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Ecuador’s Other Amazon – Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Ecuador is blessed with several ways to access the Amazon Basin. The most well-known and most popular way is via a river town called Coca and then along the Napo River (which is a major tributary of the Amazon River) where travelers find a wide range of tours, river boat hotels and the most upscale Amazon lodges in the country. Those seeking a more affordable and, in some ways, more intimate Amazon experience should head to the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve instead. Here’s why, including our drone aerial travel video over the area.

Sunset Cuybeno Reserve Ecuador

A sunset paddle on the Cuyabeno River in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

Exploring Ecuador’s other Amazon

Founded in 1979, Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve covers 1,490,000 acres (603,380 hectares) and is the second largest preserved natural area in Ecuador. Most of that area is tropical forest which goes through annual cycles of flooding and then receding water. In the wetter season (which varies from year to year), thousands of acres flood. In the dryer season (December to March) the water recedes.

Paddling waterways of Cuybeno

The river is the road through the vast Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.

The only road through the Cuyabeno area is the Cuyabeno River itself. It’s much narrower than the Napo River which gives a more intimate feeling since the banks of the river are much closer together and, therefore, the wildlife is much closer at hand. Unlike the area around the Napo River, the Cuyabeno region has not been opened up for oil exploration so animals are much more plentiful as well.

There are also far fewer visitors to Cuyabeno than the number of people who visit the Amazon basin via the Napo River, so other boats and other travelers are few and far between.

Cuybeno Lake

Entering Laguna Grande.

The wild animals of Cuyabeno

While humans are scarce there is no shortage of other animals. The number of registered bird species in the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is under currently being debated. Some say 530 species exist in the area while others believe more like 580 species have been observed. Suffice to say, there are a LOT of birds. There are a lot of other critters in Cuyabeno too like the lowland tapirs, two species of deer, all of the Amazon cats, including jaguars and pumas, capybaras and two species of river dolphins (one is vaguely pink).

Blue & Yellow Macaw Cuybeno

Like all macaws, these blue and yellow macaws mate for life.

Juvenile Potoo Cuybeno

We spotted a juvenile pygmy potoo bird at night while in Cuyabeno – one more species we saw for the first time while in the reserve.

White Throated Toucan Cuybeno

A white throated toucan in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve.

Hoatzin Cuybeno Ecuador

Hoatzin birds along the Cuyabeno River.

There are also manatees and two types of river otters including imposing giant otters. Monkeys are everywhere as well with 10 species living in the area. There are dozens of species of rodents and bats, 350 fish species (including massive and delicious paiche), two species of caymen, boa constrictors and anacondas plus many vociferous types of frogs and toads.

Saki Monkey Cuybeno

Ladies and gentlemen, our first Saki monkey.

Black Manteled Tamarin Cuybeno

A black mantled tamarin.

Pigmy Marmost Cuybeno

This little guy is a pygmy marmoset – the smallest monkey in the world. We saw one for the first time in Cuyabeno.

Spis's night monkey Cuybeno

These are Spix’s night monkeys – the only nocturnal monkeys in the world. I think we were interrupting their daytime beauty sleep.

We visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve during low water and saw dozens of different species. Though we’ve spent a lot of time in jungles around Latin America we also saw many species for the very first time including Saki monkeys, a pygmy potoo, Spix’s night monkeys (the only nocturnal monkey in the world) and tiny pygmy marmosets, the smallest monkeys in the world, which were busy sucking sap from tree trunks.

Insects Cuybeno

We have no idea what these insects are but they sure are pretty.

Frog Cuybeno

There are frogs and toads of all shapes and sizes in Cuyabeno and at certain times of the day they make the jungle sing.

Spiders Cuybeno

Um, spiders.

The people of Cuyabeno

Humans also live in the Cuyabeno area including members of the Siona, Sequoya and Cofan indigenous groups who were allowed to stay in their villages and maintain their way of life even after the reserve was created.

Sona people of Cuybeno

Locals on the Cuyabeno River.

So, in addition to hiking on dry land and paddling in small boats through the Cuyabeno River, tributaries and flooded forest areas to see wildlife, it’s also possible to visit villages and see a little bit of the local ways of life. We visited a village where a woman demonstrated how to make a cracker-like bread from yucca that’s been grated and pressed into a kind of flour before being cooked on a massive clay disc. It’s a labor intensive but delicious staple of the diet.

Preparing Yuca bread Cuybeno Ecuador

This woman made it look easy, but making yucca bread is a real process which involves grating fresh yucca root then squeezing the water out to create a kind of flour which is then cooked into a tasty flat bread.

