June 3, 2015: Bogota
I landed in Bogota at 1:30 in the morning after a full day of traveling. With an hour left in the flight, the captain said that “the plane is well built but there’s going to be some turbulents”. The storms never materialized, but it was an ominous start to my 2 week trip around Colombia.
After arriving, I caught an Uber to my hostel. I was totally surprised that Uber is in Colombia when it still isn’t in St. Louis yet. The ride cost about $10, the same price as a cab if you are a good bargainer. Just like in Vietnam, the driver flashed his lights or honked before bolting through every intersection or red light. But it was 3am so there were very few people on the road. I checked into he hostel and met Ruben, the night manager. He spoke no English but I was able to get by on my limited Spanish.
The next day I woke up around 8 and started my day-long tour of the city. I first walked to the Plaza Bolivar. There is saw the national capital, cathedral, and mayor’s office. It was a nice square with the craziest pigeons I’ve ever seen.
I then continued to walk through La Candelaria, the old city. The 500-year old buildings are everywhere. And the one-lane streets make it pedestrian friendly.
Eventually, I reached a street that was definitely not historic and marked the end of La Candelaria. It was busy. I crossed the street and wandered by all the street performers before going into a mall. It was packed beyond belief because of a promotional concert by some Colombian artist. The stage was set up but the crew was stalling. I bought a shirt in the meantime and waited a little bit for the show to start but it didn’t so I left.
I then wandered a little bit more and got my bearings before heading back to the hostel to meet up with 2 other guys from the hostel. We were going to walk to the top of Montserrate, a large hill towering 1,000 ft over the city. The hike is 1,500 steps to the top. It hurt and it was steep. Most guide books say it takes 90 minutes to climb Montserrate, but it took us only about 42 minutes. The view at the top was totally worth it. There is also a church that was okay- it’s mainly about the views. We decided to run down which took about 15 minutes.
After that, we decided to split ways. I got Colombian food for lunch: steak, fries, and plantains…nothing special. I now understand why there aren’t many Colombian restaurants in the US. Afterwards, I went into a church with a completely gold altar before heading into the gold museum. This very modern museum wowed me with the sheer number of gold artifacts. I must have seen the entire world’s supply of gold. It was beautiful. My favorite part was this secret room on the top floor. A door magically slid open revealing a dark room. Suddenly I heard a native chant as the gold slowly was revealed around the entire room. There were at least 1,000 gold artifacts in the room.
At this point I was very sore from the hike and disgusting as I have been wearing the same sweaty clothes for the last 2 days. I decided to clean up and shower while the hostel wasn’t busy. After, I went bar hopping with a bunch of the guys from the hostel. The first bar was way up in a small “opium den” like setting. We had to sit on cushions and we were all telling travel stories. Everyone besides me had been traveling overland through South America for over 3 months. I, as is the case in most hostels, was the only American. We and the bar looked really ragtag and dirty- exactly how I imagined a bar experience high in Colombian Andes to be. They started playing Bob Marley’s Legend album in its entirety. We spent the night swapping travel stories from the road. After we went to a salsa bar before I headed back fairly early.
June 4, 2015: Zipaquira and Chia
Woke up and decided to take a day trip to the Salt Cathedral in Zipaquira. Zipaquira was an hour and a half away. To get there, I had to take public transportationm, as a taxi would be $50 USD each way. This would be my first real test in Colombia. The first step was to locate the Transmillenio, Bogota’s hybrid of a bus and light rail. This would take me to the northern edge of the city from which I would then take a bus to Zipaquira. The TransMillenio stop was an easy 15 minute walk from the hostel at a place called Las Aguas. However, getting on the right bus was quite difficult, as there were 12 different bus lines all leaving from the same gates. Additionally, there was a second station located 3 blocks away accessed via an underground tunnel.
Unbelievably confused, i luckily met a lady who spoke English. She told me that I needed to buy a pass which is loaded with money. They don’t sell single ride tokens. From there I needed to find bus B72 which would take me direct to Portal Norte. The bus routes on the heads of the buses were not actually bus routes but the station platform of the final destination. Therefore, I was going to destination B platform 72. This actually makes a lot of sense as there are B buses going from all different parts of the city. Eventually i found the right TransMillenio.
Riding the TransMillenio was a fun experience. The buses drove in a dedicated lane that was physical separated from the normal traffic by a barrier. Therefore, we moved much faster than the traffic. Every few stations, we would be interrupted by a performer. A man with a guitar would walk onto the car and yell “Buenos Dias” and would give some speech that was most likely an introduction of sorts then he would play a song. Afterwards, people would applaud then the guy would walk around the car asking for money. The performers were usually quite good. In the 45 minutes on the bus, there were 4 performances: 2 were guitars, one was a speech from Colombian literature, and another was a salsa demonstration.
