Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is a city that divides opinion. Its detractors cite poverty, gridlock traffic and crime, as well as depressingly regular rain, and with 7.6 million tightly packed inhabitants and some decidedly drab neighbourhoods, Bogotá rarely elicits love at first sight. Given a day or two, however, most people do fall for this cosmopolitan place with its colonial architecture, numerous restaurants and raucous nightlife. Besides, love it or hate it, odds are you’ll have to pass through it at some stage during your travels in Colombia.
Situated on the Sabana de Bogotá, Colombia’s highest plateau at 2600m, the city was founded on August 6, 1538 by Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada in what was a former citadel belonging to the Muisca king Bacatá, from whom the city’s name is derived. For many years, Bogotá’s population did not expand in step with its political influence, and even in the 1940s the city had just 300,000 inhabitants. That all changed in the second half of the twentieth century, thanks to industrialization and civil war, which prompted a mass exodus of peasants from rural areas who live in dire conditions in the slums on the southern approach to the city – in marked contrast to the affluent neighbourhoods in the northern part of town. Today, Bogotá is South America’s fourth-largest city and home to one of the continent’s most vibrant cultural scenes.
The city’s historic centre, La Candelaria, is full of colourfully painted colonial residences. It begins at Plaza de Bolívar and stretches northward to Avenida Jiménez de Quesada, and is bordered by Cra 10 to the west and the mountains to the east. Downtown Bogotá is the commercial centre, with office buildings and several museums, while North Bogotá, a catch-all term for the wealthier neighbourhoods to the north of the centre, offers stylish shopping districts and enough dining options to suit most palates and wallets.
Most budget accommodation is concentrated in La Candelaria; all accommodation reviewed apart from one hostel is in La Candelaria. All offer free internet and/or wi-fi. Most have private rooms with either shared or private bathrooms; prices here are for doubles with shared bathroom in high season (single rooms are often around two-thirds the price of a double).
Colombia’s capital has no shortage of festivals. The year begins with the Bogotá Feria Taurina (bullfighting festival; Jan–Feb), with matadors from Spain and Mexico flown in for the occasion, while Semana Santa (Holy Week; March or April) brings processions, re-enactments and religious pomp. Every other year around Holy Week the city also hosts the Ibero-American Theater Festival, one of the continent’s biggest festivals of theatre, a fortnight of international performing art and street processions. Perhaps the highlight of the annual calendar is Rock al Parque (Rock in the Park; June/July; rockalparque.com.co), South America’s biggest rock music festival, which lasts three days, before the Festival de Verano (summer festival; Aug) to commemorate Bogotá’s founding and Salsa al Parque (Salsa in the Park; Aug) heats things up. September heralds the Festival de Jazz at the Teatro Libre, followed by the Festival de Cine (film festival; Oct), which includes open-air screenings. Soon after that, the city begins gearing up for a truly South American Christmas.
A couple of blocks south of Plaza de Bolívar, between Cra 7 and 8, is the heavily fortified presidential palace and compound, Casa de Nariño, done in the style of Versailles. This is where President Santos currently lives and works. To take part in a guided visit, book online – look for “Visitas Casa de Nariño” on the website. It’s also possible to watch the ceremonial changing of the guard three times a week – best viewed from the east side of the palace.
The stone-built Casa de Moneda, or mint, is home to the Colección Numismática, its displays chronicling the history of money in Colombia from the barter systems of indigenous communities to the design and production of modern banknotes and coins. Ramps lead to the Colección de Arte, featuring a permanent exhibition of works owned by the Banco de la República. The predominant focus here is on contemporary Colombian artists, but the pieces on display range from seventeenth-century religious art through to modern canvases by twentieth-century painters. Behind the permanent collection is the Museo de Arte, a modern, airy building that houses free, temporary exhibitions of edgy art, photography and challenging installations.
Looming over the Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá’s Neoclassical Catedral allegedly stands on the site where the first Mass was celebrated in 1538. Rebuilt over the centuries after several collapses, it was completed in 1823, and while its interior is gold-laced, it’s still relatively austere compared to the capital’s other churches. You’ll find the tomb of Jiménez de Quesada, Bogotá’s founder, in the largest chapel.
