There are two things in life I approach with a bit of caution; other people’s film recommendations and travel advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (it makes you never want to leave British soil).
So I headed to Colombia. Villages and cities scattered across the Andes and highest altitudes I have ever been to (or danced salsa for that matter). This relatively undiscovered, but not for too long, from mass tourism country has everything: music, culture, gorgeous colonial architecture, a diversity of landscapes, friendly people and some of the best food I tried on my travels in Latin America. And yes it is safe.
First stop of my journey: Bogota. I am often asked how long one needs to ‘see’ a place. I always reply ‘depends what you want to focus on’. Bogota could be seen in a speedy long weekend but you could also spend days discovering the different neighbourhoods and diversity of culinary options. If you want to factor a few trips in the surroundings you could easily fill a week. I would suggest if your time in Colombia is limited to spend a couple of days in Bogota and move on. The city is pretty chaotic and apart from the Old Colonial centre everything else is really spread out. It takes a lot of time to move from one spot to the other and you definitely need a car.
There is a lot of hype around the city’s safety. Experienced from my own comfort level, which of course is always subjective, I think La Candelaria and generally Bogota’s downtown area to the route to Monseratte was an area I felt I had to be a bit extra vigilant. But nothing in exaggeration. I was lucky enough to have friends living in Bogota who showed me around. Most of the transfers were in the safety of a car which I really think for Bogota is good practice. Mornings is a safe time to move around and do the necessary sightseeing. Travel guide books are the best sources to indicate which areas to avoid (The Rough Guide in particular).
Altitude sickness: at 2,640 metres above sea level, altitude sickness is almost unavoidable but impact is different on each individual. Unfortunately there is not much to do about it especially when flying directly to a destination without prior acclimatisation. One is either susceptible to it or not although there are a number of preventative measures to ease things. Generally, plenty of fluids, no alcohol, lots of carbs and keeping physical activity to a minimum (at least until slowly acclimatised) is recommended. Luckily, I got away with just a mild headache on day two which faded after a couple of hours (and after plenty of water intake) but it is really down to personal adjustment.
La Candelaria La Candelaria is the colonial part of the city and major student nightlife destination as the Universities are nearby. I arrived on a Friday evening and the area was buzzing. It is full of little hippy bars with cheap alcohol. The area itself has beautiful colonial architecture, most of the houses at the central streets are restored and colour is bursting, especially on a sunny day.
Stay streetwise: I would recommend exploring the area in the daylight, especially if you are a solo traveller. I found it slightly intimidating after dark as well as on Sunday early morning which is very, very quiet.
I cannot recommend nothing more than dropping your Lonely Planet at your hotel and just wander around the area and explore. My favourite spot was Chorro de Quevedo, a tiny picturesque square with a beautiful church. Around the square are located various stalls and shops but head for El Gato Gris for a coffee break. This is a beautifully restored colonial house, with many little rooms to enjoy a hot coffee or drinks while downstairs I found the cosiest restaurant with fireplaces in full swing (considering how chilly Bogota can get in the evening it was fully appreciated). I stayed at Casa Galleria, a colonial boutique hotel. Impossibly charming with the cutest court yard and coffee shop. For lunch drop by La Puerta Falsa. Apparently, this small old spot is one of the most popular in Bogota. I just found by coincidence when while exploring started raining and had to take shelter. It was good luck as this place had some of the best food I had while in Colombia. You won’t get a huge menu list but you don’t need it. This family-run business prepares 4 local dishes and are all done to perfection – fresh, local ingredients, prepared on the spot. Try the ‘tamale’ (yellow corn dough with rice, chicken, pork, vegetables, capers – all wrapped in a banana leaf, tied up with some twine, and steamed).
Monserrat On my first day, I arranged a guided tour. Not because I don’t like exploring, I love it. But because as a solo female traveller I was advised to do so. It is definitely worth the money, not only to feel relaxed but also to get the extra knowledge that only a local can provide. I arranged mine through Travel Colombia Tours and would highly recommend. You can reach the top of Monserrat via the cable car or a 90 minutes hike. It is advised, if you choose the hike to do in the morning and on the weekends which is busy as apparently muggings have been reported on the route. My natural boredom/laziness for ‘all things hike’ provided extra safety during my Monserrat visit. The cable car was easy, fast, sweat and mugging-free. Go during the week or at least on a Saturday and avoid Sundays at all costs as this is Colombia’s largest pilgrimage sight and on Sundays is insanely busy. The views are amazing especially if the sun is out, helping visibility.
