City of Gold
A mile and a half up in the Andes, Bogotá is a place whose future glitters even more than its past
A mile and a half up in the Andes, Bogotá is a place whose future glitters even more brightly than its past
Bogotá may not be on the bucket list for jetsetters in search of the new best beach. But for business travelers who have anything to do with exports of technology, engineering or banking, chances are they have crossed paths with the wide boulevards of Bogotá.
The city is one of the world’s largest – in the same league with NewYork and Mexico City in land mass – nearing 9,000 feet in altitude but only eight million in population, although guilty of the same crazy-making city traffic of cities with double the inhabitants. Still, with a modern history that dates back to the first Spanish conquerors and a mélange of rich cultures – native, Middle Eastern and European – Bogotá is perhaps one of the most colorful and inviting cities in Latin America to endlessly explore.
“Bogotá is a very metropolitan city and very close to the US – even closer with the new Open Skies agreements that allow for more frequencies, more routes and more airlines from the US,”says Claudia Davila, the US Tourism Director for Proexport Colombia.“The US is our number No. 1 market and I would say 40-50 percent of those visitors are here on business.”
Santa Fe de Bogotá (named shortened after independence from Spain in 1824) found its kickstart in 1538 when Spanish expeditions arrived at the already thriving metropolis of Bacatá inhabited by Muisca people of the Chibchan culture. Fastforward through a variety of wars, plagues, famines, drug battles and civil uprisings, and you find the transformed and modern Bogotá of today, a rough-hewn city sewn from the seeds of hardship that has nevertheless learned some lessons in how to work hard, have fun and live well.
Business travelers ready to get out and investigate the city around them can check out the best of Bogotá and reap some memorable ROI for their time. “If you have a few days, Bogotá can be a very rewarding place to explore,” says Davila. “Bogotá is now a vibrant, cultural city with lots to offer and lots to share – the food, the music, the treasures, the history – it’s all within easy reach in Bogotá.”
Highlights in the Highlands
As sprawling cities go, Bogotá makes sense. It’s got the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes mountain range to the east and an intelligent grid system at the core – with
north, south, east and west sections to target. Carreras (streets: Cr., Kra., and Cra.) run parallel to the mountains from South to North. Calles (also streets: Cll. and Cl.) cross the carreras and run from East to West. Avenidas, (Av. or Avda.) are larger avenues and main streets.
Bogotá is divided into 20 distinct localities, or Districts, and within each of these are a series of zones. Shopping, restaurants and museums correspond with these zones or street clusters making Bogotá a very sensible city for visitors.
A bird’s eye view of Bogotá could be explained this way:
Zona 1 Norte. Modern, upscale and domain of the highest income bracket neighborhoods. Find here important commercial centers: with the best restaurants, shopping centers, and nightlife in the trendy Zona Rosa.
Zona 2 Noroccidente. The city is growing out in this direction and it is the section of Bogotá to watch in coming years.
Zona 3 Occidente. Bogotá’s industrial center. It is where El Dorado International Airport lies and is the location of the National University.
Zona 4 Sur. This is an area of industrial zones and sprawling working class barrios spreading out to the south of the city.
Zona 5 Centro. The central sector is the city’s most important commercial, cultural, governmental and financial zone. Banks and government offices are located here, as well as the city’s cultural heart in Candelaria.
Most visitors staying in Bogotá will already be in or near the lively Old City center called Candelaria. For those seeking colonial Latin America, these streets are steeped in history and carefully preserved for all their characteristic color and grandeur. Situated squarely in the center, Plaza de Bolivar provides a seamless orientation experience as well as a great meeting place by the hero’s statue.
From there it is a stone’s throw to the city’s circa 1553-1823 (present form) Capilla del Sagrario cathedral that also holds the tomb and many paintings of Gregorio Vazquez de Arce y Ceballos (1638-1711), one of the country’s most celebrated painters of the time.
In this eminently walkable area you can discover a phalanx of museums worth the time, starting with the Museo de Oro. Two of earth’s most prized products characterize the rise of Colombia: gold and emeralds. For anyone looking for El Dorado, the Gold Museum has the map.
