Colombia Part 1: Bogota

I'm not sure what it was about three seasons of Narcos that made me want to go to Colombia, but I'm glad did. I can't vouch for the current state of Cali, but I can tell you that today's Colombia is a far cry from Pablo Escobar's. TL;DR version: It's awesome and super cheap, be careful where you go at night, learn some Spanish.

The changing demographics are epitomized by the fact that Delta just started flying to Columbia in 2016. (Atlantans fly Delta or bust. Mad skymiles + they don't put your pets in the overhead compartment. Too soon?) It's just under a five hour flight, but it's in the Central Time Zone, so there's no hard jetlag like going to California or Europe. Combined with how crazy affordable everything is once you get there, Colombia is a perfect long weekend trip from Atlanta. Or a week. Or two. You do you.

Originally, we wanted to go to Medellin* and Cartagena, but Delta only flies from Atlanta to Bogota and we only had five days to travel. We decided that both Bogota and Medellin were mountainous regions and opted to try a mountain and beach for two different experiences. This post contains my recommendations for Bogota; Cartegena will come soon.

Since I've never been to Medellin, I can't verify that we made the right choice, especially because everyone I know who's visited Medellin is obsessed with it. Frankly, in retrospect, we probably should've visited Bogota and Medellin, if only for ease of packing (and drinking — more on that later.) Bogota and Cartagena are about 30 degree temperature difference given their elevation, so trying to fit brisk-fall-mountain-region wear and beachwear in a carry-on was a little challenging. But the plus side is that we did have two completely distinct vacation experiences. And the Romancing the Stone fan in me would've never forgiven myself for going to Columbia without making it to Cartagena à la Joan Wilder.

First: Bogota. I hadn't heard much about this city prior to this trip. Even soliciting recommendations from friends in preparation, it seems to be the Colombia city that falls off the radar (which is odd, given that it's the capital). For what it lacks in reputation, it more than makes up for in experience; Bogota was an unexpected treat.

Bogota is a huge city  more than 8 million people  located way up in the mountains at 8,500 feet (Denver is at 5,280 feet, to put that in perspective.) It has that distinctly South American mix of colonial architecture meets developing nation meets metropolis, all nestled in a plateau surrounded by lush mountains.

In the 1990s, Bogota was one of the most violent cities in the world. However, it's made a concerted and largely successful effort to curb crime and rehabilitate the city's safety. A vastly improved economy, due to coal, oil, and tourism, has seen the per capita income in Colombia double since 2003. Bogota got its first skyscraper in the 1970s, but more than half of its skyscrapers have been built since 2015 as part of a high-rise boom.

All of this enabled us to stay in Chico, a very safe neighborhood of hotels and international businesses and upscale restaurants. Chico may not have the raw personality of Bogota's historic neighborhood, La Candelaria, but for anyone concerned about safety, it was a perfect location. Chico showcases Bogota's cosmopolitan side; the parts of town that represent Bogota's rich historical life are fascinating but not particularly safe by night.

As a note, all of Colombia was overrun with heavily armed police officers, and almost all of them had large dogs with them. (Weirdly, we saw three types of police dogs: German Shepherds, Rottweilers...and Golden Retrievers. What? We watched muzzled Rottweilers strain their leashes barking at any passing dog, but the Retriever police dogs were exactly what you'd expect: friendly pups with lolling tongues desperate to flip over for a belly rub. Bizarre.) The police presence itself was somewhat unsettling, but it certainly resonated in public places.

We stayed a great hotel called Hotel Estelar Parque 93 which is (spoiler) right next to "Parque 93," a famous park on Calle 93. The hotel is a mid-rise with a recent, super-mod renovation. It has spacious, American-size rooms, a nice bar and restaurant (with a generous included breakfast) and, best of all, a fabulous rooftop deck.

The pool wasn't open for our visit (it's winter there, after all), but the couches with fireplaces and bar service most definitely were. As an alternative to this place, The Click Clack Hotel is right next door. It's a little more expensive per night, but the interior has this gorgeous, bohemian, kitchy-chic vibe. Click Clack also has a happening rooftop bar with one of the best DJs I've ever heard (seriously). I highly recommend either hotel.

Our neighborhood was crowded with restaurants, including Gaira Cafe owned by a famous Colombian singer who is not Shakira, Carlos Vives. It's also a short walk from a hidden courtyard of great restaurants off Calle 90 (look for EK Hotel). We loved Local by Rausch located there, one of eight restaurants by Colombian celebrity chef Jorge Rauche.

For our full day in Bogota, we took a 30 minute cab ride ($3.40, no joke) to the foot of Monserrate, Bogota's largest mountain peak. The summit can be accessed by funicular, cable car, and by foot (though apparently foot-traffickers beware: there are occasional muggings of runners and hikers, especially those traveling solo or near dusk). Our plan was to funicular up and cable car down, but the funicular was closed while we were there so we got the cable car trip both ways. Apparently, this is pretty common; you get what you get when you arrive, so be flexible.

