By Alex Kallimanis: We recently returned from celebrating our 13 year wedding anniversary in Bogota and the nearby coffee region around Salento. Overall, it was an amazing trip and we highly recommend Colombia. It’s a beautiful country and offers great value. At the same time, if you visit the country independently like we did, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. There are pros and cons to visiting Bogota, Colombia and it’s irresponsible to write about the city without discussing a couple downsides.
The great news is that the drug and political violence that plagued Colombia for years has greatly diminished due to the political deals made with FARC and measures to curb cocaine production. We’re sure you’re not, but if you travel to Colombia looking to buy cocaine know two things: 1) Cocaine is illegal in Colombia and 2) non-drug traders do not think highly of people asking about something that tragically stained their country for decades. On a side note, we only just started watching the Netflix series Narcos upon our return.
Why Colombia for a Wedding Anniversary Trip?
We chose to celebrate in Colombia because we could fly directly from Washington, DC to Bogota on Avianca Airlines. The flight was only 5 and 1/2 hours, the same as flying direct to San Francisco and not much further than Las Vegas. We cashed in credit card points for free plane tickets, so traveling to Colombia cost us the same as traveling down the road. Our good friend and travel blogger Brianne Miers of A Traveling Life previously visited Colombia twice and said great things about it. Seth Kugel who used to write The Frugal Traveller column for The NY Times Travel section called Colombia the best value destination in South America.
We considered celebrating in Iceland, a country much colder and significantly more expensive than Colombia. We left Colombia happy with our choice. There was a lot we loved, including our stays at the beautiful Bioxury Hotel in Bogota as well as the Reserva Monarca in the “zona cafeteria” (coffee region) near Salento, with an incredible view of the Andes Mountains.
We received advice to consider Cartagena over Bogota. Cartagena, Colombia is a tropical destination on the Caribbean, with warm weather year round. Bogota is the capital and sits at a high elevation of 2,600 meters (8,600 feet), so the weather is more unpredictable and it generally gets cold at night. But last year we visited Mexico City and really enjoyed it, so had a hunch we would feel similarly about Bogota. Cartagena is more touristy than Bogota, which is a pro for some, and a con for others.
If you visit Bogota, we recommend taking at least one tour. On our first day, we took the free walking tour with Beyond Colombia. Angelica was a great guide and taught us a lot about the history of Colombia and some of the best places to eat and drink in the city. The suggested tip for the free tour is the equivalent of around $10 US, which we both gladly gave at the end of three hours. But we saw some give a little less, and the guide thanked us all the same.
The Pros of Traveling to Bogota
Impressive Parts of the City
There are some fantastic areas in Bogota. Bolivar Square, which houses the Colombia parliament, is as picturesque as major European squares. We even pet a cute llama in Bolivar Square. And there was a street vendor selling “big ass ants” to eat, added quirks you won’t find in European squares to go along with the beauty.
The views of Bogota and the lush Andes Mountains from Monserrate are dramatically beautiful. It was our first time seeing the Andes Mountains, which surround Bogota, and we were awestruck with how green they are. A cable car or funicular train takes visitors to the top, where there’s a church that dates back to the 17th century, along with biblical sculptures around the grounds. Along with the stunning vista, it’s also a pilgrimage spot and some visitors hike to the top (we took the cable car). The top of Monserrate has several cafes, shops and a lovely fine dining restaurant called Casa San Isidro.
Food, shopping and accommodation are significantly cheaper than what you’ll pay in the United States. Even the trendy restaurants in the Zona Rosa, which are considered expensive, are not nearly as expensive as the equivalent in New York, San Francisco, Boston or Washington, DC. We loved our stay at the beautiful Bioxury hotel, which is ultra modern, comfortable and lined with green foliage in the lobby. As Colombia is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, Bogota also has excellent cafes. Our favorite is the beautifully named Arte y Passion Cafe in Bogota, where servers draw pictures in coffees tableside (pictured below).
We visited three museums in Bogota and enjoyed all three for different reasons. The Botero Museum (Museo Botero) was our favorite. It’s a beautiful and free art museum that includes the work of Colombia’s most iconic painter, Fernando Botero. There is also an impressive section featuring works by European masters.
The Gold Museum (Museo Del Oro) is another must. Admission is only 4,000 Colombian pesos (around $1.50 US). The collection features a lot of intricate and primitive gold pieces. You’ll also learn a lot about the history of the region, pre and post Spanish Conquistadors.
We also visited the Emerald Museum (Museo De La Esmerelda) on the 23rd floor of the Avianca Building, the oldest skyscraper in South America. This was our least favorite museum and is mostly a showcase to sell emeralds at the end of the tour. But the sales pitch was no pressure. The highlight of this museum for us were the wonderful views of downtown Bogota. If you’re shopping for emeralds in Bogota, the Emerald Museum might be a good place to start your search.
During our trip, we debated whether Colombian or Mexican food was better. The fact that we were even having that discussion is a testament to Colombian food’s tastiness because Mexicans generally rock at food. And some of the steaks we ate in Bogota rivaled those we have eaten in Buenos Aires and Montevideo (two of the best cities in the world for quality steaks).
We both did some shopping in the Candelaria area of Bogota. We picked up some high quality items at great prices. The highlights for me are a beautiful leather messenger bag for the equivalent of around $32 US. We both bought some stylish new clothes for a fraction of what we would pay in the US or Western Europe. We also bought some beautiful handmade art work for 4,000 Colombian pesos (around $1.50). That was his asking price and we wish we had bought more of his pieces.
