After our relatively easy ride in the US (where everyone understood us apart from some people in Texas that struggled with our British accents), when we arrived in Bogota, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of Spanish speakers who knew very little English. I surprised myself with how much Spanish I could remember from school, but my poor attempts to string sentences together were still drawing some blank faces from those around us. I dread to think what I was actually saying to those poor people… Luckily I knew enough to get us a taxi to our hostel, ask how much it was and actually understand the response!
Aside from the language barrier, Bogota was surprising in that it was much colder than we expected for a South America – the reason being it’s one of South America’s highest cities at more than 2,600 meters above sea level. So, although we didn’t experience any altitude sickness (which apparently you can get in the city!) we did notice the cold at a cool 14 degrees.
The city was also swathed in a blanket of cloud, similar to San Francisco, which prevented us from seeing much of the skyline for the first few days – but there was enough to look at in La Candelaria (the area we were staying in) anyway.
La Candelaria is the part of town most tourists stay in, with lots of hostels, restaurants and points of interest – unfortunately it means it has a bit of a reputation for theft and the occasional mugging. Our hostel gave us a map marking the streets we weren’t to enter and so, forewarned, we set out exploring. When I started getting over my fear that every passer-by was going to try to mug us, I started appreciating how pretty La Candelaria is. The narrow multi-coloured streets of quaint colonial-type houses really brightened up the gloomy day and, if there wasn’t so much traffic on the roads, you could easily mistake it for a small town (especially when the fog prevents you from seeing too far up the road).
Our first port-of-call was Bogota’s famous Gold Museum (El Museo del Oro) which is widely accepted as the best of Colombia’s many gold museums. It was a fantastic museum with educational displays about why gold was important to the indigenous people of Colombia, how it was found and how it was used in everyday life (complete with English translations!). Some of the pieces on display showed remarkable craftsmanship and with more than 30,000 gold pieces to see we were there for most of the day!
We also visited Museo Botero, which is practically an art gallery that shows more than 200 pieces by Colombia’s much-loved artist Fernando Botero. Botero’s signature style is basically ‘fat’, as shown by his own version of the Mona Lisa…
Another must-see museum in Bogota is the Emerald Museum (Museo de la Esmeralda). Although I’m a bit biased because Emerald is my birth-stone, I was blown away by this place. The tour started with a short video about emerald formation, the emerald industry and how emeralds are discovered and extracted. Then, you move through a tunnel where real rock faces with seams of emeralds in their natural state have been installed into the museum, so you can see exactly how they look when they’re found in the mines.
The tour then went on to show a collection of emeralds before they have been cut and polished, a workshop where people were creating jewellery and finally a shop where you can buy some beautiful pieces containing the green gems. I got to try on a £2,000 ring that was gorgeous, but buying it would have meant we’d be heading home much earlier than anticipated!
While exploring the city, we were fortunate enough to stumble across the Changing of the Guard at Casa de Nariño, which was a 45-minute ceremony involving a whole battalion of guards complete with drums and trumpets!
After all that organised marching, we wanted to try some authentic Colombian cuisine and found a small restaurant just off of the nearby Plaza de Bolívar. Dale went for the quintessential Colombian classic Ajaico (a kind of chicken and potato soup) and I, trying to select something different, went for Frijoles Pezuna. I was presented with a bowl of very tasty bean soup and I was enjoying it too… until I found a pig foot in it.
On our last day in Bogota we were lucky enough to get a spell of sunshine and relatively clear weather, so we decided to get to the top of Monserrate – a mountain overlooking the city – via a quick trip in the Funicular (a cable car that was very similar to the cliff railway in Babbacombe, Devon!). It was only from on top of the mountain we could clearly see how immense the city is. Although it doesn’t have many tall buildings, it seemed to stretch on forever. We shouldn’t have been surprised really because its home to around 8 million people – more than double the population of Wales!
In all Bogota was a surprise – but a nice one. There was a lot to see and do and we had a good time, even if it wasn’t really how I expected the South American city to be. By the end of our stay we’d even gotten used to the cold weather (just about).