Bogota - shockingly safe while also surprisingly welcoming


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South America » Colombia » Bogota
June 15th 2009
Published: June 15th 2009
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Upon landing, we were greeted by classic Colombian weather, a thunderstorm with decent downpour of rain, lightning, nice and laud thunder. While at baggage claim, I was approached by Matthias, a German guy who had just finished his one year of social service (he had done it in Ecuador). He wanted to share the cost of a cab. Fine with me, always happy to cut costs. We were being met at the airport by the tourguide former co-worker of Justin's coworker's friend. I think I was looking at 5 degrees of separation, you know, almost family. Margarita the tourguide met us on her day off, paid for the taxi into town (Matthias got a better deal than he was counting on) and then spent the afternoon showing us around. Even though my opinion will of course be partial, I found the Colombian people to be the most hospitable of the trip so far. My first impression was that our lodging (about 10 minutes walk from the Presidential Palace) was in a very interesting bohemian neighborhood at the very edge of town, with the hills to the east forming a border to the city. When were arrived at Bogota airport, there where several drug dogs and our luggage was all x-rayed. It would appear that they have made enough progress in their war on drugs that it now makes since to check luggage coming into the country. We didn't have to get very far into the city to realize that Bogota was leaps and bounds more developed than any city we been to in Peru, Bolivia (shocking surprise) and Ecuador. After a few days in the capital, my very subjective take was that this was a country and city emerging from many years of strife and conflict, but it was going to hit the fast lane very soon. New hotels are going up, the shopping malls are packed out with people beyond any city I have ever traveled to. No, really, it felt like thanksgiving day sales rush. And I don't say that because 8 million people live in the city. An inordinate number show up at the mall.

The city bears the signs of being the capital of a capitalist country. Signs of economic achievement are very present. High end department stores (Bang & Olafson etc), luxury cars, and high end housing where very present. Colombia has far less indigenous people than most other countries in Latin America. Per Margarita, this then leads to the Colombian people being offended if you confuse them with Ecuadorians or Peruvians etc. Oh, and speaking of the people, they are hot. Like Lebanese women, without the chance of their head being covered. Hot and hospitable people go a long way to making a visit pleasant. On the flip side, the capitalist nature of this country was evident in the amount of homeless. People were literally sacked out on sidewalks right in the middle of business district on the main street.

Not in our neighborhood though. We did see lots of open cannabis use. Margarita lived about a 5 minute walk from our hostel, so she was able to recommend several good places to grab a bite. One of them was a bakery that supplied our breakfast every day. My favorite was a ham and cheese stuffed croissant . Their pear tort was not bad either. They both went very nicely with a Juan Valdez cappuccino. Juan, as you may know, is a Colombian coffee chain (Juan and his Donkey appear in ads). The are like Starbucks in the way that they are the
Our tour guideOur tour guideOur tour guide

Our guide from the police history museum
most recognizable chain in the country, and that they are very consistent in the quality, and very corporate in their culture. Their coffee is not burnt though, so I would say it is better. We went there for coffee very day we were in town. We ended up spending 4 nights in the city.

The 2nd day in town was completely a day of rest. Justin had gone clubbing the night before, got back at about 4am, and was pretty much a write off for the next day. So, we took it as a day of rest: a necessary thing a few times during a trip.

Day 3 was a lot of fun. We started off by touring the police history museum. Matthias was meeting his friend Mirko later on, and the 4 of us were going to hangout. So, what we ended up doing was just taking the quick 1 hour to go down to the police museum. Our guide spoke good English (he wanted to retire to New York in 3 years), and was very comical. I think he was more pro U.S. than anyone in the United States. But, I guess if I had spent
Local ArtestLocal ArtestLocal Artest

Botero Gallery. This artist paints everything fat.
a career as a police officer in Colombia, and received and saw the result of all the aid in the drug war, I would be a fan as well. The most interesting part of museum, and the part that our guide took us to, is the lower level, which chronicles the manhunt for Pablo Esabar. He made a lot of money off of drugs. During his heyday, per Forbes magazine, he was the 7th richest man in the world. His downfall was his own ability to acquire the latest and greatest. At the time he was killed, he owned one of 4 satellite phones in the world, and the only one in South America. He assumed that because it was the latest and greatest, it could not be tracked. With U.S. technology, the police were able to track him by his signal (whenever he used his phone, it was a nice beacon since it was the only one in the hemisphere). They were also able to record and listen into his conversations. Which, when combined with the tracking, lead to his body ending up with 4 bullets in it.

After a very interesting tour with a great guide, we headed north to the gold museum. I should mention that both the art gallery we went to with Margarita and the police history museum were free. The police enthusiastically recruit tourists to go to the museum. PR is very important for them. They want people to know the story of what they do. It has not been easy work. Thousands and thousands lost their lives during the peak of the drug wars, and continue to die in the war with the FARC guerillas.

