Every time we travel to Bogotá we invariably hit a stand-still traffic jam the second we reach the “Welcome to Bogotá” sign at the edge of the city. The traffic in this town of nearly eight million people (and seemingly as many cars) is epic. Also, the 8,600 foot (2,640 meter) altitude demands to be heard (bring a sweater and walk slowly) and the general pace and sprawl of the place can boggle city novices. Despite all of that, we braved Bogotá on three separate occasions for a total of nearly two months in the city. We drove away loving Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital (but still cursing the traffic).
Traffic grinds to a halt with spectacular regularity at this “Welcome to Bogotá” sign marking the northern entrance to the city. The city center itself is still miles away.
The New York City of Colombia
In many ways Bogotá reminds us of our last known permanent address: New York City. It’s full of chic people (no matter how you define “chic”) as well as fringey, arty folks and a contagious energy. It’s also full of distinct neighborhoods, just like NYC.
A street busker working his intersection in Bogotá, Colombia.
Chapinero Alto is an exciting mix of bohemians and high-rise apartment buildings. The Candelaria neighborhood has an edgy, student vibe. The Zona G area is where many of the best restaurants are clustered (more on that in our next post) then there’s Usaquen, which was a separate town but has been incorporated into the sprawl of Bogota. Then there’s Parque 93 and, well, the list goes on and on.
Bogotá under a rainbow from the Galerias neighborhood of the city.
While not quite on the level of New York City, there is an incredible (and growing) restaurant scene throughout Bogotá which we will be covering in our next post and you can use Uber and Uber X in Bogotá which we often found to be cheaper than taxis plus we liked the added security of having the Uber record of booking rather than just flagging down a random taxi on the street. Colombia is much, much safer than it’s been in decades, but it’s still smart to use your common sense.
Plaza Bolivar in the Candelaria neighborhood is where the main governmental buildings are located, including the National Congress building pictured here.
We never did figure out Bogotá’s much ballyhooed Transmillenio bus system and after getting bad advice which led to getting really lost on the system during our first visit to the city we gave up. Because…Uber X.
Things to do in Bogota
Besides just soaking up the big city vibe, we recommend that you take some time to enjoy the following:
The Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogotá is one of the best museums we’ve visited (3,000 COP/about US$1.25, free for all on Sunday, tours available in English). The exhibits are fantastic with descriptions in Spanish and English, the collection is breathtaking and the guides (some tours are available in English) are passionate and knowledgeable. An interactive, rotating display on the third floor called “The Offering” brings the importance of the gold objects to live with an audio track of shamans chanting and a mesmerizing video display. The museum also has a very classy gift shop so get your souvenirs and presents here.
One of the thousands and thousands of treasures in the excellent Gold Museum in Bogotá.
The Swedish-built cable car system (called a teleferico in Colombia) that travels from the city up to Cerro de Monserrate whisks riders up to 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) in less than five minutes. You can also take a funicular (look it up), but that only runs in the morning. Up on top of Monserrate you can visit a church that was built in 1657, enjoy the views, get a snack or even eat a decent meal at a decent French restaurant. Tickets for the cable car or the funicular cost 17,000COP/about US$5.80 round trip or 10,000COP/about US$3.50 on Sundays. Or you can walk up.
Heading up, up, up on the teleferico cable car to the top of Monserrate hill in Bogotá.
Click here to see a larger version of this panoramic image from the top of Monserrate.
Colombian artist Fernando Botero was born near Medellin, so it’s no surprise that the Museo de Antioquia on Medellin has a more impressive collection of art by their native son, including 23 of his signature bronze sculptures installed in front of the museum in Botero Plaza. However, the Botero Museum in Bogotá is worth a visit. Located in a renovated building, the museum includes galleries filled with work by modern masters (Miro, Calder, Klimt, Picasso) donated from Botero’s private collection along with works by Botero himself. Admission is free.
A painting depicting ‘Colombian artist Fernando Botero painting a Botero from the Botero Museum in Bogotá.
We are not guided tour people, but when we heard about 5Bogota tours we were intrigued. The owners goal is to present Bogotá through the five sense (sound, touch, taste, smell, hearing). You can embark on a tour that includes all 5 senses, or choose just the senses/activities that most interest you. We chose taste and sight and that’s how we ended up learning how to make empanadas and got our first glimpse of Bogotá’s vibrant street art and graffiti scene (more on graffiti in Bogotá in an upcoming post). The 5Bogota website is in English and is really fun to use as a tour planning tool and we had great guides and a lot of fun.
Karen learning to make empanadas during a 5Bogota tour of the city.
Graffiti artist Kochino in front of one of his own works as he lead us through a tour of street art in Bogotá.
The Museum of Modern Art Bogotá (aka MAMBO, 4,000COP/about US$1.40) offers two floors of exhibits which rotate regularly to showcase all types of modern art. It’s a small but very hip museum. On the other end of the spectrum is the sprawling Colombian National Museum (free admission). Located in an imposing stone building that used to be a prison, this place has a bit of everything.
