A Week in Bogota: No Signs of Cartel Violence But Plenty to Rave About
When I told my friends I was going to Bogota, Colombia they were sure I would be killed by drug lords, abducted by white slave traders or forced to be a drug mule. Au contraire. Bogota is a beautiful, European-style city with lots to offer and plenty to see.
Turns out that Pablo Escobar drug cartel image has faded… at least enough for me and my significant other to enjoy a lovely week taking in the sophistication and splendor of Columbia’s capital city.
Bogota was surprisingly sophisticated
Rather than encountering Escobar-style violence, we discovered a vibrant city full of educated people who work hard, dress great, and eat like kings. And of course their coffee is exquisite.
That’s not to say we didn’t encounter glimpses of a harsh reality that exists in Colombia, even during our short 7-day stay in Bogota. Sure, there’s street crime: this is a huge capital city. But with our wits about us, we were able to enjoy our week in Colombia’s capital city with only a handful of scary situations.
The Best of Bogota
We aren’t tour people. Preferring our own pathways to discovery, we explored the city on our own without the help of paid guides, city tours, or canned excursions.
For that reason, my “best of Bogota” is decidedly lacking in museums, popular landmarks, and historical sites. That’s not because we weren’t interested in these things… it’s just that we ran out of time.
So what you have here is the best of casual Bogota, in and around the “Parque 93” section of the city, where we stayed.
We easily adopted to a leisurely life of cafe-hopping through the city, and discovered two coffee house chains that ruled: Juan Valdez and Oro.
Juan Valdez cafes are the Starbucks of Bogota: clean, modern, upscale and possessing a slight air of coffee snobbery. While the brand may have faded in popularity in the US, it seems to be a source of pride in today’s Bogota. We stuffed our suitcases with bags of Juan Valdez coffee beans for folks back home.
Oro isn’t always technically a cafe (it’s sometimes just a convenience store) but in some areas of the city they designed their stores to look like cafes. Whatever they were, we always perked up when we saw an Oro because it meant $1 macchiato to die for.
My SO and I live in a tourist town, so eating out is criminally expensive and you’re highly likely to have very bad service. That means, however, vacations are for eating out, and Bogota is a great city for that.
Their beef dishes, including hamburgers, are killer (are the cows healthier or something?). We ate at one steakhouse (La Boutique de las Carnes) in the university area several times, each time returning for a different entree, and each time loving it even more.
Meat so fresh they sell it out of their own-house butchery… you can see how fresh it is. You can also tell it’s good because of the slow parade of wealthy-looking locals arriving to pick up meat for their dinner.
Not that we had to be wealthy to eat there: $8 for a steak dinner complete with delicious fresh veggies and homemade fries.
Even the so-called cheap dining in Bogota was an elevated experience, especially if you are lucky enough to find an Antonelly’s. We did, in the “Chico” area of Bogota, which is a student area.
Once we discovered Antonelly Pasteleria y Restaurante, there weren’t enough meals left in the trip to try everything we wanted here. Part cafeteria and part diner (Bogota style, though), this place rocked.
- It was open very early in the morning, which for us meant being able to eat breakfast when we wanted, at 6 am. Nothing else is open at that hour except street carts selling yesterday’s empanadas.
- The food was amazing and cheap.
- The whole front section of the restaurant was a bakery full of delectable cakes and fancily-decorated pastries. It made checking out an exercise in restraint (or gluttony, depending on your mood and your appetite).
- The service was that of a 5-star restaurant, with several uniformed, tidy men at your disposal, yet not overbearing and never arriving at the wrong time. All it took was the nuanced movement of an eyebrow and they were at your table asking how they could make things even better for you.
El Chico at Night
One night, we Air BNB’d it and stayed in the area known as El Chico. This part of the city is absolutely crawling with students, so it’s vibrant and full of cheap eats and shopping.
You can get a room through Air BNB for as little as $20 per night, if you are practicing extreme budget travel. We opted for the upgrade, which set us back and extra $10. Yes, WiFi was included.
El Chico is a fun place to spend the night, since the nightlife really sizzles – there’s a definite energy in the air that’s totally fun to experience. All you have to do is stand on the corner or get a cafe table on the sidewalk and take it all in.
Just for kicks, we ducked into a Nike store to see what prices were like. Through the roof! $100+ workout pants and $60 tee shirts. There was also a Forever 21 (clothing) and right across the way some European luxury stores. Quite a random mix!
Anything involving someone’s time is incredibly cheap in Bogota. For example, haircuts will only set you back a few dollars. And Bogota is also known for its excellent beauty services. If you’re feeling adventurous, try something new while you’re in town.
The cost of enjoying a luxurious urban vacation is part of what makes Bogota so very much fun. This city is cultured, progressive, dynamic, and of course it’s a major center of industry, business, and power (it used to be the capital city of a power that ruled Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela).
That means there are plenty of great hotels in the city, and great restaurants are everywhere too. Not only that, but since Bogota isn’t really the most popular travel destination, tourism hasn’t spoiled anything. It’s a world-class city but there aren’t many foreign tourists there… perfect.
I have traveled the world- Europe, Asia, and South America, and nowhere have I been more impressed with city parks than in Bogota. Sure Rome has the most beautiful parks and it’s hard to beat our very own Central Park in NYC or Boston’s Public Gardens.
But in Bogota, the parks are everywhere. There are tiny parks, big parks, long parks, and short parks. Parks for working out, parks for walking dogs(Bogota residents love their dogs, by the way). There are also parks with bike lanes, foot bridges, wide open lawns and trees for shade.
Our favorite was Virrey Park.
