Breathing in the Beauty of Bogotá
Itinerary: free walking tour > Catedral de sal Zipaquira > Museo del Oro > Monserrate > free graffiti tour > Museo Botero
Beautiful city, bad reputation.
As I prepared for my visit to Bogotá, I kept reading how dangerous it can be, a place where tourists are common targets for pick-pocketing, muggings and even stabbings. Others on the backpack trail had cautionary tales, and a family friend living in the city gave a grave warning. So much so, that the first thing I did upon arrival was buy a SIM card from the airport to ensure that 123 (the 911 equivalent) was always available to me.
I am happy to report that after four days in the city, I’m alive and well, and what’s more - I loved Bogotá! I think if you exercise amble caution and have a healthy dose of paranoia, you’ll find that this city is well worth the risk and well-intentioned warnings.
Immediately after I checked into my hostel, I joined the free walking tour, which conveniently departed from the lobby. (The Cranky Croc is the best!) My guide Juan from The True Colombian Experience walking tours was awesome, with great historical anecdotes and doses of everyday Bogotá life. He led us through the colorful, historic streets of the La Candelaria neighborhood, pointing out some of the green statues by local artist Jorge Olave, who depicts ordinary people to contrast the monuments of legendary leaders.
We tried chicha, an alcoholic drink of fermented corn that dates back to indigenous tradition. We sampled arepa con queso, a cheese pastry, from a street vendor — Bogotá is big on street food. And we wrapped up the tour with a game of tejo, a local drinking game like beer pong if beer pong included packets of gunpowder. It’s played professionally in Colombia!
The next day, I met up with my family friend who lives in the city and was nice enough to introduce me to some local food (and help me navigate Spanish conversations…). Thus far, I’ve learned that Colombian food includes a lot of fruit and cheese, two of my favorite things. We met up again the following day for a tour of the Catedral de sal Zipaquira, an underground cathedral that was built in a salt mine. It boasts the largest underground cross.
I also dropped into the Museo del Oro, the infamous gold museum in downtown Bogotá. Learning about the lengths they took to make these intricate ornaments was astounding — if you’re curious, look up the ‘lost wax’ technique. (The pièce de résistance is the Balsa Muisca, a small golden raft, which was part of the ritual that fueled the myth of El Dorado; pictures of this artifact are blown up all over town, but it's actually quite small!)
My last day in the city, I made the trek up to Monserrate, the mountain overlooking the city with a church and stunning views. There is apparently a pilgrimage tradition of hiking the mountain on one’s knees, an homage to Christ’s journey with the cross. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the funicular cable car, which is what I did. (You can hike the trail on foot as well, but I was told it’s a popular spot for muggers.) I was happy to go during the week when it was not too crowded. The sweeping views of the city are everything they’re cracked up to be, and the cobblestone courtyards and pretty church are a nice oasis above the hustle and bustle of the city.
Then onto the free graffiti tour, which was equally as great as the walking tour, and happily for me, very little overlap. My guide Carlos was incredibly well-informed and well-acquainted with the street artists. Highly recommend! Through the artwork, we learned of Plan Colombia, which I was previously ignorant of and found very interesting. Although Wikipedia calls it a success, it’s fascinating to hear the local perspective and see how it is portrayed and interpreted by street artists. Two very different stories.
Finally, I dropped by the Museo Botero, a free art exhibit with a predilection for chubby things. A random addition, but fun little detour that’s close by. The city is full of museums with free or very cheap admission, so you can pick your preference. Mine was gold and chubby apparently…
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
- Granadilla — yellow-orange on the outside, the inside vaguely resembles pomegranate seeds except with a very different texture
- Jugo de Lulo — sweet fruit drink that often comes barely blended for a chunky finish
- Uchuva — a ground cherry that resembles a cherry tomato but is sweeter
- Ajiaco — classic soup in which potatoes reign supreme (heads up to fellow vegetarians: it is made with chicken broth)
- Arepo con queso —a savory pastry made of corn and cheese
- Patacones —fried plantains, which may be served with veggies, cheese or meat on top
- Chocolate con queso — hot chocolate with small cubes of soft cheese (like mozzarella) dropped in for a melty mess that you spoon out
- Chicha en totuma — thick alcoholic drink made of fermented corn and flavored with spices like cinnamon; traditionally served in a totuma, which looks like a thin coconut shell; dates back to indigenous practice but still consumed today because it’s so cheap!
- Almojábana — similar concept to the arepa, made of corn and cheese, but comes as a light, airy bread ball
- Changua — classic breakfast of eggs in milk soup with toasted bread croutons
- Café Union — cozy cafe with cute latte art; the owner is very nice and takes coffee seriously
- Crepes & Waffles — a great chain in Colombia with yummy desserts and rich coffee (and nice look-and-feel too, unlike your average commercialized chain)
- Restaurante La Hospederia (Zipaquirá) —located just above the main entrance to the salt cathedral, this nice restaurant was a perfect relaxation and regrouping stop after wandering underground for a few hours; great appetizers for trying local foods
- Quina Y Amaranto — amazing vegetarian restaurant with fresh food and a homey atmosphere, run by some very lovely ladies (thank you Lonely Planet for the hot tip!)
- Café de La Peña Pasteleria Francesa — calm courtyard with good coffee and French pastries for a morning or midday snack
Bogotá: The Crazy Croc — Without a doubt, the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. It is in the perfect location in the La Candelaria neighborhood, and the free walking tour takes off from here. (The bike and graffiti tours are also mere blocks away.) It is a stunning Spanish building with terra cotta roof tiles, bright courtyards adorned with potted plants, white washed walls with exposed wooden beams, newly renovated and always spotless bathrooms and colorful tiled floors. Each dorm bed is outfitted with a spacious storage locker, outlets and a nightlight.