It’s hard to believe, but there’s a fantastic hiking trail right in the heart of Bogotá. The Quebrada la Vieja (Old Creek) trail starts amidst swanky high rise apartment buildings on the edge of the city (free to enter, open from 5:30 am to 10:00 am) and winds through lush forest, past babbling brooks and over challenging trail with steep inclines, water crossings, slippery slopes and rocks. We spent two hours round trip on the trail which is just shy of two miles (3.2 km) each way from the trail head gaining 1,000 feet (300 meters) before reaching a fairytale pine forest then a monument to the Virgin Mary and sweeping views of Bogota below. More than 1,000 people entered the area the Saturday morning we hiked there but the trail is much less crowded on weekday mornings.
Karen on the fantastic Quebrade de Vieja hiking trail which starts right from the city of Bogotá.
Museo Iglesia Santa Clara in the Candelaria neighborhood across from the Presidential Palace presents a small but jam-packed collection of religious art inside a church which itself is a work of art. Built in the early 1600s, the church it’s one of the oldest in Bogotá though it’s no longer used for worship. The opulent nave is filled with paintings, sculptures and religious artifacts. There’s gold leaf everywhere. In contrast to all that antiquity, a high-tech touch-screen system delivers information about each piece (Spanish and English, 3,000COP/about US$1 to enter).
The Santa Clara church was turned into a museum and its opulent nave is now crammed with religious art.
We regret that somehow we never visited the Center of Peace and Reconciliation in Bogotá where the government and artists have collaborated to recreate he city’s Central Cemetery. Opened in 2012 after thousands of bodies were exhumed and moved, the idea behind the project was to create a space where the violence and loss of the past could be recognized and honored in a way that allowed everyone to move closer to peace. Artists created installations incorporating now-vacant mausoleums. New strikingly modern buildings were constructed (the project was overseen by Colombian architect Juan Pablo Ortiz). Thousands of test tubes of earth from massacre sites around Colombia were installed. The location itself is powerful even without those enhancements because the Central Cemetery is where victims of the revolt of June 9, 1948, regarded as the beginning of decades of violence in Colombia, were taken. This excellent article from Architectural Review will tell you more.
Part of the innovative and moving Center for Peace and Reconciliation.
Bogotá hosts many annual events as well. Every December the many parks and plazas in the city get dressed up in Christmas finery creating a city-wide spectacle they call the Ruta de la Navidad. The annual Bogota Wine & Food Festival (which will be held in early March in 2016) brings out local chefs and attracts talent from around the world. And there are many arts and theater festivals in the city too.
Hotels in Bogotá
There’s something for everyone in Bogotá, from party hostels to a handful of boutique hotels and not one but two Four Seasons hotels.
At 170,000COP/about US$60 for a small room with a double bed for two including breakfast, Casa Platypus is far from the cheapest option in the city, but this stylish, serene place fills a mid-range void and the Candelaria neighborhood location is great. Parking and all-day coffee are also available and the owner and his staff are great sources of information. There’s also a spotless kitchen that guests can use, but you won’t want to. Did we mention the fabulous food scene in Bogotá?
Hotel B.O.G. is the city’s most luxurious boutique hotel. There’s a rooftop pool and bar, rooms feature the best showers in the city and the hotel restaurant unveiled a new restaurant called FROM Ramon Freiza helmed by Spanish chef Ramon Freixa. Find out more in our feature about the B.O.G. Hotel for Luxe Beat Magazine.
The lobby of the B.O.G. Hotel in Bogotá.
84DC Hotel would be a standard mid-range business class hotel except for it’s energetic design and apartment-like feel. It’s got a great location too near Zona T, Parque 93 and Rosales but with a gentler price tag than many hotels in that area (from $150 double including breakfast).
Bogotá has many international chain hotels (Four Seasons, JW Marriott, Hilton, Sofitel, etc) but the most interesting is the W Hotel Bogota in the Usaquen neighborhood. The hotel manages to be part of a huge international chain but also give a sense of place and it’s a great base for exploring the city and, in particular, getting to know the reinvigorated Usaquen neighborhood. Read more in our review of the W Hotel Bogota for LuxuryLatinAmerica.com.
Our room at the W Hotel in Bogotá. The pillow on the bed says “Gold Digger.”
The hippest hotel in Bogotá is the Click Clack Hotel where rooms come in XS, S, M, L or XL, room service is delivered in picnic baskets and the innovative owners are always looking for new ways to undo the hotel rules. They plan to open a second Click Clack in Cartagena in 2017.
Bogotá is bursting with hostels too. The only one we stayed at was La Pinta Hostel in the Chapinero neighborhood. It was funky, clean, laid back and quiet. The bilingual staff were helpful and they’ve got a sister hostel in Cali (La Pinta Boogaloo which has a pool) and an apartment rental in Cartagena and in Santa Marta.