Visit Bogota Before it Becomes Touristy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOriginally published in the Fenton Patch newspaper in November 2011

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The soldier’s weapon waved up and down about a foot from me. I could not comprehend his words. He seemed distraught and at odds of what action to take. My first day in Colombia and I was thinking it could be my last day on earth. Perhaps being the first gringo the young man had encountered, he failed to realize I did not speak Spanish. All ended well when the officer in charge realized the problem, gave me a smile and waved us on.

Intimidating at first to the American mind, these military checkpoints are partially responsible for much of the country’s new safety. Roads considered dangerous a few years ago can now be traveled without worry. And with safety comes tourism. I fell in love with the beautiful scenery, the friendly people, and one special lady. We now live in the capital city.

When I first started traveling to Colombia my gringo face seemed the only one on the plane. Now daily flights carry many North Americans. Bogotá is still not ready for the pampered tourist but for the adventure minded it is a jewel to be discovered. Currently the city eschews the shams of tourism offering the visitor a pure insight into the culture. The city of over eight million is no cow town and has many quality hotels and modern shopping malls. Located six degrees above the equator and 8,500 feet above sea level this South American capital serves up magnificent views and one of-a-kind places devoid of tourist crowds.

In the 1500’s The Spanish conquistadors came in search of El Dorado. That which they sought but failed to find can now be viewed at the Gold Museum (Museo de Oro). Five thousand items are on display. Some date back to 3,500 BC. They astound the visitor and present insight into life before the Spanish invasion.

Two buildings tell the story of liberation. In the early 1800’s a rag-tag army led by Simon Bolivar faced hardships and fought against great odds to defeat the Spanish. Magnificent statues honor the man in town squares. His home in Bogotá containing French, English and American pieces transports the visitor back in time. Housed in an architecturally delightful old prison, the National Museum visualizes the quest for independence with multiple artifacts and paintings.

Ninety percent of the population is Catholic. Beautiful churches dating back to 1590 dot the city offering numerous impressive architectural displays. More modern, but unique in the world, is Cathedral De Sal in Zipacquirá. Deep underground, meticulously carved into a salt mine are room size depictions of the Stations of the Cross and a massive sanctuary. Built by the miners, it contains many unique edifices including a replica in salt of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine chapel.

Walking the Candelaria district romances the visitor in a time warp recalling the days of the early Spanish. Narrow streets and tall stone buildings with overhanging balconies are like those found in Old Europe. But for a real treat that evokes the image of a Shakespearean theater attend a performance at district’s Teatro Colón.

Great restaurants abound especially in the Zona Rosa and Zona T areas. But my favorites are still the corrientazos located throughout the city. These establishments with visible grills are made for the lunch masses and feature tasty dishes with prices in the $1 to $5 range.

For relaxing on a sunny Sunday afternoon there is no place better than Parque 93. A stone fountain surrounded by shade trees and flowerbeds attract many. Some come to stroll, some to read, some to play with their children and others to walk their dogs. Restaurants surround the park. A favorite located two blocks away is Frambressa. There you can get a meal featuring three meats, fresh fruit, potatoes and desert for under $7.

Two places offer spectacular views of the city. During the day Monserrate Hill provides a breathtaking scene. There is a cable car to transport you, but for a charming experience the funicular is recommended. Once on top, a sanctuary and gardens allow for relaxing tranquility. Tramonte restaurant in La Calera is the place to be for a late dinner. Massive wooden doors guard the entrance to a building with a wall of windows. There you are suspended between the stars in the sky above and the lights of the city below.

Getting around Bogotá is safe and easy. Yellow taxis wait at major places and patrol the streets. To really experience this capital city you need to ride the world famous bus rapid transportation system called the Transmilenio. It is an experience not to be found elsewhere. Designed to operate quickly and efficiently, this award-winning design transports over a million people a day.

Now is the time to visit this South American capital, to take in its uniqueness and experience the culture of its friendly people. But be careful. It could seduce you into staying.