10 Things to See & Do in Bogotá, Colombia
Home to nearly 8 million people (about the same population as New York City), Bogotá is a sprawling metropolis framed by mountains on all sides and moving to the rhythm of salsa music. A visitor could spend months in Bogotá without beginning to scratch the surface of all the incredible attractions the city has to offer, but most of us don’t have the luxury of spending half a year wandering around South America (if you have, in fact, figured out how to do this, please let me know). With a limited amount of time to spend in Bogotá, here are a few can't-miss sights and activities.
1. Parque Simón Bolívar/Botanic Garden: Simón Bolívar (the park, not the dead guy with a namesake statue in every city in South America) is one of the central sites in Bogotá and the crown jewel of the city’s extensive park system. About the same size as Central Park, Simón Bolívar is technically made up of a series of connected parks, containing a children's museum, a library, a lake, a sports complex, an amusement park, countless biking and walking paths, and much more. Off to the western side of the park, the beautiful Botanic Garden is the perfect spot to spend a sunny afternoon, wandering the well-kept rose garden and examining orchids and cacti in the various greenhouse exhibits.
2. Usaquén (market and neighborhood): Back in the day, Usaquén was a village separate from Bogotá, with its own churches, plaza and old cobblestone streets. As the city spread like an amoeba, it absorbed Usaquén into its borders, but the neighborhood managed to cling to much of its colonial charm. With old-fashioned narrow streets and some of the best restaurants in Bogotá, Usaquén is absolutely worth a visit. Check it out on Sunday, when the streets and parks are taken over by one of the best craft markets in Bogotá. Usaquén market is an ideal place to pick up some unique Colombian artwork, jewelry, bags and other handcrafts for the friends and family you left back home.
3. Day trip to Guatavita: You may know Guatavita better as El Dorado – legend has it that the turquoise lagoon atop the mountain here is where the story of El Dorado originated. Whether you choose to believe it is up to you, but there’s no doubt that visiting the tranquil, beautiful countryside here will make you feel a bit richer (if the short hike up the hill doesn’t knock out your breath). Just an hour’s drive outside of Bogotá, the town and park at Guatavita are a worthwhile and relaxing day trip for when you tire of fighting Bogotá’s traffic.
4. Dance at a salsa club: They say the best salsa dancers in Colombia are in the city of Calí, but Bogotá dancers can more than hold their own, and most gringos could stand to learn a lesson or two about rhythm from locals. The best way to learn is simply to go to a club and wait to be whisked away by your new teacher (maybe after a few beers, if you’re feeling especially shy). There’s no shortage of salsatecas around the city, ranging from the very fancy and near-professional to low-key, informal bars, so no matter your scene, you’ll be able to find a place to let your hair down and feel the music in your hips.
5. Eat ajíaco in La Candelaria: La Candelaria, the historic center of the city, is the focus of most travel guides and attracts the most tourists. Candelaria does boast beautiful architecture and plenty of museums and other cultural centers, but there’s more to the city than just these few square blocks. Still, it’s certainly worth a visit, especially for the food. The neighborhood, particularly around the central Plaza de Bolivar, is one of the best places to find traditional Colombian and Bogotá food like ajíaco, a thick, filling soup made with three kinds of Colombian potatoes, chicken and corn and served with rice, avocado, capers and cream. It’s the perfect, filling meal for a rainy afternoon, and you may not need to eat anything else for the rest of the day after a full bowl of it. Just remember: Colombians eat ajíaco as lunch, not dinner, so don’t be the embarrassing foreigner who orders it in a restaurant at 8 p.m.
6. Get your nails done (yes, dudes too!): Sure, you can get your nails done anywhere, but few places are as serious – or as cheap – with their manicures as they are here. Practically no Colombian women leave their house without painted nails, and most men make periodic stops by the salon, too, to keep their hands neat and presentable. Manicurists here create intricate art on their client’s nails, from sparkly spirals to delicate flowers, petals and all. And the best part is that this service is dirt-cheap – most salons charge between 5,000-8,000 pesos (about US$3-5, depending on the exchange rate) for a manicure. With these prices and the social pressure to present perfect nails to the world, there’s no excuse for skipping a visit to the salon.
7. Buy an arepa (or three) from a street vendor: If you’re traveling to Colombia, I’m willing to bet you probably love street food almost as much as I do – after all, it’s one of the main attractions of travel. Bogotá doesn’t suffer for lack of street food – you can find everything from whole avocados to Nutella crepes sold out of carts here – but the most common product is the beloved arepa. Every region of Colombia has its own twist on the arepa, a round patty made of corn dough or flour and filled with various kinds of cheese, meat or eggs. Some of the best arepas are those with huevos pericos (scrambled eggs with tomato and onion) and cheese – like a Colombian breakfast sandwich! These are less common than the traditional cheese arepas, though, so keep a sharp eye out and grab one if you find it.
8. Ciclovía: Considering how much harder it is to run at this altitude, Bogotanos are an athletic bunch. The city contains hundreds of kilometers of bike paths along major roads, and it seems like almost everyone in the city, from babies to grandparents, owns a bike. The bikes (and rollerblades, and unicycles, and running shoes) come out in full force on Sunday mornings and holidays, when many of the city’s roads are closed to cars and taken over by Ciclovía – an open space for bikers, walkers, joggers and other more creative exercisers. Even if you don’t have a bike, it’s worth your morning to grab a cup of fresh orange juice and stroll down the open street of the Ciclovía nearest you. If nothing else, it’s some of the best people-watching in town.
9. Monserrate: One of the iconic landmarks of Bogotá, the sanctuary of Monserrate sits atop the mountain of the same name, which borders the city to the east. Everyone in Bogotá will ask you if you’ve been to Monserrate yet, so you might as well do it early in your trip and save yourself all the recommendations. If you’re feeling brave, you can walk all the way up – otherwise, a funicular and cable car run from the base of the mountain. The historic site provides one of the best opportunities for panoramic photos of the entire city, and shouldn’t be missed. It’s best to go early in the morning – the weather tends to be better before noon, and the route up and down gets packed with people. With the high concentration of people, there’s also a higher risk of theft, though, so be careful with cameras and other valuable possessions, and try not to carry too much money.
10. Try at least three new fruits: With its huge range of climates and enormous biodiversity, Colombia is a veritable cornucopia of different fruits and vegetables. You’ll see fruits here that you’ve probably never seen –or heard of – before in your life, so this is your chance to taste them. There are fruit stores every few blocks in most neighborhoods, and carts travel through the streets selling plums, strawberries, oranges and almost anything else you can imagine. From sweet mangostinos to massive guanabanas to the alarming-looking granadilla, there are new flavors and colors all over the city, so why not hold your very own fruit taste test? There’s no guaranteeing you’ll like all of them, but that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?
ABOUT THE BLOGGER:
Natalie Southwick is currently spending a year in Bogotá, Colombia, working as a volunteer English teacher. A proud Boston native, she's still waiting for someone to offer to pay her to stay in South America and write forever. Until that happens, she's busy hanging out with Colombian teenagers, eating mangoes and trying not to think about how much she misses baseball season.
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Blog/web site: http://ayearwithoutpeanutbutter.com