In addition to its cathedral, La Candelaria is teeming with some of the best-preserved colonial-era churches and convents found in Latin America:
Museo Iglesia de Santa Clara Overlooking Palacio Nariño, the austere exterior, built in the early part of the seventeenth century and formerly part of the convent of Clarissa nuns, contrasts sharply with its opulent gold-plated interior and Day of the Dead-looking anaemic Christ.
Iglesia de San Francisco Across from the Gold Museum, San Francisco is appropriately noted for its particularly splendid golden altar.
Iglesia de la Concepción The soaring vault here is a fine example of the Moorish-influenced Mudéjar style popular in the sixteenth century.
Iglesia de San Ignacio The largest and most impressive of the colonial-era churches is the domed San Ignacio founded in 1610 as the first Jesuit church in Nueva Grenada.
Rumbear, literally to dance the rumba, is how locals refer to a night’s partying, which invariably involves heavy doses of dancing. Bars and discos in La Candelaria attract a somewhat bohemian, often studenty crowd, while their fluorescent-lit counterparts in the Zona Rosa in North Bogotá (around C 83 and Cra 13) appeal to the city’s beautiful people. Virtually everywhere shuts down at 3am. Take taxis to and from your destination.
While the traditional highlander diet consists of meat and starch, middle-class cachacos prefer the same cosmopolitan cuisine as their counterparts in London or New York. Bogotá has four main restaurant zones, from south to north: gritty La Candelaria; yuppie La Macarena (Cra 4 between calles 23 & 28); gay-friendly Chapinero, also called the “G-Zone” (between calles 58 & 72 and carreras 3 & 7); and upmarket Zona Rosa (concentrated in the “T Zone” at C 82 and Cra 12).
Fantastic 360-degree views can be had from the Mirador Torre Colpatria, Colombia’s tallest skyscraper (162m). Here you can catch a glimpse of the Plaza de Toros La Santamaría, the Moorish-style bullring where the Temporadas Taurinas (bullfights) take place each January and February.
Perched above La Candelaria is the rocky outcrop that is one of Bogotá’s most recognizable landmarks: Cerro de Monserrate. The hilltop, crowned by El Santuario de Monserrate church, offers spectacular views back down on the seemingly endless urban sprawl that is Bogotá. It is easily reached by the frequent teleférico cable car or by funicular railway. Alternatively, it’s a ninety-minute trek up the 1500-step stone path that begins at the base of the hill and leads to the summit 600m above.
Be aware that there are reports of robberies both on the way up the hill and on the walk between the Quinta and its base. The safest (and cheapest) time to go is Sunday, when you’ll be accompanied by thousands of pilgrims hoping for miracles from the church’s dark-skinned Christ.
Set around a beautiful, leafy courtyard, the Museo de Arte Colonial displays fine colonial-era religious and portrait art, as well as sculptures and furniture. A highlight is the exhibition about the life and work of seventeenth-century Baroque painter Gregorio Vásquez de Arce y Ceballos.
The Museo de Arte Moderno has the largest collection of contemporary Colombian art in the country, running the gamut from photography and painting to sculpture and graffiti. Frequently changing exhibits tend to focus on Latin American artists, such as the psychedelic works of Jairo Maldonado. There’s also a bookshop and a cinemateca that projects art films on weekends between 3 and 5pm.
Housed in a fine colonial mansion surrounding a lush courtyard, the Museo Botero contains one of Latin America’s largest collections of modern and Impressionist art, donated in 2000 by Colombia’s most celebrated artist, Fernando Botero. There are no fewer than 123 paintings and sculptures by Medellín-born Botero himself, which rather upset the residents of his home city. Botero’s trademark is the often satirical depiction of plumpness – he claims to find curvy models more attractive than slim ones – and here you will find fatness in all its forms, from a chubby Mother Superior to rotund guerrilla fighters.
Also on display are works by Picasso, Miró, Monet, Renoir and Dalí, as well as a sculpture room featuring works by Henry Moore and Max Ernst.
On the northeastern corner of Parque de Santander, at Cra 6 and C 16, is Bogotá’s must-see Museo del Oro, or Gold Museum. The world’s largest collection of gold ornaments, some 55,000 pieces strong, is spread out over three floors, with extensive displays on Colombia’s indigenous cultures, cosmology and symbolism, techniques used in working with gold, and a region-by-region breakdown of the use of various pieces. Note the recurring symbolism of animals (jaguars, birds, monkeys, human/animal hybrids), the very fine filigree earrings, gold offerings used in rituals and elaborate ornamentation worn by chieftains and those who communed with deities. Free one-hour tours in Spanish and English take place from Tuesday to Saturday at 11am and 4pm, respectively.
