Some of our best friends, Lauren and Marcé, tied the knot in Cartagena, Colombia this past February, and Johnny and I extended the trip with a two-night stay in Bogotá on the way. Though it was a brief, we were able to make our way around a few major areas in the city and see some sights and enjoy the local flavors.
First, I should start with YES, we felt very safe in both Bogotá and Cartagena, but more on that later. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about Colombia other than its reputation for delicious coffee, rich agriculture and well, of course, its drug history (hello, Narcos). And I don’t pretend to think that seeing two cities means I’ve got a grasp on the whole country, but these are two vastly different destinations and did provide some variety.
Bogotá is the capital city and it’s massive. According to Wikipedia, it’s the fifth-most-populous city in the Americas, right behind New York City, with 8.081 million people. (Wikipedia has NYC listed as 8.406 million.) Naive of me, I know, but I had no idea it was so large. It’s also high-altitude, as the city is nestled on a plateau in the eastern part of the Andes. The city appears to bump up against the mountains, adding extra scenery and lush greenery to everything.
Before our trip, we watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, Colombia, on Amazon and were glad we did for a few reasons. He did a great job of addressing the elephant in the room by traveling immediately to Miraflores, the Amazonian city where coca was primarily produced once upon a time. Sitting down with the city mayor, he discusses the measures Colombia has put in place to keep its people safe and ensure the message is loud and clear to all, that gone are the days of drug lords ruling the land. Instead, you see military or private police, frequently with trained dogs, to maintain the safety that exists now. Miraflores is now barely more than a small town, though with sprawling, beautiful land. In Bogotá, it’s common to see at least one officer and a dog by his side in front of buildings or on the streets. These people are there to send a loud message, and not because of any imminent threat. They blend into the background (except that I wished I could pet all of the dogs!).
Second, he introduced us to a few of the local dishes, which Johnny and I were able to seek out on the trip. Namely, Ajiaco, a chicken soup typically made with three kinds of potatoes and a local herb, guascas. With a thick consistency, it’s somewhere between a soup and a stew, and is often served with optional toppings of corn on the cob, capers, heavy cream and half of an avocado.
A few pointers to start: One, you can’t walk all over the city. Expect to cab when going across neighborhoods and especially across town. It can also take a long time because of the traffic. Second, very few people speak English, or at least the people we encountered. Perhaps this is different in areas that do a lot of international business, but even the hotel staff were limited on the language. Thankfully, Johnny knows some basic Spanish!
As I have mentioned before, we aren’t big museum people, but there are plenty to visit in Bogotá if that is your thing. Museo Botero and The Gold Museum were both recommendations from Lauren and several websites. However, we spent our time exploring the city and food.
We arrived late Monday night and started Tuesday morning with coffee and breakfast at the coffee shop attached to the Hilton we were staying in, Café Devoción, which happens to have a second location in Brooklyn. The coffee was fantastic and a light breakfast with an arepa and eggs was a perfect start to the day. Check out this list for coffee, which names the two shops we visited while in town.
I should add that the Hilton was very nice, with a sleek look and feel, and extremely friendly staff who mostly spoke English, which we found to be a rare occurrence across the city. Johnny is a Hilton Honors member and we cashed in points for free nights during our stay and were extremely pleased with the hotel and location. The location was great, in Zona G, a hip neighborhood adjacent to downtown, with plenty of good restaurants and hotels.
Next we headed to Mount Monserrate for the views and to tour the historic church at the top. You can see the entire city from one side of the mountain, truly giving way to just how far the city spans. On the other side, you can see more of the lush mountainside and walk the garden trail with the Stations of the Cross. At the top, there are two restaurants, a small cafe and some souvenir shops and small food stands. We got there pretty early on a Tuesday, so the line for the cable car up wasn’t too long, but on the way down, it had already started to get crowded. Definitely go early and there didn’t seem to be a need to buy tickets in advance.
From there, we took a taxi into La Candelaria, the historical area of downtown, to Bolívar Square that houses several important structures. The Archbishop Cathedral of Bogotá is situated facing the square, surrounded by the Palace of Justice, National Capitol, and the Palacio Liévano, which is the seat of the mayor. We walked around, took in the scenery and explored some of the side streets before stopping for lunch.
We ate at a famous local spot near the square, La Puerta Falsa, for tamales and Ajiaco. Both were fantastic and worth the wait. Mind you, we were there on a Tuesday, so certainly expect an even longer line on a weekend. The restaurant is tiny, dating back to the 1800s and a little research proves that even the locals attest to the quality. In other words, this isn’t a tourist trap. From the street, the window is filled with sweet baked goods and treats, that as a gluten-free celiac, we didn’t try but looked fantastic. If you go, split the soup and tamale – it’s plenty of food!
In the afternoon we walked around Park 93, an upscale neighborhood with excellent restaurants, boutique hotels and a large nightlife. While we didn’t partake in much of this, we did find a rooftop bar in a swanky hotel for a glass of wine. Ironically, the bar was American cowboy themed, complete with rock oldies, despite the fact that no one on staff spoke English.
Our second day was limited on time, so we walked to another fantastic coffee shop, Bourbon Coffee Roasters, in Zona G, the same neighborhood we were staying in. After that, we walked around the city some more before grabbing a taxi to lunch at a ceviche spot, La Mar, recommended to us by Lauren. Gaston Acurio is the chef, from Lima, and has a few restaurants globally – Miami, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, etc. The ceviche was fantastic and everything was cool and fresh, down to the atmosphere.
A famous craft market, Mercado de las Pulgas de Usaquen, is hosted nearby starting on Thursdays and running through the weekend. So sadly we missed it, but did see a few other local vendors on the stone streets of the neighborhood. The area is also lined with unique shops and restaurants.
After that, we were out of time and needing to get to the airport for our trip to Cartagena, though not before grabbing one more coffee at Café Devoción.
In all, I would certainly recommend a trip to this beautiful city, as well as trips to explore the country’s other lovely areas. It’s rich in history, has excellent food and despite the language barrier, we found everyone to be extremely helpful and friendly. Tourists are very welcome and we felt safe the entire time.