Bienvenidos a Colombia, Part 1
I almost died while in Colombia. No, it wasn’t at the hands of any drug cartels or while pleading with the FARC (both of those problems have been mitigated recently). It didn’t happen after being drugged and waking up groggy and discovering I was sans one kidney (that only happens in the movies, right?).
No, my near-death peril was in a much less Odyssey-like fashion. In actuality, the circumstance was during a pretty banal activity . To put it succinctly, I almost saw the pearly gates of Heaven while cycling down a steep hill in Bogota and coming head on with dozens of other cyclists and cars.
I saw my life flash before me while with Bogota Bike Tours. Pretty surprising as Colombia’s capital city is actually pretty cyclist-friendly. There are literally hundreds of thousands of cyclists at any time in Bogota. The busy, winding streets have cyclists sharing roads with vehicles, and several bike paths exist. The hilly streets of Bogota remind me of the San Francisco roads – lots of ups and downs, and lots of changing gears. And while the automobile drivers are mindful of their two-wheeled cohorts – slowing down at intersections, yielding for cyclists – I have to admit I was still pretty intimidated zipping downhill, then making sharp right turns, only to head toward a busy intersection with nothing to protect me except my faulty brakes. One of my greatest fears is flipping over my handlebars, and boy, did I come close a few times.
Other than that, my eight-day-long trip in Colombia went smoothly and without another peril. So for anyone looking to make a trek to this wonderful South American country, take some advice from my real-life lessons.
One of the first things people said to me after I told them I was going to travel to Colombia was “be careful.” Turns out, the advice wasn’t any more necessary for Colombia than any other city I’ve been visited – domestic or international. Colombia’s bad rap on extreme violence is pretty much a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong: You still need to be careful where you walk late at night, and hold your wallet or purse close to your body and visible at all times. But it’s no different than any other place on this planet. Here are a few tips:
Taxis: Unless you’re a native (or just plain naive and think you can navigate the Bogota streets like a native), you’re probably going to be taking a few taxis during your stay. The natives say you can safeguard yourself against errant taxi drivers by:
– writing down the taxi driver’s license plate (or snapping a picture of it with your smartphone) and getting his credentials before entering the cab
– never getting in a cab with tinted windows
PAYING WITH CREDIT CARDS
Most Colombian businesses allow you to pay with your credit card. The thing that’s different is what’s called a “ingreso de cuota.” Basically, almost every time you use your credit, no matter how large or small the payment is, it’s customary for the business ask you your preference on the ingreso de cuota. If you were like us on the trip, we were confused every single time. It took until about the fifth time of being asked that we finally understood. Colombians can make divided, individual credit card transactions. So for example, if you have a singular transaction at a grocery store and want to pay with credit card, chances are you are going to be asked how many times you want this one transaction to be divided and therefore paid. So, to make life easy for you, I’d advise you to just say one/uno. That way your individual transaction won’t be divided up unnecessarily and your credit card will be processed as it would in the States.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I still was: Never throw toilet paper down the toilet. You read it correct the first time. Don’t do it. Colombia plumbing (like in most all Central and South American countries) isn’t strong enough to handle the paper. If you do toss some paper down the drain, just be aware that there might be consequences.
I wasn’t aware of this practice until about halfway through my trip when an American living in Bogota and teaching English there sagely told me my North American routine of allowing toilet paper to swirl down the drain was a big no-no in these parts. Thank goodness no clogs were experienced pre-sage advice. There’s a small waste basket next to every toilet, which is where you, um, dispose of the used paper. It sounds kind of gross, but it’s common practice here, so when in Rome, right?
HIGHLIGHTS OF BOGOTA
Cerro de Monserrate – At the top of this hill, you can see some of the best panoramic views of Bogota. I’d say give this hotspot about an hour of your time (not including time to get up and down the hill). Take the funicular (cable railway) or cable car up or down. You can hike it as well, but I’ve been told there have been robberies along the 90-minute walk up to the top.
My best advice: Go during off-hours, i.e., do NOT go on a Sunday. Unless you are a devout Roman Catholic, going on a Sunday will mean long droves of worshippers waiting to ascend and descend the hill.
