Burgeoning Bogotá – A First-Timers Experience in Colombia
Bogotá is an engaging and vibrant city cradled by the Andes Mountains and steeped in cultivated coolness. The city’s epicenter is La Candelaria, where a potpourri of historically preserved buildings are home to museums, hotels, restaurants and bars which are peppered by 16th century churches.
The city’s grittier side sits to the south, where barrios continue to battle drugs and crime, but are being fought by beautified graffiti art. To the north there is an abundance of boutique hotels and chic entertainment districts.
Colombia is in the midst of a travel renaissance. This South American country is fast becoming a coveted destination for adventure seekers, nature lovers, bird watchers, biking enthusiasts and those looking for authentic experiences.
For the past 25 years international travel has exploded, from 400 million travelers to over 1.5 billion in 2019. During this same period, Colombia has been transitioning from its number #1 export of cocaine, to coffee, fresh produce and tourism. Tourism professionals recognizes that Colombia still has a long way to go in convincing travelers that their country is safe and worth a visit. I can tell you first hand that the people are extremely kind, helpful and enthusiastic about sharing their incredible country with foreigners. They realize that tourism is on viable (and vital) economic path and are committed to getting on the world stage.
While the drug lords and guerilla fighters of Colombia had a pervasive and negative impact on the country, there was one very positive thing to come from it…preservation. During the period in which Colombia was under siege, the rebels remained incognito under the dense canopy of of the jungles, therefore no roads or infrastructure impacted the wilderness. This positively created an eco-system that ended up preserving many pristine areas of the country—from archeological sites, nature preserves and more.
As Colombia emerges from its past, it was given a blank slate to work with. Learning from the international community, Colombia has been working hard to create and maintain the ecology of the country by developing sustainable tourism options that are truly unique and compelling.
I was fortunate to visit Bogota for a travel conference held by ATTA, an adventure travel trade organization with whom I’ve been a member for several years. This was the first travel conference I had attended in person in over a year. During the conference, those in attendance, were able to go on a FAM trip to get familiar within the district of Bogota. What I discovered is a country on the brink of becoming a player on the world stage of tourism. They also take the Covid protocols very seriously and are doing everything they can to keep travelers safe during their visit. As a matter of fact, 100% of the ATTA members in attendance all tested negative upon departure, evidence that it is possible to travel safely during these uncertain times.
Getting to Bogotá
Flying into Bogata is quite easy with several options available. I flew on Delta from Phoenix, with a short layover in Atlanta, then directly into Bogota. One of the benefits of flying to Bogota from the U.S. (unlike Europe or Asia) is that there is little to no time zone change (depending on where you live in the U.S.), so no jet lag to deal with.
Bogota has many lodging options, including most of the leading brands. During my stay I stayed at the Grand Hyatt, a 5-star luxury property that is quite affordable when you compare to other capital cities around the world. You can find 5-star lodging in the city from $100-$175/night, half what you would expect in the states or Europe.
Located in Old Town Bogota is Hotel de la Opera, another great option on the luxury side of lodging. This is lovely boutique property right in the heart of the city, surrounded by cobblestone streets and with views of church spires and tiled roofs of the historic Candelaria district. Prices are under $100/night and include breakfast.
How much does it cost to visit Bogota?
Colombia is a very affordable country to visit when comparing to Europe and North America. Here are a few examples:
- A specialty coffee might run $2 (7,000 Pesos).
- Fresh squeezed OJ about the same.
- A really nice evening meal would run $15-$20.
- Uber – $5 for a 12 mile/30-minute ride.
- Bike Rental – About $15/day.
- Bike Tour – Around $20.
Best Way to See and Experience Colombia
One of the best ways to visit a country is by taking a tour. While I was in Bogota for the ATTA conference, I met some amazing tour operators who shared details about their respective company’s and tours. I thought I would highlight a few who really impressed me.
- Impulse Travel – This tour operator is all about providing impactful experiences by connecting you with locals. They offer tours throughout the country in various segments. For example, they have a gastronomic tour that informs you of Colombia’s conflict and peace agreement through its food. They have private concerts where you get to know the musician and understand the culture of the music. Or, you can go whitewater rafting through a former war zone. Global standards, local experiences and a passion for heritage is what you’ll find with the folks from Impulse Travel.