Museo del Oro is home to more than 35,000 objects of pre-Colombian gold work. This is the place to see a gold replica of a Muisca boat used in the ritual of throwing gold into nearby Lake Guatavita to appease the gods. Similarly, there is a model of the Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City of Taironas – found near Santa Marta in 1975. The discovery has been deemed larger and more significant than Machu Picchu in South America’s archaeological eurekas. Also be sure to check out the strong room illuminated by the glint of 12,000 pieces of gold.
Another important addition to any tour of Bogotá is the Botero Museum where some 123 works of Fernando Botero and 87 works by other international artists of the
“Bogota ia a vibrant, cultral city with lots to share — the food, the music, the treasures, the history”
Renaissance and Impressionist periods can be enjoyed in an impressive modern space. There’s no charge, in accordance with the legendary Colombian painter’s wishes.
As a complement to the Botero, the Museum of Modern Art offers a look at the Latin American focus in graphic arts, industrial design and photography. Nearby, consider a sojourn in the Museum of Colonial Art to take in its important holdings of rare colonial art from Colombia.
History of the city, the country and the land can be found amid a smattering of great collections, which include the Museo de Bogotá, for an interpretation of the city surrounds, Museo del Siglo XIX, a preserved house with furnishings from the late 19th century, and the compelling Museo Arqueológico where pre-Columbian relics can be viewed in a preserved 17th century Spanish mansion.
If time is short, the best choice for area history would be the Museo Nacional downtown. The building, a former prison, houses what may be the country’s strongest archeological collection, including gold treasure. The top floor features 20th century fine art and sculptures.
The deals to be found here are in emeralds and leather goods. With Colombia’s meteoric rise in wealth and living standards over the past ten years, it’s no surprise that malls continue to flourish. Among the top shopping mall destinations you’ll find Santa Fe (Autopista Norte), currently the second-largest in South America. It’s located just a short fiveminute walk north of the Portal del Norte Transmillenio station.
Unicentro is a modern mall filled with western retail shops. Gran Estación is located in the west of the city near the airport El Dorado. Centro Andino, in the Zona Rosa, is a huge upscale space and a great place to find recognizable American brand items, such as Levi’s, Diesel, Esprit, Adidas, even Burger King.
For more indigenous items, the colorful Hacienda Santa Barbara is in an old “hacienda” inside the trendy bohemian neighborhood of Usaquén. This is the place to buy Colombian souvenirs, jewelry and certified emeralds. On Sundays the Usaquén flea market is nearby.
Gem hounds will want to head to what could be considered Emerald Central in Bogotá along Avenida Jiménez. The stones here come right from the mines and need to be examined like diamonds for the four C’s.
For leatherwear that is made to order, try Barrio Gaitan where rows of stores and sewing machines knocking out leather clothing can whip up any request.
Be mindful that there’s a 16 percent VAT added to purchases, especially at high-end retail stories.
What’s Cooking in Bogotá?
For fruit familiar and fruit not seen elsewhere, the spot to ogle and squeeze is the Paloquemao food market. Look, touch, see, smell and then head for the flowers, also a spectacle in these parts.
But to taste the real fruits of Bogotá’s culinary traditions, head to Candelaria and to Chapinero – also known as Zone G (for gourmet). For an“off-the-grid”dining recommendation: Estrella de los Rios. It’s a small place
in the more run down Macarena neighborhood but it has a big reputation and it may be hard to get a table. Estrella looks after her guests like they’re family and word is, if she doesn’t like her guests, she kicks them out – perhaps, again, like family. She cooks what she likes and changes her mind often – usually Colombian to Cuban to Coastal. Average tab might be $55 for five courses.
Typical Colombia dishes can be summarized in these four plates:
Arepas: Corn flour based pancakes, sometimes made with cheese or slightly salted, depending on personal taste.
Empanadas: The closest comparison would be pastries or potpie. Each region has its own recipe – usually involving meat, potatoes, vegetables and rice wrapped in a corn flour crust.
Tamal: A mixture of meat, chicken, potato, vegetables and yellow corn wrapped in plantain leaves and then boiled. Should be accompanied by a large mug of hot chocolate.
Ajiaco: Traditional thick soup based on potatoes, chicken, avocado, dairy cream, herbs, corn and other ingredients.
