Here’s the short story: You should go to Colombia. And you should start your trip in Bogotá. What, seriously? The famously gray, kinda chilly capital? Yes, I’m telling you, this is a city you should meet. It’s vibe is unlike anywhere else and you’ll feel it right away. This is a punk-pop city with grit and glamour. Sure, the city was founded in the 16th century, but the moment you touch down, you can feel that it’s spirit is young, energetic and a little bit rebellious.
Pretty standard—fly in from the United States. Flights on major carriers are widely available and you can find decent deals. Be cautious with those flight searches, though—Spirit flies to Bogotá and generally shows up as the lowest fare, but that’s before they gouge you with charges like $50 for a carry-on.
The biggest concentrations of hotels are in La Candelaria, Bogotá’s historic center, and to the north, between Chapinero and Usaquén. Expect lower prices and more backpacker-type accomms in La Candelaria and chic, sophisticated places in higher concentrations up north. Bogota’s not a bargain destination, particularly if you’re beyond the hostel-dorm-sharing years. A couple of specific recommendations:
*Hostal Casu (La Candelaria) | The people here make all the difference. It’s a family-owned and operated place and you’ll get a warm welcome from the moment you arrive—or the moment they pick you up at the airport, as they did us. The rooms are snug, so if you have a lot of luggage, you might want to either ask them for a larger room or look elsewhere. Nevertheless, it’s a cute and quirky place, with a sort of Colombia-meets-Scandinavia aesthetic. $30-ish for a double.
*Anandamayi Hostel & Hotel (La Candelaria) | The most attractive place we came across in La Candelaria, hands down. We didn’t get to stay here—we only looked in like a couple of stalkers—but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I kind of want to come back to Bogotá just to do so. It’s a colonial-style house, built around a courtyard, and it just exudes rustic charm, from its clay roof tiles on down. $55-ish for a double.
*Hotel Boutique Zona G (Zona G, surprise!) | Inside and out, this friendly place looks less like a hotel and more like a super chic home. It’s located in a great neighborhood, Zona G, and there are stylish cafes and restaurants about every 5 feet around here. As an added bonus, it’s quiet. We were quoted about $75-80 in person, but you can get a better (though non-refundable) rate through Booking.com.
EATS AND DRINKS
I’d have to live in Bogotá to have any hope of going to all of its restaurants that I’d like to try. Nevertheless, I can make some recommendations about what to eat and where to eat it.
Dishes and Drinks to Try
* Fruit (and everything done with fruit) | I already mentioned the juice situation, but I’m never going to shut up about it. Pick up fresh fruit at a tienda, from a street vendor, in jam form or in a cup doused with condensed milk, whatever.
* Ajiaco | A classic Colombian chicken soup with silky texture and green, herbal undertones. Other key ingredients are potatoes and corn (slices of the cob with kernels attached). The thing that made me fall for it is the addition of capers and a healthy drizzle of crema.
* Street food nibbles | Arepas, obleas, grilled corn, empanadas. If you’re ever going to drop dead of a sugar overdose, obleas will be the most likely assassin.
* Bandeja Paisa | When you order this platter of sausage, grilled meat, fried pork belly, egg, avocado, rice and beans, you’re signing your body up for an arduous, lengthy period of digestion and possibly some cardiac distress. Worth it.
* Infusions/Aromáticas | This seems like a mincing little suggestion after the thundering brawn of bandeja paisa, but these little tisanes made with panela and fruit essences are a nice—though very sweet—and calming thing to have in the afternoon or at bedtime.
* Masa | All you need to do is follow their Instagram and you’ll want to get here ASAP. Gorgeous sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, next-level juices (limonada con hierbabuena!) and mind-blowing sweets.
* Amor Perfecto | Incredible single-source coffee, served in a third-wave environment. Best coffee we had in Colombia, hands down.
* La Puerta Falsa | No denying that this is on the gringo radar, but it’s also packed with Colombians (and I mean packed—it’s big as half a minute). Order a chocolate completo, which will get you a cup of hot chocolate served with soft, buttered white bread; chunks of soft cheese that you tear into bits and pop in your cocoa (yes, you do); and an almohabana, a delightfully chewy roll made with cheese, corn and yucca flour. You should also get a tamale—try not to groan over how good it is.
* Capital Cocina y Café | A cozy, friendly place in La Candelaria where the quality of the food goes well beyond the modest prices you’ll pay for it. Accomplished cooking all across the board, from starters to gorgeously cooked cuts of meat. Goes down in my book as the home of the best steak I’ve ever eaten.
* Pauletas and La Paletteria | Bogotá’s seeing a bit of an artisanal ice cream boom, and these two places are standouts for grabbing some handmade paletas. Flavors run the gamut from exotic fruits to nuts and confections—the relleno de arequipe (filled with arequipe, or dulce de leche) iteration at Pauleta’s is the best kind of evil there is.
* Bogotá Beer Company | If you also hail from a city where there are more microbreweries than days of summer and thus find yourself missing your favorite taproom, this is a good place to go, grab some bar snacks and tip a few back. Locations all across the city.
THINGS TO PACK
* A sweater and/or a jacket | Y’know how Bogotá’s set at 8,660 feet? That mountain setting has a tempering effect on the weather—don’t expect it to be hotter than blazes here. Mornings and evenings can be brisk, but so can an overcast afternoon. Best to carry a layer with you.
* Your smartphone—with the Tappsi app downloaded | Of course you’re going to bring your phone, but Tappsi is the key pre-trip purchase. The app allows you to call a trustworthy taxi from anywhere in the city. When you type in your location and request a ride, the app will give you the car’s license number and driver’s name, so you know you can safely hop in.
* Artesanías de Colombia | If you want to see examples of top quality artisan items from around Colombia, this should be your first stop. Prices are in line with fair trade practices.
* Mercado de Pulgas in Usaquén | This sprawling “flea” market isn’t exactly flea-bitten, but it’s a great excuse to go up to Usaquén. Vendors selling everything from mochilas and hammocks to jams and chocolates line the pedestrian areas around Parque de Usaquén. You can try to haggle on some items here, but not everything is negotiable (for example, just pay what they’re asking for food items).
* Pasaje Rivas | Packed to the rafters with everything from handmade crafts to mass-produced souvenirs, this 120-year-old marketplace is a shopping extravaganza. Bring your patience, your sharpest eye and your bargaining skills.