At Portal Norte, I made the easy 1 minute transfer to the bus to Zipaquira. The bus ride was far less interesting albeit more comfortable. Right before we left I saw 2 people who did not look Colombian walk onto the bus. They had light backpacks.
45 minutes later, we arrived at Zipaquira. I got off the bus and ran saw the two backpackers look around at their surroundings in a way that I knew we were going to the same place. I asked if they wanted to share a cab and they said yes. We bought water and got into the cab to the salt cathedral. Their names were Jenny and Jason and they were from Manchester, England. They, too have done a lot of traveling and were taking a 2 1/2 week vacation in Colombia.
About 10 minutes later, we reached the entrance to the Salt Cathedral. After paying the $25,000 entrance fee (about $10 USD). We joined a large group on the guided tour of the underground church(it’s technically not a cathedral- that status can only be given by the pope). The tour was completely in Spanish but luckily there were some signs in English. The tour guide appeared to be passionate and people laughed a lot at his jokes. The cathedral began to be dug in 1991 and is still being expanded.
Before we reached the actual cathedral chamber, we walked through large salt caverns that represented the stations of the cross. Finally, we stopped at a large balcony overlooking the main nave of the gigantic church. The ceilings were over 100 ft high. At the far end was a dugout cross the height of the building. Because the church is underground, they put in some cool lighting. The color of the church actually changed throughout the day. When I was in the room it started out purple but then changed to red.
After the church, we wandered to some more caverns that were shops selling every sort of thing a tourist would want: shirts, clocks, jewelry, you name it. There were at least 100 people working at the various stores. I thought it was really funny that the shopkeepers all wore yellow protective helmets. Actually, they had a professional photographer and when you posed for the picture, they put a helmet on you. I really wanted to buy the clock with a picture of me in the cave on it. After showing us the last shop, the guide waved goodbye and left us to find our way out of the cave.
Afterwards, we decided to walk down the hill into the town and get lunch. We found a cute square and got some chicken. Colombian food is nothing to write home about. It’s basically grilled meat and fries. The town of Zapiquira is very cute. Lots of small old buildings that are all painted white with blue and red trimmings. The uniformity made the town special.
The town also had great people and dog watching. My favorite people were the ice cream salespeople who wore these blue jumpsuits with the ice cream company’s logo on it. The wild dogs in the town looked healthy.
At about 3pm, we decided we had seen enough. So we went back to Bogota to rest up. I told Jason and Jenny about this famous steak restaurant called Andre Carne De Res. We decided to meet there around 8:30pm. The restaurant actually was located very close to Zipaquira but it was far too early to get dinner. Plus I had to pay for my hostel that night.
At around 6:30, I went back on the TransMillenio to Portal Norte. This time it was rush hour and the bus was packed with people. It was so busy that I was pushed up against the wall of the car. Nobody could move anywhere. As a result there were no performances. From portal Norte I took a bus to Chia. I had looked up the location of the restaurant in google maps ahead of time. However I had no idea where the bus would drop me off. Eventually, the bus stopped at an random block in the dark city. Everyone got off and so did I. Luckily, the gps in my phone worked so I was able to navigate my way to the restaurant.
Andres Carne de Res was truly something else. What originally started as a steak restaurant with 4 tables has since become…well something else. It seats 3,509 people and fills up every night. When I walked in, 3 attractive women in spandex were doing an exercise “class” in one of the hallways but nobody was following along. There were more decorations in this restaurant than probsbly any restaurant on earth. Our server spoke English and went over the 64 page menu.
The drinks were unbelievably expensive- between 33,000-45,000 pesos (almost double the cost of my hostel), but they were strong. I ordered an orange cocktail with vodka. It was huge and I could really taste the alcohol. Right after I ordered my drink, Jason and Jenny sat down. We ordered more drinks and steaks. Eventually, a traveling band made it’s way to our table and gave us pageant sashes in the colors of the Colombian flag. The band leader also showered or table in confetti.
The night only got weirder as they started playing disco music and the exercise ladies were back. I decided to join in and actually got a decent workout and got yelled at in Spanish at the same time.
Later on, they started playing salsa music and the dance floor started to heat up. Jason, Jenny, and I went out on the dance floor and had a lot of fun. Some people set up a limbo bar. At 11:30, a full 3 1/2 hours after arriving, we caught a cab back to Bogota. All in all it was a very strange night and I would definitely like to go back on a weekend.
Bogota is a huge city with millions of people. However, the areas that are safe for/open to tourists are small: Candelaria, Downtown and Zona Rosa. Therefore, don’t spend too much time in Bogota. 2-3 days is perfect. The city is definitely worth visiting -especially since your flight will probably arrive here. One other thing to note is that the city is at a high elevation, so don’t plan too much in the first day because you will tire.