The cable car is easy and scenic. At the top, there's a large church with a broad plaza and great views over the whole city. We were there on an on-and-off cloudy day, but still got great views as the clouds were well above us. Of course, a blue-sky day would be best for views and photography. There are three restaurants at the top of the mountain, but we did not partake.

Cable car to Monserrate

Church at the top of Monserrate

Our Colombia crew on the mountain

Wandering Monserrate
Back on ground level, we walked from Monserrate to La Calendaria, Bogota's historic district and a relic of early Spanish colonization. On the way, we passed Quinta de Bolivar, the historic home of Simon Bolivar. Now I'm going to sidetrack for a hot minute because I am straight up obsessed with Simon Bolivar, but I encourage you to stay with me because he is the DAMN MAN.

I always try to read something about the region we're traveling to, and for this trip I picked up Marie Arana's excellent biography, Bolivar: American Liberator. Guys, it is ridiculous that we don't learn about this guy in school. He was the South American George Washington, except his battle for democracy took twice as long and crossed 100% more Andes mountains and Amazon rivers. According to the book:
"Not Alexander, not Hannibal, not even Julius Caesar had fought across such a vast, inhospitable terrain. Charlemagne's victories would have had to double to match Bolivar's. Napoleon, striving to build an empire, had covered less ground that Bolivar, struggling to win freedom." 
Bolivar was an aristocrat who studied in Europe with the best minds of his generation, but was so hardcore he makes Napoleon look like Pepe Le Pew. He abhorred slavery and intuited that the only way to fight the Spanish army was to recruit the huge class of Africans, mulattoes, and mephistos spread across his homeland. He corresponded personally with our own Founding Fathers, but also earned the nickname "Iron Ass" from the vicious, bloodthirsty horseback warriors he led due to his ability to outlast them all on a ride...over mountains...bareback. He was personally given the crown jewels of Lima, Peru (set in two crowns no less), but died in poverty, having given all of his fortune to the revolution and refused a paycheck for his presidency. What a boss.

You guys should really look him up.

Luckily for me, everything in Bogota is "Bolivar this" and "Bolivar that." His home is there, but you don't have to go out of your way to find him. The main square in La Candelaria is Bolivar Square. (The country Bolivia is also his namesake.) South American pretty much uses his name the way Atlanta uses "Peachtree."

Okay, history break over. Onto food. We ventured into La Candeleria for the express purpose of having lunch at Prudencia, a unique restaurant I found on TripAdvisor. Meghan, an American ex pat, and her husband Mario, a Colombian, created this place with a menu of fresh, local ingredients they describe as "peripatetic."  The menu changes daily and includes a small selection of the day's special, gourmet options.  Behind an unassuming facade, the interior was designed by neighborhood architect Simon Velez and is completely gorgeous: bright, airy, and industrial. Highly recommended.
La Candelaria

Prudencia Restaurant

Prudencia: interior 
Despite our lunch coma, we powered through to Bolivar Square and visited the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum). This was also an unexpected gem. (Pun! OMG!) This well-curated museum tracks the history of early gold mining and jewelry-making from Colombia's earliest native tribes through its importance during colonialism and through its continued use as currency and jewelry at present. They have some really impressive pieces and a multi-lingual exhibits on the role this metal played in the occupation of Colombia. A unique variation on the history museum.

Finally, I'll give a plug to my favorite dinner of the trip, Cafe Bar Universal (yes, the name sounds like a bad Google translation. "Dinner Eat Place.") This fabulous spot is found behind an unmarked white door on a rather sketchy-looking street (the kind you don't want to be wandering up and down looking at your phone GPS like we were). But inside is a cozy, sexy mecca that's equal parts tropical lounge and European bistro.

The menu was intimidating and written in Spanish; the waiters spoke very little English. So we compensated for our ignorance by just asking for the chef to send out whatever he wanted, and it was one of the best decisions of our trip. We had some amazing food, especially the beef tartar and ceviche, which we found were specialties of the region. An extravagant meal plus wine and cocktails ran us something like $40.00 per person, so Bogota is definitely a place where you can feel free to splurge.

On this topic: tourism is new to Colombia. We Americans are spoiled with our ability to travel the globe and find English speakers (and menus) almost everywhere. Colombia is not that spot. Even in major tourist spots, like the Bogota airport and international hotels, we found English speakers sparse to nonexistent. At smaller local restaurants and shops, English wasn't spoken at all. Luckily, my husband speaks quite decent Spanish, so he was our guide, translator, navigator, and communicator. But I genuinely don't know what we would have done without him. I highly recommend going with a Spanish-speaker or tour group if you don't speak Spanish; at minimum, brush up on basic travel phrases or you'll have a rough time.

Next stop/next post: Cartagena!

*Y'all, there are a lot of accents in the names of these places. Medellín, Bogotá, Bolívar. For some reason it's a real pain to add these non-standard letters to this blog post, so forgive my lack of appropriate accenting throughout this post.
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