My first visit to Bogotá was in December of 2014, a few weeks before Christmas. I remember being excited to visit this great city but also a bit apprehensive. I did not know anything about the city aside from what I have seen on the news, in movies or learned from the few Colombians I met in my lifetime. There was one word that was on my mind constantly while boarding the plane: Escobar. Looking back, I can hit myself on the head for being so foolish and disgustingly ill prepared. Doing a general google search on a destination I’ve never been to before is almost ceremonial for me but this trip being an emergency did not give me the time to do that.
Had I done my research I would have learned that Escobar was most active in Medellin not Bogotá, that Colombia has since rid itself from the reigns of terror that Escobar and other cartels attributed to and that Bogotá has gone through great lengths to clear its bad image and reputation as one of the most violent cities in the world. A title it got back in the nineties. The city is still not amongst the safest in the world but it is well on the way to becoming a less dangerous place with the “Comunidad Segura” security policy that was introduced in 1995 and which continues today.
When I was little my mother used to have a small store that sold mostly leather hand bags and shoes from Colombia. She had to travel to this country often and she would always come back with amazing stories about the beauty of the place and the friendliness of the people But she also had some more darker stories to tell, of poverty, hunger and crime. The Bogotá of today is far from the Bogotá of the nineties, however. Risking to sound like a complete idiot, I was amazed to see how modern the city is and how many shopping malls have been erected. Shopping seems to be one of the favorite past times here. And with it’s 100 or so shopping malls and plans of building another 160 it seems the city is more than willing to oblige as these malls contribute to the immense boost in Bogotá’s economy. I’m not talking about some small strip malls either. The malls here easily rival malls like The Fashion Mall in Vegas, Plaza las Americas in San Juan and Aventura in Miami.
Bogotá is the capital of Colombia and of the Cundinamarca department and is the fastest growing city in Latin America. It has become a world class urban destination and it is obvious from one’s arrival at El Dorado International Airport. The airport is humongous and ultra modern. A beauty amongst airports, I must say. After changing some of our US Dollars to Colombian Pesos (got to love that exchange rate of 2200 pesos to the US Dollar) we headed outside where we were picked up by our driver, Blanca; a sweet older lady with a heavy foot. My God, this woman can drive. This old lady swerved in and out of traffic like a maniac before safely dropping us off at our hotel. Schumacher’s got nothing on our Blanquita and she made sure we were always on time for our doctor appointments and even took us on a tour outside of the city.
It is good to have a driver you can trust while in Bogotá. Especially if you’re a novice as we were back in December of last year. They know the city like the palm of their hands, know the history, can show you places you wouldn’t see otherwise and if they are anything like Blanca, they will show the real Bogotá: the good, the bad and the ugly. Besides, they know how to avoid “troncones” or traffic jams. This unfortunately is the real problem Bogotá faces. The traffic here is insane. It can start anytime after 8 am and can last till about 7pm. Avoid driving between 3pm and 6pm. It is absolute deadlock.
The city can be divided in 4 areas: El Sur or the South where most of the poor live, El Centro or City Center, the original “downtown” area, El Occidente or the West where one can find the major sporting complexes, outdoor parks as well as affluent neighborhoods and last but not least El Norte or the North with great shopping, boutique hotels, restaurants galore and headquarters of large corporations. Our hotel was in El Norte, in an area called Usaquén to be specific.
We had no complaints being in the mecca of great restaurants. We had the luxury to eat out at a new place every night. And the food was truly AMAZING. I get tears in my eyes just thinking of the good food we had. Even for a wannabe vegetarian like myself. On a side note: Vegetarians and vegans beware! I have never seen people eat so much meat in my life. Nonetheless we found top restaurants in this city. Places that we cannot wait to return to. High class service, sensational decor, superior ingredients and often with a price tag that rivals Mc Donalds. The more typical dishes are not to be missed while visiting Bogotá. The Ajiaco, Bandeja Paisa, Aguapanela and the ever popular Tamale are dishes that one must add to their culinary to-do list.
Other than the traffic which at it’s best resembles that of Manhattan at peek time, this city is truly a joy. It is beautiful, the culinary experience is out of this world and the general feel is wonderful. But above all else THE PEOPLE. I have never met more polite, gentle and friendly souls. “Si señor”, “no señora”, “Gracias” (thank you), and “Claro que si” (of course) are a standard part of any conversation with a local.
Stay tuned for my personal Top 10 must See, Eat and Do in Bogotá. In the meantime if you’re planning a trip to this amazing city and need some advice, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Until my next blog.