Gateway to Other Beautiful Parts of Colombia
Bogota’s El Dorado Airport is very modern and has frequent domestic flights around the country, along with being well connected internationally. After spending a few days in Bogota, we flew to Pereira and then traveled 45 minutes to Salento via Uber, a charming and safe town in the “zona cafeteria,” or coffee zone of Colombia. This is an incredibly beautiful area, and the Quindio palm trees in the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) are the tallest in the world, growing up to 60 meters (196 feet) high. We also toured the Ocaso coffee plantation, which was both picturesque and delicious.
The Cons of Traveling to Bogota
Safety – We Did Not Have Any Issues in 5 Days, But We Were Careful
“Be careful. The areas around the Candeleria (old town) are safe during the day. But just outside it, may not be safe <even during the day>.” – Our Uber driver in Bogota
“Only use Uber at Monserrate. Do not take a taxi.” Said the same Uber driver.
We had read the warnings about Bogota. Only take taxis from the official taxi stand at El Dorado Airport and don’t randomly hail cabs off the street. Or use Uber, which we did throughout our stay in Colombia. We used Uber Black in Bogota, which is comparable to Uber X in the United States. We initially used Uber X in Bogota and while the driver took us to our destination safely, there were issues with his navigation because he had to turn off his device to save on mobile phone fees. As we had just arrived in Bogota, it was not comfortable to be driven in a couple semi circles.
We recommend paying a little more and using the Uber Black service. We also only got in cars with drivers with good ratings. If the driver did not have a good rating, we canceled the ride before he arrived. We prefer to use services like Uber over taxis because we can see the drivers rating, there is a record of our ride, we know what the price will be, and do not have to trade cash with drivers. All of our Uber Black experiences in Bogota were positive ones. Some drivers spoke English, but the majority did not.
Bogota generally shuts down early. After 8pm, there aren’t that many people walking around most places. And it’s not considered safe to walk around the Candelaria (historic center) after dark unless you’re in a group. So we stayed in the upscale Zona Rosa neighborhood, but even there it’s best not to walk around too late at night solo or as a couple.
Understand that safety issues in Bogota are generally related to theft. And issues around theft generally stem from a large disparity in wealth in Bogota. There are extremely wealthy and extremely poor people in the city. If you visit Bogota, don’t be flashy with money or jewelry.
Frequent Language Barriers with Poor Spanish
Traveling independently in Colombia can be challenging if your Spanish is not very good. I speak a little bit of Spanish, which is really helpful. If you’re Spanish is not good (and ultimately mine is not), it’s best to stay in international hotels or with an Airbnb host that speaks some English (make sure there a lot of good reviews of the host). If you’ve never used Airbnb, sign up here for $40 off your first stay over $75!
The elevation can be a problem for some. I struggled with headaches and fatigue the first 36 hours in Bogota while my body adjusted to the elevation. After taking the cable car up to Monserrate, which sits at 3,100 meters (around 10,000 feet) I immediately had to sit down while my body adjusted to the altitude. But Monserrate is absolutely stunning – one of the most dramatically beautiful places we’ve seen in any city worldwide.
Cool Weather Year Round (With a Constant Risk of Sunburn)
It can rain a lot in Bogota. And when it rains, it is not warm. Pack a sweater and a rain jacket. We were pretty lucky and generally found the weather during the day to be pleasant. It was usually low 20’s Celcius (low 70’s Fahrenheit). Warm when it was sunny and cool when the wind blew. We frequently took our sweaters on and off.
Also, pack sunscreen. Being at high elevation means a greater risk of sunburn. We learned the hard way, but thankfully we didn’t get burned too badly.
During winter in North America, you’ll find significantly warmer weather in Bogota. As it is close to the equator, average temperatures are the same year round. The weather in Bogota might be a plus for some, just know that it is not tropical weather like Cartagena.
Should You Visit Bogota, Colombia?
While we enjoyed Bogota and think it’s a worthwhile destination, it’s not for everyone. The small town of Salento was much more laid-back and generally safer to walk around at night. The receptionist at our hotel in Salento said “nowhere in Bogota is safe to walk around at night” with a slight chuckle.
For travelers looking for warmth and beaches, choose Cartagena over Bogota. Check out this article by our fellow DC blogging friends Backpacking with the Bonds for tips on traveling to Cartagena.
Where to Stay in Bogota?
As we mentioned, we loved our 3 night stay during our 13 year wedding anniversary at the Bioxury Hotel (pictured below). It’s very modern, comfortable and well priced for what you receive. The breakfast buffet is also really good. The location in Zona Rosa is also ideal as it’s close to a lot of good restaurants like Club Colombia. The Zona Rosa area is safer to walk around at night compared to the historic center of Candelaria.
As we arrived in Bogota late from the United States, we booked our first night at the Hotel Habitel near El Dorado Airport. Hotel Habitel has a free 24-hour airport shuttle and a delicious buffet breakfast is included in the price of all rooms. The following day we used Uber to move to the Bioxury. At the end of our trip, we had to depart Bogota early and traffic can be a pain. So we booked the final night at Courtyard by Marriot Bogota Airport. We preferred Hotel Habitel over the Marriot as breakfast was not included at the Marriott and rooms & beds were similarly comfortable. The Habitel also has a nice courtyard to enjoy breakfast outside. Their shuttle service also runs more frequently than Marriot’s, so they win for stays near the airport in our book.
Have questions on planning a trip to Colombia? Leave a comment or email me at email@example.com and I’ll be happy to assist!