Colombia’s Capital is Cosmopolitan, Colorful, Epicurean – And Inexpensive
Our first outing in Bogotá was to Plaza Bolívar, the main square in the oldest part of the city. Our Uber driver dropped us on the edge of the square and we walked into the Catedral Primadade Colombia. There was a service going on with a priest chanting; the doors of the huge ornate cathedral were open for anyone to come and sit inside. It was a profound reminder of how this city was founded nearly 500 years ago by Catholic Spaniards.
I thought the altitude would be more bothersome than it was. After all, Bogotá sits at 8,600 feet high. I did get a little dizzy walking around the cobblestone streets of La Candelaria, the charming colonial neighborhood that ascends from Bolívar Square, so I needed to sit down.
We found a seat outside at La Puerta de La Tradicion restaurant on Calle 11, a pedestrian-only side street adjacent to the cathedral. La Tradicion is next door to La Puerta Falsa, now overrun because it was once visited by Anthony Bourdain. We ate grilled mountain trout and an oversized tamale, drinking hot chocolate with melted cheese (a Colombian thing). This led to full recovery from any altitude sickness.
We had arrived in Bogotá the night before, on an American Airlines flight from Miami. The journey was painless; we booked Premium Economy, AA’s new upgraded economy class. Big comfy seats and lots of room for the three-hour flight. Our hotel, the Grand Hyatt, was in a residential neighborhood a merciful fifteen minutes from the airport by cab.
At the Grand Hyatt – a modern luxury hotel built three years ago – we immediately experienced one of Bogotá’s best features: the power of the dollar. Even in this elegant hotel (with floor to ceiling windows and views of the Andes), rooms start at under $200, with large suites under $300. We ordered room service our first night, an excellent steak for $8. That was just the beginning. The next night we ate at Ushin, located on the hotel’s 14th floor. It is considered the best Japanese restaurant in the city, with stellar views of Bogotá at night, but the most expensive entrée barely topped $10. At small street-side cafes and restaurants prices are considerably less. And a 20-minute Uber ride typically costs $3 or $4 dollars.
Of course, affordability would be useless if Bogotá were not a fascinating city. Fortunately, it is rich with culture, history, good design, excellent food, and plenty of entertainment. After our visit to Bolívar Square, we walked down the Paseo, a pedestrian promenade devoted to street merchants and entertainers. We were headed to the Museo de Oro (the Gold Museum) to see its glimmering displays, but even the walk was interesting, filled with performers hoping for a tip. Our favorite: A quintet of Andean women dancing in unison to a boom box, babies strapped to their backs.
After the gold museum (the largest in Latin America) we took an Uber to the National Museum, a labyrinthine collection of art and history housed in a former prison. And we ended that first day with dinner at Ushin, for their unparalleled shrimp and salmon dishes, the city of eight million glimmering below.
We visited Bogotá for three days, splitting our time between hotel R&R (they have an excellent spa) and exploring different neighborhoods. On Sunday we went to Usaquén Market, a weekly artisan fair spread across a warren of streets. Not your usual trinkets; I nearly bought a quartz skull, but my wife thought it too dark. We stopped for superb coffee (of course) at a hip place called Colo, built with trees growing through a wooden terrace into translucent roofing.
Overall, the food in Bogotá is excellent. On our second night we ate at the famous Andrés D.C. (de carne) restaurant, a wildly decorated four-story complex inside an old warehouse, with an atrium over a dance floor and live band. Delicious steaks and great tequila. On our last night we took the teleférico (cable car) up to Monserrate, the 10,000-foot-high peak overlooking the city, eating at the French restaurant there. Magnificent views and great prices – except for what we discovered at Ushin, that wine and scotch are priced at U.S. levels.
Our most interesting meal was a bowl of Ajiaco soup at La Perseverancia market in the working-class neighborhood of Santa Fé. This is a Colombian favorite, comprising chicken, corn on the cob, three types of potato and an herb called guascas. The market was a huge, white-tiled space, shared by different open kitchens. Likeall of Bogotá, it was a friendly, shared experience with good food at Depression-era prices. Our only regret was not enough time to see the Botero Museum or Botanic Gardens. Next time.
Photos by Nicholas Faber