Shamans remain an important part of life in most villages and we also had the chance to visit one while in the Cuyabeno reserve. We’ve had many encounters with shamans over the years but our time with a shaman named Tomas was the most informative and authentic yet. As a sudden rain storm opened up overhead, Tomas happily described his journey to shaman-hood in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and answered all of our questions.

Amazon shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas the shaman.

Tomas also performed a “cleansing” for one of the members of our group. This involved a thrashing with a bundle of sticks, blowing and other rituals meant to expel bad energy from the body. We were the only tourists there and we never got the feeling that Tomas was “putting on a show” for us.

Curado shamen Cuybeno Ecuador

Tomas concentrates and works his medicinal branches during a cleansing ceremony.

Where to stay in Cuyabeno

The dozen or so Amazon river lodges in Cuyabeno are simpler and cheaper than the lodges located along the Napo River. A few Cuyabeno lodges are located on Laguna Grande, but see our travel tip below before booking. The rest are scattered along the banks of the river. Lodge rates include meals and guided exploration of the reserve.

View from Tapir Lodge Cuybeno

Tapir Lodge has a bamboo and thatch tower of rooms right on the riverbank. This could be the view from your room.

We stayed at Tapir Lodge which has solar panels and a back up generator, good food and a great tower of simple thatch roof rooms with private bathrooms near the bank of the Cuyabeno River. Though rooms are well-screened, some critters do get in. There was a (relatively) small tarantula on our ceiling until Karen insisted that someone give it its own room…

Tarantula Tapir Lodge Cuybeno Ecuador

One of us really, really, REALLY wanted this guy out of our room.

The best amenity at Tapir Lodge is owner Kurt Beate. He’s been exploring the area for more than 40 years, first as a guide and later as the creator of Tapir Lodge which he opened almost 20 years ago. It was one of the first lodges in the area and the very first to offer private bathrooms, hot water and electricity based on solar power.

Kurt’s enthusiasm for the region has not dimmed over the years and you really want to be at Tapir Lodge when he is on site and available to explore with you, which is about 70% of the time. Ask if Kurt will be at the lodge when booking.

For more Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve and Tapir Lodge inspiration check out our drone travel footage, below.

Cuyabeno travel tips

Be wary of booking a lodge that’s located on Laguna Grande. The lagoon is beautiful, but during dry times the water level can drop to the point where boats can’t enter the lagoon. That means you’ll be in for a long, hot slog to and from your lodge.

Here are some other things to ask before booking a Cuyabeno lodge:

Is there 24 hour electricity and is it supplied, at least in part, by solar power?

How many guides will be available and what is their certification and experience?

Do you provide binoculars and/or spotting scopes to your guides?

Do you provide real coffee or instant coffee (most adventures start early in Cuyabeno)?

Do your boats have lightweight paddles or heavier wooden paddles?

Do you provide drinking water to guests?

Oh, and we heard Cuyabeno pronounced two different ways: “Kwai-ah-ben-oh” and “Koo-ya-ben-oh”. Go figure. Really. Go figure it out.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsgf8w5CAtM

This massive jungle tree is a major jungle attraction. It even has its own sign. Climbing up its vines: optional.

Getting to Cuyabeno

From Quito you can fly, drive or take a bus to the dismal oil town of Lago Agria. Then it’s 1.5 hours by road to the Cuyabeno bridge where your roughly two hour journey on the river in a motorized canoe will begin to reach your lodge in the reserve. In times of low water the trip takes longer. Entry to all parks and reserves in Ecuador is free except for the Galapagos Islands National Park.

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Bogotá Street Art 101 – Bogotá, Colombia

This post is part 2 of 5 in the series Street Art in the Americas

Most major cities around the world have some sort of a street art scene – not just random graffiti tags, but crafted pieces of art that happen to exist outdoors in public spaces. In Bogotá, the street art scene is on fire. Colombian artists have been invited to create street art around the world and participate in major gallery exhibitions and the vibrant art on display around the country’s capital (one estimate puts the total number of major works of street art in the city at more than 5,000) runs the gamut from playful to political to the sort of public art that defies pigeonholing. We really got into the street art in Bogotá as you can see in the 49 images in this post (the most we’ve ever included in a single post). We think our Bogotá Street Art 101 primer will get you hooked too.

rana frog Bogota street art

This friendly frog, artist unknown, welcomes you to the world of street art in Bogotá!

Bogotá street art, from maligned to mainstream

Street art wasn’t always a legit part of the city’s landscape. Despite the fact that major Colombian companies like Bogtoa Beer Company were commissioning street artists to create original artwork and logos for them (like the image below), the public and the police were not quite as enthusiastic about the emerging subculture.

BBC Bogota Beer Company uses street artists design truck

This logo, created by street artists, was commissioned by Bogotá Beer Company.

