Bogota, Colombia

Cable car at Mount Montserrate, Bogota, Colombia

Cable car at Mount Montserrate, Bogota, Colombia

We were not sure what to expect from Bogota, but she really is a very cosmopolitan and sophisticated city. Chic and stylishly dressed people abounded, all smart jackets, pants and dresses – not an athletic shoe in sight (apart from the ones on our feet! How provincial of us!). Although some expectations were met almost immediately – like our vehicle being inspected by sniffer dogs when we arrived at our hotel (searching for explosives, not drugs). And there is a clear security presence most places – guards with automatic weapons, usually accompanied by dogs – but we found them to be cheerful and friendly, and they were more than happy to allow me to socialise with their four-legged companions!

We stayed at the Hilton Bogota, a very nice Hilton, in fact. It had all the usual comfortable beds and top shelf service, and they also gave us an extremely tasty buffet breakfast – more choice than we have experienced on this entire trip. Fuelled up and ready to go on our first morning, we met our city guide, Luis, in the foyer. This gregarious man took us into his care and proceeded to delight us for the next two days with his wit, warmth and knowledge of his city and country.

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We piled into the van, met our smiling, eager driver, Felipe, and set off, beginning with a tour through the “well-heeled” part of town, admiring sprawling homes, embassies and consulates. We arrived at the Plaza del Toros de Santamaría (Santamaria Bullring), admired its art deco brick work from the 1930s and discussed the ethics of the “sport”, and then Luis soon said it was time to move on…but, what about the inside? Ah, no. It was New Year’s Eve, which meant that the museums were closed – a detail the tour company had omitted to tell us upon booking. Destino Bogota (the tour company) is fortunate that we were in Luis’ hands, because he prevented the day from becoming one big disappointment, and instead provided us with a whole bunch of memorable fun moments and experiences. Sure, we missed seeing the bullring from the inside, and the world famous Bogota gold museum was a teasing glimpse from the van, but it turned out to be a wonderful day.

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We went to the top of Mount Monserrate on the funicular railway, marvelling over the size of Bogota (8 million people) and the fact that we were 3.2km above sea level. The feeling of pressure on the chest from the altitude didn’t take too long to get used to, and we were more than compensated by the sheer exhilaration of being there and breathing in that remarkably clean air (the altitude combats the pollution). Walking slowly and savouring the moment in was no chore at all. On the top of this mountain is a 17th century church with a shrine dedicated to “El Señor Caído”(Fallen Lord), which means it isn’t only a tourist attraction, it’s also a pilgrimage site. We did not go the way of the pilgrims, whose preferred method of ascent and descent is to negotiate the mount on foot, but instead joined the snaking, long line of tourists (and I reckon footsore pilgrims) to take the cable car back down the mountain.

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We had lunch at a cosy little family run restaurant called Casa Vieja, where Luis helped communicate our vegetarian tastes (which were no trouble) and the service was carried out with big smiles. From our lunch venue we were led on a guided walk through the old town. One very striking aspect of this part of the city is the street art, the murals – the ubiquity of them and the beauty of them – uplifting and artful.

We ended up calling Luis ‘the mayor’ because it seemed that everyone we came across walking through these timeworn streets were known to him, and it was all effusive kisses and hugs and introductions to us, followed by kisses to us and posing for photographs. I sat on the frontstep of a scarred entrance on an ancient road amongst some merry locals having an afternoon tipple, who were charmed by my taking a beer from one of their hands to pose for a photograph. This one then took the opportunity to give me a peck on the cheek as his friends laughed and cheered. What larks! Even posed for another pic with some vertically challenged soldiers outside a store, but there were no beers or smiles on this occasion – professionalism all the way.

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A restful afternoon was necessary before our driver, Felipe (truly lovely young man, and excellent driver), took us to Chia, about 26 kms from Bogota to attend NYE celebrations at the Andrés Carne de Res restaurant – an institution in Colombia. This place holds 3,000 people in 11 dining rooms. It’s huge! According to Luis, of the 3,000 in attendance for NYE, 2,000 would be Colombian. Being such a huge place, it spanned more than one block, and there were open fire grates in the street between the two halves of the restaurant to help those who were feeling the chill.

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It was so much fun to be a part of significant celebrations with unaccustomed cultural traditions – such as the red and yellow knickers that were in the ‘treasure chests’ on the tables. People put them on their heads or over their trousers – gold for good fortune, the red for good luck in passion. Whatever rocks your boat. They also had the tradition of blowing up balloons and sending them up into the night sky so their dreams and wishes are granted in the New Year.

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We witnessed so many amazing dancers – all Colombians! (Can EVERYBODY in this country dance?!) I loved watching one couple in their 60s who moved as one, clearly in love, very sexy, foreheads touching, who then indulged in a long passionate kiss. It was a magical and memorable night! The fact that people were not drunk made it a very unfamiliar NYE for us Australians – uplifting and unusual. No yobbos in sight! But we were terrible party poopers leaving at 12:30am! (Others would’ve stayed dancing for hours.) The pagan and bacchanalian style of celebration, with the full on costumes and lights and music and dancing, was like nothing else we’d ever experienced. The photos really do speak for themselves.

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Our final morning in Bogota began late, but understandably so, due to NYE. We dallied over breakfast and were collected by Luis and Felipe and drove 45min to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. This extraordinary creation is one of only 3 in the world (the other 2 are in Poland). There was a kilometre walk underground to get to the actual cathedral, which included the 14 Stations of the Cross ‘rooms’ – all carved out of salt. The scale of the construction was massive, yet it retained its primal cave nature – all very natural in form, very fluid. It really was astonishing. Momentary whiffs of sulphur only heightened the sense of being seriously underground in a salt mine.

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Our trip to the airport the next morning began at 4:30am (am not a fan of the early drive to the airport, no matter what country we are in). We had been told that we would not have the pleasure of Felipe driving us to the airport as he had another job, so when we came down to the foyer of the hotel and saw him standing with an open door, it made our day. We were happy to give him another tip for his smiling face, infectious laugh, and excellent driving!

The surprise of Bogota was how safe we felt and how friendly and lovely its people were. Since Juan Manuel Santos became president in 2010, his successful tactics dealing with the FARC and other insurgents have meant that danger for both residents and tourists has significantly diminished. And so tourists are flocking to Colombia, loving their time there and leaving as true converts.

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About bontaks

Nic is the the ‘Bon’ part of ‘Bontaks.’ Together we are Nic and John – two travel-addicted teachers who enjoy every opportunity to go places, meet people and experience life.

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