But, about the gold museum. Along with the other two we went to, it was a very nice museum. Up to the standards of Western Europe. The Lonely Planet Guidebook rates it as the most important gold museum in the world. 34,0000 plus pieces in it. Very well done. Worth the only admission we had to pay in Bogota ($1.30).

After walking around the business district, getting a better feel for the non-bohemian side of the city, we headed back to our hostel in order to change, and then head up to Northern Bogota (the rich part) to meet up with people from the Colombian Expeditors International office. Angela and her friend took us to the happening district in town. We went to an Irish pub that was more Irish than anything I had seen in Dublin. We grabbed dinner at a place that had huge portions of meat, potatoes, and more meat. Chicken, beef, and ribs were stacked onto a plate. Good deal. $5 per person.

The gals met us after breakfast the next day, and we went up the cable car to overlook Bogota from the mountain. It then proceed to get stormy. While not blocking the view, it did have the effect of freezing us into cover. Since I was the only one with a raincoat, the raincoat didn't help that much.As we were packing up and getting ready to take the 9 our bus to Medellin, then a 12 hour bus to Cartagena, I started to get a bit of a fever from my yellow fever shot (any side effects usually surface several days after the shot). So, instead of heading out to dinner before going to the bus station, I sat by hostel reception and checked the web boards for the latest news on Cartagena (looking for news on boats to Panama). Turns out, the boards had good info on last minute deals to Cartagena from Bogota by air. Sure enough, I found a flight on Aero Republica for $63 including taxes (less than the bus fare would be, buses are very expensive in Colombia).

So, Justin and I decided to fly the next day. If only it were so simple. Because it was a next day flight, we could not use our credit cards. International cards take 24 hours to process. We had to go to a kiosk in a shopping mall or pay at the airport. Ok, paying at the airport didn't sound so bad. Nope, our reservation would be cancelled if we didn't pay by 10pm. So, off to the mall we went. After wading through about 500 young people outside, we found the kiosk. They couldn't find our reservation number. Luckily, before leaving the hostel, I decided that this crack outfit might need some help selling us the ticket and decided to bring my laptop with the confirmation page still up. In order to get the promo fare, I needed to e-mail them a PDF of the confirmation page. Ok, the mall had free wifi. Wait, there must have been 500 young people using it. No bandwidth. Well, the person at the kiosk said the WIFI was slow on a good day. Her solution was to plug her cellphone into my laptop, then have me copy my confirmation onto her cellphone, and then plug her phone into her computer to transfer the confirmation. Wow, avoiding 20 hours in the bus was more complicated than I thought. Once we took care of that, we got some snacks at a packed out supermarket attached to the mall, and headed back. The malls in Colombia have bomb sniffing dogs check each car. In order to park in the garage under the mall, you have to pop your trunk and let the dog take a sniff. In order to get into a mall or many places (such as the Irish pub), security has to check your bag. Not quite as bad as Israel, but there were similarities. One key difference was that, in Colombia, the end of the conflict is in sight. There is a definite sense of optimism in the country. Much is attributed to their 2 term president Uribe, who was the most popular head of state in the world with a 91% approval rating last year.

Thus, we got back to our hostel, and went off to the airport the next morning without further drama. We didn't leave Bogota without visiting Juan's airport location for another cup of good coffee.


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Memorial to fallen policeMemorial to fallen police
Memorial to fallen police

each star represents 100 police officers killed on duty.
Matthias and I with local school kidsMatthias and I with local school kids
Matthias and I with local school kids

these kids really wanted to have their picture taken with us
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Coca-Cola employees on Segway scouters were giving out coke


18th June 2009

the hostel
Hey, what hostel did you stay in?
19th June 2009

Hostels
Cranky Croc and Fatima
27th June 2009

Very well-written blog. I'm glad to hear that you felt optimism for this country, especially considering I'll be living there for the next two years. People where I'm from (U.S.) are so cynical about Colombia, so it was to get a bright light from your writing! Thx! :-)
27th July 2010

Great Story and trip
I'm glad that you had a fantastic trip and I'm happy that you got to experience Colombia to prove that it's not how people in other countries (especially the U.S.) portray it as. I'm American (but my parents are Colombia and Irish; interestingly). I've been to Colombia once (Bogota and Cartagena)...and I had a fantastic time. There were no problems. I only made sure to be safe when I walked around the poorer areas and area that are susceptible to being pick-pocketed. Just like every city, you have the rich and the poor areas. But I had a great time enjoying the Colombian culture, the food, and geography. It's too bad you didn't visit Monserrate on the top of the mountain..but maybe you will some day. The ignorance of Americans will probably never end but besides that, I'm glad that you had a fun and exciting trip.

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