Baby Steps in Bogota

View from our hotel in Usaquen

Our first day in Colombia started slowly. There were a few things bits of admin we needed to urgently sort out that we just hadn’t had time to do in the UK. The other important thing to do was to work out what we’d be doing after Bogota. We were now three nights away from having nothing booked and having no idea what we were doing next. We did some research and came up with a draft itinerary for Columbia:

Bogota (4 nights)
Santa Marta
Tayrona National Park for a night or two exploring and sleeping in a hammock
Cartagena via another night in Santa Marta
Pereira (in the coffee growing region)
Back to Bogota
Ecuador

We’re due in Ecuador on the 10th of October to start our Spanish course but until then we have no deadlines. So we booked up a flight to Santa Marta and two nights in a hostel once we got there.

With the admin all done we set out to explore Bogota. Since Bogota was our first stop, we knew very little about it and knew we’d be shattered when we arrived we’d booked up a basic Hilton using my hotel points in a suburb called Usaquen on the north side of the city. The advantage of this is that it’s very safe to walk around at night and is a hotspot for the kind of restaurants that middle class Colombians go to which meant that vegetarian food would be easy and we’d be spoilt for choice. The downside of this choice is that most of the tourist sites are in La Candelaria, much further south. It’s not actually far in terms of distance but the traffic in Bogota is so bad that it’s a 40 minute taxi ride away. So with Tuesday afternoon to explore we got the hotel to call us a taxi and headed straight for the central square, Plaza de Bolivar.

Upon arrival we were initially slightly disappointed. The Plaza de Bolivar is not especially impressive and thanks to some graffiti and paint splashes everywhere (from as recent protest?) doesn’t look especially well cared for. We ventured into the main Cathedral on the square which turned out be much simpler (and more tasteful) on the inside than the gaudy gold covered Cathedrals we’d seen in Peru. We’d noticed that a couple of blocks away was the Museo de Policia which sounds like an odd choice however we’d read that the guides are knowledgeable and spend time explaining the huge police operation that result in the killing of famous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993. We met a couple of 22 year old girls during the tour on a post university gap year who’d spent 3 months in America and just landed in Colombia. They seemed pretty confused by everything and the guide was totally shocked that they had never heard of Escobar (to be fair he was killed around the time that they were born!). Anyway the Police museum was a mix of very interesting (Escobar’s Harley Davidson) and slightly odd (UK county police badges all labelled with slightly incorrect county names).

With all the museums now starting to close we headed over to a recommended traditional (and famous) Colombian eatery called Puerto de Falsa and attempted to procure some food.

So far we’ve noticed that very few people speak English in Colombia and although we’ve been attempting Spanish at every opportunity, whereas in many countries where they’ll work out that you don’t speak much Spanish and switch to English that rarely seems to happen in Colombia. It does mean that we’ve had plenty of opportunities to practise our Spanish but it has not been easy. Over the last year Alex has managed to both complete a basic Spanish course and to spend many hours getting one to one tuition with Roby, the girlfriend of German, an Argentinian colleague from work. Having been away, busy or maybe just lazy (you decide) my Spanish practice has been limited to some time spent on a Spanish app on my phone. It quickly became obvious the difference that the time Alex has spent with Roby has made to her Spanish, although her vocabulary is not vastly superior to mine she is much more able to effectively compose sentences and make herself understood (huge thank you to Roby!). The other difference that it has made is with understanding. Colombians seem to run many words together and speak very quickly and their response to “I’m sorry I don’t understand” is to say the same thing again at the same speed. At least they don’t follow the slightly patronising English approach of also saying it louder! In these situations I’m trying to pick out one or words from a sentence whereas Alex is usually able to at least get the basic meaning of the sentence on the first or second attempt.

So we walk into la Puerto Falsa. There is no menu and all we can see is unidentifiable pastries and unidentifiable parcels wrapped in leaves (tamales I believe). Alex does her best to ask what they have, explains that we want some food and we get sent upstairs. A few minutes later a waiter brings over a plate containing a mug of hot chocolate, a bread roll and a piece of cheese. A slightly odd combination but it was warm tasty and vegetarian so there were no complaints from me!

We now needed to get a taxi back to our hotel as we’d been warned that the area could get a little sketchy after dark and this being our first day we didn’t want to take any risks. We wandered into the cultural centre and asked in the library if they’d mind ordering us a taxi. They spent ages dialling taxi numbers and eventually came back with “no taxi”. The guy then pulled out his phone, loaded an app that works very similarly to Uber, ordered a taxi then watched as the GPS showed it heading over to us. When it arrived he insisted on walking out to the road with us, finding the taxi for us then made sure we got into it safely. We’d heard that Colombian hospitality was legendary and this seemed to be our first glimpse of it. Jet lagged, slightly altitude sick and hungry we found a local Italian for dinner and thanks to a predictable menu we managed in Spanish with no issues.