- Neptuno Colombia – With an international team composed of local experts with diverse backgrounds Neptuno has an array of tours to suit any traveler, from nature, culture to adventure.
- SULA – Colombia has the most variety of birds than any country in the world, so if you’re into birding, you have to check out the tours from SULA. Their tours often combine exciting pursuits, so even if you’re not totally into birds, you’ll also enjoy the adventure. They also have a fantastic YouTube channel that highlights many of their tours, which can be found by visiting: https://www.pelecanus.com.co/en
- Ecoturismo Momacarena – From whitewater rafting, safari, rappelling to horseback riding, the folks at Ecoturimo Momacarena can hook you up with tours anywhere in the country.
- Colombian Project – For tailor-made travel experience from history, archaeology, cycling to birding and wildlife, the Colombian Project can make your travel dreams to Colombia a reality.
- Neotropic Expeditions – These are the amazing folks with whom I took a tour, details below.
My Bogota Blog (Day 1)
During my visit to Bogota, I did a four-day tour with the folks from Neotropic Expeditions, a tour operator who handled all of our logistics and provided an exciting adventure trip. Our excursion started with a mountain bike through the most amazing skylines of the Andean mountains. This is an area that used to be home to many guerilla groups, but now is a recreational haven and home to farmers and villagers on the outskirts of Bogota.
We each had a high quality, full-suspension mountain bike that allowed us to easily navigate the rugged terrain. Coming from an elevation of just 1200’ in Phoenix to over 9000’ was a bit of a challenge on the uphill sections of the ride that took us from Choachi to Caqueza, but the downhill portions were exhilarating.
Our ride ended at the viewpoint of El Filo, a stupendous spot from the Andean region, to the gateway of the Colombian Orinoco. This is where we had a light lunch before heading on to our next destination.
We drove down Via Bogota-Villavicencio (Hwy 40), a stunning stretch of road through the Andean Mountains which follows the Rio Negro River. We stopped in the small village of Puente Quetame to grab a local snack called arepas de maiz, a cheese-filled corn patty that was quite tasty.
As we continued our drive, we also continued to drop in elevation. By the time we arrived at our hotel, the El Campanario, we had gone from around 9000’ to just over 1000’. This diversity in elevation is what makes the Bogota region so agriculturally robust.
The tropical setting at El Campanario was a welcome sight, it was much warmer and you could feel the humidity in the air. The landscape was so lush with plants and greenery that it reminded me of Southeast Asia, which also lies along the equator, so not surprising to have a similar environment.
That evening we went for dinner at an event center called Parque de las Malocas, which is located in Villavicencio, Meta, a region southeast of Bogota. Our group was the only one in attendance due to Covid.
After dinner we walked to another building on the compound where we discovered music emanating and and many people congregating, which took me by surprise as I thought we were the only ones at the venue. Come to find out, everyone sitting at the tables were performers. Once our group all entered the building, the performers left the tables for the stage. They performed a number of Joropo (traditional Colombian dance) routines. The best way to describe Joropo is a dash of tango combined with aggressive tap dancing. The choreography and music was absolutely fantastic. It had been so long since any of us had experienced a live performance that we were overwhelmed with excitement.
My Bogota Blog (Day 2)
The next day we were up at the crack of dawn to make our way to the Guejar River, one of the top attractions in Colombia. We spent the day whitewater rafting down class 2 and 3 rapids. The canyon scenery was full of green plants and hanging vines, which tempted me to grab hold and swing across the river like Tarzan of the Jungle. The scene was truly something straight out of a movie set.
We stopped for a side excursion about halfway down the river to take a short walk/hike to a splendid waterfall. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii, that’s sort of what if felt like, lush plants, a crystal clear stream feeding the river, and then, a 400-500 foot waterfall cascading into a pool of water. It was just amazing!
After our adventurous day on the river, we ended at a spot where the river guides have a compound of sorts. Here, we shower and changed into dry clothes. Then, we enjoy a lovely lunch, which in our case consisted of fresh fish caught right from the river we had just rafted down. It was a perfect ending to the day.
