Bogota certainly isn’t my favourite place in Colombia. Compared to the rest of this beautiful country, it is dirty, the traffic is always horrendous, and there are much better places to spend a week in Colombia, like Tayrona National Park, or the Cocora Valley for example. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find there were more than enough things to keep me occupied for a few days before I took my flight back to Mexico. For me, to really understand a country, you have to visit its capital. Give Bogota a chance, before you explore the rest of Colombia, and you will uncover a rich history, turbulent at times, but the people of Bogota are friendly and kind, and the food is some of the best in the country. Here is my pick for the best things to do in Bogota on a budget:
Free Things to Do in Bogota
Explore the Candelaria
The oldest part of Bogota is filled with colonial buildings, fascinating stories (a lot of gruesome ones) and fabulous street food. The main square Plaza de Bolivar is home to the Cathedral, Lievano Palace and National Capitol Building, as well as the Palace of Justice. To learn about the history of Bogota, and lots fascinating stories about the city, take a free Bogota walking tour (remember to tip your guide) like the one I did with Beyond Colombia. We explored the streets of Bogota, sampling chicha (a once illegal liquor made from fermented corn), popped into the Botero museum and learned about Bogota’s history, and fascination with gold and emeralds. Our guide Santiago was brilliant, and spoke English better than I do! The tours leave every day at 10am and 2pm from outside the Gold Museum. Sign up in advance here.
Take your Pick of Free Museums
The Botero Museum in Bogota is second only to the artist’s museum in his home town of Medellin. The painter & sculpture donated a large collection of his work to the city, some say so that everyone could enjoy culture for free, others say it was a payoff to avoid a hefty prison sentence for his son/nephew who was enjoying dodgy dealings in his position of Defence Minister. Either way, it is an excellent introduction to his work, Botero is famous for painting ‘fat’ women, but really, they are just disproportionate. In the same area there are several other free museums too, collectively known as the ‘Museos del Banco de la Republica’ which include the money museum and more art collections, so it is a great cheap way to spend an afternoon.
Admire the street Art
Bogota is full of street art. Even on the drive to my hostel from the airport I couldn’t miss the colourful murals that adorn the walls of the main road. Birds, sea turtles, the faces of beautiful women, and of course, the less attractive tags and signatures stared back at me as we drove by. In the Candelaria neighbourhood where my hostel was, there was barely a wall which didn’t have some sort of graffiti on. I took a tour with Bogota Graffiti, and our guide explained the history of street art in the city and showed us how to recognise the styles and tags of different artists. As well as appreciating the art, she also taught us how to appreciate the graffiti, and the political statements behind the works. The tour takes place each day at 10am and 2pm, register online in advance here.
Montserrate watches over downtown Bogota, the mountain is 3152 metres about sea level, and is a pilgrimage site for many Catholics who come to pay their respects to the shrine El Señor Caído, Jesus when he was taken down from the cross. The views (on a clear day) are spectacular, but sadly when I went it was raining. You can choose to hike up for free, or take the more leisurely cable car or funicular. The transport is much cheaper on Sundays (almost half price), but it is a lot busier on Sundays as it is a religious place.
Unique Things to Do in Bogota
Get Your Gold On
When the Spanish arrived in what is now known as Colombia, they were excited to hear about the ceremonies the indigenous people conducted with gold. The precious metal was abundant here, and the indigenous people would use it to make jewellery and statues to offer to their gods. The Bogota Gold Museum is one of the best museums of its kind in the world, and is well worth the 4000 COP entry fee. If you are backpacking Bogota on a budget, you’ll be glad to know the entry is free on Sundays.
Buy an Emerald
OK so perhaps not a budget activity, but as Colombia is the world’s top producer of emeralds, if you’re going to buy an emerald it might as well be here! At the Emerald Museum you learn about the different types of emeralds, how to tell if an emerald is real or fake, and which factors determine the value of the stone, including clarity, colour, and size. Bear in mind if you do decide to buy an emerald or jewellery to take home, at customs you may be asked to produce the certificate of authenticity, or risk having your new bling confiscated – so be sure to buy it from a reputable store, like the museum, or simply watch as the black market emerald sellers in Plazoleta del Rosario sell their (possibly fake) emeralds – but don’t buy from them!
Best Things to Do in Bogota: Food & Drink
Eat, eat, and eat some more
Take a trip to the local market to see fruits that look alien to us. Paloquemao is the most famous market here, but remember to buy something, and ask before you take pictures – the stallholders are trying to earn a living by selling their produce so do your bit & contribute. I took a market tour and cooking class with 5Bogota and loved it! The food we made was simple, but delicious, and it was a great way to meet a local Bogotana and cook in her home.
Bogota also has plenty of street food, so take your pick and try traditional foods like baleadas, ajiaco, empanadas. Beyond Colombia also offer a free guided food tour, where they take you to some of the best spots in the city to try traditional Colombian snacks and street food – you pay for the food you eat, and tip the guide for their services at the end. I didn’t try this as I was so full after my cooking class I couldn’t even move, but I’ll give it a go next time!
Party the Night Away
Colombians love a party, and Bogotanos are no exception. The Candelaria is a great place to party, with several Universities in the area bringing a young student crowd. Hang out in Plazoleta Chorro de Quevado square for live music and people watching or take a bar crawl around the area. Andres Carne de Res is an institution in Bogota. Come here on the weekends to eat great steak and dance the night away. It is out of town though, and you can either take an expensive taxi or join a company like Sue Candelaria who arrange transport and entry for you. I still haven’t been here but I will go one day!
General Things to Remember About Bogota
Is Bogota Safe?
Like any large city, Bogota has its fair share of crime. Around the Candelaria, the Universities clubbed together to hire private security to patrol the area, and in the previously dodgy Parque de los Periodistas there is also a security guard on watch. Don’t walk around alone at night, and take official taxis or Uber to move around the city. During the day, it is fine to explore, just take the same precautions you would anywhere; don’t flash the cash and leave expensive/important items like laptops and passports locked away in your hotel/hostel.
Colombia still suffers from its previous bad reputation, but I found Bogota, and Colombia as a whole to be friendly, welcoming and my favourite country in South America. I was shocked to meet backpackers who still chose to miss out Colombia due to safety concerns – please don’t worry, just come and see for yourself why now is the time to visit Colombia!
Where to Stay in Bogota
I stayed in the Candelaria, right in the thick of the action. It was a little noisy at night, but there were always plenty of people on the streets so I wasn’t worried about walking to nearby restaurants on my own. I highly recommend Casa Bellavista Hostel; the staff were friendly, their dog was the biggest softie every, and it had a nice vibe with breakfast included.
Overall, Bogota is worth exploring for a couple of days at least, then you will be ready to get out there and see more of fabulous Colombia!
Have you been to Bogota? What did you think? Please share your experience in the comments below.
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