On our connecting flights into Colombia earlier this month, we encountered a horrible person. This is not unusual on a plane, but the encounter was so pronounced that it left a prolonged bad taste that colored the beginning of our trip.
We were flying into Cartagena, where we began our Colombian adventure. The guy on the plane, an American, had long ago fallen in love with the city and had visited there 78 times, he said (but who’s counting?) — and had bought property and established some kind of nonprofit. He was in love with Cartagena, obviously, and told us we’d love it.
Then when we told him we were heading to Bogota as our next stop, he said this, actually out loud and not in his head: “You’re going to absolutely hate it. First of all, you’ll probably get kidnapped. And then of course, you’ll be sick from the altitude, which would ruin your whole trip even if you weren’t kidnapped. Also it’s freezing. I wish you had my email address so you could tell me afterward how much you hated it and I was right.”
Legit, this monologue happened. At one point I told him, “OK, stop talking now.” Neighboring passengers rolled eyes. It got awkward.
Much as we wanted to, we found that we couldn’t immediately brush it off. While in Cartagena, David and I asked several people (Colombians) how we might expect to find Bogota when we got there. And, frankly, we were not comforted by their answers. Many people underscored the danger of assault and also the altitude and weather challenges.
So several days later, by the time we took off from Cartagena on our way to Bogota, and someone sitting next to me on the plane made the sign of the cross, I felt a sense of dread.
But spoiler: In the end? We absolutely loved Bogota. Maybe even more than we did Cartagena, though that city is more of the seaside Caribbean vibe that is typically more my vacation speed. Here are all the reasons Bogota ranks high on our list of experiences:
8 Reasons to Travel to Bogota, Colombia
1. The landscape is dramatic.
Yes, Bogota is at a high altitude, close to 9,000 feet (2,640 meters). That’s significant, and we did feel the affects of altitude: a bit short of breath, a bit out of sorts, a bit hard to sleep on the first night. (They say coca tea helps with that, and we drank a copious amounts of it.) But because the city is mountainous, it offers truly dramatic landscapes. Think communities rising steeply on San Francisco-style streets. It’s a sight to see.
2. Monserrate is a bucket-list attraction.
To that end, one of Bogota’s most popular tourist attractions is a really special place to visit. Monserrate, a mountaintop destination reached by cable car or funicular, stands at over 10,000 feet (3.100 meters). At the top are a 17th-century church, two restaurants, and a marketplace selling local goods and food. I’m a fan of cable cars, and the ride up was unbelievable: You soar over towering skyscrapers, until you reach the point above when a pilot on a commercial airliner would tell you it’s fine to turn on your electronics.
The views at the top are out of this world: lush mountain landscape to the far left, and dramatic urban sprawl from above in the rest of the panorama. We were there on a December Sunday, and the lines to ascend were substantial, with Bogotans all headed to the church for worship. (You can also climb to the top, which is considered important for religious people. For us, it was out of the question given altitude adjustment.) For a tourist-friendly attraction, this sure still felt like a local’s experience.
At the marketplace, David got a plate of chicken, plantains, and potatoes that was surely meant for a whole family, but he did give the remainder to a person begging near the church afterward. They give you gloves to eat with your hands. It may have been the most Anthony Bourdain-like experience we’ve ever had.
3. The street food game is on point.
And on that note, it’s a a ton of fun sampling street food in Bogota — and the options are endless. As a vegetarian, I am not usually the member of this family to eat street food with abandon, but I had plenty of fun (if not exactly healthy) options: arepas (grilled corn cakes, with cheese), green mangos, and obleas (basically a roving sundae bar with waffle cone discs and sweet toppings, but no ice cream). You’re never far from your next feast in Bogota!
4. Your money goes far.
On the subject of street food, you might expect to pay about 1,500 Colombian pesos for an oblea with a couple of toppings, or 1,000 for some delicious cut fruit. That’s between $0.30 and $0.45, especially with the peso particularly weak against the dollar right now. It’s nice to visit a place where you can sample everything without sweating the budget.
5. The shopping is fun.
That your dollar goes far makes shopping fun, too. The most distinguished local craft to buy are mochilas, handmade by members of indigenous tribes in Colombia. They come in all sorts of combinations of bright — even neon — colors, and can be found all over the streets (as well as in stores, where they usually cost more). Such a fun (and useful!) souvenir.
6. Ciclovia started here.
The now worldwide phenomenon known as Ciclovia — when a city closes a vast network of streets to cars, making them available to bicyclists and pedestrians only — sounds like the most California thing ever. But it’s not: Although it’s gone global, Ciclovia started in Bogota, and it happens every Sunday and holidays. Some Sundays, it can draw two million people — a quarter of the population. What’s cooler than that?
7. The new Four Seasons is divine.
Yes, it’s well known that a new Four Seasons hotel is a good enough reason for me to visit any place. Those two little words are like my kryptonite; it’s the most powerful brand association I have across any category. Well, the Four Seasons Casa Medina in Bogota does not disappoint. The boutique-feeling property took over a 1940s former residence this fall, and is punctuated with Spanish colonial architecture and a sense of warmth and history.
We took our absolute favorite meals in all of Colombia at its Spanish restaurant, Castanyoles, with a retractable glass ceiling and decor as impeccable and sophisticated as the tapas-style food. (The hotel is also located in Bogota’s “Zona G,” a super-chic restaurant zone you might find in a chichi and cool American city.)
Most of all though, the property offered that Four Seasons service that is especially comforting in a city where many people have told you in plain terms that you should fear for your safety. The staff arranged cars for us, and provided all sorts of useful intel — and of course called us each by our (different) last names beginning immediately after check in as part of highly personalized service. Just a wonderful and memorable hotel I’d recommend to anyone. (And it’s only the first of two Four Seasons set to open in Bogota within the span of a year! That should tell you something about the city’s trajectory in progress.)
8. It’s a cosmopolitan place with a sense of future.
Although the travel media seems to be talking a lot about Colombia lately, we found it not to be at all overrun by tourists. That is to say, with the exception of the Americans at the hotel (as a Toronto-based brand, Four Seasons is popular among North Americans), we heard almost no English and saw no North American tourists. It wasn’t like in Europe where you bust out your impotent high school Spanish or college Italian, and people save you from your sad struggles by cutting you off to respond in English. You just have to move to the fifth-best word to say the thing you’re trying to communicate, if that’s the only word you know — and that’s that.
There is a sense that tourism is coming, but there’s still plenty far to go. So you have a sense of being ahead of the curve in a place brimming with cosmopolitan qualities — and also with possibility. Bogota is a big city of nine million people, and of course, there is its notorious (recent) history involving cartels, so yeah: Watch your back. We wore no jewelry, and carried only photocopies of our passports. Don’t hail taxis (at least not yet).
But don’t be too intimidated to book travel — no matter what some jerk who claims to know tells you. Bogota is a gem, and well worth a visit!