Friendly young English-speaking police offer free guided tours of the Museo Histórica Policía, which are really worthwhile just to hear about their experiences. The basement is largely given over to a display on the notorious 499-day police hunt for drug lord Pablo Escobar, and includes his Bernadelli pistol, also known as his “second wife”, and there’s a great view across the city from the roof.
Run by the military, the Museo Militar showcases weaponry through the ages, jaunty military uniforms, model battleships, anti-aircraft guns and other articles relating to the art of war. You need ID to enter.
Inside a fortress-like building, the Museo Nacional de Colombia provides a detailed chronological look at the country’s tumultuous history. The converted jailhouse’s most impressive exhibits relate to the conquest and the origins of the beguiling El Dorado myth that so obsessed Europe. The second floor houses an extensive collection of paintings by modern Colombian artists, including Fernando Botero, while on the third floor, don’t miss the exhibit on Jorge Gaitán, the populist leader assassinated in 1948. Descriptions are in Spanish only, but you can pick up English-language placards.
The heart of La Candelaria is the Plaza de Bolívar, awhirl with street vendors, llamas, pigeons and visitors; in the evenings, street-food carts set up shop by the cathedral. A pigeon-defiled statue of El Libertadór himself stands in the centre of the square, surrounded by monumental buildings in disparate architectural styles spanning more than four centuries, most covered with political graffiti.
On the west side of the cathedral stands the Neoclassical Capitol, where the Congress meets, with its imposing, colonnaded stone facade. On the plaza’s north side is the modern Palacio de Justicia, which was reconstructed in 1999 after the original was damaged during the army’s much-criticized storming of the building in 1985, in response to the M-19 guerrilla takeover, with more than a hundred people killed in the raid.
Every Friday from 5pm, Cra 7 is closed to traffic from Plaza de Bolívar all the way to C 26, and the streets fill with performers, food vendors and cachacos (Bogotá natives). The Septimazo, as it is called, is people-watching at its best.
Nowhere is La Candelaria’s grittier, bohemian side better captured than on the streets surrounding the Plazoleta del Chorro de Quevedo. The tiny plaza is said to be the site of the first Spanish settlement, though the tiled-roof colonial chapel on the southwest corner was built much later.
At the foot of Monserrate is the Quinta de Bolívar, a spacious colonial mansion with beautiful gardens where Simón Bolívar lived sporadically between 1820 and 1829. The informative museum retells the story of Bolívar’s final, desperate days in power before being banished by his political rivals, in a collection that includes a plethora of Bolívar paraphernalia including his military medals, billiard table and bedpan. One object you won’t see here is the sword El Libertadór used to free the continent from four centuries of Spanish rule. It was stolen in 1974 from the collection in the now legendary debut of urban guerrilla group M-19. When they handed in their arsenal in 1991, the sword was quickly shuttled into the vaults of the Banco República.
Some 65km north of Bogotá, the small town of SUESCA is one of Colombia’s top rock-climbing destinations. Adventure-sports enthusiasts of all persuasions will feel at home here, but it is the sandstone cliffs on the town’s doorstep that steal the show, offering traditional and sport rock-climbing with more than six hundred routes including multi-pitch.
The majority of the rock-climbing and adventure-sports operators are located at the entrance to the rocks, a fifteen-minute walk from the town centre.
The most popular day-trip from Bogotá is a visit to the salt cathedral of ZIPAQUIRÁ, some 50km north of the city. Inaugurated in 1995 to great fanfare – having replaced an earlier one that closed because of collapse – the cathedral lies completely underground, topped by a hill that was mined by local Indians even before the Spanish arrived in the seventeenth century. As you descend 180m into the earth, you’ll pass fourteen minimalist chapels built entirely of salt that glow like marble in the soft light, each a different combination of colours. The main nave is a feat of modern engineering, complete with the world’s largest subterranean cross, and the vast salty cavern is impressive, though the changing lighting is very gimmicky.
Above ground, there’s a museum explaining the history of salt extraction; more expensive ticket combinations include museum entry. You must enter the salt cathedral with a guided tour that’s included in the entrance fee, but once inside, you’re free to escape.