I came to Bogota very excited, optimistic, and excited for our next adventure. After Salento, I was really looking forward to internet connection and to spend time in this bustling, Latin American city I’ve been hearing so much about for years. After meeting and speaking with many travelers in the past 6 weeks, I’d gotten mixed reviews on Bogota. People either seemed to really like it or hate it for various reasons. We got a great deal on a very nice apartment in the La Candelaria neighborhood via AirBnb and already liked our landlord. To top everything off, the 7 hour bus ride from to Bogota on Espresso Boliviarano went very smoothly. I was looking forward to experiencing the city for myself and making my own opinion.
I now leave this place feeling very confused. I didn’t love Bogota but I didn’t hate it either. My feelings are pretty indifferent. I don’t feel let down but I don’t feel like singing Bogota’s praises either. I had some great experiences here but on the other hand had negative ones as well (which I understand is normal for any place you go as nowhere is perfect). So to give Bogota a fair shot, I’m going to explain what I experienced as good and bad aspects of the city. I’ll start with the good first as to not scare anyone off!
Different areas and neighborhoods – Bogota is a city of 7.4 million people and is the epicenter of the entire country. Bogota is sprawling which is visible from the views at Montserrat. As with most cities, this creates a huge diversity and many different neighborhoods.
Dan and I elected to stay in La Candelaria as it is less expensive than El Chapinero or Zona Rosa but still relatively safe during the day and caters a bit to travelers with many hostels, restaurants, cafes, etc. From here, we choose to take a city tour by bike with Bogota Bike Tours (which I highly recommend) and we were able to see so many different sides of the city this way. We were taken to safe neighborhoods, rough neighborhoods, the red light district, the city center, the market, places you’d never go on your own and places you might. In the 5 hours during the tour, it was easy to see that Bogota has quite a bit of variety.
Culture and History – Similar to Medellin, Bogota is home to a lot of Colombia’s culture and much of the history as well. There are so many museums and cultural centers to visit such as El Museo de Oro (the Gold Museum which we really enjoyed), Museo de Botero (famous artist from Medellin), Museo de la Independencia, Museo de Arte, Museo Nacional, Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cultural Center (famous author from Colombia), and so many more. Coupled with museums and other cultural centers, there are also numerous cathedrals, plazas, and other historic buildings such as the Capitolio Nacional and Palacio de Justicia. Many of these places can be found in La Candelaria in or near Plaza Bolivar or in the city center therefore there are all very accessible and either free to enter or cheap (the Gold Museum was only 3,000 CP a person).
During our bike tour, our guide Mike pointed out locations that we had already walked by that had historical significance that we would have never realized. For example, near the Emerald District (it is common to buy and sell emeralds in Bogota) lies the office where popular political leader Jorge Gaitan was shot that started an uprising in the entire country in 1948 called El Bogotazo. Also in the 1980’s, the guerrilla group M19 stormed the Palace of Justice and took over 300 hostages and murdered 115 people. Hearing about Bogota’s gruesome past makes you appreciate how far the city has come as murder rates are decreasing and progressive projects to better the city are on the increase (such as Ciclovia, politically geared street art, etc).
Street Art and Graffiti – Upon entering Bogota, I noticed this immediately. There is graffiti everywhere and not just random words or symbols that don’t really mean anything to me as a passerby. They are detailed, well thought out murals that line many of the streets, alleys, and tunnels in the city. The graffiti that was pointed out to us had political, social, or ethical topics such as women’s rights, protests against the United Fruit Company (who exploited Colombia and it’s workers for banana production), displacement of people (Colombia has approximately 4-6 million), the dangerous mining industry, knowing what your food eats, and that’s all I can remember now but I know there was so much more. Some of the graffiti is sponsored by the city and some is sponsored by private organizations or just citizens wanting to speak out.
What does your food eat?
Food – Once again the food scene in Colombia has not disappointed me. Each meal we ate was fantastic. We mostly stuck to the La Candelaria neighborhood for dining but some great places we ate were Andante Ma Non Trappo (Italian), El Gato Gris (has great live music), and La Hamburgeseria (hamburgers, vegetarian options, and more). But my very favorite was La Puerta Falsa near Plaza Bolivar. La Puerta Falsa has been open since the 1800’s and still has that feeling inside. It is a tiny restaurant that serves Colombian classics such as tamals and ajiaco which is what Dan and I ordered (they even graciously gave it to me without chicken). We then ended our meal with delicious Chocolate Caliente that comes with a full spread of cheese and bread – I’m convinced there is no better combination than cheese, bread and chocolate.
Seeing FRIENDS – Many of my good memories from Bogota were spent catching up and having fun with Jon, Heather and Tupp who came to visit from Nicaragua. They own International TEFL Academy Nicaragua and it’s so funny to me that we never seem to meet in the USA despite all of us being originally from Chicago. We ate, drank, danced, listened to live music, climbed Montserrat and got stuck in the rain. I realize that adding seeing familiar, friendly faces to my good experience list isn’t quite fair since not everyone may be able to have this opportunity. But no matter what, I will always have good memories and fuzzier feelings of Bogota because of the time we spent with them.
Safety – I was really hoping to prove the Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and everyone else wrong by coming away from Bogota saying that I felt safe the entire time. During the daylight, each place we visited was busy and I never felt unsafe – even on the way to Montserrat which many people have reported muggings at knifepoint. Truth be told that in La Candelaria at night, I did not.
I’m not too sure what other parts of the city feel like at night, but La Candelaria dies (with the exception of a few plazas and bars and depends on the night of the week) and many streets feel eerily deserted. We were out until 1 am listening to live music on Thursday night and on our 3 block walk home we were approached by a woman messed up on drugs shoving needles and drugs at us. Although she was pretty harmless, it still was an unsettling experience as she wouldn’t leave us alone for awhile, she continued to push up on Dan, and I had no idea what she would do. Did she have a knife? Did she have friends that would want to steal from us? There was no one else around to help us so we would have been screwed if either of these scenarios were true.
I also met a few other people who live in Bogota that teach English and they refer to it as the “bog” because it has worn them down. Both of them have been mugged during the day and at knifepoint and take cabs after dark (meaning after 6 p.m.) wherever they are going.
Weather – Overcast, rainy, and smoggy is how I would describe the weather in Bogota. The temperature was actually okay for Dan and I as it was in the low 60’s making it pretty comfortable to walk around and not sweat all over the place like in Medellin or Cartagena. Otherwise, it was kind of gross and as I mentioned, we were stuck up on Montserrat in a torrential downpour for a good hour.
Filtered and edited view from Montserrat
Gritty, dirty, crowded Latin American city – Many cities have a dirty, gritty side to them, this is pretty normal. If you have traveled in Latin America before, Bogota has the same sort of quality that I’ve seen in Managua, San Jose, and Lima – it is a concrete, gray, smoggy, traffic filled gridlock. There are people everywhere and just looking at the completely filled to the brim buses just gives me a headache. Although Bogota is highly interesting, I would never call it a beautiful city.
I think Bogota is a complicated place with an extremely violent, recent past. No matter what, I would recommend that travelers don’t just pass up Bogota all together. So many political, social, cultural and economic occurrences have taken place in Bogota that if you want to understand or learn about Colombia, you are missing out by skipping Bogota.
Additionally, I also understand that each person’s experience can completely shape how they feel about a city – maybe if we wouldn’t have stayed in Candelaria or wouldn’t have had friends visit us I’d feel totally different about it and actually have a more set opinion. I believe that I would need some more time here to completely understand it but not sure it is worth our precious time and money as backpackers to stay and figure it all out.