Michael: Colombia’s capital is unlike any other city in the world which my wife and I visited. There are many transportation options but not a single one blatantly sticks out as the best for everyone. Each has pros and cons. And many residents state that government officials are really not thinking of what best serves the people.
Several years back a person on a Colombia forum board asked the best way to move around Bogotá. The answers were as diverse as the methods available. Interesting in the responses was how vehemently each defended their choice. Their position was based upon their own condition in life. Rather meaning the limited budget backpacker called the successful couple in their 40’s stupid for spending so much money on a taxi. While older people in turn thought the youngster crazy to take security chances riding the bus.
Bogotá is home to over eight million people. Its population density is 9th in the world. An international organization rated the city’s drivers as one of the ten worst on the planet. Mass transportation systems fail miserably in overall effectiveness when compared to such places as Paris, Singapore and Melbourne. Streets are pocketed so bad with holes that some people refer to the city as Huecota (hole town). Unlike my home state of Michigan, the amount of traffic often exceeds what the roads are designed to handle. This is even after implementing Pico y Placa (a system that keeps some cars off the streets two to three days a week). But on the good side, and different to what many people experience in the USA, there is mass transportation available throughout the city.
Graciela: The method you choose depends on a number of factors. These include how much you wish to spend, where you are going, the safety level you wish, how well you speak Spanish and your age. Since the city is so large my recommendation is to get a hotel near where you will spend the majority of your time.
My experience with Bogotá transportation methods spans over 60 years and covers everything ever offered. My husband, with his gringo view of things, has 12 years utilizing the various methods. We have traveled in our lives and have comparisons of what is available in other cities in the world. We will take a look at bicycle, renting a car, buses, Transmilenio, yellow taxis and white taxis.
There are many using a bicycle to get around the city. When questioning one Canadian expat about it he said, “Most of the city is pretty flat, but the hills can sometimes get very difficult.” However one American expat told me of having her bicycle stolen at knife point. Natalia Layne, who writes the blog Dunce’s Hat, wrote THE PERKS OF URBAN BIKING which covers peddling in this capital city. One of her points is about the savings. On Sunday they close down many streets so people can ride their bicycles.
Rent a Car
There are car rental places at El Dorado airport. But everyone told us it is not a good idea to rent a car for just getting around Bogotá. Now if you are traveling to towns around it might be a possibility, but even then it depends. With the massive traffic in the city, difficulty in finding a parking space and expensive parking rates one is usually better off taking another form of transportation.
Within Michael’s time in Colombia gone are the buses of questionable integrity with their colorful signs of where they travel. However they are cryptic to outsiders. My husband often considered the experience of riding one of the busettas something not to be repeated often. His large gringo frame and long legs requires him to squeeze into a seat with no room for his knees. He says it is worse than riding economy on United Airlines. One Canadian friend commented that they should dig a big hole outside of Bogotá , put the buses in it along with their drivers and bury the entire thing. But I rode them for years with very few problems. They were part of the charm of the city with vendors often hopping on and off trying to sell you CD’s, candy, jewelry and other things.
Michael: There are still of few of the old style buses on the streets. But blue buses with the letters SITP on the the side have replaced them. You could hail down one of the old style buses anywhere on the street. The SITP have designated stop points. On the top of the bus is their number. The front window advertises, usually with an LED sign, the barrio they travel. For visitors it can be confusing at first but is possible to learn.
To ride one you need a card called “Tu Llave” (your key). These cards can be purchased at places displaying the sign and are also good for riding the other mass transportation system known as the Transmilenio. You charge the card with an amount of money. An amount is deducted when you swipe your card upon entering the bus. A single fee is charged regardless of how far you travel.
For visitors to the city knowing which bus to take is not always easy. Barrios are listed on the bus signs. But unless you know them you do not have an idea of which calle and carrera (North/South and East/West streets) they travel to. I have never found a printed route map. There is some information on the SITP web page. But even my wife, who has lived all her life in Bogotá, finds their route maps cryptic.
When these buses first started in the city Graciela and I would ride them then make our own notes of which bus numbers go where.
And do not expect any announcements of what the stops are. If you do not know where to get off then … well it could be an inexpensive trip around the city.
Rapid Transit – Transmilenio
Forget subways and rail systems. The city does not have them. What they do have is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) known as the Transmilenio. The red vehicles look like two or three buses together. There are stations over most of the city. The same card used for the SITP can be used. But they also sell ride cards at the stations. You place your card on the turnstile when entering. A specific amount is deducted from the card. Then you can ride as far as you want as long as you never leave a station.
My wife and I used the system three to four days a week for over 7 years. We experienced the best and the worst of it.
RCN in English did a good video on explanation of the usage. You can view It HERE.
I have not found a system map that I would consider good. The one on their web page is of such low resolution that it is pretty useless. However, there is a 13 page PDF you can print showing all the routes and times.
Graciela: There are over 8 million people living in this South American capital. About 35% of them ride this BRT daily. All is not perfect. As in any metropolis you must take appropriate precautions. Do not wear flashy jewelry or place expensive items like cell phones or money where they can be easily pick-pocketed.