In 2011, young graffiti artist Diego Felipe Becerra was shot in the back by police while painting. Police then tried to say the artist was shot in self-defense while he was trying to rob a bus. Tensions rose (even the United Nations condemned the farce) and a forum was created to bring street artists and law enforcement officials together to figure out a way to coexist. Today, street art is legal in Bogotá where city officials and artists don’t just co-exist, they collaborate.

Bogota Street artist Zokos wins competition to paint this wall

In 2014, artist Ricardo Zokos won the annual street art competition put on by the city of Bogotá and he was given this wall and the materials needed to create this massive work of art.

Every year the city of Bogotá holds a street art competition and the winner is granted a massive space and the materials needed to turn it into a canvas for his or her vision. The winner in 2014 was an artists named Ricardo Zokos who used a cherry picker and gallons and gallons of paint to create the work above. It’s 75 feet (22 meters) high by 130 feet (40 meters) wide.

W hotel Bogota lounge designed by street artists

The street artists that work as Vertigo Graffiti were hired to create this wall in the bar of the W Hotel in Bogotá.

When the W Hotel opened in Bogotá 2015,  they got on the street art bandwagon too, commissioning  the artists at Vertigo Graffiti to paint an entire wall in the hotel bar. Over the course of two full nights of work, Vertigo artists Zas, Ospen, Cazdos, Ecksuno, DexS and Fish created the mural, above, for the hotel.

Bogota street art incorporated into apartment building

Normal, every day buildings like apartments and hostels in Bogotá routinely incorporate the work of street artists.

How to see the street art: graffiti tours in Bogotá

Love it or hate it, these days the street art scene in Bogotá is an integral part of the city. As the usual “but is it art?” debate rages, more and more guided tours of the city’s street art are being offered. After a visit to the city’s excellent Gold Museum, taking a graffiti tour is probably the second most popular activity in the capital. We took two different Bogotá street art tours.

Crisp Bogota Street Art

An Australian street artist known as Crisp lives in Bogotá, creates this art and stared the city’s very first guided graffiti tour.

The Bogotá Graffiti Tour was the first street art tour offered in the city. It was created by Australian artist Christian Peterson, who now lives in Bogota where he signs his street art as Crisp. His company still takes people on 2. 5 hour guided walking tours past fantastic examples of the city’s street art (free, but donations are aggressively encouraged). Tours are lead by English speaking guides who are graffiti artists themselves, including Crisp. It provides a good overview of the main players and main motivators behind street art found in the La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogotá, which is the area where the city was originally founded and is now hipster central.

Bogota street artist Koch1no

Veteran Bogotá street artist David Niño (aka Koch1no) guided us around some of the city’s best works. Here he’s standing in front of one of his own pieces. He calls the little character in the lower right hand corner of the work a “space bunny” and it appears in all of his pieces.

We also took a tour organized by tour company called 5 Bogotá. The tour was lead by Colombian artist Koch1no  (aka David Niño) and we departed from a shop called Visaje Graffiti Colombia which was opened to showcase and sell items designed by city artists. For a few hours Koch1no, who’s been doing street art for more than a decade, lead us through various areas of the city expertly and enthusiastically explaining the work we were walking past including who made the art, what it was meant to represent, what the inspiration was and more. It was a fun and informative tour and we were sorry to see it end.

The tour company no longer offers that exact tour but they’re about to launch a brand new graffiti experience. For US$35 per person, guests will be taken to the A Tres Manos studio where artists will help them create their own piece of art (all materials provided). That tour will be available to book through 5 Bogotá starting on April 1, 2016.

Bogotá street art: DJ Lu

This Colombian artist, who is also a trained architect and a professor, has been decorating the city since 2004. You can’t swing a cat in the capital without hitting one of his pieces which is often signed as Juegasiempre. He often uses stencils made from photographs of homeless people, including Marco Tulio Sevillano, a homeless man who was burned to death. Keep a keen eye out for other DJ Lu iconography including pineapples as hand grenades, dollar signs incorporating guns, and insects as weapons.

DjLu + Pez (Barcelona) Bogota Street Art

A classic piece from DJ Lu.

DjLu-Juegasiempre-Bogota-Street-Art

A classic piece from DJ Lu.

DjLu + Toxicomano Bogota Street Art

This piece is a collaboration between DJ Lu and the Toxicomano collective which contributed the woman with camera imagery on the left.

DjLu + Pez (Barcelona) Bogota Street Art

This piece is a collaboration between DJ Lu ad Pez, a Spanish artist now living in Bogotá, who contributed the funky flyers.

