A rough travel guide to Bogotá

A rough travel guide to Bogotá

Destinations

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These are the most important things to know about traveling to Bogotá, Columbia: history, hiking, and how to stay safe

Bogotá is the capital of Columbia, and in recent years, it’s seen an upsurge in tourism. At an elevation of 2,640 meters in the Andes, it’s one of the very highest major cities in South America, and while it might take your body a day to acclimatize to the altitude, what’s on offer is very much worth it.

Stick Bogotá on your South American itinerary — you only need two or three days to get a proper feel for the city. Here, we give you an overview — Bogotá’s history and what it’s all about today, plus some of the best things to see and do, as well as the answers to the most important concerns: the best time to go, how to get around, and staying streetwise.

Introduction: Bogotá’s history and development

Street art of an indigenous person in Bogotá — Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia CommonsBogotá is characterized by a diversity brought about by its past — Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before its official founding in 1538, Bogotá was populated by the Muisca who were living in the area for centuries. They were defeated by Spanish conquistador Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and his younger brother Hernán Pérez. The newly founded city was formed by Europeans, mestizos, indigenous peoples and slaves, and its population was growing rapidly.

Currently, Bogotá, with almost 7 million inhabitants, is the biggest city in Colombia. It prides itself on some 120 museums and galleries and around 45 theaters. Lately, the metropolis has become increasingly more recognized as a regional hub for the arts, which is a major appeal for tourists.

La Candelaria

Street in La Candelaria, BogotaNot just a pretty face: La Candelaria is the most important district of the city — Shutterstock

One of the most notable leaders of the region was Simón Bolívar, who is among some of the most influential heroes of the Hispanic independence movements at the beginning of the 19th century. His memory is strongly attached to sentiments of patriotism, and traces of Bolívar are to be found all over Bogotá. Take Simón Bolívar Park, for instance — the biggest green space in the city center.

Another of the surviving memories of this historic figure takes the form of La Candelaria, arguably the most important district of the city, which saw many landmark events of Colombian and South American independence. It’s the place where Bolívar settled, and in 1828, even survived an assassination attempt. Nowadays, its old streets and buildings are full of life and color.

Plaza de Bolívar

Statue on Plaza de Bolívar — Getty ImagesPlaza de Bolívar is Bogotá’s main square, but unusually, it isn’t in the middle of the city. Rather, the city grew westward from here — Getty Images

Plaza de Bolívar, located in La Candelaria, is Bogotá’s main square from which the city grew and grew. Among other sights, it features a statue of Bolívar himself. Sculpted in 1846, the statue became the first public monument of the city and it’s surrounded by a number of impressive buildings — one of them being the Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá, the seat of the Archbishop of Bogotá, Cardinal Mon. Rubén Salazar Gómez.

Cerro de Monserrate

Funicular leading to the top of Mount Mounserrate at dusk, with a view of Bogota in the backgroundCerro de Monserrate is a must for hikers, but there’s also a funicular to the top — Shutterstock

If you’ve had enough history and are feeling slightly more adventurous, you should put Monserrate on your Bogotá agenda. Located high up at 3,152 meters above sea level, the Cerro de Monserrate is one of the most famous mountains in Colombia. It’s one of the city’s main attractions, a must for all keen hikers, and on its top, you’ll find a church with a shrine. The hike up will take about 90 minutes and it offers stunning views over Bogotá.

There are several ways to get to the holy mountain — if you want to cheat, the easiest way is to go up by cable car or funicular. Otherwise, you should head up the trail on foot, open between 5:00 and 13:00. Bogotá is already very high up in the mountains, and on your hike up to Monserrate, you will gain at least 500 meters in elevation, so be sure to take enough breaks during your ascent to allow your body to adjust properly.

La Chorrera

A girl staring at the Chorrera waterfall near Bogotá, ColombiaLa Chorrera is the highest waterfall in Colombia — Shutterstock

Colombia is a true hiking paradise with varied terrain ranging from dense jungle to sky-high mountains. You don’t have to venture far from Bogotá to see some amazing nature.

