By Diana Rowe
“The only risk is wanting to stay” is an in-your-face tourism slogan that hails the return of Colombia as a travel destination. When I was invited to visit, all I knew about this South American country was my distant memory of it being a boiling pot of civil conflict, mostly drug related. Even with this image in my mind – and several warnings from friends (What are you thinking?! You’ll be kidnapped!) -- I packed my bags, intrigued by a country with an enticing tagline.
Located 2.5 hours from Miami, Colombia is ready for discovery. Last year total visitor arrivals grew more than 10 percent, with 23 percent of those from the U.S. Nestled high in the Andes at more than 8,000 feet, Bogotá, D.C. (Distrito Capital), Colombia’s capital and largest economic center, is a city of contrasts, graceful churches, towering skyscrapers, universities, theaters and shantytowns. The old city is a hodgepodge of colonial architecture, museums and street vendors, thieves and beggars – but what city isn’t?
Home to nearly 8 million people, Bogotá is on the move, no longer a place to avoid. Colombia’s capital launched a clean-up campaign and improved its security. Its military maintains a strong presence roaming the streets. Entry into public buildings requires a search by uniformed and armed private security officers with sniffing dogs, initially a bit overpowering but a necessity for a people that took their country back .
The diversity of Colombia was my first surprise when landing in Bogotá, loading my bags into a van and driving to our first stop. Its ethnic influences of Spanish, English and Indian make it a colorful city filled with disorderly traffic. The city streets wind and circle around 20 distinctive yet random districts hugging a square or plaza, the social heart of many Latino neighborhoods, more like villages than neighborhoods. A breath of nature into this urban city is found in its many parks and green areas, refreshingly out of place amongst the bustling traffic and business districts.
Bogotá’s efforts to sell itself as an international destination include carefully named zones: Zona G for gourmet in Rosales, Zona C for Candelaria and Zona T for nightlife district. Most travelers spend their time in or around historic La Candelaria, a pleasant quarter of cafés, churches and museums, but pay attention to how you get there. At every turn, the city exhibits a different and exciting personality, a merging of cultures, yet uniquely its own.
Here a shantytown with brightly colored laundry bravely salutes the Andes Mountains in the distance. There shopping malls, elegant churches, historic museums and soaring skyscrapers dot the view. Down an unassuming street into the up-and-coming bohemian neighborhood of La Macarena, single family homes huddle together, many listed on Colombia’s historic registry. A new hotel, Ibis Bogota Museo, stretches tall next to a cobblestoned sidewalk that leads to a gem of a restaurant, Leo Cocina Y Cava.
Renowned Cartagena native and ground-breaking female proprietor-chef Leonor Espinosa successfully serves Colombian-fusion dishes to her guests in a renovated historic home. Sassy statues of salsa-inspired female statues adorn the wall, and the décor proudly displays bright pinks, yellows and reds in the bar and seating nooks of this renovated home. From sea bass wrapped in banana leaves, to grilled prawns over cilantro risotto, to raw tuna encrusted with Santanderean ants (a Colombian specialty which I couldn’t bring myself to sample) – no wonder I tumbled into my comfortable digs at the Radisson Royal Hotel Bogota.
A visit to Bogota wouldn’t be complete without a road trip to the city of Zipaquirá and the first wonder of Colombia: the Salt Cathedral (Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá). It's a day's ride away into the Andean highlands, providing plenty of visual distraction. Still primarily an agricultural area, dairy cattle graze there and greenhouses produce bundles of cut flowers for the international market, roses and carnations in particular. In fact, Colombia is the world's second largest producer of roses and employs more than 250,000 in that business, mostly women. Some 80 percent of the flowers are exported to the U.S.
A popular tourist destination and a religious Mecca to Catholics (although not an “official” cathedral), the Salt Cathedral is an underground Roman Catholic Church, etched inside the tunnels of a working salt mine by working miners built 265 feet underground. The carvings are located in various corridors and sanctuaries and so inspiring that you almost hear the angels sing. (The church welcomes 3,000 visitors on Sunday and thousands on Holy Week, so unless you like the crowds, avoid those dates.)
After a couple of hours wandering the underground salt mines, you’ll work up a hunger. Save it for a stop just outside Bogota in Chia at a Colombian restaurant icon, The Andres Carne de Res Restaurant. Surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Colombian ornaments and handicrafts, you’ll be seated at wooden tables with benches, where hand-painted mugs dangle from the ceiling over your head. Andres specializes in grilled meats, served to you sizzling on a plate, cooked to order and absolutely scrumptious. But bring your appetite or request a half order. Arrive later and it’s also a vibrant nightclub and locals' hangout.
For a bird’s-eye view of Bogota, take the cable car to the sanctuary of Monserrate and enjoy a panoramic view of the downtown of the city from one side and the Andean mountain range on the other. Then dine at the adjacent Casa San Isidro, a French restaurant that dates back to 1928.
Bogata might not sweep you off your feet at first, but as you wander around this historic city and its captivating foothills, take some time to dine in its cafes, step into its museums and churches, chat with the locals. Before you know it, the city has wrapped its arms around you in a big Colombian welcome.
Getting there: Several major airlines offer nonstop flights to Colombia from U.S. gateways such as Miami, Houston, and New York City.
Staying there: International chains are returning with Radisson, Hilton and Marriott leading the charge. Among popular properties is the JW Marriott Bogota Hotel, located in the city’s financial district, but most importantly steps from the Avenida Chile shopping mall and near the fine restaurants of “Zona G.”
More info: Visit Colombia Tourism at http://www.colombia.travel/en/
Photo credits: Colombia Tourism.
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