Beautiful Bogota: Wandering in Colombia's Capital
Colombia's Recent History: A Brief Overview
Only twenty years ago, taking a trip to Colombia would have crossed few travelers' minds. From the 1960's until the early 2000's, the country was in a state of asymmetric warfare between its government, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries, with the height of the conflict occurring in the 1990's. Consequentially, it was highly inadvisable to travel the country during this era. The turmoil has largely subsided since 2002, and today, the government and guerrilla forces are working together to find a political and peaceful resolution between their parties. They have made huge advances in the past few years towards addressing poverty, crime, and aid for victims of the violence in Colombia.
This new stability in Colombia has led to a new wave of tourism in Colombia, although traveling to the country is still considered by many to be an "off the grid" excursion. Of course, a logical amount of awareness and caution should always be executed, but it is now quite safe to travel in Colombia. I visited Bogota as a solo female traveler, who unfortunately speaks almost zero Spanish, and I was able to navigate my way around Bogota without feeling unsafe or completely out of my depth (although knowing Spanish would have been a massive help). Colombia is a traveler's dream in every way imaginable. The country is rich with culture, history, traditions, stunning and diverse landscape, archaeological ruins, fascinating cities, and amazing cuisine.
Bogota is the capital of Colombia and has a population of roughly thirteen million people, making it the largest city in the country and one of the largest in South America. The city stands on a plateau in the Andes Mountains, 2640 metres above sea level. Because of the city's high elevation, the climate is a little cooler than most places in Colombia, so it is best to be prepared and bring a sweater for the evenings in Bogota. The city is bursting at the seams with culture - street art, festivals, and theatre can be found on nearly every corner. There is something for every traveler in Colombia's capital.
Bogota City View
Monserrate towers above the city centre of Bogota, and consequentially, it offers the absolute best view for observing Bogota's sweeping and expansive city-scape. Adventure-seekers or fitness junkies can hike to the summit - a walk which takes roughly an average of two to three hours along the marked path. Otherwise, visitors can access the summit by the popular funicular, which was built in 1955, or the cable car (or "teleferico"), which carries roughly forty passengers at a time up the mountain (although it seems as though a significant amount more than that are often squeezed into the car). The slow ascent up the mountain offers increasingly impressive views of Bogota and the surrounding jungle.
The mountain takes its name from the original religious retreat that was constructed here in the early seventeenth century, which was dedicated to Monserrat's Lady, or Virgin. Her statue stood in its place of honour in the centre of the retreat when it was originally constructed. However, a statue dedicated to Jesus Christ was constructed in the latter part of the seventeenth century, which originally stood in a small chapel dedicated to the adoration of Christ. Throughout the years, an increasing number of people began to make to pilgrimmage to Monserrate to view the statue of Christ (officially named "El Senor Caido"). Because of this, the original statue in the sanctuary was re-located, and the statue of Christ now stands in the place of honour. Today, Monserrate is not only Bogota's top tourist attraction, but also remains a pilgrimage site.
I would highly advise taking your time when you visit Monserrate. The views are breathtaking; try not to simply take your photos and leave. Absorb the beauty of the location. Also, be sure to take time to stroll through the gardens. Monserrate is an incredible meditative and peaceful location, despite the fact that its often bursting with tourists. Conveniently, Monserrate's peak also has a cafe, and the garden benches are the perfect place to enjoy lunch or coffee.
Be sure to looks towards Monerrate's peak as evening falls; you'll be rewarded with a gorgeous view of the illuminated Church.
On Top of Monserrate
Tamale Wrapped in Plantain Leaves
Colombian cuisine is, without a doubt, one of the best aspects of visiting Bogota. The capital of Colombia has everything when it comes to dining, and the best advise I can give to any traveler is to try everything on the menu. I could have visited Bogota, done nothing but eat, and have been wholly satisfied with the entire experience.
Do not be afraid to try foods from street vendors. No matter where you are traveling in the world, there is always a risk of becoming ill with traveler's diarrhea (sorry, but it is true), and fear of this reality should not keep you from trying all the wonderful foods there are to try abroad. Of course, be logical about it - of something looks old or off-colour, it might not be the best choice. However, being too over-cautious can result in a lot of missed opportunities when it comes to street cuisine. If it looks delicious, nine times out of ten, it usually is.
The list of must-try foods is truly endless, and I know I did not even come close to trying everything that Bogota has to offer (also, I have a terrible habit of repeating street food carts rather than trying new ones). Must try items include (but are certainly not limited to) pescado frito (literally fried fish, served whole and usually accompanied by rice and plantains), hot chocolate and cheese (drop the cheese into the chocolate, which is traditionally served without added sugar or milk, and then eat the cheese with a spoon), patacones (fried green plantains), and tamales wrapped in plantain leaves were among my favourites. Street vendors often sell fresh fruit, waffles with a wide array of toppings (not a day in Bogota went by where I did not purchase one of these waffles, complete with all the toppings), a various meats on a stick.
Seriously - try everything.
Traditional Cheese and Hot Chocolate
Bogota Street Art
Bogota and Culture
Bogota is the cultural epicentre of Colombia. The city contains multiple universities, endless museums, art galleries, theatres, street markets and fairs. In 2007, Bogota was named the World Book Capital by UNESCO, making it the only city in South America to receive this honour, and one of only two cities in the Americas to have been given the title (the other being Montreal, Quebec, Canada). Street art is incredibly detailed and popular in Bogota, and most hostels offer walking tours of the city which point out particularly notable spots - which is also conveniently a great way to see the city.
Street Market in Bogota
Ultimately, traveling is about experiences, and Bogota offers those in plenty to its visitors. As mentioned in the introduction to this article, knowing Spanish is a massive asset when traveling in Colombia, but it is certainly not impossible to travel to Colombia without knowing the language - as long as you do not mind accidentally ordering the wrong thing in a restaurant once in a while, or sitting through a play which does not contain a single word of English.
One other thing to note about traveling in Colombia, and about Bogota in particular - be wary of counterfeit bills. They're pretty easy to identify once you know what to look for, but ask hostel employees for tips on how to identify them, or have one on hand that you know is authentic to use as a standard by which to judge.
Bogota is an unbelievable city, and offers everything imagineable to its tourists, while still being relatively inexpensive to visit. There is no reason not to visit Colombia's capital.