long-lost Colombian Drug Commando tee and booty shorts set you’ve always been after.
You’ll end up back at the Plaza Mayor, where you’ll admire the strange juxtaposition of old and new, and can enter the city’s somewhat underwhelming Cathedral.
12:30pm – Colonial bling
From here, you can take a short walk or taxi ride to el Museo de Oro. Before heading into the museum, pause for refreshments in the Café Museo de Oro, one of the historical center’s best spots for lunch. In a pretty, egalitarian space at the back of the museum, the café serves different Colombian classics like Ajiaco (a hearty stew) and Patacones (fried plantain with suero costeño – a type of local sour cream). Don’t miss it. Lunch for 2 will set you back about $35.
When you’re done, the museum beckons, with a delightful collection of the colonial mineral gems that were spared plunder by the Spaniards and a history of exploration of Colombia. Most stunning of all are the indigenous ceremonial masks of gold (because if you have so much, why not?)
4pm – Closer to God
Colombia’s policies on drug use are pretty steep, so get high the natural way by taking a cable car or incline up to Monserrate, the city’s observation deck with its eponymous church. At the top, you’ll find views of the entire valley on a clear day and a hair raising ride to boot. Late afternoon is a great time to go because you might catch a stunning sunset. Give the food and souvenir stalls a pass unless you’re into smelling like fried oil in the evening.
6pm – Get high
On your way back north, if that’s where you’re staying of course, drop by the old Hilton hotel for Bar Céntrico, located on the 41st floor with panoramic views of the city and a pretty cool vibe for an old hotel bar. This might not be the place to try your hand at aguardiente, but the extensive cocktail menu will make up for any shortcomings.
9pm – Be a bandit
And this doesn’t mean going to Bandido, the ever-popular but nothing-to-write-home-about restaurant tucked away beneath Carrera 7. If you want pure Colombian neo-flapper decadence, think Marlene Deitrich and Al Capone’s love child (if that were even possible) and head over to N.N. in the Zona G (or Rosales). After entering through a clandestine gift-shop entrance, being shepherded through the kitchen into what could be an alternate universe poor man’s Cipriani Wall Street. Still, it’s neat, the cocktails are divine and the French-inspired food is pretty damn good (try the tagine). Dinner for 2 with drinks: an easy $100.
If you came for something a bit more understated, walk a few blocks to Julia, the city’s cutest and best pizzeria. Testament to its success – there’s always a wait. Dinner for 2 with wine – $55.
Zona G has a bunch of pretty bars to explore (you can find a good guide here) in an easy walking radius. Otherwise, rest up for your last morning on the town.
9am – Ease on down the road
If you’re staying in the north part of town, take advantage of the city’s innovative Ciclovia, a program whereby the city shuts down main avenues on Sunday mornings/early afternoons to give cyclists, skaters, and pedestrians free reign of the street. It’s a great way to see the city, and people watch. Ask your hotel if they have bikes available, and you can easily ride up to Usaquén for your next stop.
10am – Finally, shopping!
One of Bogotá’s most charming areas is a town that was once a separate entity, and over time became subsumed into the big city. Usaquén is several miles north of the center, and perfect for spending your last few hours perusing its weekly artisan and antique markets. Start in the main square and wander around wherever you see tents, discovering the range of local goods from Bogota’s best handymen (and women). Wander uphill to the market above the large parking lot, with antiques and more interesting souvenirs.
12:30pm – You can go to Peru, too
Once you’re spent, head over to La Mar, the city’s finest Peruvian (yes, Peruvian) restaurant. The stunning setting looks and feels like a modern jungle of sorts, and although there’s not much love lost between Colombians and Peruvians even the most nationalistic rolos recognize that Peru has great food.
Dilly-dally back down to the main road, where you can bike, walk or catch a cab back to your hotel and then to the airport. You’ll be out of breath, but not out of good things to say about Bogotá. And when you get back to the office without a tan and without a tropical sheen, you can sneer and those know-nothings and say: amigos, Colombia’s more than sun and sand.
How To Get There
Bogotá has been blessed the last few years by good low-cost airline service from the U.S., including JetBlue (flying from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando with connections elsewhere in the U.S). Spirit Airlines also flies to Bogotá from Fort Lauderdale, FL. These tickets can go as low as $149 but expect to pay around $400 roundtrip from Miami and $600-$800 elsewhere in the U.S. on United (via Houston and Newark), American (via Miami), Delta (via Atlanta or JFK) or Avianca (really the best service of all of them).
From the airport, make sure to go straight to the line of yellow taxis ($15 to city center) right outside international arrivals – do not respond to those advertising within the terminal. Alternatively, many hotels will arrange pickups at a fee about double the cost of a standard tax (~$25).
How to get around
Bogotá was a pioneer of bus rapid transit with its Transmilenio service. Boarding high up rather than off the ground, it’s a faster way to get people on and off buses as they pay before they board. That said, it’s likely to be far from where you’re staying and where you’re going, and crowded and generally uncomfortable to non-Spanish speaking visitors. So save the hassles, and take taxis everywhere. While taxis may be hailed on the street, some high-profile robberies have taken place recently. Any hotel or restaurant will call a reputable company if asked, and prices are not much different.
No ride in town should cost you much more than $6-7, except at night.
For the tech-savvy, and the Spanish-speaking among you, download Tappsi – an iPhone/Android safe taxi-hailing app taking Bogotá by storm.
Where to stay
Get ready for sticker shock in Bogotá, where nice hotels are in high demand and the frenzy in the business travel market can drive up prices all year round. One bright spot is that weekend rates are usually far lower than those during the week. As for location, there are two main areas that have good services and walkable attractions for visitors, Chicó and Chapinero. For more adventuresome travelers, or those looking for a bit more ambience, La Candelaria can be an option (but can get a bit sketchy after dark).
Three solid options:
The Hilton Bogotá is the city’s newest hotspot, with modern rooms, a new-hotel feel, a delightful pool, and the best coffee shop in town (Devotion – visit even if you don’t stay here). Weekends often see deals at $99 a night. Unbeatable if you can score it.
The Casa Deco in the Candelaria is another gem, oozing with character in located in the heart of the old city. Rooms from $80.
If you have the cash to spend, don’t miss the Casa Medina, part of the Colombian luxury chain Charleston Hotels. Right down the street from the Hilton and in the middle of the tony Zona G, the Casa Media is built in an old family estate and national monument, with rooms bursting with history and luxurious flavor. Rooms from $250.