We arrived in Bogota late on December 21st… This was our first time to Bogota, and also to Colombia.
We had heard rumors about Bogota traffic during our travels in South America, and the reality proved true. There were vast numbers of cars traveling everywhere day and night. Bogota is also a huge city, that seems to sprawl endlessly for quite some distance, but is also immersed within the surrounding curvaceous mountains.
We arrived with our taxi at the Hilton hotel in the“Zona G” neighborhood, a bit outside the tourist and old historical center of “La Candelaria”, but a nice residential and business district nonetheless. The hotel staff was very friendly and efficient. On the first night when we missed our (included in our upgrade) evening happy hour get-together, (because we arrived late), the staff did their best to accommodate us anyway.
My family was amused as many members of the hotel, restaurant, and other staff came up to greet me, shake my hand, talk to me about what they could do for us, and then would introduce themselves to my family members as well. Afterwards they brought us some nice drinks and tapas to enjoy, on that night, and the others as well. My family members joked that I must have somehow met the whole staff during our stay.
Our room at the Hilton was nice and comfortable too, and also had a great view of the mountains. We also got a good rate there, which included a generous and elaborate breakfast buffet. The staff was also very attentive and curious about us. And because I speak Spanish, and am curious about other people’s stories, I ended up talking in detail to many people there as well. I enjoyed speaking with those I met. We also got some good Bogota recommendations because of some of these conversations.
The only downside of the Hilton was that there was some remodeling going on, and it was also about a 20-minute taxi drive to the most central part of town. Otherwise it worked out well for our first few days in Bogota.
Since Bogota is the “New York City of Colombia” there are many cultural attractions for tourists to visit, especially some fantastic museums. Our first excursion was to the “Museo Botero”, which highlights the works of the Colombian artist, Fernando Botero.
I’ve liked “Botero” since I first came upon his sculptures at a Paris exhibit on the Champs Elysée in the Fall of 1992. I had never heard of “Botero” before, but his unique bronze sculptures, which were frequently distorted or rotund, were quite amusing and interesting to look at.
So once in Bogota the “Museo Botero” was a must-see destination and did not disappoint. The museum, which is also free to enter, and is in a beautiful colonial style building, included many Botero paintings, all with a similar look as the sculptures I had previously seen. There were also some of his sculptures too, as well as art from other famous artists, donated from his own private collection.
If you have time the “Museo de Arte del Banco de la Republica” is also next door and is supposed to be fantastic as well. We also visited another highly regarded museum while in Bogota, the “Museo del Oro” (Museum of Gold). It has an amazing collection of beautiful gold objects and art. There are fascinating displays that highlight the stories, techniques, and descriptions of the different eras and work of the artisans and people of the different time periods. There is also an excellent restaurant and gift shop in the museum.
In “La Candelaria” or historical district there are many other museums or places of interest as well, including “Plaza de Bolivar”, which is the main city central square, and it’s also surrounded by government buildings and the “Catedral Primada”, or main City Cathedral.
Nearby is also the “Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez” which is a unique building in itself, where you can walk to the top and have a nice view, but it also houses a significant bookstore, which includes many famous works of Colombian and worldwide authors, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
So it’s mostly the historical district that holds the main museums and many attractions for visitors. So since we were staying in the “Zona G”, about 20 minutes away, we would taxi to and from. The taxis are not too expensive, however finding a taxi and getting the right one might be a challenge. On one of our first evenings in Bogota it took us almost an hour to get a taxi, mostly we found out, because many taxis are pre-reserved, and even if they are empty, most of the time they won’t pick you up. So it’s best to have someone reserve one for you, whether it’s your hotel, or a museum, or restaurant etc. That’s the best way to make sure you can get one.
However, whenever possible, I would also suggest to use transportation arranged from your hotel, because at times there may be taxi drivers that are not always ethical or even sometimes safe to be with, even if they are called by a reputable place.
There was only one time I felt unsafe in Bogota, and that was on one such occasion, in a taxi that was called for us by a museum, and everything seemed fine at first. It was when the taxi driver took a seemingly different route, than what we had experienced before, and then got onto a freeway (that we normally would not be on), and then increased his speed quite rapidly, that I began to get a bit nervous. When I began to ask (in Spanish) what he was doing, and where he was taking us, and he didn’t respond to me, I became even more nervous. Since no one else understood Spanish, and I did not want to alarm anyone in my family, just yet, I kept looking outside, trying to decide if I should have him stop and let us out. Although to be honest I had no idea where we were at this point… we seemed to be going towards some outlying area near the mountains. So then I started to ask him even more questions, although a little angrier this time, and with some subtle threats of whatever I could muster in Spanish. He finally took notice, and turned off the freeway towards a different area, and said we were not too far. After a little bit I started to recognize the area, and then we finally did get back to our hotel ok.