La Chorrera, Columbia’s highest waterfall, is only a 45-minute bus ride from Bogotá. To get there, you’ll need to walk through beautiful farmland and diverse cloud forests for approximately two and a half to three hours. On the way back, you can pass the smaller El Chiflon waterfall.

Traditional dishes in Bogotá 

Tamale with coffee and bread — Getty ImagesTamale is a mixture of savory ingredients wrapped in banana leaves and steamed — Getty Images

Bogotá offers some great local dishes that you should definitely take the opportunity to try. One of them is tamale. It’s a paste made with rice and meat — depending on the region, it’s generally pork, chicken, or beef. Other ingredients include chickpeas, carrots and spices. This mixture is wrapped in banana leaves and steam-cooked.

Ajiaco, another of Bogotá’s signature dishes, is a traditional soup prepared with chicken, potatoes, and corn on the cob. It’s usually served with capers and sour cream with a side of rice and avocado.

After a traditional dessert such as postre de natas (basically a combination of milk, sugar, and egg yolks topped with rum and raisins) or cuajada con melao (a milk, vinegar and rennet custard mix), you can wash everything down with a hot cup of canelazo, which is alcoholic; or alternatively, carajillo, which is made with coffee.

Things to consider when planning a trip to Bogotá

When’s the best time to visit Bogotá?

Bogotá’s climate can be considered tropical, even though the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, a warm-cool water cycle in the Pacific Ocean, can make the weather pretty inconsistent. The city expects the heaviest rainfall from April to July. Supposedly, December to March is the driest time of the year and therefore the best time to visit Bogotá. As a general rule, the weather in places of higher altitudes is cooler and more variable in precipitation levels.

How can I get to and around Bogotá?

When you arrive at Bogotá Airport, you can get to the city center by bus or by taxi. If you opt for the bus, you first need to take the (free) shuttle bus from the terminal to Portal Eldorado bus station, to connect to a line toward the city. These lines are part of the wider TransMilenio urban bus network, for which you’ll need a ‘Tullave’ payment card. (Tullave cards can be bought at the airport itself and topped up throughout your stay in Bogotá.) The entire journey should take around one hour and cost no more than $1 (US dollars).

Traveling by taxi is the quicker, more comfortable option — just make sure that you choose a licensed operator, ideally at the designated counters in the airport arrivals hall. It’s more expensive than taking the bus, but it’s still relatively cheap; the 20-minute journey costs around $10.

Once you’re in the city, the TransMilenio buses are the best way to get around. If you decide to keep using taxis, avoid hailing them on the street and stick to Uber, just to be safe.

Alternatively, do as the locals do and rent a bike! Bogotá has the largest network of bicycle routes in South America. On Sundays and public holidays, many main and side roads close for the Ciclovía between 7:00 and 14:00. People can cycle, skate or jog freely down the roads, or simply watch from the side.

Is it safe to travel to Bogotá?

The late 20th century brought about a bad reputation for Bogotá. In the 1990s, the city was considered to be one of the most violent cities in the world. A lot has changed in 30 years, thanks to active political campaigning. However, certain common-sense precautions are still in order when visiting Bogotá.

Theft is the main type of crime that tourists need to be aware of. Keep your cash and other valuables close at all times when you’re out and about, in zipped pockets and ideally on the front of your body. Avoid looking conspicuously like a tourist or showing any signs of wealth, and if you do leave anything important at your accommodation, lock it in a safe.

Here are some additional simple tips to make sure you stay safe in Bogotá:

  • At night, don’t stray down dimly-lit streets — especially if you’re on your own. Keep to areas where there are lots of people.
  • Try to find accommodation in the north of the city, or around La Candelaria, rather than in the south. Generally speaking, the south of Bogotá is where the more dangerous neighborhoods are.
  • Avoid using ATMs on the street. Instead, look for ATMs inside malls and at banks.
  • Stay away from any political demonstrations.
  • Don’t accept anything from strangers, especially food or drink, and don’t leave anything you do consume unattended.

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