Updated: Jan 20, 2020
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Um… Bogo-nah, unfortunately. The lovely El Dorado Airport (and it is quite nice, having been voted #1 airport in South America two years running) was the one and only landmark I saw on my <24-hour trip to the Colombian capital city. It was my first (I hope) of several trips to South America, as I’m fascinated by the history, culture and literature of this continent. (Although, I don’t care for “magical realism” as a literary technique, and not loving GGM or “Gabo,” as he’s referred to locally – book clubbers world-wide know of whom I speak – while visiting Colombia is akin to not loving Guinness while visiting Ireland = PixieFail x two.) Bonus!! Bogota is on the same time zone (half yearly) as Washington, DC and just a 3-hour skip straight down from Miami; so, no jet leg.
I arrived in country (Cartagena de Indias) the day after the largest mass government protest or “national strike,” during which 250,000 people (real numbers; not “fake news”) filled Bogota’s famed Bolivar Plaza to demonstrate against: an unpopular president, economic inequality, high unemployment rate, general government corruption, anti-women policies, climate change/crisis, lack of enforcement of peace treaty with FARC (Narcos fans, did that excite you a little??), access to affordable higher education, and the hunting of sharks for their fins. (I may have missed one.) The strike was followed by the first mandated nighttime curfew in Bogota since 1977.
While the protests were largely peaceful (minor tear gas here & there), there was one notable and very sad fatality: Dilan Cruz, an 18-year old high school senior set to graduate two days later was injured by a projectile instrument shot off by law enforcement. (Please add “anti-police brutality” to the above list of complaints.) Cruz died from his injuries four days later (his sister had accepted his diploma while he laid in ICU), and memorializing him quickly became a second flashpoint of the week-long protests.
Bottom line: this was NOT on the danger caliber of recent protests in other South American countries, namely Bolivia and Venezuela. Those were scary, get out of town now events. No, this was a classic week-long (so far) cacerolazo – which I learned is a uniquely Latin American style of noisy protest conducted by banging on pots and pans (aka cacerolas). Grab any kitchen utensil and you, too, can join in safely and conveniently from the comfort of your own apartment balcony. Brilliant! – and actually one of the original benefits that gave rise to this type of protest. On some Bogota streets the cacerolazo culminated in a carnival-like atmosphere of singing, dancing, and music. (To wit, a 300-piece symphony orchestra protested by playing Beethoven in Parque de los Hippies. See it to believe it.)
I should also note that there were smaller protests in cities throughout Colombia, including at Juan Valdez Square in Cartagena, which I peacefully observed from across the street while eating avocado toast and sipping a mimosa at La Brioche Café. (MarieAntoinette much?). This particular protest was student-led and very orderly; they even had a seated section with yellow plastic chairs for demonstrators. (Honestly, I thought I’d stumbled across a school choral concert at first.)
Fast forward five days and, lo and behold, the second national strike (#27N) was called for the exact day I was set to fly CTG à BOG. I had booked two nights at The Orchids Hotel in the La Candelaria neighborhood, exactly three blocks from the Capitolio Nacional, which was the literal/proverbial beating heart of the public demonstrations. I won’t lie: I had major protest FOMO. (100 percent, I would have bought a pot or pan as an instrument/souvenir; I can’t resist a theme… or a parade!). But having befriended a few Bogotanos vacationing at my hotel in Cartagena, I heeded their warnings that disruption to mass transit and hit-or-miss business closures due to the strike would cause unnecessary aggravation and delay during my 36-hour touring whirlwind. “You can always come back,” they said. “Plus, it’s 60 degrees and rainy in Bogota.” (Full disclosure: This conversation took place at 11:00 a.m. in an infinity rooftop pool under soul-drenching 90-degree sunshine. While drinking coco-limonados with a wee bit of rum. Don’t judge: it was noon somewhere.)
I decided this advice was sage, extended my Cartagena hotel reservation for another night, and ordered another cocktail. (By then it actually was noon.) I also rebooked my Bogota hotel away from the excitement and at the boring yet reliable I-could-be-in-Kansas-or-Kyrgyzstan Courtyard by Marriott – with gratis airport shuttle, natch. (Good thing, as the suggestion to arrive 3 hours in advance of international flights is no joke. Lines at El Dorado and in Colombia generally do not move muy rapido, FYI.)
I certainly don’t and won’t make light of the concerns of Colombian citizens, particularly as these concerns have been compounded by pressures associated with a huge influx of immigrants fleeing neighboring Venezuela. I do hope and pray that the Colombian economy (a Latin American bright spot with average annual 3.4% GDP growth since 2001) but still has a nearly 10% unemployment rate) continues to grow stronger in a way that lifts as many boats as possible. Further, Bogota has evolved past the horrific civil war, domestic terrorism, and run amok violence fueled by infamous drug cartels in the 1980s. It now proudly and peacefully embraces its status as a stable capital city welcoming to international commerce and tourism.
Ideally, the protest movement will be a wake-up call to the government and not a drastic devolution of this currently bustling, cosmopolitan, forward-looking world capital. I flew out of Bogota on American Thanksgiving Day, which may well have become the eighth day of continued protests, feeling thankful for my civic freedom and optimistic enough about Colombia’s future that I’ve already booked a return trip for 2020 to pick up where I left off in the country’s coastal region.
