Bogota: Smell the Coffee

Bogota-La Macarena Eatery

A Bogota restaurant called Gaudi is decorated to reflect the Spanish architect’s style. It is in Bogota’s Macarena district.

BOGOTA, Colombia — It’s possible to see quite a lot of Colombia’s capital city in a single day, as I learned during a fly-by visit with a small group of travel writers a few months ago.

Bogota, a metropolis of 8 million, is set on an Andean plateau 8,563 feet above sea level with mountains rising all around it. Driving from point to point in the city often provided us with striking views of the mountainous setting with, at times, much of the city spread out below us.

As for our itinerary:

• The day started at the Gold Museum in an old downtown area called La Candelaria. The museum neighborhood was a bit rundown, but the interior of the building was anything but.

Bogota -- Gold Museum artifact

One of thousands of gold artifacts at the Gold Museum.

It houses a huge collection of gold items — earrings, headdresses, masks, neckpieces and the like — made by pre-Hispanic peoples. Our guide said this was the world’s largest such collection. The displayed pieces were those saved from marauding Spaniards, often because the items were in tombs found after the conquistadors got out of the way.

One of our hostesses said the museum displays 35,000 pieces of gold, representing 10 to 12 cultures.

• An artisans’ market, Casona del Museo, with numerous shops offering handicrafts and the emeralds for which Colombia is famous, is handily located across the street from the Gold Museum. There were armed guards near the entry. (Security in Colombia is discussed further in a separate article below.)

Bogota -- Artisans' Market

One of numerous shops selling handicraft items in the Casona del Museo. The site is near the Gold Museum in central Bogota.

• Also in La Candelaria, we toured the 1910 Presidential Palace. As part of on-site security, we were required to check cameras and all bags, including handbags. It was a little unsettling to hand over my purse with money and credit cards (my passport was in a safe).

Bogota -- Presidential palace

Side door of the Presidential Palace in Bogota. Beyond this point, tourists aren’t allowed to carry cameras.

There is a sweeping open yard in front of the presidential residence, sometimes used for big public events. The residence itself has the de rigueur columns at the front.

Inside the Presidential Palace, the guided tour included the Ministers’ Room, with a wood table, measuring 65.6 feet by about six and a half feet, that was constructed right in the room; the Yellow Room, aka the credentials room, looking rather French in decor and furnishings, and the Bolivar Room. The latter featured a painting of the first Colombian president, Simon Bolivar. His eyes seemed trained on us no matter where we stood.

Bogota -- Plaza Bolivar

Historic building in the heart of Bogota’s downtown, near Plaza Bolivar.

Tourists can join free guided English-language tours of the presidential home, offered six times daily five days a week, and, at the Web, they can confirm a time and date for their tours.

• We lunched at Chibchombia in a bohemian neighborhood called Macarena, described as being one of Bogota’s seven gastronomical areas. It is popular with locals and tourists because of those restaurants, some with a tradition of having been gathering places for well-known movers and shakers, such as political figures and journalists.

Chibchombia was a charming eatery, decorated with Colombian artifacts: mounted model houses, masks with the heads of animals, pottery, etc. The ladies restroom was amusing, too. An old-fashioned pump handle was the faucet, but it had very modern sensors that responded to a nearby hand to produce the running water.


Chibchombia, specializing in traditional Colombian foods, in Bogota’s Macarena neighborhood.

Openers were arepa de choclo — corn patties with cheese inside — and meat-filled empanadas. The choclo was rather sweet. As for drinks, one option was juice made from a fruit called curuba, very tasty with milk.

I has a soup called ajiaco, which featured three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn, avocado, rice, capers, sour cream — the last four served separately. This was good, a real comfort food.

(Also, at breakfast, I had had another Colombian favorite, hot chocolate with cheese tossed in.)

From here, we walked a short way up the street to sample the goods at the Bogota Brewery, a local brewpub with several locations in the city. I can’t report on the taste because I don’t drink beer, but this was a pleasant, cozy establishment.

• We returned to La Candelaria to see the Old Town on foot. There were lots of graffiti on the buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some were creative and suggested talent, some were merely boorish.

We walked onto the narrow Embudo Street (meaning Funnel Street, so named because of its shape), noted for its small brightly painted houses and graffiti of some interest. it has several small businesses, including one selling traditional corn liquor, and another, which is a tiny hotel.

Bogota - La Candelaria District

Wall art seen on the Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo in Bogota’s La Candelaria district.

We also stopped at an old private home, site of a business called Magma Ceramica, to watch the resident

Bogota ceramics

A Bogota potter demonstrating how he makes a cup on a wheel.

potter/artist show us how he throws clay as well as some of his finished work.

Bogota -- Calle Coliseo

View of the Calle del Coliseo in the historic heart of Bogota. The Christopher Columbus Theater is in the foreground.










• In another and spiffier part of the Old Town, the Coliseo is a charming walking street and site of Colombia’s original presidential home, first occupied by the country’s hero, Simon Bolivar. His lover lived in another house on the same street, we were told.


