When summer heats up all across the United States, it remains cool in the pines of Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, it is sweater weather year around. Just an inexpensive nonstop flight from Ft. Lauderdale on Spirit Air, or from Miami on Colombian airline Avianca, Bogotá offers a city of sophisticated entertainment, historic sights, and natural attractions within a day-drive from downtown. Spend a week in the city to become a fan of vacations in Colombia.
CTH spent a week in Bogotá in July 2015. The mid-priced classic hotel in the city-center Candelaria historic district, Abadia Colonial, was $110 US a night for a double and $75 US for a single, breakfast included. The historic district is almost deserted by 6 pm on weeknights, although it is ideally situated within walking distance of the key historic sites, museums, and churches. Three points to note: keep cameras and jewelry out of sight, carry a driver’s license to obtain free or reduced entrance to museums for those over the age of 60, and leave US dollars at home. The exchange rate for US dollars is favorable. Dinner for three at Mama Lupe, just off Plaza Bolivar, next to the cathedral, was $42,000 Colombian, which is about $20 US.
Start a first-time tour of Bogotá at the site where the fight for Colombian independence from Spain began, on the corner of Plaza Bolivar, next to the cathedral. It was on this street corner in 1810 that a flower seller refused to fill a vase with flowers to grace a banquet table for Spanish officials. Two Colombian-born Spanish descendants attacked the royalist for his impudent actions. See the vase that began a war in the home of the florist, now the Independence Museum.
On the street that leads uphill, behind the cathedral, there are small eateries, souvenir shops, such as Delores Ortiz, and the Botero Museum. Botero is a much-loved national artist of Colombia, who now resides in Paris. Entrance to the museum is free at the artist’s request. Inside the colonial home see some of Botero’s best, as well as 20th century art from his collection. Complex social themes underlie the seemingly simple, colorful, rotund figures in Botero paintings and sculptures.
Continue away from the cathedral on the street of the Independence Museum to pass along the street of emerald merchants. They continue a tradition of selling quality emeralds that began when Colombia supplied wealth to Spain. The emerald mines are in operation north of Bogotá, although do not look for tours of the mines.
The second square of importance in Bogotá is Plaza Santander. The square is a tribute to Bolivar’s first vice-president of independent Colombia and the man who exiled President Bolivar due to his overwhelming popularity. The modern Museo de Oro, Gold Museum, looks over the square, otherwise surrounded by historic churches. In the museum there are stunning displays of gold objects from the several sites of pre-Spanish arrival cultures. Wander through the Vault Room to see evidence of highly sophisticated civilizations.
These are the items not melted down for the simple value of the gold sent to Spain from the 16th to 19th centuries. Enter a darkened theater for a display of gold accompanied by lights and music. The most famous item in the museum is the 19-inch Balsa Muisca. This is a 9th century sculpture in gold representing the initiation ceremony of Muisca kings that took place in Lake Guatavita. Tales of the ceremony launched the search for El Dorado, a city of gold, coveted by Spanish, English, and German adventurers.
Do not leave the museum without relaxing at the coffee bar behind the lower-level gift shop. Colombians say they grow the best coffee in the world for export and retain the worst of the crops to drink. An exception is the excellent quality coffee served in the Gold Museum San Alberto Coffee Café.
Across Plaza Santander visit the San Francisco Church, with its gold altar, and the La Tercera chapel, distinguished by the absence of gold, adorned by magnificent woodcarvings. Continuing in a circle back to Plaza Bolivar, see the main Cathedral and adjoining chapel, the oldest in the city, both heavily damaged by earthquakes. Beyond the square are government buildings, the home of the president, and the Santa Clara Museum, the former church of the royalists, ornately covered in gold-framed paintings and sculptures of saints. The church was consecrated in 1647, adjacent to the convent of Poor Clares, the female branch of the Order of Saint Francis. Since families could place a daughter in the convent for less than the cost of a marital dowry, it was an abundantly populated residence for life for many women. Some poor nuns were buried in the vault under the altar with the benefactress.
There are several more museums in the Candelaria district. Notable is the Police Museum in the 1891 original police headquarters. The highlight of this museum is the motorcycle confiscated from drug lord Pablo Escobar in 1993, along with $20billion in US currency. At the Military Museum young, uniformed guides proudly provide a tour of Colombian military history, including the Colombian mission in the Korean War.
The best place for a panoramic view of this city of over eight million is from the hilltop Basilica Monserrate. The white church, set 10,341 feet high, can be seen from the city streets. Cable cars take visitors to mass, or to restaurants on the hilltop. The church is notable for the fallen Christ on the altar.
Destino Bogotá arranges day trips to a coffee plantation, the Salt Cathedral and Lake Guatavita, and many other places. For decades Bogotá residents took a small gauge train to the Salt Cathedral to attend mass after wandering with flashlights through a maze hundreds of feet underground. Today the Salt Cathedral offers a unique walk through lights and music in the carved salt Stations of the Cross in the defunct mine. Included in the day tour was lunch at Sol y Luna (Sun and Moon), outside the enchanting town of Zapaquira, a tourist favorite. (destinobogota.com)
Bogotá was erected on the site of settlements of the Muisca people, which extended from north to south of the current city. There are no known habitation sites. The culture is best known for the wealth of gold art in the Gold Museum and for the legend of El Dorado emanating from Lake Guatavita. A climb above the clouds to the lake is rigorous, but worthwhile. The small round lake is fed by a spring and is not a volcanic lake, despite sitting in a mountaintop depression. Although the German efforts to drain the lake in their search for gold have largely been overgrown by vegetation, the channel cut in the sidewall of the lake is still visible. Today the lake is a protected natural area.
Back in Candelaria we enjoyed extra thin crust Colombian pizza in the Italian restaurant in our hotel, as a change from arepas, the corn and cheese tortilla, or plantains. For a taste of coastal Colombian seafood, ask your guide to take you to Embajada del Pacifico, in the south side residential neighborhood of Bogotá, to enjoy shrimp, coconut rice, and spinach cooked in honey.
Outside of the historic area of Bogotá are neighborhoods that range from impoverished to opulent. The city is in the midst of a building boom, driven by a large working class of young, educated Colombians eager to share their historic sites with visitors.
For more on the legend of El Dorado, see CTH Itinerary VIII, Port of Trinidad and Tobago, The Legend of El Dorado, released July 2015, on sale at Amazon.com.