Bogotá street art: Bastardilla

Bastardilla is one of the most prominent female street artists in Bogotá, but there’s still not a lot of information out there about the secretive painter. What is clear is her focus on women’s rights, the struggle to end violence against women and the need for increased respect for the crucial role women and women’s work play in the future of Latin America. She reportedly sometimes sends her work with friends when they travel abroad and asks them to paste her art up in cities around the world.  Plus, she’s got one of the coolest names out there.

Bastardia + Gris One Bogota street art

Bastardilla did this work with Gris One. The bird in the middle is hers.

Bastardilla female graffiti artist Bogota street art

This is a piece done by Bastardilla.

BastardillAa Bogota street art

Another piece by Bastardilla.

Bogotá street art: Toxicomano

Work signed by Toxicomano is produced by a prolific collection of artists. The most distinctive style of their work is done in stencil and involves a lot of black and white and often features a mohawk-sporting character named Eddie, though other styles emerge like the blue pig decorated with a map of the world, below. The work of this collective is extremely popular and more and more businesses are commissioning Toxicomano to decorate their shops.

Toxicomano Callerjo Bogota street art lost boy Eddie

Classic work from a collection of artists known as Toxicomano involves a graphic, stenciled, largely black and white look and the face of Eddie.

Toxicomano Callerjo Bogota street

The Toxicomano collective of artists is often commissioned to decorate businesses in Bogotá, like this tattoo shop.

Toxicomano Callejero Bogota street art pig map

We love this Toxicomano pig decorated with a map of the world.

Bogotá street art: Lesivo

Lesivo, aka Diego Chavez, also frequently works on large murals with DJ Lu and Toxicomano. His work is marked by a startled, skull-like quality to faces and heads that smacks of suddenly shattered innocence.

Lesivo Bogota street art

Street art by Lesivo in Bogotá, Colombia.

Lesivo Bogota street art

Street art by Lesivo in Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá street art: Ledania

Ledania is based in Bogotá where she creates distinctive work with bold colors and complex graphics around themes that have been called mythological.

Ledania Bogota Street art

Colombian street artist Ledania transformed this wall with her fantastical style.

Lediana Bogota Street art

This is a good example of the bold colors and graphics that form part of Ledania’s style.

Bogotá street art: Guache

This Colombian artist, who has exhibited his work across Europe, returns to homegrown imagery of the plants, animals and indigenous cultures of Colombia. No color is too bright and Guache’s work is a technicolor celebration of Colombia’s heart and soul and a wake up call about the threats they face.

Guache Bogota Street art

The doves in this work by Guache are holding banners that read Social Justice and Freedom and Peace.

Guache Bogota Street art

Another mesmerizing piece by Guache.

Bogotá street art: Stinkfish

Stinkfish is possibly the most internationally well-known Colombian street artist at the moment with canvases selling in galleries around the world for thousands of dollars. His art is marked by stencils he makes of faces from photographs he finds or takes himself. He then elaborates on the images with graphics and intense colors. In addition to his solo work, Stinkfish has an art crew called APC (Animal Poder Cultura/Animal Power Culture).

Stinkfish Bogota street art

You really can’t miss a Stinkfish face.

Stinkfish + APC Bogota street art

Here’s a work by Stinkfish working with his APC crew.

Bogotá street art: Lik Mi

In addition to creating a body-centric street art style, the artist known as Lik Mi is also a jewelry designer. She’s said her fully nude paste ups are meant to counter the objectification of women and confront taboos about nudity.

Lik Mi Bogota street art

These three pieces by Lik Mi give you a good sense of her focus on confronting taboos about nudity and making a point about the objectification of women.

Bogotá street art: Saga

Saga‘s solo work is marked by joyfully absurd oversize women and an olde timey dude who’s seriously creepy. Sometimes the artist works with another artist known as Crudo who adds distinctive lettering, giving the collaborative work a vaudeville poster look and feel.

Saga Uno Bogota street art

The joyful absurdity of work by Saga.

Saga Uno Bogota street art

This creepy but compelling character is courtesy of Saga.

Saga & Crudo Bogota street art

Artists Saga and Crudo often team up in Bogotá.

Bogotá street art: Rodez

Rodez is a book publisher and street artist in his 50s and his work has a polished, gallery-ready look and feel. He is quite literally a father to street art. His sons, Nomada and Malegria, have followed him into the biz and they sometimes collaborate.

Rodez Street art Bogota

A whimsical, sophisticated piece by Rodez.

Bogotá street art: beyond the big names

Not everyone in the Bogotá street art scene is a star. Yet. Here are some pieces we liked by artists we know little or nothing about (if you know who did the pieces we can’t id, let us know in the comments section at the end of this post).

el beso de los invisibles The kiss MDC crew Yurika Jade

Based on a photo of a homeless couple kissing, this 115 high piece, called “El Beso de los Invisibles” (The Kiss of the Invisibles) was created by a co-ed team including Vertigo, Jade, Zas and MDC.