Bogota Bike Tours – The aforementioned bike tour where I nearly crashed and burned had incredible highlights of the city. Run by ex-pat Mike Cesar who has lived in Bogota for years, the tour can take up most of your day, but it’s completely worth it. You get to see all sorts of pieces in Bogota that you probably wouldn’t normally see (like a tejo arena in Candelaria) and some nice in-depth details about each spot. The best part about it? It’s all done on two wheels – arguably one of the best ways to see a new country.
My best advice: Bring a rain coat. Climate changes aren’t unusual in Bogota, so light to moderate rain can put a damper on your multi-hour bike tour if you don’t come prepared with a rain jacket.
Andres Carne de Res – The travel book I read about Colombia says one major attraction just outside the city is the steakhouse Andres Carne de Res. Actually, the book leads with “You cannot describe the indescribable …” Andres Carne de Res is no ordinary restaurant. First, it’s humongous. Probably the size of 10 Outback Steakhouses, Andres Carne de Res has a dance floor (maybe more than one), dancing pole that we think miraculous arose from the ground after the clock struck a certain hour, and servers who were just as professional at waiting tables as they are at dancing on those stripper poles. Kitschy decor dots every single inch of the restaurant. The food’s solid too, introduced with a 62-page menu (Cheesecake Factory’s menu’s got nothing on this one!). The music blasts loud, and the atmosphere is jovial, fun and you never want to leave. You’ll probably pay the equivalent of a nice meal in the States, as you’re paying for quality food and great service.
My best advice: Nothing can prepare you for Andres Carne de Res, so don’t try to prep for it. When we went, a three-piece brass band popped up out of nowhere and welcomed us tableside, high-quality sashes were given to us, waitresses did a seemingly impromptu group pole dance, plates were thrown by the servers and subsequently broken on the dance floor, and those are just the moments I can remember. Too, I remember seeing the owner, Andres, sitting alone in a dark corner, like the Godfather, and quietly watching this whole show take place. He may have even off-ed one of his servers for refusing to dance on the stripper pole (but you didn’t hear that from me!).
Bogota Food Tour – Created out of a desire to show tourists that Colombia’s food is better than advertised, Diana Holguin (another ex-pat whose parents are from Colombia) took us on a walking tour to five food stops. We saw and tasted native fruits that I’ve never seen before as well as some modern cuisines by a Spanish-trained chef.
My best advice: Come hungry. You’re going to be eating a lot of food – tapas-like portions, but it’s still a lot.
The Salt Cathedral located in Zipaquira – First off, it took us about two days of practicing to finally pronounce the name of the city quasi-correctly. After getting schooled by a random taxi driver on the clear pronunciation of Zipaquira, and nearly getting lost because the driver was confused on where our final destination was (“Vamos a Zeepichiraria, por favor“), we were finally on our ways. We came and left via a bus, which was a lot cheaper than a taxi. A day trip that just about 45 minutes outside of Bogota, the Salt Cathedral is one of South America’s wonders of the world.
– The Salt Cathedral is a functioning church built in a salt mine
– It is located 200m underground and is about 75m long
– Because of the inherent dangers of working in a mine, cathedrals and places of prayer were natural inclusions in Roman Catholic countries
– The Salt Cathedral depicts the 13 stages of Jesus’ death
– There are tours that occur on a set schedule, which is how you access the mine (i.e., you can’t just show up and enter). You can just arrive and get on the next tour – with no obligation to stay with the tour once you’ve enter the mine.
– A wonderful guide describes the history of the cathedral as well as the architecture and artistic touches. When we were there, there were no English-speaking tours available, so be prepared to listen in Spanish.
My best advice: Opt to take the “Ruta de Minero,” basically reenacting what it’s like to be a miner. For a few thousand pesos, you get a cool hard hat with a light and then get to walk in the dark like real miners do. Too, you get a pick and can excavate some salt. Initially I was a bit hesitate to do this, as I self-diagnosed myself with mild claustrophobia, but it’s not too terribly scary. Just go with some friends for extra security and comfort.
More Colombia details to come in future posts (including stories from Manizales, Los Nevados and Salento)! But in the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please do shout them out! Thanks!