Bogotá: A Lively, Huge City Worth Exploring
By Jasmine Stephenso
Dubbed the Athens of South America, Bogotá is a pulsating urban sprawl home to edgy subcultures, innovative street art, a lively student population, world-renowned festivals, and about eight million people.
Bogotá is so complex, in fact, that it is difficult to get to know the city in a short space of time – or over a long period, for that matter.
Located at 8700 feet, some visitors take a while to get acclimated to the altitude. Compared with other Colombian cities, Bogota is colder, due to the altitude and mountainous surroundings.
Despite being one of the largest cities in the world, Bogotá is often allotted just a couple of days on many travelers’ itineraries.
Many of those that do visit stick to Bogotá’s historic neighborhood, La Candelaria, with forays to Monserrate, the church on top of one of the surrounding mountains, and the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá. For the off-the-beaten-path traveler, Bogotá has thousands of cool spots waiting to be explored.
Meet the Rolos
Rolos, or people from Bogotá, are reputed to have the clearest accent in the Spanish-speaking world.
Many prefer to use the formal usted instead of tú, even between good friends and family members. To be polite, it’s best to use usted in business settings and with people older than you.
As Colombia is a fairly new player on the tourist map, most residents are extremely welcoming to visitors. Though Rolos have an internal reputation for being distant, they are in fact quite friendly and helpful.
If you get lost, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
As the famous one-time Colombian tourist slogan goes, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” The truth of this propaganda can be largely attributed to the warmth of its people – even those from the capital. Walking around the city feels safe, though any local will give you the advice: No dar papaya, or “don’t put yourself in a risky position” by flaunting money and such.
The City of Festivals
Parque Central Simón Bolívar, the city’s biggest venue, is home to tons of music festivals annually. The biggest is Rock al Parque, one of the largest music festivals in the world that brought in more than 300,000 people last year.
The park also hosts festivals of salsa, jazz, and hip hop, as well as a Colombian festival dedicated to local music, food, and dance.
Event days will see national and international authors hosting seminars, presentations, and lectures on a variety of literary topics.
Every two years, the largest theater festival in the world can be found in the city, which takes place over 17 days and features acts from all over the globe.
During the celebration, Bogotá explodes in performance art, with workshops, parades, and all forms of theater inside of venues and out on the streets.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Bogotá is afflicted with the pollution, noise, and traffic that come from a city of this size. For the nature lover, there are hundreds of parks that offer a bit of peace and quiet from the commotion.
Parque de Los Novios, on Carrera 45 and Calle 63, is one of the more romantic spots in the city. Stroll around the tranquil park hand in hand with your significant other, admiring the ducks paddling across the lawn and the green environs.
If you’re lucky, you may catch a wedding party or two snapping photos and celebrating the new union.
The Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis, located on Calle 63 No. 68-95, is another one of my favorite chill-out spots in the city.
Along with an herb collection, a butterfly garden, and a lake, the botanic gardens offer lots of room to bask in the sun (if it’s out that day) and lose yourself in the serenity of the surroundings.
Bogotá offers shopping options for every budget and every taste. You could head to the American-style malls in the north, but wandering through the city’s quirky markets is a more interesting way to spend time.
The Mercado de Pulgas San Alejo, held every Sunday on Carrera 7 and Calle 24, is a funky flea market full of antiques, housewares, handmade goods, and everything in between. It’s smallish and not too overwhelming, making it a good introduction to the Latin American market scene for newbies.
San Andresito is a living, breathing bazaar that encompasses several streets and offers at least five of everything you could ever want or need
The market stretches over several branches found in various parts of the city, though the biggest and most entertaining is on and around Carrera 38 and Calle 9. If you head here solo, be very aware of your surroundings, though your best bet is to go with a local.
On Friday nights, La Septima (Carrera 7) turns into a huge open-air market that reaches from Plaza de Bolivar to Calle 19. Even if you’re not interested in picking through the odds and ends, it’s worth a stroll to see the street performers, jam to spontaneous karaoke sessions, and witness the general chaos that ensues downtown.
Eat and Drink Coffee
Bogotá has a surprisingly extensive vegetarian scene, so my fellow herbivores will be extremely happy here. One of the chicest choices is Maha, located at Carrera 7 #46 – 42, with Asian-style floor seating and views of the street below.
Their menu offers innovative fusion dishes from all corners of the globe at economical prices.
A visit to Colombia isn’t complete without a sampling of the arepa, a local snack made from cornmeal or corn, often served with cheese or meat.
Though the best come from the region of Antioquia, there’s a local spot called the Metro Arepa on Carrera 10 and Calle 63 in Chapinero whose arepas are mind-blowing.
Sitting on one of the small eatery’s stools, elbow to elbow with other arepa-loving Rolos, stuffing salsa-smothered arepas in your mouth is pure bliss.
In the heart of Bogotá’s north, where the wealthy and ex-pat population call home, is Parque 93.
For those with a spacious travel budget, take your pick of the high-end and American restaurants that line its edges. Crepes & Waffles is a wildly popular Colombian franchise that specializes in extravagant plates heavy on calories and deliciousness. If you’re between meals, sip a café mocha at either Oma or Juan Valdez, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks.
La Macarena, Bogotá’s bohemian neighborhood set uphill from Parque la Independencia is another excellent spot to find trendy restaurants and cozy cafes. Part homey bookstore, part cool café, Luvina, La Esquina Cultural, on Carrera 5a #26A-06, is my favorite place to hang out in the neighborhood.
In and Around Bogotá
Bogotá is served by the Transmilenio, a rapid bus system that was created as a solution to excessively long bus journeys and city traffic. While nicknamed the “pride of Bogotá”, residents call it the Transmilleno, lleno meaning full.
During peak periods before and after normal working hours, expect long waits, large crowds, and little breathing room.
There is also an impressive bus network that extends to every corner of the city. Though slightly overwhelming for visitors, they are frequent and a bit cheaper than the Transmilenio at 1400 pesos per ride.
Buses list the neighborhoods served and main roads on a sign in the front window. If you’re unsure, you can always ask the bus driver if he passes a certain area before hopping on.
Bogotá is serviced by two domestic bus terminals. The major bus terminal is Terminal de Transporte S.A., which serves all of Colombia and is most likely the station you’ll leave from. However, if taking a short trip north, like to Zipaquirá, you’ll catch a connecting bus from the north terminal just off the Transmilenio line.
Jasmine Stephenson is a long-term traveler and writer who uses travel as a medium to push her personal boundaries, broaden her perspectives, and challenge her idea of what’s wrong and right. She lives in Bogota Colombia.