Katze + Carsal Corrosivo Bogota Sterrt Art

This work was created by Katze and Carsal Corrosivo.

MAL crew Bogota street art

MAL Crew did this work.

Carlos Trilleras Bogota street art

This wonderful portrait of a Kuna woman was done by Carlos Trilleras.

Bogota street art

Artist unknown.

Praxis Bogota street art

An Argentinean artist known as Praxis did this.

Entes y Pesimo Bogota street art

Peruvian artists Entes y Pesimo work together. This wall was done by Entes alongside the image below which was painted by Pesimo.

Entes y Pesimo Bogota street art

Peruvian artists Entes y Pesimo work together. This wall was done by Pesimo alongside the wall above which was painted by Entes.

Monstrucation Bogota street art

This piece is called Monstrucation but we don’t know who created it.

BLN bike Perversa Bogota street art

The bike image on the left was done by an artist from Ecuador known as BLN Bike and the googly-eyed purple blob was done by an artist known as Perversa.

Bogota street art

Artist unknown.

Bogota street art

Artist unknown.

indiginous Bogota street art

Artist unknown.

The ever-changing nature of Bogotá street art

One of the things that makes street art interesting is the ever-changing nature of the installations. The composite image, below, shows a wall outside the Visaje Graffiti Colombia store in Bogotá which we photographed on August 30, 2014 (top) and again on September 1, 2015 (bottom). What a difference a year (and some talent and some paint) makes.

Visaje gallery Bogota street art

Never enough street art

For more about street art, check out the Google Culture Institute Street Art Project and watch the trailer for a graffiti documentary called Este Territorio es Nuestro (This Territory is Ours).

 

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The Enduring Legend of El Dorado – Lake Guatavita, Colombia

You probably know at least the basics of the legend of El Dorado which tells of a lake filled with gold and jewels whose secrets and treasures eluded Spanish conquistadors and modern day treasure hunters for centuries. Like most good stories, this one survives despite a profound lack of proof and Lake Guatavita in Colombia is ground zero for the enduring legend of El Dorado.

The enduring legend of El Dorado

This part of Colombia is home to the Muisca people. In their heyday they were ruled by kings who were appointed only after going through a tough vetting process and those ultimately chosen were celebrated in an elaborate ceremony which, legend has it, involved the newly minted king covering himself with gold and paddling out into a lake before jumping in and washing the gold into the water.That habit earned the king the nickname “El Dorado” or, The Golden One.

It’s said that more gold and jewels were tossed into the lake for good measure and you can see an elaborate hand made rendering of a Muisca raft in solid gold at the fantastic Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Muisca god Guatavita Bogota Gold Museum

This solid gold recreation of part of the mythical Muisca lake ceremony is on display in the Gold Museum in Bogotá.

Needless to say, a shiny legend like that got the gold-hungry Spanish conquistadors all in a tizzy. In their inimitable style they suppressed the Muiscas and forced them to form a macabre bucket brigade to try to drain the lake. After months of effort the water level had gone down just a few feet. Then the Spanish shifted gears and forced thousands of men into the task of cutting a notch in the rim of the crater to drain the lake.

That effort dropped the water level by about 20 feet (six meters), revealing some paltry trinkets before the support system collapsed killing many.

And it wasn’t just the Spanish that were desperate to get their hands on the El Dorado treasure. A British group arrived with a steam pump and dug tunnels to try to drain the lake and failed. Treasure hunters were arriving as recently as the 1930s when hard-hat divers schlepped up to the crater, dove in and explored the lake’s muddy bottom for treasure. Nada.

 Travel to Lake Guatavita

These days Lake Guatavita is a protected are (so leave your SCUBA equipment and pick axes at home). You can travel there to see it for yourself during an easy day trip from Bogotá (about two hours and 35 miles (56 km) each way along a scenic but windy and narrow paved mountain road). If you don’t have your own wheels there are plenty of tour companies in Bogotá that offer group outings.

Lake Guatavita Legend of El Dorado Bogota, Colombia

Lake Guatavita, where the legend of El Dorado lives.

In 2000 a conservation group took over Lake Guatavita and the surrounding area and created a protected zone. Workers spent six years putting in excellent brick and stone trails and letting most of the protected area regenerate after years of clearing, farming and hunting.