Sadly, we only discovered the further reaches of Virrey Park on our last day in the city. If we’d walked the whole thing sooner, we’d have been there every day, working out. There were pull-up bars of all heights, sit-up stations, and more One section of the park even seemed to be for hard-core body building types. How nice, to have an open-air muscle gym in the park. The only place that happens in the US is in prisons or freak-show spots like Venice Beach in CA.
We didn’t even make it to the José Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden. Even though it was top of my list for things to see, trying to get there was probably the lowest point of our trip. We call it “The Grit Walk”.
The Grit Walk
In a country plagued by drug and rebel violence, Bogota has always been the oasis of civil order, safety, and the rule of law… at least it appeared that way when we were there.
One of my favorite things in the world is to explore a city on foot. I feel that discovering a city’s vibe at street-level is the only way I’ll discover the unexpected and learn new things. For this reason, we set out to visit the Botanical Gardens on foot, from our hotel.
If you’re like me and you crave the untrodden path while traveling, it’s important to know just how far you can take things. I was reminded of this during the Grit Walk, which I’m sure we’ll never forget.
We walked and walked for a couple of hours, only to learn we were only halfway there, and the long journey had not been pleasant for us. Once outside the shiny tourist area, we felt nervous and out of place in the grittier neighborhoods of Bogota.
Anything could have happened but luckily nothing did. Having never read up or asked around on whether this was a safe thing to be doing, we turned back, lesson learned.
On the Grit Walk, I did learn that there are certain neighborhoods in Bogota known just for fixing up Volkswagen buses… how very fascinating!
My reasons for wanting to go to Bogota were embarrassing… yours don’t have to be
If traveling to countries known for drug cartel violence doesn’t sound wise, important to realize that I did a ton of research before we got on that direct flight from Fort Lauderdale to Bogota. I’m no idiot.
What sparked my interest in visiting Bogota was the Netflix hit show “Narcos”, a docu-drama about Colombia’s notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Surely things were better by now, I thought, and indeed after some research I found that yes, they were.
Nevertheless, the State Department did currently have warnings for tourists. Here are few key phrases
- don’t do any inter-city travel unless it’s by air
- don’t go to the countryside
As for your reasons for visiting Bogota, I hope I’ve given you plenty. I’ll end with some fun insights and travel tips.
Tips for Traveling to Bogota, Colombia
Some Fun Insights About Bogota
- tourist traps are still fun because they’re not aimed at foreigners but rather Colombians from outside of Bogota
- besides, drugs, Colombia is a major exporter of flowers, especially roses, to the USA
- we only hawked at twice: once because we were strolling through a flower-selling district and once by a fellow American, who turned out to be a bum
- taxi advice: take the yellow ones, they are much cheaper
- get to know your street food: empanadas, especially
- weightlifting is not popular/”gym” means a treadmill
- there are not so many sweets as there are in Mexico
- there does not seem to be an obesity problem here
- bicycle lanes are everywhere. There’s even one that goes out to the airport!
Tip #1: Check the State Department website before booking.
This is the most important tip. See what the State Dept has to say before booking your trip. Here’s their website.
When we booked, it said only to avoid the countryside. While we were in Bogota, there was an explosion at one of the regional airports. Now, the State Department says “Explosions occur throughout Colombia on a regular basis, including in Bogota.”
Tip #2: Stay in the Parque 93 Area
The Parque 93 area is beautiful, expensive (for Colombians), and therefore perfect for tourists who might be wary of visiting the capital city of a country that can’t seem to shake its drug cartel image. Stay in that area.
We were able to stay in a business class hotel with suites (Richmond Suites) for around $40 per night (with full hot breakfast). All the other guests were Colombian business people.
We also stayed at Hotel B3, which was around $50 per night. The B3 catered to hip foreign business people and featured amazingly creative decor and the best lobby in town. There was a DJ at night in the evenings, the wonderful hot breakfast each morning, and a stunning exterior wall of vegetation.
Tip #3: Research excursion companies very thoroughly.
We booked only one excursion, out to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. It’s outside the city and therefore dangerous and confusing to attempt on your own. We booked online once were in Bogota, and paid a $15 deposit online through their website. They had tons of positive TripAdvisor reviews so we thought we were fine.
The morning of our tour, a man showed up in the lobby of our hotel and said he was ready to take us to the mines. He was just a man: no badge, no logo-emblazoned shirt identifying him with any tour company, and he didn’t speak much English, either.
Skeptical, we followed him to the tour bus… only it turned out to be just his car. He then drove us about 30 minutes outside the city and asked for the remainder of the tour fee. In cash.
Luckily we had the $100+ in cash, but our alert flags were up again (this was post Grit Walk). Having no choice but to keep going, we continued the trip. The city tour consisted of his dropping us off in the main square of the tiny town and taking a nap in his car while we wandered around.
The tour was fine (totally recommend it)- after he bought our tickets he told us in pantomime to meet him back at his car at noon, after the tour. Then he took us to lunch, which was horrendous.
It had seemed promising because of the impressive meat slabs hanging over a fire pit in front of the restaurant, but it was terrible. Almost inedible. We actually think they chose the worst parts of the meat to serve us. It was like eating fat-covered knuckles.
Bogota is a wonderful place to visit, but heed travel warnings and keep your wits about you. The worst experience we had was when we booked an excursion through a tour company, so DIY walking tours are a good way to explore… just stay in the safe areas and don’t wander too far.
If one-dollar espresso, $8 steak dinners, $60 luxury hotel rooms and no American tourists as far as the eye can see sound good to you, Bogota may just well be your favorite new city. Just remember to check State Department warnings.
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