Often when I share my travel plans with others, there is some sort of remark along the lines of “why would you want to go there?” or “you’re going to die!” It was of no surprise when Colombia garnered the same sort of reaction. Add to that the “you’ll end up kidnapped” and “you’re going to become a drug mule” and you’ll get the gist of the conversations. One of my favourite things about travelling is that it gives me the opportunity to prove these folks wrong. Colombia, specifically Bogota, was bustling, friendly and full of life. And I didn’t even get kidnapped. (Though, that would make a great story, no?)
How to get there?
Your first step is incredibly important. Go find a Colombian. I caught mine at a concert. Or rather, he caught me, with an oh-so-smooth ‘how are your salsa moves?’ pick up line. I’ll confess it worked – my salsa moves were atrocious, and he was offering to bravely sacrifice his toes to remedy that. We went dancing into the wee hours that night and have been friends ever since. When he invited me to visit his family in Bogota over the holidays, I simply couldn’t resist.
So yes, I’m generalizing the entire population of country based upon a drunken night of dancing with a new friend. But, after spending 10 days in Bogota and meeting a ton of people, I would say it’s a reasonable generalization. Warm, welcoming, and wicked dance moves. I believe they have parts of their skeletons removed shortly after birth, the way they twist. They are proud of their country, their heritage, music and food. “Colombia is changing,” they all said. “It’s much better these days,” eager to step out of the shadow of a violent past.
Bogota is a tangled up city with differing neighbourhoods, from posh condos along the mountain’s edge to colourful vendors blasting salsa beats tucked into the hillsides overlooking the city. Without the help of a local, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Their hospitality is tremendous – I was welcome to feast and dance at a birthday party, given a warm bed to collapse in after a night of far too many mojitos, and held their hands as we celebrated the New Year’s Eve countdown. Start tracking down a Colombian now, you won’t regret it.
Is it safe?
My experience was relatively chaperoned, thus a little safer than had I gone blindly wandering around. As with any city, there are areas that demand a little extra caution. I’m prone to slipping down alleyways and sniffing around in dark corners, which was not recommended here. I can’t quite tell whether my hosts were watching me like a hawk simply because I’m prone to lunacy or they were worried I’d get myself into trouble, but I seldom had the sense I was around any danger. There were times when my big camera had to be tucked away as to not draw attention, but this is common in many places I go. We roamed markets with ease, danced without caution, and regularly stayed out past bedtime. Ask your local about the taxis, the safest bet involves an app and secret code words – the whole thing was lost in translation but apparently there are important steps to follow, otherwise the cabbie could run off with you.
What to see?
Climb a Mountain
Bogota took my breath away. Literally. Perched up in the Andes Mountains, Bogota sits at an elevation of 2600m. I spent my first night with my head in the toilet (apparently I don’t do elevation well…) and the next day we climbed to the top of one of the mountains. I figure 2600m wouldn’t hurt so bad after hitting 3200m. I nearly died, but it was totally worth it. Gasping and begging for air, I crept up the path toward the Monserrate Church. The view left me speechless – that and the simple fact that my lungs had burst. The reward for your grueling climb is a jaw dropping vista of the city and surrounding mountains. There’s also a market up there with sunshine yellow roasted chickens, sugary drinks to bring your energy back, and all the gitchy souvenirs you’d expect. Go slowly, and fuel up from the watermelon vendors along the way – it’s the only thing that will save you.
Take in the History
Numerous people recommended the gold museum. Normally I’m not a gold museum kind of girl, but the Museo Del Oro captivated me. Certainly the gold was impressive, but it was a combination of the stories told, artifacts on display, and absence of more that caught me. There was plenty to see, but I was also left with the sense that there would be so much more to show had the country not been pillaged by the Spanish conquistadors. The displays and interpretation of the indigenous cultures were excellent, from the Muisca’s golden raft representing the El Dorado ceremony where gold and treasures were tossed into a bottomless lake, to the many different artifacts worn during various shaman ceremonies.
I love a good art gallery, and the Botero gallery was a treat. A source of national pride, Botero’s art features subjects that have had way too much candy – robust women with sensuous curves, pudgy crows that could never possibly fly, and fruit that looks like it’s about to burst.
Lick a Salt Mine
How often do you get the opportunity to go down into a mine and lick the walls? (Because that’s a perfectly reasonable quest…) This isn’t just any salt mine, it’s a giant church, the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is carved into the retired salt mine. Small spaces for worship were common in mines as the deeply religious miners couldn’t always make it back up for Sunday service. When this mine was taken out of service, the Industrial Investment Institute and Colombian architect Roswell Garavito Pearl created this one of a kind cathedral. Follow a path through 14 small chapels, representing the stations of the cross. There are other chambers to discover, a movie showing the history of the mine, and a freakishly clear reflecting pool.
I suspect they don’t encourage the wall licking, so be stealthy about it.
As I child, I would venture out into my grandmother’s yard and play horseshoes with my cousins and uncles. I think this is a bit of a North American tradition. Man, are we lame. The Colombians make it way more fun – they add explosives to the mix. Swap the horseshoe for a metal puck called a tejo, pack the pit with muddy clay laced with little packages of mercury laden explosives and toss away. If you make something blow up, you win. And, in order to play, you must drink beer. Yes, booze and explosives, the perfect afternoon with the family. Check out Anthony’ Bourdain’s take on it.
Eat Everything You Can Get Your Hands On
Bogota is truly a festival for your taste buds. From fresh fruit vendors on the street corners to vast markets bursting with every colour and flavour imaginable, my mouth was dazzled at every turn. And it’s picked-today fresh, not a preservative in sight. A bit of advice though – perhaps best not to always ask what you are eating. I still cringe a bit as the taste of cow lung lingers in my memory. Wash it down with a pint of craft brew from the Bogota Beer Company, and treat yourself to absurdly delicious San Jerónimo ice cream – sold at the corner shop in the most exotic flavours.
Dance Your Arse Off
Really, the only things you need to pack are dancing shoes. And perhaps a bit of courage – it takes some guts to venture on to the dance floor with these salsa superstars. I recommend Cachao Bar – the music was pure ear-bliss – a live band playing traditional Cuban ditties, the dancing blew my mind, and the mojitos were the best I had ever had. My senses were overwhelmed – latin beats, sexy dance moves, delicious cocktails – this night was exactly what I had hoped to experience in Bogota. My Colombian friend continued to teach me how to swing my body around and wiggle everything I have. I am humbled by his forgiving feet and the tolerance of those I collided on the dance floor. My salsa moves are getting a wee bit better, but I’m far from fabulous. I guess I’ll need to go back again soon.
There are lessons here. Talk to strangers at concerts. Go dancing when they invite you. Stay out past your bedtime. You never know where you’re going to end up. Now, off with you – go find a Colombian!