Open Jaw Visits Bogota, Discovers a Surprising Charmer

A walking tour is a great way to experience Bogota
A walking tour is a great way to experience Bogota

When I told friends I was going to Bogota to attend a convention, I got one of two reactions: “Wow! Lucky you! ” Or “Ooh. Will you be OK?”

Both reactions are perfectly legit. Colombia has a beguiling and exotic allure, yet there’s a history of security issues.

After experiencing it in person, to be frank, I can say that this is not a destination for the unseasoned travel client. There is a definite military and police presence. The uber-charming boutique Hotel Opera in the historic and touristy Candelaria District includes security tips with their key cards including “Carry with you only the necessary money.” There were also warnings about being discreet when taking money out of ATMs (hotels don’t change money) and being on guard for pickpockets. In a way, kind of what you’d see in any major city.

Streetscape in Candelaria, the colonial district
Streetscape in Candelaria, the colonial district

As a single female, I was actually quite comfortable walking around alone – and was even ignored by street vendors, who can be quite aggressive in other countries. However I would not do it after dark.

With a population of 9 million, Bogota is one big, crazy town. Teeny cars and motorcycles beetle down the streets teeming with graffiti and fruit stands (as well as one cocktail cart, perfect for that roadside aperitif), and contagious salsa music. It has to be one of the most photogenic cities I’ve visited, one rooftop view reminding me of Florence, a street corner recalling Mexico City and pretty enclosed wooden balconies channelling Malta. The massive Plaza Bolivar is alive with entertainers, vendors with carts and strolling sightseers – especially on weekends.

 The massive Plaza Bolivar teems with history
The massive Plaza Bolivar teems with history

It's a great town for museum buffs, with the internationally-famed Gold Museum, one dedicated to the eccentric artist Botero and the National Museum, dedicated to all things Colombian.

Restos range from the most sophisticated (such as the witch-themed El Aquelarre) to family-friendly Crepes and Waffles, a national chain with a huge menu of sweet and savoury crepes, soups and salads – famed for its policy of hiring only single mums. Dinner one night at Crepes for four of us, including a bottle of wine and tip, was a mere CAN $40.

Some other tips, in no particular order, about counselling clients planning a trip here:

  • At time of writing, Colombia has its own version of the ArriveCAN App. Free of charge, the very simple Check-Mig must be completed within 72 hours of arrival and departure. A link to Check-Mig was included with my AC flight check-in reminders.
  • I flew non-stop between YYZ and BOG with AC. Flight time is 6 hours and there is 1 hour time difference.
  • Tap water is fine to drink.
  • A 10% tip (“propina”) is automatically included in resto and bar bills. No need to tip on top of that.
  • Twice I was asked in a shop to provide photo ID when making a purchase, once cash, once credit card. My health card did the trick.
  • The city is at at altitude of 2,640 metres (YYZ is a mere 67 metres above sea level) and a number in our group suffered from altitude sickness. It's something to be prepared for.
  • Don’t bother taking US dollars: the only currency in use is the Colombian Peso (COP).
  • Great souvenirs include costume jewelry, purses, masks, hats, crafts and of course coffee. (Just not Juan Valdez, locals say it’s not the best!)

Would I recommend Bogota? Absolutely. Take the right precautions, and it's a great place for a memorable, photogenic vacation. Combine it with a jungle adventure and/or a stay in the colourful resort town of Cartaghena and it will be doubly so.

The rooftops reminded me of Florence and Old Havana
The rooftops reminded me of Florence and Old Havana
Street shopping: one of the most fun things about Botoga
Street shopping: one of the most fun things about Botoga

Martha Chapman

Columnist

An OJ columnist since 2006, Martha is responsible for the Biting Questions series as well as special seasonal series. She can often be seen On The Town covering industry events. Known to all in the biz, Martha has worked her entire career in travel, beginning as a teenaged hotel receptionist in Bermuda.

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