Michael: Is the Transmilenio another good idea poorly implemented? Unlike many other cities in the world, Bogotá severely missed the boat in planning for rush hour numbers. This under one minute video on YouTube shows the normal crowd at the Suba station. Notice the pushing and shoving. Over the years, despite expansion, things have not improved. Colombian News in 2014 produced a video entitled 15 Años de transmilenio y cada vez es peor, miren esto!! (15 years of Transmilenio and each time is worse, look at this). The narration is in Spanish, but it does show the massive crowds, the number of people not paying (some estimates are as high as 10% of the riders) and the intensive graffiti.
There is another side to the story. Traffic is so bad in the city that the Transmilenio is much faster in getting you to work. In many cases it is the best option for reaching your destination in a timely manner. The New York Times also produced a video entitled The Buses of Bogotá. And of course during non-rush hours it is often the best way to get to certain parts of the city. As I stated before my wife and I rode it several times each week.
You see these everywhere. Their license plates are displayed on the side. You can hail them down on the street or order them via phone.
Do not expect what you get in cities of first world countries. Taxi drivers in Singapore, for instance, say the job is a money maker as long as you are willing to work hard. Bogotá drivers complain that government taxes, rules and corruption make it difficult for a profit. Taxis are small cars. Unkept insides and debatable maintenance is more the norm than the exception. And many bloggers have written about taxi scams. One of them is from How To Bogota and their 10 tips for taking taxi.
I would say that 85% of the drivers are honest working people. But it is the other 15% that gives them all a bad reputation. And there appears to be no effort by the government to get the offenders off the street. Therefore the bad seeds seem to increase each year. One long term Bogotá resident we spoke with told us that after being taken advantage of so many times she has just stopped taking the yellow cabs.
Note when you enter the vehicle the number on the meter will begin at 25. It increases one per 200 meters traveled or 30 second standing still. There should be a yellow chart in the taxi so you can convert the number on the meter to a money amount.
The vast majority of Bogotá taxi drivers do not speak English. If your Spanish is limited you might want to have the name of your destination and address written on a piece of paper.
Neither my wife nor anyone we know has had experience with Uber in Bogotá. News about Uber shows they have a tough time in the city and other areas around Colombia. In this story they talk about one passenger being trapped inside the car for 40 minutes while angry taxi drivers hurled stones and bricks at the car.
These are usually special for use by hotels and other establishments. A few are privately owned. Every one we have been in has been larger than their yellow competition and in excellent condition. They do not drive the streets picking up passengers and there is no central area you can call to get one. Some hotels have their own for you to hire. You can sometimes find them available at malls. We recently got one from the Unicentro mall. But for most you have to know the phone number of the driver and contact him directly. These vehicles do not use a meter. Prices should be asked before entering the vehicle. While they are more expensive than the other methods they offer a higher degree of safety.
For small taxi runs the white ones are generally more expensive than the yellow ones. But for all day travel or going out of Bogotá they can save you money. This is especially true since the yellow taxis need special permission to leave the city.
Graciela and I have a favorite that we have used several times. His name is Giovanni Muñoz. He speaks fluent English and his vehicle has WI-Fi. Read our entire article about him HERE. He is highly recommended and used by hotels in the North for patrons wanting to take trips downtown to visit such places as the Museum of Gold, Candeleria district, National Museum, Botero Museum and Monserrate. Muñoz is also highly recommended for taking tourists to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá.
For those wishing to contact Muñoz his phone number is +59-305-238-3970. He told us that he uses Whatsapp.
Disclaimer: We have no association with Mr. Muñoz other than as a client and do not receive compensation of any kind for the review
When using Bogotá mass transportation do not expect the same cooperation between riders that you find in many other countries. Colombians are written about by many as some of the nicest people in the world, and they are in most respects. But when it comes to transportation in Bogotá it is almost a culture mentality of every person for themselves. In other countries we have visited young adults frequently get up and offer their seat to an older passenger. In Colombian these youngsters are more likely to push and shove past you to get to the seat first. On many occasions I have witnessed young people sitting on the floor of the Transmilenio making it difficult for others to pass. In Singapore when you try to hail a taxi from the street others showing up later will queue up behind you. In Bogotá the norm seems to be to walk in front of you to get the taxi first.
So, what is the best way to navigate this South American capital? The answer depends on a number of factors including where you are going, at what time of day you travel, how much time you have to reach your destination, how much money you want to spend, the amount of security you want, how good your Spanish is and your age. Graciela and I use all the methods. Young backpackers are frequently found on the Transmilenio and SITP buses. Some people enjoy the adventure of “average person” transportation. Older people more financially set in life often take taxis. If you take a yellow one just be sure the hotel calls it for you. For maximum safety use someone like, Muñoz.
Bottom line, no matter which method you choose always be aware and don’t do or wear anything to make yourself a victim. The Colombians call it “dar papaya”.