You should visit Bogotá because it will help you understand the true meaning of friendliness, hope, and community. As with all good travel, it will give you perspective about your own trials and tribulations and those of your country. And you should go to Bogotá now, so you can go back in ten years and not recognize it.
Now that you’ve decided you’re going to Bogotá, you should get ready for the questions everyone – literally, everyone – will ask you. “Isn’t it dangerous? So, (*snicker* *snicker*) going for some of that white gold?” Yes, Colombia was a very dangerous place at one point in the not-too-distant past. And yes, it’s still a large player in the international drug trade. But even during the worst years, the violence wasn’t on the streets of Bogotá. And geographic proximity to coca farms isn’t really the key driver of access to cocaine – just ask Wall Street. The reality is that Bogotá today is safe, incredibly welcoming, and excited to promote a new narrative.
A brief aside on history: the primary source of violence in Colombia was the FARC, a left wing group formed in the mid-60s. FARC operated primarily in the Southeast and Southwest of the country, and while it carried out some terrorist activities in Bogotá, these were primarily aimed at the government and judiciary. Bogotá never saw street-to-street fighting, and for most residents, life went on relatively unimpacted. The government and the FARC signed a peace deal in 2016, in which the FARC turned in their weapons in exchange for a role in the government and reduced prison sentences. So far, the deal is holding, though it’s young enough that everyone is keeping their fingers crossed.
Escaping the Bubble
The bubble in Bogotá is socioeconomic, rather than touristic. Even in the most touristy areas, you won’t run into a large number of western tourists. Sure, you’ll run into some Kiwis, but you’d run into Kiwis on the moon. If your Spanish language skills are truly stellar, you might pick up on tourists coming from Peru and Argentina. Museums and historical sites are largely catering to locals, so don’t expect great English signage. Knowing a passable amount of Spanish will come in handy across the board.
It’s worth returning briefly to the subject of safety when discussing escaping the bubble. Bogotá is laid out on a grid system with streets (calles) and avenues (carreras). As a tourist, you’ll be spending most of your time to the west of Carrera 13, and between Calle 7 in the south and Calle 100 in the north. If you wander too far outside those bounds, you’ll be in neighborhoods with more poverty, and more risk of crimes of opportunity. You’re not going to be blown up in a terrorist attack, or gunned down by a drug cartel, but you might get your iPhone swiped by a teenager.
Within those boundaries, you can explore with relative abandon. Strike up conversations (if you’re able). Smile and say hello. Meet some stray dogs. (Stray dogs in Bogotá live a good life: they’re often cared for collectively by neighborhoods, who feed them and look out for them). Find a seat at one of the many fantastic coffee shops to eavesdrop on teenagers giggling about YouTube videos. In short: enjoy the daily life of the city, without anyone looking at you as simply a source of tourist revenue.
Bogotá is very pedestrian friendly – once you’ve acclimated to the altitude. Expect to spend your first day a little wheezy. Because of the grid system, finding your way around is pretty easy (though the grid isn’t quite as square as you might hope, you’ll at least know which way you’re headed).
For those of a two-wheeled persuasion, Bogotá is an increasingly bike-friendly city. The bike lane’s growing all over the city. On Sunday’s, many streets shut down for an “open streets” style event. Many apartments include use of a bike, and there are bike rentals available all over.
If you need to cover largest distances, or move more quickly than your feet will allow, the city has plenty of options for motorized transit. While Uber exists in some form of legal limbo, it’s easy to grab anywhere. As with most places, Uber drivers tend to be great ways to learn more about a city. If you want to use a local taxi, download the Tappsi app to ensure you’re getting an authorized taxi.
Bogotá has a large Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system called the Transmilenio. It’s a cheap and quick way to get around, though you’ll need to watch out for pickpockets. Successive mayors have promised to replace or supplement Transmilenio with a subway, but it’s mostly a pipe dream (tube dream?). The current Mayor has a financial stake in Transmilenio, so he’s seemingly less enthusiastic about replacing it than he was as a candidate. Sounds familiar.
There are plenty of traditional “sights” within the city – museums covering everything from Art and History to Gold and Emeralds. The city itself is a sight too. Thanks to Justin Bieber (no, seriously), Bogotá is filled with amazing street art and graffiti. It’s also a city full of diverse architecture, all mixed together. A bike tour is a great way to take it all in – it’s a seriously big city. Notice the classic German architecture, the semi-fascist buildings, and the modern glass towers, all jammed together. Notice too the classic Renaults plying the streets, a result of a local Renault factory.
When you’ve exhausted the many sights in the cities, look to the mountains that surround it. Your first step will be to hike up Monserrate to the monastery at the top. You’ll be rewarded with an amazing view and the chance to act smug around the folks getting off the cable car. The hike is best done in the morning, when the trail is busy and there are guards nearby. Later in the day, it can become a little less safe. Many of the other mountains around Bogotá can be climbed as well, though you’ll want to pay attention to your guidebook in terms of the best times to climb.
Travel outside of Bogotá can be a bit slow, though the busses are very affordable. Zipaquirá, home to the Salt Cathedral, is a short bus trip and a great chance to see another side of Colombia. Other cities are best thought of as overnight trips, as you’ll spend a lot of time on a bus.
Colombian food is hearty and filling – the type of food you want to eat on a crisp day in the mountains. You’ll find a lot of hearty potato soups and chicken stews. The street food scene is incredibly vibrant. You can grab an arepa (get it with butter, salt and cheese) and a fresh squeezed orange juice for less than a dollar and be supremely satisfied. You’ll find lots of variations on hotdogs, hamburgers, grilled corn, and skewered meat. Meat, in general, is a theme. The Bandeja paisa, a traditional platter meal, includes a strip of fried pork belly, blood sausage, ground meat, and much more.
Even though Bogotá isn’t tropical, it’s not far from lower altitudes rich in tropical fruits. Look for a market tour that will introduce you to all the fruits that you’ve never heard of, let alone experienced. Get a lulo shake, and try a maracuya (looks like snot, tastes fantastic!).
You’re probably not going to Bogotá just to eat (it’s not Penang). But you’ll eat very well, and a shared arepa on a street corner is a great chance to strike up a conversation.
Get yourself to Bogotá
Let’s take a moment here to reiterate just how friendly people in Colombia are. It’s a country that is very deliberately trying to change the story about drugs and violence. Everyone you meet will be eager to welcome you, to show you why they love their country or city and to implore you to tell everyone back home what a good time you had. It’s very affordable (for now at least), it’s safe, and it’s an easy flight from the United States. Get yourself to Bogotá!