My Bogota Blog (Day 3)
The next day we headed back toward Bogota where we took a Cable Car up into the mountains outside the city center. This cable car is quite new and was just completed in 2016. It was built to serve the community in the outskirts of town. Before the cable car was built it used to take workers more than an hour and half to get to town to their jobs, now it takes just 20 minutes.
This south-end of town is one of the poorest parts of the city, and like most poor areas, it is strife with issues. There is however a leader in this community who is attempting to beautify the area with his artwork by painting huge graffiti murals on available walls.
After traveling four sections of the cable car, we reached the very top where we met with Michael, AKA Ocius The Walker, the young man leading a charge to improve his community.
Michael is a truly gifted painter who has created some of the most impressive murals, but he is not the only one, he just seems to be the one leading the charge. As a matter of fact, he finally has the attention of city and international leaders who have been donating money to continue his initiatives. As you ride up the mountainside in one of the cable cars you can see huge swaths of the community painted in vibrant colors, it reminded me of the “Blue City” in India.
Michael took us on a tour to some of his most powerful pieces and described the meaning behind each mural. This young man is really passionate about what he is doing, and what he is trying to communicate. For example, one of his murals is of a mermaid swimming in a sea of garbage and she is trying to get to the surface to escape the trash beneath. Michael is trying to communicate to the inhabitants that there is a choice…to swim in clean waters, or drown in your own filth. It is a powerful message, just like all of his other murals. This young man has a gift and I cannot wait to see what his life and community look like in a few years time.
My Bogota Blog (Day 4)
Bogotá is Colombia’s high-altitude capital, it’s a vibrant and diverse city; a bustling metropolis that is a mix of old and new, trendy and traditional. On Day 4 of our tour we hopped on some bikes and went exploring.
Our first stop of the day was a coffee tasting at Varietale. Now, I’ve done wine, beer and bourbon tastings before, but never coffee. Of course Colombia is one of the finest coffee producing countries in the entire world. I am a dark roast, bold coffee drinker, but what I discovered from this tasting is that light to medium roast coffee is actually where all the flavor lies. In addition to trying different coffees, we also experienced different brew methods.
During our bike ride we stopped by some of the cities landmarks, such as the Parque Nacional, the La Macarena bullring and Bogota’s Gold Museum, a must visit sight with an incredible collection of more than 34.000 pieces of authentic pre-Columbian gold.
For lunch we visited the Plaza de Mercado La Perseverancia a local food market famous for its Ajiaco, a typical Bogota dish full of flavor which consists of potatoes, corn and chicken soup. This place became famous because of the Netflix series “Street Food Latin America” where its preparation had a dedicated episode.
Our last stop of the day was to Bogota Beer Company for a game of Tejo, the national game originally created by the Indigenous Muiscas, which consist of throwing a heavy iron disc across a room toward a clay surface with a circle of gunpowder-filled papers called “mechas”, all of this while listening to loud music and drinking beer. Beer and gunpowder, what could go wrong? Nothing really, it was a lot of fun.
Last Day in Bogota
My last full day in Bogota was the actual conference where tour operators, agents and media had rounds of speed-meetings in which to get to know each other.
The venue was outside the city at a place called El Portico, a fantastic event center and restaurant reminiscent of an old hacienda. We actually took the only train in Bogota there, which is only used for special events and occasions. The ride was over an hour-long, a scenic trip through the city. While aboard we were greeted with some talented musicians who thoroughly entertained us along the way.
During our day of meetings we had several breaks, one was after lunch in which we saw an equestrian show by some remarkable cowboys/girls. That evening, after dinner, was the highlight of the day for me—it was a performance by Corporacion AAINJA.
As the halls of the venue mellowed after our meal, an unsuspecting group of performers dressed in vibrant costumes illuminated by black-light, preyed upon the audience by entering from the back of the room. The movements of the performers were like a prey animal. The group made their way toward the front of the venue, all the while startling some unsuspecting members of the audience…as they got almost close enough to sniff their prey. As they reached the stage they were in no hurry to begin the performance, as if their sly movements were all in preparation for what was about to come. What came, was an exhilarating performance that starts slowly toward the crescendo where the primal movements and beating drums permeate one’s soul. It reminded me a bit of STOMP and was so impressive!
That’s it from my time in Bogota Colombia. If you have any questions at all, please leave a comment below, I’m happy to help.