Bogotá does not receive rave reviews from travellers. Bloggers often describe it as the lowlight of their visit to Colombia. Crime, traffic and general greyness tend to be the main complaints. However, everything from the airport to the vibe of the city has also generated negative comments online. So, what should you really expect on a trip to the Colombian capital?
El Dorado Airport
Having heard that it was chaotic, this was one arrival that inspired a definite sense of dread. What was it actually like?
Upon landing, passengers proceeded straight to immigration. Although not exactly unfriendly, I had to give a detailed account of my travel plans, as well as the address of the hostel where I would be staying in Bogotá.
The baggage hall was a short walk away. Everything was quick and efficient. Unlike when I flew with BA to Lima, my luggage actually arrived this year. Officers with dogs circulated through the crowd (for obvious reasons). Before proceeding landslide, all travellers had to hand in their Customs Form. In addition, they scanned all bags before allowing us to leave.
Getting a taxi was also straightforward, even if it was different to other South American airports. Usually, there is an official taxi kiosk inside the main terminal. However, at El Dorado Airport there is a taxi rank straight outside the arrivals area. Also, there are officials wearing orange or yellow jackets who guide arriving travellers to official taxis.
Far from being chaotic and dangerous, El Dorado Airport is quite organised.
In three words: Uber, Uber, Uber. Present in Bogotá for the last two years, it has revolutionised the local transport scene. Forget arguments with local taxi drivers. Install the app. Pinpoint your current location. Choose your destination. The app then locates your driver, gives you the registration number of the car and tells you the exact fare that you will pay. Travelling with other passengers additionally reduces the fare that you pay. In fact, I can say that it has been a great way to get to know the locals. Generally, once they discovered that I was an overseas traveller, they usually gave me great tips and advice on Bogotá and travel in Colombia. Oh, the conversations I have had! ¡Bienvenido a Colombia!
Uber, where have you been all my life?
The Vibe in Bogotá
From the moment I stepped into the taxi at the airport, the helpfulness and friendliness of the locals have been the dominant impression. Let’s just say that people seem more open and ready to smile than last year in Peru. They are always ready to give advice, particularly regarding the places to visit and those to avoid.
Hopefully, people will be as warm and friendly elsewhere in Colombia.
The Downsides of Travel in Bogotá
Now for the downsides, the city can be grey and edgy. First of all, the weather is Ireland on steroids. Forget those tropical stereotypes of the Caribbean coast. With mountains all around, the weather changes every ten minutes. Sunshine, clouds, and rain come and go at regular intervals. Bogotá is definitely another onion destination- think layers!
Although the locals are beyond friendly, there is undoubtedly an edge here. This is particularly true in specific areas. The taxi driver from the airport remarked of La Candelaria: ‘Hay mucha indigencia.’ For your information, that is the main tourist centre and it is also the home of the government. Yet, it does indeed feel miserable at times. However, even in chic Usaquen, I noticed that the beggar was eyeing my wallet pocket while he asked me for money.
Sadly, as a city of contrasts, Bogotá is a place where you need to keep an eye out.
Packed with historic buildings, La Candelaria is the point of departure for most travellers in Bogotá. Plaza Bolivar is Trafalgar Square on a large scale. It’s even got pigeons!
Calle 11 contains many of the main buildings of interest to visitors. At the corner of Plaza Bolivar and Calle 11 stands Casa del Florero, a building that had an impact on the history of the entire continent. La Puerta Falsa, recommended by the Lonely Planet as the starting point of a tour of La Candelaria, is also located in Calle 11. Art aficionados will want to check out Museo Botero, along with the adjoining Casa de la Moneda.
No matter how long travellers spend in Bogotá, Museo del Oro (The Gold Museum) is a bucket-list place. World class, the beautiful displays of gold from Pre-Colombian cultures will literally make the eyes pop out of your head. Although many museums here are free, this costs 4000 pesos (a little more than one euro).
Locals warn that La Candelaria can be dangerous at night. However, it never has a particularly savoury feel, even by day. Despite its historic interest, grey slabs of concrete sit side by side with original colonial buildings. Protests can happen quickly and without warning. I witnessed an angry crowd surrounding a group of armed police on my first day there. Needless to say, I hightailed it out of there quickly.
A step up from La Candelaria, it has a slightly chic feel in places. Picture tree-lined avenues of modern apartments, cool coffee shops and a wide selection of bars and restaurants. Café Cultor (see below) is a place coffee lovers should check out.
Once a village outside the city, Bogotá swallowed Usaquen in the 1950s. These days the district is best known for its Sunday market. During the week it is a quiet area with a selection of interesting cafés, restaurants, and a few decent craft shops. Those looking for handmade Colombian products might want to check out Bamba and Awa Colombia. Both shops are located at Calle 119 #6A.
The charm of Usaquen lies in its calm feel. Much of the original Spanish architecture stands intact. The streets tend to be calm, so it’s a place to just wander and check out the shops. If other parts of the city feel intense, Usaquen is the perfect antidote.
For travellers coming directly to South America from Europe and North America, Bogotá will be paradise. Those arriving from other destinations in South America such as Peru and Bolivia may find it a little pricey.
Eating local will reduce costs. Empanadas cost about 2500 pesos (less than one euro) and a fruit salad generally costs 5000-6000 pesos (1.50 euro).
Uber fares depend on the distance travelled and the time of day. However, travellers can expect to get around cheaply (1-3 euro per ride).
The caveat is this: if you try to pack lots of activities in, you will inevitably spend more money. It can all start to add up in the end.
Note: There are plenty of ATMs and this is a cheap and efficient way to access money.
It all depends on your expectations.
The coffee scene in Bogotá will eventually be an article all to itself. In the meantime, travellers should try one of the coffee experiences at Café Arte y Pasión (website in Spanish) in La Candelaria. In particular, the ‘Coffee origins experience’ takes you on a tasting tour of Colombian coffee regions. The 25,000 peso price tag is well worth it if you are looking for an introduction to Colombian coffee.
Amor Perfecto (follow the link to the Facebook page) in Chapinero was a trailblazer on the Bogotá coffee scene. The café attracts a lot of expat coffee lovers. This is hardly surprising because its luminous interior is a great place to enjoy a high-quality, single-origin Colombian coffee. It’s definitively another destination that coffee lovers should seek out.
Café Cultor (follow the link to the Facebook page) is a place that combines an organic theme with a love of coffee. This must be one of the coolest at cafés in South America. Check it out when you arrive!
The Verdict on Bogotá
At worst, there is something of Lima about Bogotá. It can be grey. There’s no doubt that it feels rough at times. Also, Usaquen has a touch of Barranco (Lima) about it, in a positive sense. Overall, the city is well worth 3-4 days at least. It is a centre of culture. Its neighbourhoods are sufficiently distinct to make them worth a visit.
People are usually overwhelmingly warm and sociable. They want you to enjoy their city and their country. However, Colombians tend not to speak English, so those who depend on English as their Lingua Franca may be in for a bit of a shock.
On a personal note, I hope that my trip to Colombia will continue to be as pleasant once I get away from the capital.