I have been getting a lot of questions lately on my food safaris about things to do in Bogota. It seems that after the usual circuit of checking out the Gold museum, Monserrate, the salt cathedral and the Botero museum (or any other things that pop up on other top 5 lists), people tend to run out of ideas and head off to Cartagena.
We’ve seen it time and time again. Top 5 things to do in Bogota. 10 places you must see in Bogota. Or the classic “how to blend in like a local” spitting common sense advice like don’t talk about Pablo Escobar, don’t make jokes about drugs and don’t wear shorts and flip flops in Bogota. Yeah, I’m over that generic slop and you probably are too. Besides, I like my readers too much to rehash the same uninformative crap again and again.
When we travel, we tend to be on the lookout for things to do or places to see that give us an “out of this world” experience but once we’ve seen the museums and visited the famous landmarks we’re left scratching our heads and wondering what to do next. Often the answer is quite simple and comes from careful observation of what locals are doing on a day to day basis. I believe the technical term is “off the beaten path”.
So here is a handful of ideas from an expat who has lived here for nearly 5 years of non-touristy things you can do that may or may not have come up in your research about this difficult yet charming city:
“Now shall I walk or shall I ride?
‘Ride,’ Pleasure said;
‘Walk,’ Joy replied.”
― W.H. Davies
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. After my spiel about common-sense he lists walking as an activity? But seriously folks, there is no better way to take in this city than on foot. I remember when I first came to Bogota, I stayed at a hostel right next to the Zona Rosa. I was surprised at how sterile and unmoved I was by the back-to-back franchise restaurants and high end retail stores. I decided to explore a little and from then on made it a goal to check out new neighbourhoods whenever the weather was agreeable.
I loved seeing the line of palm trees (yeah fucking palm trees in Bogota!) on Calle 57 heading down from the Caracas, the constant foot traffic on the Carrera 13 from Plaza de Lourdes (Calle 63 con Carrera 13) heading south down to Calle 34. Then there’s the hectic commercial hub of hundreds of vendors shouting out “A la orden!” around San Victorino (Carrera 10 con Calle 13) in el centro as they try to offload anything from fake sneakers and cheap jeans to pirated board games. Or how about the street life on Carrera 7 on Sundays from Calle 24 down to the Plaza de Bolivar. As you’re swinging through barrios like an urban Indiana Jones, open your eyes and pay attention to the contrasts in the architectural styles as well as the vast amount of street art. Keep an eye out for anything that jumps out at you (unless it’s a thief in which case you should definitely run the other way). Maybe you discover a cute little cafe along the way or pop into a nice local restaurant hidden off some tiny alleyway.
Observe the street life. The other day I saw a woman dragging her baby along in a wooden crate that was attached to a yellow rope which was used as the leash. Then there was the one time I saw a woman juggling a bunch of machetes at the traffic light trying to earn herself some extra coin. She had those machetes flying at least 5 metres high. Life on the street here can be random and often unattractive but one of the reasons why I love this city so much is the spontaneity it can bring to my otherwise mundane life. So throw on your kicks, pack a bottle of water and go out for a good old fashioned stroll. You may find a reason or two to stick around longer than you had expected.
Tejo is a game that involves throwing heavy metal discs at little patches loaded with gunpowder which are planted into a clay pit. It also involves drinking cheap, local brew with your mates while you literally blow shit up together. A great time passer with family and friends, Tejo hands down has to be the best drinking game known to man along with darts and lawn bowling. Oh, did I mention you get to blow shit up?
3. Second hand book shopping
Perhaps one of the greatest discoveries which I made through walking (see note 1 above), was the abundance of second hand book stores in el centro . With the rise of smart phones and e-readers, physical book stores in the west are becoming a thing of the past and clearly one of the most tragic side effects of the tech boom. So when I stumbled upon the book district in el centro, I was pleasantly met with wall to wall second hand book stores all within a 2-3 block radius. While most of these stores stock mainly Spanish books, a lot of them do have English and other foreign language books too.
Sure, it’s no way near as extensive Amazon’s collection but if you keep an open mind, who knows you may find some early edition copies of literary classics such as 100 Years of Solitude as a good friend of mine once did. Or maybe you find that rare book that’s been on your reading list for much too long hidden under a pile of dusty old magazines. Many people many not know this but Bogota actually has a rich history in literature but don’t take my word for it. Take a stroll down to el centro between Carrera 8 and 9 on Calle 14 and see it for yourself. Start with the famous El Torre de Babel and work your way through.
4. Grab a drink at a tienda
A tienda means shop. In Colombia, tiendas operate as neighbourhood mini-markets but many also function as a local bar or a hybrid between the two. Like other local establishments, tiendas are usually small, decked out with anywhere from a couple to a handful of yellow tables sporting the Aguila logo or just any other form of cheap furniture the owner could hustle together. The low budget set-up, combined with what must be the same playlist that seems to circulate all Colombian bars blazing the classic blend of Salsa, Merengue and Boleros makes for a truly local atmosphere to throw down a few cold ones. While my nights of binge drinking and fiestas are far behind me, I do love to pop into a tienda for a cheeky cerveza every now and then.
5. La Calera
If the grind of the big city is bugging you and you wish to see a bit of green, then I suggest you head out to La Calera for some Colombian style barbecue, or picada as the locals call it. Heading to La Calera is one of my favourite weekend activities and makes for a great trip especially if you’re with a group. Eat some great food while taking in the gorgeous landscapes that surround Bogota. It’s a no-brainer really.
La Calera is a municipal located about an hour out of Bogota in those mountains that you see overlooking the city to the east. Colectivos (mini buses) leave for la Calera regularly from the corner of Carrera 13 and Calle 72, just a few blocks down from the Avenida Chile mall. You can also wait anywhere on Carrera 7 (on the side going north) between Calle 72 and Calle 85. They can be identified as a white mini bus with the words “La Calera” posted on the windscreen. Stick your hand out and jump up and down frantically and the driver will pull over. The fare is somewhere around 3,000 pesos. For more information about picada, check out a piece I wrote here.
So there you have it, a handful of ideas for you to work with if you’re looking for something real to do or have exhausted all your other options. The point is, you don’t need permission from me or a guide book or some other blog to experience a city the way you would like it.
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