The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Bogotá was how new, clean and organized its international airport is (I wish JFK were as pleasant). Around the capital city there are new buildings going up alongside gleaming office and apartment towers. Colombia is showing off a new face to the world – one that has left behind the constant fear of drug dealers and domestic terrorists. Nowadays, a democratic, free-market-focused central government is making progress, and a rising middle class is supporting a boom in restaurants, nightclubs, and retail. As people exude optimism about their future, Colombia is on the rise, much like its more noticed neighbor, Brazil.
In planning my visit to Colombia, I decided to spend three days in Bogotá and three in Cartagena. Located at the foot of the Andes mountain range, Bogotá is the country's picturesque business, cultural, and political center. The city is actually comparable in size to Mexico City and New York. Cartagena is further north on the Caribbean, and boasts a charming old colonial town that dates back to the 16th century. Medellín, reputed to be perhaps the most modern city in Colombia (it's the second largest in the country), is in between Bogotá and Cartagena and near the famous coffee triangle.
Get acquainted with Bogotá: I recommend taking a private tour (with a driver/guide). The hourly rate is not expensive (about $120 for four hours, or $30/hour). My friend and I toured the downtown – "old Bogotá" (La Candelaria) – which includes the government center, several museums, the opera house, Bolívar plaza, and more.
Popular neighborhoods to check out: The old town is charming and worth spending a half day walking around and exploring. My favorite stop was at the Botero Museum – the building itself is beautiful and the collection of works is quite impressive. The museum's namesake, Fernando Botero Angulo, is the country's most famous artist. The Zona Rosa, known for its bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs, is also a great part of town to visit. Parque 93 is a great place to relax and hang out around a square with several trendy spots to eat and drink at.
Did you know? Colombia is known for its precious mining of gold and emeralds! Because of this, Bogotá is a great place to shop for emerald jewelry as miners come into the city to sell directly to jewelers and designers. Travel Tip: If you want to buy some jewelry, ask your guide for a reputable store.
Half day trips: Located about 45 minutes north of the city, check out the salt cathedral of Zipaquirá (Catedral de Sal). The Roman Catholic church is actually built into a salt mine in Cundinamarca. Explore the mines on the one-hour tour (available in English). On your way back to Bogotá, stop at Andrés D.C. The meat-lover's paradise is located in Chía, about halfway between the mines and Bogota. Work up an appetite and order a platter of Andrés' grilled meats.
Where to stay: While there are plenty of hotels in old Bogotá (The Opera Hotel is a good pick), I stayed in Zona G, or gastronomy zone, where you can find plenty of restaurants and shops; it's the perfect neighborhood for an after-meal stroll. The Charleston Casa Medina is a smart splurge and has all-around good value offering colonial charm, great service and staff, spacious rooms, a warm and inviting atmosphere, and an excellent restaurant. One of the hotel highlights is its outdoor courtyard with a bar and a gas fireplace (breakfast is served here as well). On select evenings, there's live music during cocktail hour.
Have you been to Bogotá? What were your favorite spots?
MORE from ShermansTravel: