As somebody who has spent lots of leisurely time in Bogotá, capital of Colombia – a city that a normal tourist might tire of after about three active days – I feel it to be my duty to rack my brains and come up with some reasons that make it bearable! So here are the first 5 things that I could think of on a mild September in England about a week after my most recent stint there.
The Mountains and Cerro de Montserrate
I love the mountains and nature. That’s possibly why sometimes I find Bogotá frustrating. However, the whole eastern side of the city is flanked by green mountains that give the place a much-needed breath of fresh air. In fact, without these hills I would find the place visually soul-destroying! So whenever I’m stuck in traffic or spluttering dirty air, it is to the hills that I look!
On top of one of these hills; Cerro de Montserrate is a white church that is the destination for many Catholic pilgrims in this traditionally religious country. The whole trip to the peak is great for several reasons. Firstly, it has the best view of Bogotá! Well, that depends on when you are there. During the morning the air tends to be clear and you have a clear panoramic vista. However, later on in the day the notorious Bogotá pollution comes into play and the view is at best hazy. It’s amazing though that on one side you are looking down on a vast, dirty metropolis whilst on the other is wilderness. It is a really nice escape from the oppressiveness of the city.
The best time to go up depends on your purpose. I went up on a Sunday which was great because they have an actual, genuine Catholic church service going on, which is packed. Even if you aren’t remotely religious, it’s still an experience. On the other hand, if you like quiet space, go up during the week!
There are various options for making the ascent. You can walk, but local advice suggests that you only do this on a Sunday or festive day when there are lots of other people doing the same thing. Doing it on a quieter day allegedly makes you more prone to being robbed by local youths who live en-route to the top in not so salubrious conditions! I heard one story of somebody who didn’t believe this, only to make the descent minus his expensive waterproof jacket!
The most popular route to the top is via the cable car (telesférico). On a weekend you may have to wait some time in a queue, but during the week it shouldn’t take too long. It is actually cheaper on a Sunday too (about 15,000 pesos for an adult). There is also the option to take the funicular railway, or even better, go up by one mode and descend using the other!
At the top there are lots and lots of stores selling foods and drinks. My personal recommendation is to try some canelazo – a hot spiced fruit drink with aguardiente or rum. If it’s a cold day it will provide you with a little glow in your stomach! Also try bocadillo – a sweet bar made of guava paste and sugar.
Anyway, it’s definitely one of the highlights of Bogotá. It’s not difficult to find because you can see it from just about anywhere in the city! Just take a taxi and get dropped off at the bottom.
Bogotá has a great selection of museums, especially in the old La Candelaria area. The best is probably the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) which accommodates the largest collection of Pre-Columbian gold in the world. Personally, about 5 minutes after the initial awe of “Ooh, look at that piece of gold”, I was bored. I mean, gold is gold! Maybe it’s my background in natural sciences that sees it as just another chemical composition!
There are plenty of other museums dotted about if that’s your thing and it’s raining. Personally, I’m drawn more to natural history types, so I’ll reserve judgement for now on the rest that the city has to offer.
One thing that impresses me here is the way that the city (well the whole country) likes to put on a show whenever possible. A great example was the way the 2011 under-20 football World Cup (sub-20 mundial) was taken to the hearts of the city with the flags of the competing nations being flown all over the city. One of my favourite events in 2009 though was the free Bogotá Jazz in the Park festival in Parque Bolivar. I love jazz so it was great to sit on the grass in the sun all day listening to some great live artists. The genre of music wasn’t important though as there were plenty of people there who if I passed them in the street I would never think of as jazz appreciators! If you prefer a different genre or art, I’m sure that Colombia’s capital will have some free or cheap festival to satisfy you somewhere!
Ok, this is a bit of a double-edged sword. At peak times, travelling by this modern tram system can be a stressful and sweaty chore! However, I try to think of how the city must have been pre-2001 when the system was inaugurated. Even now the main alternatives of buses are equally jam-packed during rush hour, not to mention forever stuck in traffic jams (trancónes), so beforehand….not worth thinking about.
The best thing about the Transmilenio is that you can get from one end of the city to the other super-quickly because it has priority lanes and so only has to stop at stations and traffic lights, however bad the traffic. It’s a pity that alleged corruption has delayed the completion of new routes to the airport for example, but this is South America and that is another story!
I’m sure that this one is a controversial positive to some; but you see, I just don’t like heat! Or more accurately I don’t like humidity. So whilst many a traveller takes off directly to Cartagena or Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast in search of sun, sea and sweat, I decline the option and stick to The Andes! The best thing about the weather in Bogotá is its relative predictability (ok, it’s predictable on the coast too – predictably uncomfortable!). Every day is roughly between 14-25C, no matter the time of the year. Locals will tell you that there are actually two seasons, but what they are primarily referring is to a wet season and a dry season and not something related to temperature. The funny thing here is that on some days you can walk on side of the street in the sun and wear a t-shirt and sun-screen, whilst at the same time in the shade on the other side you will need a warmish jacket! But it’s all part of the charm that attracts my northern-European instincts!
So those are 5 of my favourite things about Bogotá, Colombia. There are other ones too that I will get around to writing about when I think about them, as well as a whole list of frustrations that might be easier to write about!
Let me know what you love about Colombia (keep it clean!)