A reader recently asked what to do in Bogota. I couldn’t believe I had never published a “10 Things to Do” article in the three years I lived there. So here it is.
This article was a little difficult because most of Bogota’s allure is rated R. On Latin American standards Bogota doesn’t have much in the way of history, a pre-Columbian nil and colonial nothing-special, so cleaner forms of entertainment are slim pickings compared to Lima, Mexico City or Buenos Aires. But this is what you’re looking at for tourism in Bogota.
1. Downtown Walking Tour
Of the Latin American capitals I’ve visited, downtown Bogota is the least impressive as far as colonial and republican architecture. But La Candelaria’s old-world pueblo vibe in the heart of a big city is a must-see. And you’re sure to get a dose of Bogota’s gritty vibe on any visit downtown.
Below is a custom walking tour of downtown Bogota starting in La Candelaria. Points of interest include Plaza Bolivar, supreme court, congress, presidential palace, cathedral, Av. Jimenez, Parque de los Periodistas, La Concordia market.
2. Midtown Walking Tour
Located between downtown and the posh north, Chapinero was where I lived. It’s the kind of area where students meet gays meet punks meet blacks meet hipsters etc. A little bit of everything, still gritty yet the streets aren’t deserted at 9 p.m. like downtown.
If you’re feeling saucy you can start in Galerias, technically located in the Teusaquillo district. Galerias is an interesting shopping avenue of window displays and architecture on Calle 53. On Carrera 27 is a middle-class party district, but the bars and dance clubs are closed during the day.
From 53 go east until Carrera 13, another retail avenue. Head north on Kr. 13 or follow the map below until you hit my old stomping ground, Plaza Lourdes, the towering gothic church and reliable square to score weed. Although I hear that’s changing. Keep an eye out for The Mick, this is his adopted habitat.
From Lourdes go north on Carrera 11 or Carrera 9 (less noise on the latter) until you reach the financial district at Calle 72. Turn right until you hit the four-lane thoroughfare in La Septima. Explore Zona G? Avoid Colombian food with Peruvian at the Astrid y Gaston in Bogota.
3. Chico Walking Tour
El Chico is technically part of the Chapinero district. It’s an informal nickname for the upscale neighborhood north of Calle 72, as opposed to the mostly gritty Chapinero south of 72.
I recommend walking north on La Novena, a lovely walk until it ends. There will be a little foot path next to a creek that doesn’t appear on the map below. Points of interest include the Zona Rosa, Parque Virrey and Parque 93.
An ambitious walker could merge the Midtown Walking Tour and Chico Walking Tours into one. In fact, I wrote instructions years ago. Click to download the PDF.
Monserrate, the mountain overlooking the city, is the signature tourist activity in Bogota. A cable car leads to the top where there is a church, a nice restaurant, artisanal gift shops and traditional foods.
You can see most of the city sprawling out below, but the mountain is so high that most visitors don’t dig the view. The skylines of Medellin make for better pictures, but the care given to the gardens and religious statues make Monserrate the most important tourist attraction in Bogota. Also a great place to try hormigas (roasted jungle ants). Ask at the gift shops.
Speaking of The Mick, want a view lower to the city that comes with a hike? Christopher has launched some nature hikes going up a favorite trail of his around Calle 72. I told him I’d publish a post about his new biz as soon as he gets me three paragraphs of copy and two pictures, one of himself. That was only a month ago, so we’ll just wait a little longer. But if you want to go now then just call him at three two one, six-six-nine, oh four four one.
5. Salt Cathedral
I’m embarrassed to say that I never visited one of Bogota’s top two tourist attractions (along with Monserrate) in Zipaquira. So tourism pro and old friend of Expat Chronicles Richard McColl gives you the blurb below.
Located an hour’s drive to the north of Bogota (on a good day) in the town of Zipaquira is the famous Salt Cathedral, a draw for Catholic pilgrims across Colombia and a pretty incredible tourist attraction in its own right. You can get here easily by bus or on weekends on the fun (but slow) Sabana Steam Train.
You can sign up for an organized tour in the language of your choice. But be warned, should you do this you’ll be walked through all 14 stations of the cross, and you’ll listen to the full story of Jesus making his way to being crucified and the accompanying prayers. If this is your thing, then you have hit pay dirt. If not, it’s best to go it alone, follow the signposts and marvel at this underground marvel carved from a former salt mine.
At the deepest point you’ll reach a depth of 600 feet, and you may feel somewhat claustrophobic. Wandering into the huge cavern of the main hall and its transepts is a sight to behold. Remember that this cathedral was finished in 1995 and is the second one, located 200 feet below the original.
6. Botero Museum
I didn’t delve too far into Bogota’s museum scene because I was mostly underwhelmed from the beginning. The one exception is the Botero Museum which, unbelievably, is free admission.
Fernando Botero painted his subjects fat to give them sensuality. I did a whole post on Botero back in the day. See Colombian Painter Fernando Botero. When I first visited the Botero Museum I wondered what the hell is with the guy’s fat fetish. But living in Colombia, where his paintings are everywhere, the style grows on you and becomes pleasant. And his paintings don’t only feature women and fruit. He also delves into Colombian history with violence, cultural quirks and politics.
You can cover three of the items on this list in one day if you get start early and incorporate Monserrate and the Botero Museum into a Downtown Bogota Walking Tour.
I was so unimpressed with the Gold Museum and the National Museum. But if you’re looking for more in the way of art, do the Bogota Graffiti Tour, coincidentally co-founded by an old roomie.
7. Old-Town Usaquen
Usaquen is an upper-class district north of Chico. Most of the district is nice enough to walk around, but the touristic spot is the old town located east of La Septima at Calle 116. The colonial-era neighborhood is home to mature dining and nightlife as well as the Santa Barbara church. The Cemetery of Usaquen is also worth a walk through.
One quirk about especially Bogota but also greater Colombia is the finca culture. The popular thing to do is escape the crackheads and glueheads of the city to a small town for peace and crackhead-free quiet. Guatavita is one of the more beautiful such towns just a couple hours north of the city by a big lake. Clean, picturesque town with Spanish tile roofs create a lovely contrast of orange and green against the usually gray skies. And no crackheads.
You can take a boat tour. You can have a nice lunch. You can walk around the beautiful town without having to deny change to aggressive crackheads.
See Guatavita on Google Maps. Another popular pueblo which can be done in a day is La Calera, but the views aren’t as inspiring. But it’s a great place to score a parrillada, one of the few good things to eat in Colombia.
9. Bike Tour with Mike Ceaser
This is the item on this list to get you out of your comfort zone. Mike Ceaser is an old-school journalist who has reported from Colombia, Paraguay, Bolivia and more over more than 20 years in South America. And he’s an old friend of Expat Chronicles.
His tours are different in that he’s not trying to show you how modern and progressive Bogota is. He takes you to the real Bogota. His downtown tours are known to go through the lower part of Egipto, San Victorino, Tercer Milenio park, the Santa Fe red-light district, a (black-market) abortion district and more. He used to go by the bad-ass Central Cemetery (pictured) that was the inspiration for Gothic Bogota in Pictures, but he no longer goes there for safety concerns.
To be clear, this recommendation is not any Bogota bike tour, although the Ciclovia on Sundays is cool. Don’t be a pussy. Book a downtown tour with Bogota Bike Tours, because Mike is not going to give you a boosterism version of Bogota.
10. Parque Simon Bolivar
The biggest, nicest park in the capital. It’s a bit out of the way, so you could visit the National Park, which is cool too. I used to go to the National Park because it was a short walk from Chapinero, and the deported homies would be known to burn one there.
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