You must enter with a guide during one of the timed tours (last entry is at 4 pm; the site is closed on Mondays except during long weekends when they open on Monday but close on Tuesday; 14,000 COP/about US$4 for foreigners). Our tour took about an hour during which we stopped in a replica of a traditional Muisca roundhouse for a cultural cram session, then walked slowly along a short, easy trail (with a few steep sections) during which our guide explained more about the region, the lake and the legend (all in Spanish).

Once we reached the crate’s edge our guide pointed out the and could look down into the lake our guide left us to our own devices to  hike higher up to other view points. Gold or no gold, Lake Guatavita, with its green water, swirling mists, tenacious vegetation and lingering legend, is a lovely spot as you can see in our drone footage from Lake Guatavia, below.

 

Travel tip: We struck real gold when we were tipped off to a restaurant called Le Petit Alsace in the nearby town of Guasca (look for the French flag flapping in the breeze shortly after you turn off the main road toward Guasca, cash only, only open on weekends).

Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

A typical (and delicious) plate at Le Petit Alsace.

Here, French chef Gilbert Staffelbach turns out escargot, beef Bourguignon, duck ala orange, rabbit in wine and more in a rustic cabin as accordion music plays and he floats from table to table wearing full chef whites and a toque. Be sure to order the cheese plate which comes loaded with options made in-house using milk from his own herds of goats and water buffalo.

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach, Le Petit Alsace - Guasca, Colombia

Chef Gilbert Staffelbach of Le Petit Alsace with just some of the cheeses he produces.

 

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Colombia’s Cosmopolitan Capital – Bogotá, Colombia

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).

Bogota 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.

Bogota street performer

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 (don’t make a reservation until you read our epic list of the best restaurants in Bogotá) then there’s Usaquen, which was a separate town but has been incorporated into the sprawl of Bogotá. Then there’s Parque 93 and, well, the list goes on and on.

Rainbow over Bogota

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.

Congresso de la Republica - Plaza Bolivar Candelaria Bogota

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. Check out 15 hand picked favorite items in our photos essay from Bogotá’s Gold Museum. An interactive, rotating display on the third floor called “The Offering” brings the importance of these gold objects to life 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.

Bogota Gold Museum

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.

Cable car ascending Monserrate Bogota

Heading up, up, up on the teleferico cable car to the top of Monserrate hill in Bogotá.

Panorama of Bogota from Monserrate

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.

Botero Museum Bogota

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.

Making empanadas with 5Bogota

Karen learning to make empanadas during a 5Bogota tour of the city.

Graffiti tour with Bogota street artist Kochino

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 fairy tale 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.

Quebrada de la Vieja trail Bogota

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).

Museum Iglesia Santa Clara Church Bogota

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.

Centro-de-Memoria-paz-reconciliation-bogota

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 April 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.

bar BOG hotel Bogota

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.

W Hotel Bogota

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.

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Food Tour: Chicharrón, Intestines & Blood Sausage – Medellin, Colombia

Medellin is not a city known for gourmet cuisine. There are, however, plenty of traditional regional specialties to try when you travel to Medellin. Here’s what happened when we tried a beloved local dish called Bandeja Paisa for the first time…And it doesn’t stop there. The second largest city in Colombia is full of hole-in-the-wall or street corner eateries serving foods that are unique to the region. Medellin City Services offers a three hour food tour of Medellin that includes some of the best places to try chicharrón, cow intestines and blood sausage. It’s not a healthy tour, but it is a happy tour!

Camilo Medellin City Services Food Tour

From left to right: Camillo (owner of Medellin City Services), Karen, Gloria (of chicharrón fame) and David Lee (of MedellinLiving.com)

Is this the best chicharrón in Medellin?

La Gloria de La Gloria in the Envigado area of Medellin, has been turning out some of the best chicharrón (fried pig skin with hunks of fat and meat attached) in the city for nearly 30 years. The modest place is presided over by Gloria herself and she’s often got a bottle of aguardiente (local sugarcane and anise hooch) in her hands and she’s not afraid to share it.  When we introduced ourselves she took our hands and offered us a shot.

The place isn’t much to look at except for the glass display case which is full of gorgeous, succulent meat. The ribs are wonderfully tender and the chicharrón lives up to its fame: meaty, rich and not overly salty.

Chicharron Gloria de la Gloria in Envigado

The display case at La Gloria de la Gloria and its succulent contents including the famous chicharrón front and center.

Chunchurria is just a fancy word for cow intestines

Herman’s street cart is spotlessly clean and that’s important when you’re about to eat the small intestine of a cow, aka chunchurria (also called chunchullo). Taken from young bulls called novillos, the grilled small intestines, which are chopped, spiced and griddle fried then served in a styrofoam cup, are about how you’d imagine: pungent and slightly rubbery.

Chunchullo Chinchulin Chunchurria intestines Medellin

Herman, left, runs the cleanest street stand in Medellin where he fries up cow intestines.

