Explore Colombia: A Day in Bogotá

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus for the past few weeks, but I have a good excuse!  I was scouting new story ideas on my first visit to South America, my first trip back to the Kentucky Derby since my days as a Derby Princess, and an afternoon hike exploring a waterfall in the Red River Gorge. All of that plus a little bit of down time and work in between has kept me from the keyboard.  Now, I’m back and really excited to share my visit to Bogotá, Colombia.

Bogotá is an enormous city.  Did you know that it’s one of the five largest cities in the American continents, just after Mexico City, Mexico and New York, New York?  The city is home to approximately 8 million residents, not including daily commuters.  I had no idea it was that big until I visited in April as part of a trip with Gate1Travel.  With that many people, you can imagine that Bogotá has no shortage of places to go and things to see.

We began our day in Bogotá with a walking tour through La Candelaría, the oldest portion of the city.  This area is home to the President of Colombia, the Colombian Congress, and many historic buildings.

Although I loved the architecture and history of La Candelaría, my favorite part of this area was our stop in the Museo Botero.  Fernando Botero was a native Colombian who rose to fame through his unique style of painting and sculpture.  No matter the subject, Botero always painted him, her, or it as larger than life and a little overweight. He painted dancers, domestic scenes, animals, and politicians alike, all in vibrant colors and great detail.  To give back to the nation that raised him, Botero founded the Museo Botero so that everyone can enjoy his masterpieces, all for free.  The museum is full of his finest pieces, as well as those of European masters Picasso, Renoir, Monet, and Dali, among others.  It’s housed in a beautiful mansion that was once a single-family home.

Our next stop in La Candelaría was Museo de Oro, the gold museum.  While Museo de Oro does live up to its name by showcasing beautiful works of gold, at the heart, it showcases much more than art and precious metals.  Colombia is the proud home of several native South American tribes, many of whom still reside in the nation’s countryside.  Gold has long been a treasured metal in Colombian tribal culture, where it plays a central role in important rituals.  Museo de Oro’s three floors have areas dedicated to each of the main native Colombian tribes.  Each exhibit tells a story with its design, and Karen, our Gate1 guide for the day, helped each story come alive by providing her own anecdotes.  Perhaps my favorite feature of the exhibits was the use of shadows to create a silhouette so that visitors can imagine how pieces of jewelry are worn together for a tribal event.

From the Museo de Oro, we took a short walk to have a mid-morning coffee break at Juan Valdez Coffee Shop, which I learned is the Colombian equivalent to Starbucks.  Giving into the admittedly tourist-like mentality, we enjoyed a few minutes at a courtyard table in the middle of the capital of Colombia, enjoying our Colombian coffee, and taking in the hustle and bustle of the city around us.  My café helado (iced coffee) really was better than those I’ve had in America (or at least it tasted that way given the atmosphere), and Mr. WACH’s espresso did not disappoint.

Refreshed after our coffee break, our tour ventured out of La Candelaría, past one of the many universities in Bogotá, to a blue building where locals come to play tejo, the national game of Colombia. The best way to describe tejo to an American is that it’s just like cornhole, except the bean bags cause an explosion of gunpowder when they hit the board.  Sound like Bogota 129 - Copyfun?  It was.  The club we visited was Club Deportivo de Tejo, El Porvenir del Norte.  Its exposed brick walls were covered with brightly-colored paint, decorations, and ads for various Colombian beverages.  The club’s mascot was an enormous rooster who roamed the building as he pleased.  Multiple tejo courts line each side of the building.  At each end of the court is a piece of metal, about the size of a cornhole board (roughly 4’ x 3’).  The boards are covered in clay with a metal circle pressed into the middle.  Small triangles filled with gunpowder are pressed into the clay around the circles.  The object of the game is to toss the tejo (a small metal disc) toward the boards and hit the triangles.  Some points are awarded for hitting the board, but the most points are awarded for hitting the triangles, which causes a small explosion that sounds a lot like a gunshot.  We visited during the day and had the place to ourselves, but Karen explained that the club would be packed full of locals having drinks on the weekends, with loud cheers across the room at every tejo explosion.  When tejo finally catches on in the U.S., I want to be on Mr. WACH’s team because he was one of the only two in our group of 25 who caused a tejo explosion!