The view over Bogota
The view over Bogota

The next day we decided to strike out earlier and see the main tourist attractions of Bogota. Everyone had told us to visit the gold museum however we’d already been to the gold museum in Lima where after half an hour our impression really was there was indeed a lot of gold in Peru. We opted for a trip to Monserrate, a 1000m (vertical) trip up a funicular railway to see the church at the top of the hill and the view over Bogota. We had a walk round the church admired the amazing views. For the first time we could see the scale of Bogota from a good vantage point and it is immense! After a hour at 3150m (10,341 feet) above sea level we were both starting to feel a little light headed so we rode the funicular down the hill and headed over to the Quinta de Bolivar.

Monserrate
Monserrate

The Quinta de Bolivar is a walled compound owned by Simon Bolivar and lived in by him sporadically over 10 years when he was in Bogota. After the altitude of Monserrate it was nice to be able to walk around the compound slowly with an audioguide that more than adequately covered what we were interested in hearing.

Botero's Dancers
Botero’s Dancers

We next decided to walk the rest of the way into the centre of town to grab some lunch and to see another museum. We reached the centre and were turned away from the place we’d been planning to go because they’d finished serving lunch but we managed to find a place directly opposite that served delicious salads. After lunch we headed over to the Museo de Botero, a modern art museum exhibiting a mixture of European impressionist art by Picasso, Dali and the art by a local Colombian artist by the name of Fernando Botero. Botero paints everything to look erm… fat, so we saw some still life paintings where everything looked fat, we saw a fat man riding a fat horse, a fat cat, a fat dog, some fat dancers and a lot of fat naked women. Botero’s paintings of children were especially interesting as they mostly ended upon looking like terrifying tiny fat adults. Anyway it was an interesting experience and we spent most of the time either trying not to laugh or debating what you’d think if the paintings were brought to you by a 10 year old as opposed to internationally renowned artists!

It was again time to head back to the hotel and after our experience of the previous night I’d downloaded the same app I saw the guy at the library use so we headed to Juan Valdez, Colombia’s answer to Starbucks, ordered a coffee and made use of the free WiFi to order a taxi. A few minutes later our taxi arrived and we were on our way back to the hotel.

That evening for dinner we decided to start with a beer at the BBC, the Bogota Beer Company, which seems to be a local chain of bars built off the back of a microbrewery. The place itself had bare brick walls adorned with posters and memorabilia from British real ale breweries and they really took their beer seriously. They brewed six real ales of their own plus their own versions of a craft IPA, a Belgian beer, a Czech pilsner and a few others. The beer was just as good as I’d expect at home and the waiter switched into English to give us a detailed explanation of every beer in our tasting tray. Tired and content we opted to stay at the BBC for dinner then headed back for a good night’s sleep.

On our final full day in Bogota we decided to push the boat out a little and head out of the city. In the nearby city of Zipaquira there is an underground Cathedral dug out of the salt rock in a former salt mine. Getting there was described in the guidebooks as “easy if you speak Spanish”. We set off early and started with a taxi to Portal del Norte, Bogota’s northern bus terminus, where we would catch our bus to Zipaquira (known locally as Zipa). After a confusing conversation with the lady at the ticket counter we got the local equivalent of an Oyster card which enabled us to get through the gates and down to the platforms. Within seconds we found a bus labelled Zipa and we were encouraged on by the driver. Within minutes the bus was full and we were on our way. We’d read that the journey took around 40 minutes so we relaxed and checked out the scenery. The bus seemed to have no fixed shopping points instead anyone could flag it down. The conductor was unlike anyone you’d see in the UK, helping people on and off the bus, loading clay roof tiles at one point for a man who got on the bus and generally making sure that the frequent stops were as short as possible. Before we left the UK I re-downloaded an app that Nat and Jon, two of our friends that had been traveling a few years ago recommended. It’s called Maps.Me and allows you to downloaded fully routable maps for entire countries for offline use. As a result once it looked like we were heading into as town I was able to quickly confirm that it was the right town and we got ready for our stop. We got off in the centre of town and the conductor made sure he gave us detailed directions to walk to the Cathedral de Sal. In fact he gave us the directions at least twice in extremely rapid Spanish that we struggled to understand but he eventually pointed us in the right direction and we were on our way.

About twenty minutes later we walked into the gates of the complex that contains the salt Cathedral. Our first impressions weren’t great, the car park was empty, the cafés were closed and it all felt slightly run down. We bought our tickets and then discovered that the next English tour was in 1.5 hours. We used up the time with the salt mining museum and a bite of Guava jam filled bread for lunch.

At 2pm we walked over to the entrance of the Cathedral (which is actually the old mine entrance) and met our guide. Considering what we’d seen so far he was a surprise, perfect English, exuberant manner and seemed genuinely excited by what the miners had built underground and what he was about to show us.

