Colombia – First Impressions and General Observations about Bogotá

¡Hola! I am writing this from my hostel in Bogotá as I nurse my fourth beer of the evening – Cerveza Poker, and man is it going down smoothly – whilst reflecting on my four great days in Colombia’s massive capital city.

Colombia’s turbulent modern history began with it being perhaps one-fifth, geographically, of a mega-country of the same name following the region’s liberation from Spain in 1870. (If your knowledge of history is sketchy, the rest of “Colombia” included Panama, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia.) Much of Greater Colombia’s destiny was established in Bogotá, one of the oldest cities in the Americas. The city has remained an important player on the Latin American scene, and has weathered a few turbulent decades marked by presidential assassination, a nasty drug war, and paramilitary conflict with FARC and other guerilla groups to once again be a continental hot spot of culture and dining. And the tap water is potable!

Our flight on Avianca (operated by AeroRepublica, aka Copa Colombia; confused yet?) landed safely and we were immediately met by our pre-arranged taxi to our hostel in La Candelaria, a cool old neighborhood that could be mentioned in the same sentence as Paris’s Montmartre or Rio’s Santa Teresa. It was night when we arrived, and although the area closest to the airport seemed to be clean, modern, and safe, we were well aware that La Candelaria didn’t necessarily have the best reputation for safety. Still, all was well, and we arrived without incident. In business class, of course. That, ladies and germs, is how I roll. 🙂

Much of our first two days were spent exploring the streets around Plaza de Bolívar, the “main square” of the city. It is here that many believe Bogotá to have been founded, and it is around here where you’ll find the main government buildings, cathedral, and most colonial buildings. Oh, and pigeons. Lots and lots of pigeons. We visited the Casa del Florero, a Spanish-style hacienda that played an important role in kick-starting South America’s rebellion against its European conquistadores. We posed for pics with the armed guards in front of Colombia’s presidential residence, Casa de Nariño. We wandered the halls of the Museo Botero, which housed an enchanting collection of “chubby” portraits by Colombian-born painter Fernando Botero. We ate like royalty. Steaming chicken-and-corn tamales. Succulent grilled chicken. Tinto campesino (organically-sweetened “peasant coffee”) by Juan Valdez.

For our third day we decided to get a bit further away from the Centro. We left the city altogether, in fact, and traveled by train for Zipaquirá and Cajicá, two small towns 45 kilometers away. Cajicá had a charming main square that reminded me of the plazas in similar-sized Valle de Bravo (Mexico) and Suchitoto (El Salvador). A “turistren” connects these two towns, both of which thrive on religious tourism in the form of Zipaquirá’s Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral), a wholly-bizarre, underground labyrinth that features a modernist take on the 13 stations of the Cross, a fully-functional, subterranean mine that churns out 40% of Colombia’s salt, and an enormous underground cathedral, carved out of salt and reminiscent of the Mines of Moria from “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” Impressive, strange, and more than a little bit cheesy.

On day four, we hiked 1,500 steps (and about as many vertical feet) from eastern Bogotá to the summit of Cerro de Monserrate, a church-topped mountain visible from almost anywhere in the city. The hike was not especially difficult – save for the altitude (10,341 feet/3,152 meters) – but Pamela and I were a bit leery when debating whether or not to do the hike, as the rocky path to the top has been a favorite hangout for Bogotá’s gun-toting muggers. Street smarts say one should only tackle the hike on a Sunday, as the hike attracts pilgrims (some of them barefooted) making their way to the chapel on the summit. Not being one to let a few muggers stop me from a promising hike, I dragged Pamela (not quite) kicking and screaming to the trailhead. As it happens, it wasn’t just any Sunday when we went, but Palm Sunday! This is an exaggeration to be certain, but it felt like half the city was on the mountain with us. And not a bandido in sight! (I spoke with a guide on the trail who told me the hike is now safe every day of the week – just one example of Colombia’s increasing safety.)

Needless to say, the hike was great, with panoramic views much of the way and cloudy skies that managed to hold back their rain the entire day. I assure you that I have not received any kickbacks for saying this, but I want to take a moment and plug the five-star restaurant just below the teléferico (cable car) station on the summit: Restaurante Casa Santa Clara. The girlfriend had a salad appetizer and pasta main course. As is customary, she offered me a few bites of each and it was only with my own restraint that I didn’t claim the rest of her plate for myself. My own meal, ajiaco (a sort of soup with chicken, rice, cream, corn, avocado, and other (unknown by me) vegetables) was close to a religious experience. Seriously, Loyal Reader: If you ever make it to Bogotá I recommend not only a trip to Cerro de Monserrate, but also a meal at this restaurant.

Perfect time for a natural transition: food. I don’t recall ever hearing Bogotá mentioned in the same breath as Buenos Aires, Paris, New York, or San Francisco with regards to its food, but I have loved everything that I’ve tried thus far. From the ajiaco to Cajicá’s succulent grilled chicken to our hostel’s fluffy huevos y croissants to Juan Valdez tinto campesino, every bite and sip was a delectable taste sensation. Even a simple tamal – here wrapped in banana leaves as opposed to the corn tortillas more common in other parts of the world – was a treat. We are leaving for Cartagena tomorrow and as such will miss out on Andrés Carne de Res, said to be one of the best – and most unique – dining experiences on the planet. Must. Return. Soon.

Don’t get me wrong: Bogotá isn’t a perfect city. The capital’s (somehow) award-winning Transmilenio rapid bus line belches out some of the blackest smoke I’ve seen in any major city. Plaza de Bolívar becomes a ghost town after dark. It is ridiculously cold here for a city so close to the equator. Many sidewalks are riddled with ankle-twisting potholes. The city’s homeless have a special gift for appearing seemingly out of nowhere, especially whenever I stop to tie my shoe, or take a photo, or….

It doesn’t matter. Travel in South America brings more risks and extremes than travel in, say, Western Europe…but it also reaps greater rewards. Here <final swig of beer> is hoping I don’t stop traveling anytime soon.

Pics will eventually follow.

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

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