Not all blood sausages are created equal

Blood sausage, called morcilla, are a staple throughout Colombia but they very greatly in quality. The worst morcilla is dry and squishy and overly gamey. The best examples are a rich mix of rice, blood and seasoning inside a snappy casing. That’s the type served at El Hijo de Estela, a popular, casual, open-air restaurant in the foothills above Medellin. Even if you don’t think you’re going to like blood sausage this is the place to give it a whirl and they serve lots of other well-made, meat-centric dishes and delicious patacones (fried plantain rounds).

Morcilla blood sausage El Hijo de Estela Medellin

Morcilla (blood sausage) and patacones (fried plantain patties) at El Hijo de Estela in Medellin, Colombia.

A buñuelo as big as your head

A buñuelo is a ball of dough and cheese that’s deep fried until it’s golden and crispy on the outside and pale and fluffy on the inside. It’s a ubiquitous snack in Colombia and best served fresh out of the fryer. They are invariably, impossibly perfectly round and usually the size of a bloated golf ball.

El Pergrino Bunuelo Sabaneta Medellin

El Pergrino in the Sabaneta neighborhood of Medellin serves buñuelos that are nearly as big as softballs.

However, at El Pergrino (above) in the Sabaneta area of the city they make ’em big. Really big. Like the size of a softball big (below). Perfect for sharing.

Bunuelo

The softball-size buñuelos at El Pergrino in Medellin are perfect for sharing.

Food tour special offer: Say “The Trans-Americas Journey sent me” when booking and get this food tour of Medellin for US$75 instead of US$95.

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9 Free Things to Do in Medellin – Medellin, Colombia

We kind of fell in love with the second largest city in Colombia because of the perfect weather and the Texas-sized attitude of the local Paisas. In a previous post, we explained why we love Medellin and also acknowledged that the city is not exactly jam-packed with tourist attractions. There are, however, a variety of things that travelers can do and see for free (or damn close)–from art to dead people to butterflies. Here are our nine favorite free things to do in Medellin. After all, nothing makes a travel budget go further than free.

Free things to do in Medellin, Colombia

Real City Tours: Pablo Alvarez-Correa, 28, was born in Medellin. He trained as an engineer and traveled extensively before returning to the city where he started Real City Tours in 2013. Since then he’s been running an increasingly popular four-hour free walking tour of Medellin twice daily Monday to Friday. The all-English tour is peppered with Pablo’s entertaining explanations of complicated elements of Colombian history and illuminating personal stories which bring historic and modern Medellin to life. Please tip as generously as you can.

Real Medellin Tours

Pablo Alvarez-Correa, founder and tour leader of the free Real City Tours of Medellin.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum: Not every cemetery is also a museum. Then again, not every cemetery holds the history of a city like Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum. Founded in 1842 as a cemetery for the elite, it grew over the years. In 1970 it was opened up for use by the general public and in 1997 it was designated as a museum, in part to protect the final resting place of some of the most important figures in Medellin politics, journalism, the arts and business including three former Colombian presidents.

The vast cemetery is free to enter (open 8am to 2pm) and features some lovely carving and statues, but its real value is as a one-stop-shop of the city’s history as told through the dead. To really understand that side of the cemetery you need a guide. We were guided by David Graaf who was working for Palenque Tours.

David showed us some of the most famous graves in the cemetery, explained some of the statues and said that the cemetery is open on full moon nights when it hosts bohemian gatherings of students and artists. We noted a grave dating back to 1875, then it was time for more recent history.

San-Pedro-Cemetery-Medellin

Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum is free to enter and full of city history.

In the 1980s and 1990s drug traffickers terrorized citizens of Medellin with random and brutal acts of violence that killed cartel members, police officers, politicians and innocent bystanders. As the drug business boomed so did the burial business.

Pablo Escobar’s grave is not in the San Pedro cemetery, but some of his victims and associates are. One of the most memorable examples is mausoleum #17 marked Lilia. Here a mother has buried six of her sons. All of them were hit men (called sicarios) for Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. All of them were killed violently. The glass-fronted Munoz Mosquera mausoleum is lovingly arranged like a living room with a chandelier, side tables and an open bible. A radio used to be hooked up to an illegal electrical connection so it could play her sons’ favorite music (ranchera). Loudly.

An ironic factoid: Pablo Escobar allegedly got his criminal start by stealing marble gravestones.

Though the bad old Escobar days are in the past, gangs still exist in Medellin and the San Pedro Cemetery can be a dangerous place when gang members are being buried due to a combination of heavy drinking by mourners and the occasional attack by rival gang members. This explains why visitors to San Pedro Cemetery are wanded for weapons before being let in.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum

San Pedro Cemetery Museum in Medellin, Colombia.

