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I’ll admit it: Bogotá was the place I was the least excited to visit in Colombia. I even almost skipped it because I had read so many horror stories of muggings and I hadn’t found any articles in which people were raving about the city. It seemed like most people were rushing through Bogotá, hitting up the most important museums and moved on to the next place.There were only two reasons that made me want to go to Bogotá: I had heard that it was the city with the best street art scene in all of Colombia and it happens to be home to El Theatron, the largest gay club in all of South America. I had to check it out, even though that meant leaving my hotel after dark, a thought I found somewhat daunting before I even arrived in Colombia’s capital.Once I got to Bogotá, however, my fear vanished almost immediately. The day of my arrival I was already meeting friends in Plaza del Chovorro De Quevedo in La Candelaria, Bogotá’s oldest neighborhood, which I had heard wasn’t very safe at night. Apparently this plaza is where the city was founded in 1538, and the surrounding neighborhood with its still intact and well-preserved Spanish-colonial buildings quickly became my favorite neighborhood in town. It was a drastic difference from the shiny office towers in the Chapinero neighborhood, where I was initially staying. In La Candelaria, I found myself surrounded by small, one-story, colorful Spanish-colonial houses, there were still some cobble-stone streets, and there were several colonial churches. I could barely put my camera down on my strolls through the neighborhood!What I found upon arriving in the plaza on that very first night was anything but scary – the square was filled with young people drinking beers and chicha (more on that later) that they had purchased in the nearby shops. The atmosphere was lively and joyful, and when I took a cab back to my hotel around 3am, I still didn’t feel unsafe.The next morning, I started to explore the city, and I noticed two things right away: the altitude and the thick layer of grey clouds that would hover over the city on most days – blue skies were a rarity. The altitude – Bogotá sits at 8,675 feet, 2,644m – caused me to huff and puff my way up and down Candelaria’s steep streets, and I never got used to it during my two weeks in the city. Combined with cooler temperatures I could see why Bogotá didn’t fare well with most travelers – especially when you were coming from sea level, tropical temperatures and perfect weather, like I did, coming from the Caribbean coast.I have to admit that I wasn’t too fussed about the parts of the city that were outside of La Candelaria, but I found this neighborhood so charming that I decided to move there from my hotel in Chapinero, despite the fact that I was told it wasn’t very safe.I much preferred the Spanish colonial houses in La Candelaria to the high rises of Chapinero and Los Rosales, and La Candelaria was also where the majority of Bogota’ amazing street art was. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I love street art, and just walking through these colorful streets, which resembled an ever-changing, mural-boasting outdoor gallery, made me happy. There were also several good coffee shops and restaurants (including a couple of vegetarian ones) right in this area, which is all this nomad needs to be perfectly content.During my time in Bogotá, I joined two free walking tours. The first one was a tour for which I had found a flyer in the hostel I was staying at and which made not only La Candelaria much more approachable to me, but also gave me plenty of insights on Colombian life, food, coffee and the complicated history of Colombia. It is run by Beyond Colombia, and I’d especially recommend it for those who only have a couple of days in Bogotá.We started with a stop at a Colombian coffee place, sampling some exquisite Colombian coffee and learning about Coffee culture in Colombia, where for a long time, like in many coffee regions, the best beans used to be exported, before Colombians developed a finer taste for coffee themselves, resulting in small independent coffee shops opening and thriving. Later on we stopped at a chichería, a bar where chicha is served, a fermented corn drink that was a ceremonial drink with the indigenous people as well as the Spaniards when they started colonizing Colombia. The drink ended up being prohibited in 1948, believed to be the cause of a violent uproar, but made a comeback in the 90s – still not as popular as beer or other liquor, but students love it because it is cheap. We bought a bottle to share between our group, and while I didn’t love it, I think it’s worth trying while in Bogotá. For that, head to La Portal de Chorro near the foot of the alley with all the graffiti: Callejón del Embudo (between Calles 13 & 14).Beyond tales of chicha and Colombian coffee we wandered through the streets of La Candelaria and stopped at the main sights of the city, such as Plaza De Bolivar with Bogota’s magnificent cathedral and the Palace Of Justice, and we ended the tour with a game of Tejo, a game that is played in bars all over Colombia. The goal is to cause a noisy explosion by throwing a metal puck at little paper triangles filled with gun powder. I found this tour incredibly insightful – the sights we passed felt more like extras, the real star of the tour were the stories our guide told us, ranging from Colombian politics to Pablo Escobar to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ poetry.If you have time, definitely check out the Museo De Oro, the Gold Museum, and if you are into art, the Fernando Botero Museum which is small but has some great pieces of Colombia’s most famous artist but also some pieces of his own collection, which contains a Picasso, Monet and a Dali and other famous artists. In total there are over 200 paintings and sculptures in a beautiful colonial building.A couple of days later I joined another tour – the excellent free street art walk. This tour gave me so much background information on the artists, whose murals I’d been admiring on my daily strolls around La Candelaria, the political messages in the pieces, and the most important artists – it was such a great tour that it ended up being one of my favorite 13 experiences in Colombia.Since 2011 laws against graffiti have been much more relaxed which is why the density of street art and murals is so high here now.During the tour I was introduced to the female Colombian street artist Bastardilla, whose massive murals cover several walls in Bogotá, like this one:Another Colombian artist named Guache, who aims to remember Colombia’s past and whose colorful work usually features indigenous themes, was another great artist to learn about:Of course there was also more street art by Stinkfish, of whom I’d already admired street art in Cartagena:And our group of street art fanatics also learned about Toxicómano, a punk band turned street art crew, who are known to create pieces with strong political messages depicting topics like capitalism, inequality, poverty and corruption.I was excited to learn that there was another well-known female artist in Colombia, Lik Mi, and I would see her art around town on a daily basis after our tour guide pointed out the kinky, kamasutra inspired stickers.And then there was Crisp, an Australian street artist who is currently based in Bogotá, and whose incredible stencil pieces I kept running into after taking the tour.
