Bogotá and Colombia’s Tourism Revolution
By David Jenison
Many still view Colombia as the homeland of choice for Miami Vice bad guys, and while it’s fitting that Bogotá would be the world’s third highest capital city (in elevation, that is), the country’s now experiencing a tourism revolution.
A decade ago, the Colombian government partnered with the U.S. on a multi-billion dollar effort to combat the military guerrillas and suppress narco-trafficking. At the time, most Colombians wouldn’t dare travel the roads between major cities, yet today the country is safe enough to support its first tourist boom. And why not? Colombia is the fourth largest country in South America—about twice the size of California—and the only one with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, a party animal’s playground and a music lover’s dream. Even if you don’t like Shakira, your hips won’t lie in the party clubs of Cali, the salsa capital of the world. And you know what else is cool? Colombia gave Starbucks the finger. That’s right, the Frappuccino has been iced out in Colombia in favor of its own Juan Valdez chain.
Perched nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, Bogotá is an urban metropolis with an inspired mash-up of cultures. Colombia’s best-known artist, Botero (think fat, naked people), stocked his Donación gallery with the works of Picasso, Renoir, Monet and Dali, while the Gold Museum features more glitter than a pharaoh’s tomb. The capital also boasts nearly 5,000 parks, Latin America’s largest bike-path network and the breathtaking views of the church-topped Monserrate mountain. There is even a section where street-walking mariachis wait for “Johns” to pick them up for parties or to serenade lovers.
Most travel literature directs visitors to La Candelaria, a traditional barrio with classic colonial architecture, narrow cobblestone streets and beautifully painted buildings and graffiti murals. It also claims the most affordable accommodations and nearly all the hostels, including the popular Platypus and Cranky Croc (where this writer stayed during the first of three visits). Still, most locals recommend day visits to La Candelaria while staying in one of the hip northern districts.
“The best restaurants, bars, clubs and fashion boutiques are found in the north,” explains Carolina Duque, founder of the Colombian fashion line Harapo. “La Zona Rosa is the most popular spot with top European fashions sold alongside emerging Colombian designers.”
La Zona Rosa boasts the wildly popular Armando Records rooftop bar as well as Irish pubs, international cuisine and the city’s most stylish clubbers. Partying is big in Bogotá with places like CHA-CHA on the 41st floor of an abandoned Hilton (no, not Nicky) and the Coyote Ugly-style Andres Carne de Res just outside the city. Alcohol is generally cheap, even in clubs, and people can drink on the streets. It’s also legal to possess cannabis in small amounts, and while you technically can’t smoke in public, it’s unlikely you’ll get busted for it. Marijuana is also cheap with one local claiming to buy a kilo for just 60,000 pesos. Sound expensive? Not when the exchange rate is 2,000 pesos to the dollar.
Bogotá is also a transit hub for Colombia’s other highlights. Less than 90 minutes by plane, tourists can visit the Amazon jungle, the fortress city of Cartagena, the Caribbean’s Tayrona National Park (home to the Lost City) and the party Mecca that is Medellín. For those wanting to stay close to Bogotá, there are nearby country cottages where locals go to escape city life. There are even countryside hostels like the popular Tierra del Sol in Ubaté, which is the perfect place for hiking, rock climbing and enjoying nature.
Colombia is on the rise, making this a great time to visit. Talk to someone who visited Prague in the decade after the Velvet Revolution and the stories far surpass those told now. That’s because Prague, like Colombia today, had just turned the corner, and its people rejoiced in new opportunities and warmly welcomed guests. Moreover, the “tourist prices” had yet to kick in. Colombia’s transition is still in progress so take precautions—avoid southern Bogota, don’t carry all your credit cards, call for cabs when possible—but the growing infrastructure and safety is turning this tropical country into the hot new tourist destination.