We weren’t disappointed, as we descended underground we passed the stations of the cross, huge salt rock crosses lit up and mostly placed in the entrances to old mine shafts. The effect was incredible and the contrast between rough hewn walls and perfectly carved crossed was beautiful. Eventually we reached the choir, at the top and back of the cathedral itself where we first able to see the scale of the cathedral. Far away from us on the back wall of the Cathedral appeared to be hanging a giant rock salt cross of incredible scale. We continued to walk down seeing other parts of the cathedral and eventually entered the main chamber. At the sides were huge salt rock pillars. I took a photo of Alex standing in front of one to try to gauge the incredible scale. As we got closer to the cross at the end of the cathedral we realised that instead of a cross hanging from the wall it was actually a cross carved into the wall and lit from behind. Either side of the Nave were two more chambers as big as the central one. The entire effect of the place was impossible to describe but it was easily the highlight of the trip so far. The tour ended with a walk through some underground craft shops which were thankfully on the skilful craft end of the tourist souvenir market and not at all pushy. We were then left to explore on our own so we walked round everything again, taking photos and slowly made our way back to the surface. We walked back to where we’d got off the bus, and in the final few metres of our approach a bus arrived, the conductor got off, guessed why we were there, shouted Bogota at us and within seconds we were safely on our way back home. The traffic on our way back was pretty heavy but we made the bus station before dark. The next challenge was getting a taxi back to the hotel. The bus station although nice was pretty basic and there was nowhere to get WiFi (to use the taxi app) or anybody to ask. We spotted a mall across the road, asked someone who worked for the mall and they directed us to their taxi rank, repeating telling us that it was safe to use.

La Catedral de Sal
La Catedral de Sal

We got back to the hotel and decided to get some food. It was quite early (the restaurants near us seem to be empty until 9pm) so we decided to walk around the area, find somewhere to come back to then grab a beer at the BBC. We found a table outside, got ourselves a pint each and starting drinking about half a pint Alex started to feel it little dizzy, then sick, then moments later rushed off the to bathroom. We’d just started anti-malarials in preparation for heading to the malarial areas, we hadn’t eaten much all day and we think these two combined to upset her stomach. We quickly paid up, rushed back to the hotel and got her something to eat. Thirty minutes later Alex was feeling a lot better so we headed back out to a Mexican we’d spotted earlier and we both ate although she sensibly stuck to cheese quesadillas and skipped the margarita!

We got a good night sleep that night, I think we’d completely recovered from the altitude sickness and jetlag and the next morning we packed our bags.

We only realised when packing just before we left the UK that our two bags despite supposedly being the same size are actually quite different. Mine does not have an expansion zip and as such is about 1/3 smaller, we’ve already started to ditch a couple of things that we brought by accident but we’re going to have to lose a few more things before we can easily pack our bags!

We took a taxi to the airport and boarded our flight to Santa Marta. It turns out that Colombia’s low cost airline is actually part owned by RyanAir so we flew with all the luxury and comfort of cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. That said the flight was cheap and about a day shorter than the equivalent bus so we have no complaints! Alex even managed to sit next to a lady in her 50s who was terrified of flying and didn’t speak a word of English. Alex spent the whole journey calming her down in broken Spanish and trying to distract her with conversation. It appeared to work and she thanked Alex as she got off the plane.

I’m writing this while sitting on the roof terrace of our hostel in Santa Marta. It’s wonderful and terrible in equal measures but I’ll explain that later! I’m now totally caught up with the blog so probably won’t write any more for a week or so. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it so far, I know some of it can be very detailed but I also know from past experience that if I don’t write things down that I’ll have forgotten them in a year so feel free to skim to the boring bits, they’re written as much for my own memory as they are for you!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

3 thoughts on “Baby Steps in Bogota”

  1. What wonderful descriptions, I feel like I am there as well! Well done Alex for all the hard work you put into your Spanish lessons, just as well. I see that you feel the same as I do about Ryanair

  2. Never take anti-malarials on an empty stomach!! Poor Alex. Otherwise sounds like you’re having a great time, and glad Alex is whopping your ass in the Spanish department. Now I’m getting itchy feet…time to plan my next holiday.

    P.S. Your blog is great! Very professional, I need some tips from you

  3. Chris! Nice story!! Hope you’re really having fun! In Colombia everything is “home-made” there is not yet to much Chinese products around! So, take advantage of that (nice cloths, quality products, delicious fruit juice!!!!) It’s a pity that you miss the Gold museum, it’s not like in Peru. It’s really important for us for the cultural relevance that it had as part of the live of the pre- Columbian cultures. A part this you guys saw everything! Enjoy Santa Marta is one of my favorites places! Take care there also,,,, Hasta pronto!

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