If you are interested in learning more about the artists behind Bogota’s many graffiti and murals – do yourself a favor and take this tour. It is free, tip-based, and leaves twice a day. I loved knowing the stories behind the various murals and who had painted them.When I wasn’t taking tours, I spent my days exploring museums, eating my way around the city’s veggie restaurants, worked in coffee shops, and expanded my palate by trying local specialties such as hot chocolate which is served with cheese here (and in some other regions of Colombia), or Changua, a breakfast soup with milk and eggs, or the ubiquitous arepas (thick corn cakes) topped with butter from one of the many street vendors.Another highlight was Monserrate Mountain, the famous mountain that looms over La Candelaria, 10,407 ft (3,172 meters) tall, with the white 17th century church that sits on its top, always visible from the city beneath. I had looked forward to hike up the mountain, which is a popular pilgrims’ walk, but at the time of my visit the trail was still closed off after a serial killer had murdered several women along the way. After hearing this, I felt much more comfortable taking the cable car (COP14,000 /US$4,70 return) up the steep mountainside, who needs a workout anyway 😉
We had waited to visit the mountain until we had a sunny day with clear skies to enjoy the views over the city, which finally revealed how big Bogotá really is – it is home to nearly 8 million people after all! In my little bubble in La Candelaria Bogotá seemed almost like a small town, and only the long cab rides to go out in other parts of the city indicated how enormous it actually was.On my last weekend in town, I ended up in the Chapinero neighborhood again, where I had started my Bogotá adventure. And that was for a very good reason: Here you find a number of bohemian bars and gay clubs, most importantly El Theatron, which isn’t only the largest night club in the country but on the entire South American continent. The former theater accommodates around 8,000 party goers every Friday and Saturday night, who spread out over 5 floors and 13 different rooms, including a salsa bar, an R’n’B club a girls’ room and a boys’ room, and even an outdoor terrace. I couldn’t believe how massive this club was. The other thing I found unbelievable? That we only paid COP40,000 (which was around US$13.50 during the time of my visit), and not only did that got us admission, but it also got us free drinks until 2am!When I left Bogotá, I was happy I had taken the time to explore the city in more detail instead of rushing through, and don’t think it deserves the bad reputation it has. Of course I am saying this from the perspective of someone who hasn’t experienced a mugging or was drugged here, but if you’ve read my thoughts on if it is safe to travel in Colombia you might remember that other people weren’t quite as lucky and were robbed. If you visit Bogotá – which you should – I recommend staying alert at all times, and to be safe, not to carry all your valuables around with you when you explore the city. Even on the tours I took I made sure only to take my phone and my camera out of my bag when I was using them.
Where to stay
I loved Masaya Hostel in La Candelaria. I had stayed at their sister property in Santa Marta which I loved so much that I extended my stay to nearly a week there and knew I had to check out their Bogotá hostel as well. It is a little pricier than other hostels (double rooms start at COP90,000 / US$30; 4-bed dorms are COP40,000 / US$13.50) but I was happy to pay more for the top-notch facilities and the great location).
Bogota has a pretty good public transportation system but the buses can be complicated to figure out. Taxis are cheap, best called via the EasyTaxi app. In rush hour taxis are in high demand – then, the higher the tip you offer via the app, the faster you’ll get a cab. Uber also operates in Bogotá and is about 25% more expensive than a regular taxi. Apparently it is not recommended to just hail a cab in Bogotá, but I only learned about the Easy Taxi App a couple of days before I left town and hailed cabs the entire time I was there without any problems (one driver even ran after me when my iPhone fell out of my pocket and was left on the backseat).
Have you been to Bogotá? What did you think of Colombia’s capital? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!