Which, by the way, leads to a Very. Key. Pixie Point: It is TOTALLY OK to travel to Cartagena (a blend of Miami and NOLA’s Bourbon Street) and do absolutely nothing more than you would do in Cancun, Belize, or on any Caribbean island, i.e., do NOT feel compelled to book a tour, take a hike, or go to a museum. These are all options, certainly, but their value must be balanced against that of sun, sea, food, drink, music. Seriously. Read a brief history of the pirates, colonialism, and Sir Francis Drake, and then sip café au lait at any square in the Old (Walled) City, eat fresh fruit from a street cart, dance at Club Havana in Getsamani, or get gritty with the merchants at Buzarto Market, and you will more than absorb the relaxed, sultry vibe of Cartagena. Save the must-see attractions and eco-tourism for Bogota and other regions in Colombia. Oh - and when the cruise ships dock at port, retreat (quickly) from the masses en los calles to a hotel rooftop pool and enjoy uno or dos (or tres?) mojitos! (Pixie Point: Many boutique hotels in Cartagena’s Old City have rooftop pool day passes for purchase.)
A final Pixie Point: Avoid Starbucks. There are locations in Bogota (of course), but even the free coffee at the Courtyard Marriott airport hotel lobby tastes more divine. Always, I repeat: always, go local for java in Bogota. It really is as good as they say. And, remember… It’s Colombia, NOT Columbia (autocorrect fail). This is such a serious distinction that you can buy a t-shirt from hundreds of street vendors stating said fact. Salud!
Pixie Picks: Bogota, Colombia (2019)
Sleep: The Orchids Hotel in La Candelaria (boutique hotel with opulent furnishings); W Bogota (good for biz travelers as it’s near financial district and/or for hipsters planning to party in Zona T); the classic, always lovely Sofitel de Bogota; or the funky Click Clack Hotel (for modern architecture enthusiasts).
Eat: For upscale dining choices, head to northern Bogota (Chapinero; Zona G); for a more hole-in-the-wall and/or boho-style atmosphere, check out La Candelaria. Visit Zona Rosa for restaurant and bar-lined streets. You will see Crepes & Waffles throughout the city (famous for hiring only female heads of households as servers to help notorious gender economic inequity in Colombia). Bogota Food Tours (various operators) are also a popular (and incredibly filling) way to experience the capital.
Drink: Coffee (any time of day is acceptable). Sip at Colombia’s version of Starbucks: Juan Valdez Café (remember the ‘80s TV commercials?) Oh, and Rum. For the most popular craft beer, grab lunch at Bogota Beer Company (multiple locations) where beers are named after Bogota neighborhoods.
See: Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) and Museo Botero; the sweeping city view from the top of Monserrate (take the tram unless you like hard-core hikes); street art (it’s not graffiti, mind you). Various Iglesias (Santa Clara, San Diego, San Francisco are among the most popular for their frescos, wooden carvings, and architecture). Teatro Colon, one of the oldest opera houses in the Americas (view a performance or arrange a tour. A side trip to La Zipaquira (30 miles from Bogota) to tour the unique underground salt cathedral is very popular.
Play: Partake in the weekly ciclovia, when main traffic arteries are closed to cars and permit only bikers, runners, walkers, etc.; held every Sunday from 7 AM-2 PM. Bogota Bike Tours is a popular rental and tour operator. For dancing and nightlife, areas popular with tourist are Usaquen, La Candelaria, La Zona Rosa, and Parque de la 93. If party buses are your thing, book a chiva tour (multiple operators). Go full tourist and visit the original location of Andre Carne De Res, an iconic Bogota steakhouse/dancing venue.
Buy: Emeralds. Bargain for handicrafts and/or pick up cheap souvenirs in El Centro. Fashionistas must visit Colombia’s #1 fashion designer’s store, Silvia Tcherassi (she also owns an eponymous boutique hotel in Cartegena). Zara and H&M each have a few locations in the city for basics or clothing emergencies. As with dining, Zona Rosa has shops upon shops.
Wear: Black. Not as a symbol of mourning, but because Bogota is similar in style to any major somewhat cold-weather U.S. city (think: NYC, Chicago, Boston). There is a flair of European simplicity and style in the city. Senoras/itas can never go wrong in dark jeans, black leggings, ankle boots/comfortable walking shoes (Pixie Pick: any style by the brand Fly London) and neutral colored layers for daytime (with a pop of color scarf, of course!); punch it up at night with a knit wrap dress, black leather jacket, sequined/patterned scarf, and/or tights and heels/dressy booties. Senor: A lightweight V-neck cashmere sweater and black jeans or grey chinos will not do you wrong in Bogota. Save the guayaberas, bold florals and ruffled sundresses for tropical Cartagena and your “street style” for the more hipster Medellin. Mandatory: umbrella, lightweight rain zip up/poncho for sightseeing; jacket or wool coat for nighttime (seasonal); sunblock (always).
The Fine Pixie Print: Review as of 11.28.2019. As with all other “Capital Pixie Travels” reviews, this is a list of personal recommendations by a 40-something, moderately-adventurous, single female tourist and has NOT been recently verified for any closures, changes of address, hours of operation, good or bad fashion trends, weather phenomenon, political dust-ups, or any other logistically important data points. Trust, but verify. Safe travels! #makememories #alwaystakethetrip