After a great morning learning about Bogotá’s history and culture, our grouIMG_0999 - Copyp broke for lunch, and we ventured out on our own for some local fare.  We landed in Mangos Parrilla, just a few short few blocks from our hotel.  Anxious to try something we couldn’t get at home, we both ordered a platter full of different Colombian fare called Bandeja Paisa.  It was a TON of food.  Red beans cooked with pork, rice, chicharrón, a fried egg, plantains, chorizo, and arepa, plus a tasty soup that arrived before we even got our main dish and some fresh lemonade to top it off.  Perhaps we should have saved that meal for dinner because we were definitely ready for a nap by the time we finished.  Oh well, no rest for the weary (or those who eat too much)!

With full bellies, we set out for Cerro de Monserrate, which is part of the Andes Mountains and right in the heart of Bogotá. At 3152 meters above sea level, Monserrate towers over the city and provides a beautiful backdrop for virtually any point in Bogotá.  Although we’d read that views from the top of Monserrate would be obscured on a cloudy day, we took a Bogota 157chance and ventured up the mountain in the rain.  I’m so glad we did!  The rain ended just before we started back down and left behind an absolutely gorgeous view of Bogotá that let us see just how big the city really is.  Visitors can travel up the mountain by walking path, funicular (inclined railway), or teleférico (cable car).  We took the funicular up and the teleférico back down so that we could try both experiences, and I recommend both.  The tracks and cables end at a small plateau about 100 meters from the apex of Monserrate, at the beginning of a paved trail that leads to the top.  Visitors can take in stunning views of the city from there or continue venturing up for an even greater vista. Naturally, we chose to keep going.

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Colombia is a heavily Catholic country.  Karen explained that believers often travel up Monserrate, sometimes climbing the last stretch on their hands and knees, as an act of penance.  The landscaped path leading to the apex of the mountain is lined with colorful gardens and impressive bronze statues depicting the Stations of the Cross where the faithful often leave candles or flowers as an offering or in remembrance of loved ones.  Those who reach the top may visit the seventeenth-century Monserrate Sanctuary that is adorned with intricate wood carvings and bright stained glass and houses the treasured shire to El Señor Caido, the Fallen Lord.  Just a few steps further up Monserrate, visitors can find several shops and restaurants where tourists and locals alike can spend a few hours with family and friends, enjoying the scenic view.  Although we’d already eaten, Mr. WACH couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try a Colombian delicacy – fried “big butt” ants.  Not my style, but he happily succeeded in talking a few others on our trip into joining him.

After a quick rest following our trek up Monserrate, we decided to make the most of our remaining time in the city by going out to dinner with IMG_1019 - Copyseveral others on our tour to a restaurant that our tour manager, Victoria, recommended as one of the most unique dining experiences in Bogotá.  Andres Carne de Res definitely fit that bill.  For starters, it holds approximately 800 people on four floors, and the menu is so big that it makes The Cheesecake Factory’s menu look like Raising Cane’s.  You could easily spend hours looking at the unique decorations that cover every square inch of the walls and ceilings.  Each floor has a kingdom name from Dante’s Divine Comedy that inspires its decor:  hell, earth, purgatory, and heaven.  Art, lights, sculpture, signs – you name it, it was probably on the walls of Andres.  A dance floor takes over part of one floor, and the rest is covered with bars and tables.  The longer you visit, the more strange things you’ll see.  We saw people dressed as pirates, people dressed as if they were in the U.S. in the 1950’s, and three grown men who dressed and acted as cats.  All of this juxtaposed against loud music and great food was something that I’ll definitely remember from my visit to Bogotá and recommend to anyone who visits.

If you’re in the mood for something a little different from your typical holiday in the U.S., Bogotá should definitely be on your list.  It has so many things to offer.  Nature lovers can enjoy a day on Monserrate, art enthusiasts can enjoy the Museo Botero, and foodies will be happily overwhelmed by the number of good restaurants.  History buffs will enjoy learning about the native Colombian tribes and the historic old city in La CandelarÍa, and those who appreciate architecture will find no shortage of interesting designs.  On top of all of this, everything is very affordable.  One piece of advice though – make sure you have a basic conversational fluency in Spanish before you visit, unless you’re traveling with a guide.  I was surprised to realize just how rusty my language skills had gotten from lack of use over the past few years, and I could definitely have benefited from a stronger conversational fluency.  Perhaps that’s a good lesson to learn though, because it’s inspiring me to brush up on my Spanish language skills now that I’m home!

© Copyright 2015 – Amelia Adams