Museums Don’t miss those two museums, both conveniently located at the Candelaria. Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) displays the biggest collection of Pre-Hispanic gold work in the world. I had a pre-taste of pre-Colombian civilization when I visited British Museum’s amazing exhibition ‘Beyond El Dorado’ but I came to realize that was only a ‘fraction’ of what I was to experience at Museo del Oro. A fascinating exhibition spanning over 3 floors, laid out in thematic, chronologically ordered rooms. Museo Botero is hosting one of Latin America’s most important art collections. The museum, naturally, is a mecca to Colombian master artist Fernando Botero who has donated 128 of his pieces but you will also find important work from other major artists of the 19th and 20th century including Monet, Degas, Picasso and Chagall.
Bogota by night Definitely one of my favourite travelling pastimes, I really believe key elements of a place’s culture beat can only be understood at night. I wouldn’t miss for the world to explore Bogota’s nightlife if nothing more to finally properly put all these lessons of salsa dancing into good practice. I was really impressed with the quality of bars, restaurants and cafes in Bogota. The northern section of Bogota is hip, posh with many impressive eateries. I tried Mercado at Parque de la 93. Mercado, operating under local renowned Chef Leonor Espinosa, offers Colombian and other latin american traditional dishes with a modern twist all based on all-organic local ingredients supporting local farmers produce. The place has an impressive list of exotic juices as well.
You won’t have a problem locating a good bar at Zona T – an upcoming pedestrian promenade full of bistros, boutiques and late night spots. We headed to El Campanario. The club is a multispace, offering from reggaetton and live salsa to modern colombian pop as well as a terrace for al fresco drinking. While at it, try Colombia’s ‘national drink’ Aguardiente – an aniseed flavoured liquor derived from sugarcane. Best consumed chilled!
Sunday strolls at Usaquen Who doesn’t like local markets full of local colour, accessories and flavours. My local friends took me to the most amazing place on a Sunday: the colonial quarter of Usaquen. A quite ‘upmarket’ bazaar takes place every Sunday – there is no better way to get a taste of the region’s local food and produce than this. The area is trendy, full of cafés and restaurants of local and international cuisine and I took quite a bit of time to lazily walk around and explore. I personally loved Colombian food, so we opted for Casa Vieja which offered traditional Colombian cuisine. Food was fresh, hearted, amazing. The place gets very busy lunch time so head early or prepare to wait for a bit. Finally finish off with a coffee at one of the cutest cafés I have been, Cafe El Altillo.
Local delicacies Colombia’s dishes differ from region to region as they are all based on local fresh ingredients and tradition. I haven’t found the dishes available to Bogota’s local gems widely available elsewhere (unless you opt for the really commercial restaurants, which I recommend not doing so). In Bogota and the wider Andean region dishes tend to be heartier, meat-based (and yes definitely more calorific) but it is all about providing you with the required energy for the cold temperatures and high altitudes! Try tamale, beautifully cooked corn dough filled with pork, chicken and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and steamed; the ajiaco santafereño, a delicious chicken soup with a variety of vegetables including potatoes, corn and avocado; the exquisite Bandeja Paisa a mixture of beans, egg, meat, rice, and plantains. For something sweet try cake filled with arequipe (Colombia’s version of dulce de leche), tres leches cake, arroz con leche, bananas calados and so many more. I also quite enjoyed sweet fried coconut from the street vendors. Colombia produces so many exotic fruits (guava, mango, passion fruit,dragon fruit) I could not possible limit my recommendations to just a few. Some of them are even local to the country and not available elsewhere. Of course this makes the basis for some amazing exotic juices; try a different one every day (you can ask to have the juice with water or mixed with milk which is delicious). I couldn’t get enough of guanábana juice usually served with milk.
Trademark shopping Colombia is home to some of the finest emeralds in the world and Bogota is a good place to buy those gorgeous stones. Make sure you buy them from a Certified seller (request to see the Certificate). The mochila bag is a popular artisan bag, handwoven by the indigenous women of the Wayuu tribe meaning each bag is unique. I personally loved those colourful bags, it may not be to anyone’s taste though, but in Colombia come to a fraction of the price than buying them abroad. If you decide to buy those make sure you do from Bogota – Usaquen’s market is a good place – as they tend to be much more expensive in other more touristy Colombia towns.