Spanish cuisine from tapas to paella are also frequently found among Bogotá’s eateries. Consider Tapas Macarena; it’s a tiny, one-room cafe with an open kitchen and a lot of atmosphere, where you can indulge in small Spanish-style plates washed down with variety of beer and wine pairings. Expect to spend at least $30 per person.
La Paella, a restaurant in Candelaria across from a museum devoted to the life and writings of Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, serves all manner of paella. Down home Colombia specialties
can be found at Sopas de Mamma y Postres de la Abuela. Go for ajiaco and sancocho broths – save room for the puddings.
For Asian fusion with a Colombian accent, try Harry Sasson Restaurante. Or go French with a great wine list at La Table de Michel. Both are in Zona G.
Nightlife is best left to the Zona Rosa. Lively, open late, this is where Bogotá finds its mojo when the sun goes down. Lots of music in these houses of hipness – from jazz to salsa to Indie to funk. Ones to hit: In Vitro, frequented by filmmakers and artists, free admission midweek. Also The End for late night nightcaps and Salto del Angel for wild times and dancing on tables.
If the goal is dining and dancing, Andres Carne de Res is the place. Located in Chía, it’s around 14 miles north towards Zipaquirá – a 45-minute drive from Downtown Bogotá. Once found, hungry scene-seekers will think they’ve died and gone to Disneyland.
Andrés Carne de Res is an amoeboid, 2.7 square mile sprawl of 11 dining areas, two dance clubs, five kitchens, plus a climbing wall. This is where Colombians go to party. Not a place to dude up or get fancy. Lots of atmosphere, lots of folksy fun – a good place to loosen ties and bond with associates.
Beyond the City
Monserrate may be the easiest local excursion to take for time and distance. It’s the most famous peak in Bogotá and, at 10,000 feet, offers some stunning views of the city. A mountaintop restaurant serves French cuisine in fancy surroundings – an excellent choice for important meetings and guests. A Swiss-made cable car (daily through 11:00 PM, $7.50 roundtrip) takes visitors to the top – a 90-minute climb for the active set, although due to random crimes in the capital, walking is highly discouraged.
A not-to-be-missed out of town excursion is Zipaquira and its fabulous salt cathedral. It’s about 33 miles from Bogotá in a mountain area known for salt mines in operation well before the coming of the conquistadors. The town was established in 1602 and a cathedral dug out of the mines and tunnels eventually became unsafe. A new cathedral was crafted from the subterranean sodium chloride a few paces away with spaces soaring to 75 feet and enough standing space for 10,000 souls. Tours in English, Spanish, French and German are conducted throughout the day. A souvenir square in the colonial streets makes the journey a festive destination.
Another salt cathedral and mining town can be seen nearby in Nemocon. A great way to get there is by the Tourist Train, a sightseeing railway excursion that leaves from La Sabana Station in Bogotá. Depart Bogotá at 8:30 AM, arrive Zipaquira at 11:30 AM. The return leaves Zipaquira at 3:15 PM for a 5:40 PM arrival back in Bogotá. Roundtrip fare is $22. To make the trip by car averages two hours.
Lake Guatavita is a powerful identity anchor in these parts and thought to be the origin of the legend of El Dorado. Muisca kings would have religious ceremonies in the middle of the lake with their bodies covered in gold dust. Sacrificial offerings in the form of gold objects were given to the lagoon and the bottom of the sacred lake is believed to hold many of these treasures to this day. It’s a hike from the drop off point to the lake, about an hour for a roundtrip walk and guides can be found to explain the sights. Foreigners pay a $7 entrance fee.
Parque Natural Chicaque is a lovely, 750-acre private reserve about an hour’s scenic drive from the city. It’s a cloud forest of ecological paths that run along peaks and across waterfalls for an immersion in the magic of the Colombian countryside. There’s a restaurant there and tree houses for overnight lodging. Bird and butterfly species abound and super-trained eyes may light upon some of the UFOs that have been reported there.
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Clockwise: La Candelaria Colonial district, view of the financial district, La Candelaria, historic neighborhood in downtown Bogota, Golden mask in the Gold Museum
Photos: Entree found at Sopas de Mamma y Postres, view of open kitchen at Tapas Macarena
Photos: Zipaquira salt cathedral, Lake Guatavita