I spent my first afternoon in Bogotá wandering around the historic district of La Candelaria. I meandered along narrow cobblestone streets, passed by 500-year-old buildings and studied colorfully graffitied walls. My first day in La Candelaria left me smitten. But after spending one week delving deeper into Bogotá’s history, art and food cultures I was head-over-heels in love.
I’ve been very honest (here and here) about my jitters about traveling in Colombia. And it’s no secret that I had incredibly low expectations for Bogotá. But, hey, I can admit when I’m wrong. And I was so wrong! So here are some of the major misconceptions I had about Bogotá and how this bustling metropolitan city caused me to have such a change of heart.
1) It’s going to be way too dangerous: Bogotá, and Colombia in general, gets a really bad rap when it comes to safety. This is understandable given the country’s tumultuous recent history. And let’s be honest, most parts of the city are off-limits to travelers. I stayed in La Candelaria, which is full of tourists. This neighborhood is definitely a whitewashed version of the “real” Bogotá but that comes with its perks. There are police officers – accompanied by police dogs – everywhere. This may sound scary, but there is a major push to make the area safe for tourists and residents alike. During my time there, I felt incredibly safe. There were, however, quite a few homeless people. This wasn’t unexpected and it’s one of those realities that must be faced when traveling in a poor country. As a seasoned traveler I’ve experienced this a lot. It’s always sad and eye-opening, but in no way did I feel in danger in Bogotá. I didn’t do too much walking around at night, but everyone I encountered warned that things can get dodgy. So I was definitely extra cautious about where I went at night and always took a cab if I felt unsure.
2) It’s going to be really expensive: “Colombia is not a cheap country” – that’s what I’ve heard time and again from guidebooks and travelers alike. And as I researched hotel rooms in Bogotá I was a bit dejected when I couldn’t find a basic double room for less than $40 USD a night. I was definitely preparing myself for the idea that my boyfriend and I wouldn’t be able to subsist on our ideal budget of $40 per day (per person). So I was pleasantly surprised that I found an abundance of cheap and even free things to do in Bogotá (more on this later).
While eating out wasn’t dirt cheap, I was able to find gut-busting set meals – typically including soup, beans, rice, meat/veggies, fresh fruit juice and dessert – for around $5 USD. I even saved on bottled water. It turns out that tap water is safe to drink in Bogotá. It tastes great and, no, I didn’t get sick! After seven days in the capital I found it to be very affordable. I actually managed to come in under budget, spending only $32.86 (per person) a day.
3) Being a vegetarian is going to be impossible: In my experience eating in Latin America is a challenge for vegetarians. When it comes to cuisine, most Latin American countries are very meat oriented. Eating out typically offers vegetarians few options and virtually no variety. So of course I was preparing myself for a steady diet of beans, rice and (hopefully!) a vegetable thrown in every now and again. So, as I always do when I arrive in a new city, I went on Happy Cow to see if there were any veggie friendly eating joints in the city. I almost fell over when I saw that there were three all-vegetarian restaurants within walking distance of my guesthouse!
It turns out vegetarianism is a growing trend in Bogotá. Who would have thought? But I wasn’t relegated to these restaurants. In fact, I had to put very little effort into finding great veggie options – from falafel wraps to cheesy crêpes to sautéed mushroom sandwiches. The street food was also surprisingly vegetarian friendly. There are food carts everywhere selling arepas con queso (thick corn tortillas with cheese), empandas de queso (cheese-filled pastries), patacones (plaintain and yucca chips) and fresh fruit. Suffice it to say, I ate extremely well in Bogotá!
4) It’s going to be freezing: Before I left for Colombia I checked the weather in Bogotá. My jaw dropped when I saw that it was 7°C (45°F). I’m from Southern California, so for me seven degrees sounded unbearably cold. I debated packing warm clothing, but these items took up way too much room in my backpack. Plus, since I’d be spending much of my time in Cartagena – which is currently a whopping 34°C (93°F) – I decided layers were the practical way to go. So I packed one pair of jeans, two thin sweat shirts and three pairs of socks to serve as my “cold weather” clothes. I figured I’d be cold, but I would just have to deal. After spending an absurd amount of time obsessing about how bone-chilling cold the weather in Bogotá would be, I actually found the weather to be really refreshing.
I was told that Bogotá experiences four seasons in one day. It’s so true. It rained sporadically each day I was there (I always carried an umbrella with me). And when the wind picked up I was definitely glad I packed that extra sweatshirt. But after a few minutes the sun would inevitably poke through the clouds, leaving me baking in the warm sunshine. The weather in Bogotá was pretty perfect and much more to my taste than, let’s say, the heat and humidity of Southeast Asia.
5) There’s nothing to do in Bogotá: I couldn’t have been more off-base. I spent a week there and I was able to make myself scarce all day, every day. I got my culture fix at art museums such as the Botero Museum and the Museo del Oro. I got my exercise hiking up Monserrate (one of the mountains that surrounds the capital), climbing 1,500 steps to get a breathtaking (literally) view of this massive city.
I learned about Bogotá’s fascinating graffiti culture during a graffiti tour. And, of course, I just happened to be in town during team Colombia’s first World Cup game. Luckily they won so I was able to join in the festivities after the team’s first victory. I’ve never heard so many car horns and vuvuzelas in my life! After spending a week in Bogotá I feel like this is one of those cities that I could live in, which is high praise, indeed.
These are just a few of the biggest misconceptions I had about Bogotá. And I know there are a lot of other travelers out there who have similar concerns. I realize these preconceived notions turn a lot of people off of traveling to Bogotá, and even Colombia. So I thought I’d share my experiences about how this city completely defied my expectations.
Have you ever gone to a place you thought you’d dislike but ended up loving?