Bogota gets a pretty bad rap. It isn’t known for being the most beautiful or exciting of cities and many tourists quickly hightail it out of here for Medellin or Cartagena. Some even skip it entirely. But Bogota actually has plenty to offer a curious traveller, with every street telling something of the history of Colombia, if one cared to look closer.
It’s true that the city centre doesn’t have the old world charm of Cartagena and Santa Marta – but this is for a very good reason. The unattractive brick buildings now dominating downtown actually reflect Colombia’s turbulent political past. In 1948 one of Colombia’s most loved potential leaders was assassinated (its said by the CIA). This sparked a huge riot. Buildings were destroyed where he had been shot down, the modern tram system was set on fire and there was unrest across the city. This incident known as the ‘Bogotazo’ has shaped the city centre today. However towards the east, the oldest parts of the city still remain in ‘La Candelaria’. One is still able to stroll through narrow cobbled streets, sample the suprisingly tasty locally fermented alcohol ´Chicha´and marvel at the impressive street art scene which has become a defining force in Bogota. In addition ´El Plaza del Chorro’ is a good spot to grab a beer and chill, being the central location where many University students wind down and where musicians frequent.
The ´free´ graffiti tour here is unmissable, with the competent guide describing the styles, political messages and history of graffiti in this city. Despite strong opposition from government at certain points, the vibrant street art community has only grown over the past decade. Many artists now travel from across the world to work with Bogota´s street crews and residents pay to have their building facades painted, to raise the value of their homes. La Candelaria also has many cute coffee shops, cool bars and restaurants popping up. There are options ranging from traditional Colombian fare to modern cuisine to inexpensive street food. It´s hardly worth cooking here with a good meal costing as little as $3.
On that note Bogota is certainly the least expensive of the large cities in Colombia. A great initiative by the government has been to make all of the museums free or cost less than $5 entry (and even those are free on Sundays!). And there are a lot of museums to choose from: the National museum, the Modern Art museum, the Gold museum, Botero museum, Banco de Republica museum, the Police museum, the Military museum – literally countless options. My personal picks are the Police and Gold museums. The police museum is fascinating and there are english guides (also free). The museum includes valuable articles confiscated from Pabo Escobar and other cartels plus records of notable captures. The police are very proud of their museum and rightly so, its neither too large nor too small and showcases the ongoing conflict between cartels and rebel groups within Colombia. The gold museum is something that is undoubtedly unique to Bogota and the pieces are stunning. If you are interested in ethnography this is the museum for you – as it explores the origin of particular artifacts and gold-working styles.
The party scene is reknowned in Medellin but I would rate Bogota as highly. Every night, except perhaps Sunday and Monday, there are options for fiestas. ‘Gringo Tuesdays’ in La Villa provides an opportunity to practice spanish and meet locals at a language exchange event. Conveniently, this event takes place during happy hour so by the end of conversation time the dancefloor opens up and locals and foreigners have the opportunity to get to know eachother even better.. From wednedays onwards there are a variety of venues with live music, karaoke and inexpensive happy hours both in La Candelaria as well as Zona Rosa (the party centre of Bogota). One club I thoroughly enjoyed is ´Theatron´ in the Chapinero neighbourhood. This club has 5 floors and many rooms, all with different music and atmopheres. There is a dancefloor exclusively for guys and another for girls (for those that swing that way) and they often hold great events like ‘Brazil night’ with amazing samba dancers and music. The biggest plus for me (and here I really show my Aussie roots) is that although entry is a steep $20, this includes an open bar until 2am (starting from when you get in). They don´t skimp on the alcohol, the bar line is small and there are a range of spirits and mixers you can choose from – what more could you want? It´s true that the queue to get into this particular club was dauntingly large when we arrived, but it goes suprisingly quickly (covering 3 blocks in just 20 minutes), so don´t be put off!
On Sundays the city centre really comes alive. All of the main streets are blocked off and become a thoroughfare for people walking, cycling, rollerblading – you name it! There are various markets dotted around the city, with large flea markets offering wonderful antiques and second-hand clothes as well as food markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. And the fruits in Bogota are amazing. There are many types you won’t find anywhere else in the world – so definitely have a bit of fun giving the unfamiliar ones a try. On sunday the whole city moves outdoors and there are hundreds of street performers – from Michael Jackon impersonaters, to guinea pig roulette (definitely worth betting on!) to dance and music crews. Even the light rain that Bogota is known for doesn’t subdue the crowds and I’ve never encountered a better opportunity to people watch!
Finally if you’re thinking of settling in a city I wouldn’t dismiss Bogota. There are many wide parks to stroll through, the weather is reliable and cool – but not too cold – and the water here is safe to drink. The transport system is good too, now that the ´transmilenial´has been built. This is an exclusive busway that goes straight through the city from North to South and is very easy to navigate by and affordable (less than $1 per trip). In addition the city is far safer than just a few years ago. It’s still not advisable to walk around alone after 10pm but during the day robberies are at an all-time low and with uber there is a safer transport option available than taxis. In addition just outside of the cities are a range of great daytrips – includomg to the largest underground salt cathedral!
So if you are thinking of skipping Bogota, as many friends of mine did, reconsider! This colourful city has a lot to offer.