The Bogota of my youth floods my head with memories of a time when Colombia was in a state of chaos. The first time I visited the country where my parents, and many generations of Lopez’ before them were born it was 1988. The drug cartels were still running amuck around the city of Medellin in the late 80’s, and Colombia had definitely become the butt of all cocaine jokes, and the place where most Americans did not think of as a point of travel interest. If you are willing to try out Colombia’s “Washington D.C.” you will find that coffee and cocaine are not what fuel this beautiful country.
My parents hadn’t returned to their native home for 12 years, and were quick to give out advice about what to do when walking in public in Bogota. “Tuck your necklace into your shirt.” “Try not to speak English in public.” “Don’t leave the house wearing brand name clothes, people will tell you have more money than them.” When you’re 7 years old, all of that advice can be daunting, and make you think “wait a second mom…are you taking me somewhere safe?” It all sounded so different, so mysterious, so dangerous. Much like my parents, the American media helped perpetuate that fear about traveling to foreign lands and built many stereo-types about tourism abroad.
At age seven I’ll admit, I was completely terrified to go somewhere so far from home, far from the English language my tongue had become accustomed to, and far from the fast food capital of the world. Once in Colombia, I hated the language, hated the food and hated my cousins I had never met. I tried to resist all things Colombian, despite my heritage. Even got sick from the high altitude in the gorgeous mountains that border the entire city.
Nothing scary or bad occurred on our summer trips throughout my childhood. The most negative attention I got was from local neighborhood children saying that I lied about being American, and daring me to say words in English. As an adult, I chose to re-visit my ancestral homeland in 2009 without my parents, and see if I survived! I thought myself very brave a woman to travel alone, and landed in Bogota’s El Dorado airport. What I experienced during my trip was that Bogota had changed and grown as a city. Much like Giuliani cleaned up New York in the 90’s, President Uribe transformed Colombia and the capital city where he lives, into a modern place. He provided revolutionary backing to the TransMilenio project, which gave Bogota 9 new lines of affordable bus transportation that also helped alleviate traffic issues in the city.
I took a taxi ride to my brother’s apartment in the Northern part of the city, where I stayed throughout my visit. The northern area of the Bogota contains very safe neighborhoods. There are many hostels there for good prices, such as this ChapiNorte bed & breakfast for $16 a night! ChapiNorte is 2 blocks away from a TransMilenio bus stop at 76th street.
Another point of interest to stay in the capital is La Zona Rosa, or the pink zone of Bogota. It’s an upscale part of the city with hotels like Hotel Casa Medina Bogota (near the famous Botero museum), and 101 Park house (near historic Museo de Oro). Many backpackers can also research hostels in this area. It is less than 2 miles away from the very young hip & trendy “Zona T,” which is a T shaped intersection of bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Expect New York drink prices in the Zona T, but walk a tiny bit outside of the trendy T for a great cheap skirt steak & salted potatoes at almost every corner in that neighborhood.
I wouldn’t dare to rent a car because traffic is a hassle, but no matter where you stay in the city, a bus stop is a cab ride away to any number of quaint villages just outside of the city. There is one main bus location to the more suburban towns I would recommend in front of the Exito shopping center on Route 80 (TransMilenio goes here also), or tell your taxi driver “Exito en la calle ochenta por favor.” These buses are safe, cheap (around $12 round trip) and offer stops at charming local rest-stop stores & restaurants with the best local snacks. Food in, and just outside of Bogota is generally very cheap and as close to home cooking as anything, so enjoy.
Most buses have a restroom and movie, just in case you get tired of looking at the amazing mountainous views on the way. Since Bogota’s climate is like a year around fall season, these buses can transport you to hot weather towns, where Inns have pools and fun in the sun year around. Some local towns to put on the to-do list are Zipaquirá, Agua de Dios and Chia. Besides having great warm weather, Zipaquirá hosts the incredible salt mines. There you can travel on foot to the mines of salt, which is culturally a religious underground cathedral for Catholics. It is the world’s second largest mine, and is nick named Colombia’s first wonder. There is a fee to enter of about $20-25, which includes a guided tour, hard hat rental and short movie.
A few words to the wise…do not miss out on Colombia breakfasts; they include eggs with fresh tomato and onions, and hot chocolate with freshly baked warm bread. Also most small stores have siestas still, and close from 12-2pm…oh the envy. If you do not speak Spanish, make sure to bring along a Spanish/English dictionary, you’ll need it.
There are many things to enjoy in this newly restored Bogota, and it is much safer than the news reports claim, so feel free to speak with locals and follow your gut. Like anywhere else in this world, if it seems fishy, it probably is. Lastly, clothes are rather expensive, but leather goods are extremely cheap, so shop away for those. Souvenirs are also reasonable and bargaining in most places is welcome. All that said, as a female traveler Bogota is very enjoyable and safe. ¡Buen viaje!