I was relieved that things worked out, especially when I heard (from the hotel staff telling other guests) that a taxi driver had recently robbed and assaulted some other guests. I only arranged transportation with our hotel after that and we had no more problems.
Most Colombians we met though were extremely kind, gracious and helpful, and only trying to help us in any way they could.
For the last few days of our time in Bogota we stayed at another hotel, the “Four Seasons Casa Medina Hotel”. This was actually pretty close to the Hilton where we previously stayed, also in the “Zona G” neighborhood, but a little bit more of a special treat and splurge for Christmas. The hotel is fairly small, more of a colonial style mansion, with beautiful architectural details. Our room was beautiful with wooden beams and columns, and felt more like a little studio, with a small dining area and small balcony. The staff was also super-attentive, catered to our needs, and they also had a great restaurant. We really enjoyed our time at the “Casa Medina”. There was also a nice shopping and restaurant district within a couple of blocks of the hotel.
Since we were in Bogota during the Christmas holidays we also wanted to experience some of the Colombian traditions for Christmas. We went to a Christmas Eve Mass at a nearby Catholic church. And even though I’m Catholic, although not always a frequent church-attendee (but please don’t tell my mother)… I have to say the Christmas Eve Mass in Bogota is one I don’t think I will ever forget.
At first we didn’t know if we would get in, because when we arrived (maybe a little late), they would not let us in. When someone told me to come back in about 30 minutes I figured there must be another Mass, or maybe we got the time wrong. But the woman kept mentioning “surprise” to me in Spanish “sorpresa”. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but just smiled and said “ok, maybe we’ll come back”. Other people kept mentioning “sorpresa” to me also and to try and come back.
So we waited nearby for a little bit and then were told we could enter. Now we were the early ones, and we entered the church with only a few other people. But as we entered we noticed all the main lights were turned off, and in front of us were hundreds, or maybe even a thousand, of multi-colored flickering lights lining all the seats and pews, with balloons too... but nothing else.
I have to say it was a little magical seeing all of these multi-colored flickering lights and balloons illuminating the mostly empty church, with its statues and paintings waiting on the sidelines. I thought to myself that this is surely the “sorpresa”.
Although I quickly found out, that it was not the only one. As the church quickly filled up, and the Mass began with its traditional and also modern musical pieces, and the nativity scene was re-enacted live, with people coming down the aisle, talking about life in a more modern sense, there was another “sorpresa”.
Moments after the nativity scene finished there was a huge loud “boom”, and then, what seemed like fireworks, went off in the church suddenly, which was then followed by another loud “boom” and gold and silver tinsel confetti being shot out of what seemed like a cannonball. Sitting up front, in the second pew, this totally shocked us, and for a brief second made me question if somehow this could be some type of accident or problem of some sort, but then quickly realized this was just their way of celebrating in a very big way.
We then quickly started laughing, as we noticed ourselves, and all of our neighbors, covered in gold or silver tinsel confetti. I think many really enjoyed seeing our reactions too, knowing this was not typical for us.
After the service was over we all agreed that that was probably the most fun we had ever had at a Mass before, and realized we probably would not see something similar to that ever again.
And even though that was a hard act to follow, we followed that with a delicious multi-course Christmas Eve dinner at the “Four Seasons Casa Medina” restaurant, with a great Colombian band playing and singing to the guests until the late hours of the night.
On Christmas Day proper the city was quieter overall. They had what they call the “Ciclovia” during the morning hours, where “Bogotaños” can bike, walk, or run down some of the main boulevards of the city, free of car traffic. One boulevard was right in front of our hotel, so I did a little run, along the “Ciclovia” path. Although Bogota is also at a high altitude (8,465 feet), so I could definitely feel a difference with my breathing while running there.
In the afternoon we hired transportation from our hotel, and went to a nearby attraction, (about 1-2 hours from Bogota) to the “Catedral de Sal” or the “Cathedral of Salt”. To be honest, we didn’t realize all it was, first thinking it’s just a famous Cathedral to visit, with statues and paintings etc. We later found out that it’s underground, and everyone takes a tour with a guide, and walks through the undercover pathways viewing the religious dedications that are built into the walls. The miners originally built this place of worship because they were afraid of their working conditions. It’s quite unique and impressive.
On our last day before leaving we took the funicular trip up the mountain of “Monserrate”, on the edges of Bogota, to look at the beautiful view, and take in the huge expanse of the city. You could feel the high altitude especially up here as well.
As we looked at the view, from the top of the mountain, we were quickly reminded that Bogota is not only a huge cosmopolitan city that spreads out for all to see, but also one that is defined by its mountains, amazing people, and culture.
- Siovonne Smith