Plaza Botero: When an art world heavy hitter famous for enormous bronze statues is born in your city, well, you better make some space for his work. Plaza Botero in central Medellin is a huge, free, public outdoor space jam-packed with the 23 sculptures by native son Fernando Botero.

Plaza Botero Medellin Museum of Antioquia

Fine examples of bronze sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero in Plaza Botero.

Botero sculptures - Plaza Botero Medellin

Sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero make Plaza Botero a favorite (and free) place to hang out.

Medellin Metro: Residents of Medellin are proud of their metro system and they should be. It’s clean, civilized, safe, efficient and nearly free at just 2,000 COP (about US$0.70 per ride anywhere the lines go including the metrocables (see below). Construction of a new tram system called the Tranvia is being finished now and will service even more parts of the city. Two new metrocable lines are in the works too.

Medellin Metro

Clean, efficient and nearly free, Medellin’s Metro system is a winner in the city.

Encicla Medellin: Even cheaper than the metro is the Encicla network of city bikes at automated stands offering bikes that are free to use for up to an hour even for foreigners. Just register on the Inscribite section of the website by submitting a copy of your passport and you’re good to go. New stands of bikes and new bike paths are opening in Medellin all the time.

Escolaras de Comuna 13: In 2011 escalators that travel from the valley up through a poor community known as Comuna 13 were inaugurated in an attempt to ease the commute for more than 12,000 residents, reduce crime and beautify the run down and often dangerous area. Escolaras de Comuna 13, which were built in six sections, replaced 350 steep, dilapidated stairs that residents used to have to navigate to get up and down the hillside.

Escolaras de Comuna 13 Medellin, Colombia

Medellin’s Escolaras de Comuna 13 take residents and travelers up into a hillside community above the city for free.

About 1,000 riders a day use the free escalators and they’re mostly locals though travelers are welcome to make the journey too. Young local caretakers are stationed along the way armed with uniforms, walkie talkies and information about the escalators and the community. We talked to Jose for a while and he told us that crime in the area has gone down because of the increased traffic and attention the escalators brought to the community. Most of the walls around the escalators have been painted in bright and creative murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” by local artists.

You may be told that the escolaras are not safe, however, we spent more than an hour traveling on them, taking photos and talking to Jose and we never felt threatened.

Comuna 13 escalators - Medellin, Colombia

Murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” were commissioned from local artists to brighten up Medellin’s free Escolaras de Comuna 13.

Botanical Garden of Medellin: This is a true haven in the city. Opened in the late 19th century but expanded to more or less what you see today in 1972, the five acre Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden of Medellin is home to thousands of species of plants and flowers and is totally free for anyone who want to enjoy the open-air orchid house, a butterfly house, a cactus garden and peaceful paths and picnic areas right in the middle of the city. There’s also a very nice cafe with outdoor seating.

Butterfly Botanical garden Medellin, Colombia

Inside the butterfly house in the totally free Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden in Medellin.

Medellin Metrocable: In 2004 the city of Medellin inaugurated a system of aerial cable cars (like a ski lift without the snow) to provide transportation for residents of some of the poor communities that cover the hillsides around Medellin. The Medellin Metrocable, considered to be the first cable-propelled transit system in South America, also provides an exciting sight seeing ride with steep ascents and descents, spectacular views of the city below and an illuminating progression from developed city up into under developed areas and it’s free to ride up through the comunas if you’ve already purchased a Metro ticket.

Right now there are two Metrocable lines (J & K) that service several comunas. A third line (L) continues beyond the K line to Parque Arvi. The total length of the three Metrocable lines is 5.8 miles (9.3 km) Two new lines that are being constructed now will ultimately connect with the new Tranvia train line in the city.

Medellin Metrocable Linea J

Take the Metrocable (free with your 70 cent Metro ticket) for the best views down on the city of Medellin.

Up above the comunas tickets are required to travel on the L line (4,600 COP or about US$1.50 each way) which climbs even more steeply over forested hillsides and small farms. Your final destination is Parque Arvi, a large mountaintop protected area that is free to enter and features free geared mountain bike rental (including helmets) through the Enciclia network that we already mentioned, hiking trails, picnic areas, babbling brooks, a handful of restaurants and even a small farmer’s market in front of the Metrocable station at the top of the line.

Check out our time-lapse video, below, of the 24 minute 4.1 mile (6.6 km) ride up to Parque Arvi.

Medellin Museum of Modern Art:  Entry is based on a donation system at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art which is really just two loft-like rooms which house rotating shows. The installations we saw were interesting enough and the museum store is your best bet for souvenirs.

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