Bogota -- Museum of Colonial Art

The interior of the Museum of Colonial Art in Bogota, where the art ranges from paintings and sculpture to fine furniture dating from colonial times.

Coliseo gives access to the Colonial Art Museum, a former monastery, which houses paintings, but also artifacts from colonial life. To enter, again we were required to turn over all bags including handbags, but not cameras. Our guide said this was not typical for other museums in Bogota.

The end of Coliseo spilled into Plaza Bolivar, Bogota’s main central square, site of the Bogota Cathedral complex, the National Capitol building, City Hall and the Hall of Justice. Plaza Bolivar is quite near the current Presidential Palace, which we had visited in the morning.

Bogota -- Bogota Cathedral

The Bogota Cathedral, at left, in the heart of downtown, on Plaza Bolivar.

• We ended our day with a coffee tasting, reminiscent of a wine tasting. This was a first for me.

The location was an establishment called E&D, and, of course, the highlighted coffees were Colombian. E&D staffers said that, for a fee, the shop will schedule such events for individual tourists or small groups. The setup included spittoons for those who didn’t want to drink the coffee. I spat.

I don’t like coffee. To me, although the event was educational and fun, all brews smelled the same and all tasted bitter.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Colombia: The Security Issue

Until about seven or eight years ago, Colombia was the backdrop for a lethal combination of drug warlords, left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups. Prospective tourists have not forgotten about that.

Then, there is garden-variety crime, and tourists can be the victims. In mid-2011, those victims included a couple of my friends who were robbed in Bogota.

The country remains the subject of a U.S. State Department warning that says, in part, “security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Cartagena and Bogota, but violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural areas and parts of large cities.”

Travelers are urged to exercise caution and review current information at the State Department’s website.

My press group’s experience was much like that of a tourist who buys a packaged tour, which typically includes hotels in safe areas and a full plate of guided activities. A good tour operator will keep travelers busy with engaging diversions, a plan that also tends to keep them out of harm’s way.

Cartagena: City of Many Colors

The San Felipe de Barajas fortress seen at night.

The San Felipe de Barajas fortress seen at night.

CARTAGENA, Colombia — It won’t be long before Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast will be 500 years old. It was a Spanish colonial city, founded in 1533, a fact brought to life in surviving architecture.

The city boasts a charming UNESCO-protected Old Town with historic churches and houses, nearly seven miles of city walls and a fortress described as the largest in the Americas.

In addition, because of its location on the Caribbean, Cartagena is a sun ‘n’ fun destination and a cruise port.

A section of Cartagena’s nearly seven miles of city walls. The orange exterior of the Santa Teresa Hotel is visible at center rising above the walls.

A section of Cartagena’s nearly seven miles of city walls. The orange exterior of the Santa Teresa Hotel is visible at center rising above the walls.

The history, in combination with the climate and beaches associated with a resort, makes Cartagena one of Colombia’s most popular destinations for Americans. It also is one of several Colombian cities with a tourist police unit.

I visited Cartagena for the first time in mid-2012 with a small group of travel writers.

We experienced the city in several ways:

A rich pink for the trim offsets the blue of this house at the corner of the Plaza de San Diego in Cartagena’s Old Town.

A rich pink for the trim offsets the blue of this house at the corner of the Plaza de San Diego in Cartagena’s Old Town.

• For starters, the historic Old Town, mostly surrounded by colonial-era walls, is extensive, colorful and very appealing. I made several solo excursions, sometimes in the early morning, walking through picturesque squares to admire balconies, bright paint jobs and soaring church steeples. Side streets are narrow, our hosts said, because the houses provide shade for each other.

I walked on the city walls, whose first sections were constructed in the late 16th century, for stunning views of the Old Town, as well as the city’s harbor and the high-rises of the nearby and recently developed New City. About 30 percent of Cartagena’s 1.2 million people live in the Old Town or the New City, our guide reported.

A religious procession in the streets of Cartagena’s Old Town.

A religious procession in the streets of Cartagena’s Old Town.

During one stroll, I stumbled onto a religious procession, as well.

• We were guided through the city’s largest fortress, San Felipe de Barajas, on the rocky crag overlooking the city and so well fortified it was unconquerable.

It is beautiful when lighted at night, but by day, the gray stone structure is not very pretty. Rather, it is dramatic in size and complexity, with great long slanting walls to a very green lawn below. Our guide advised the fortress covers 15,000 square meters, or about 3.7 acres.

It originated in the 17th century to protect Cartagena from pirates and was enlarged in the 18th. Our visit included climbing to several levels and descending steep steps to look at hideouts for men, food and ammunition deep inside.

• We sailed in Cartagena’s harbor late one afternoon aboard a 64-foot catamaran.

The Inner Harbor with a few of the high-rises that typify some of Cartagena’s modern neighborhoods.

The Inner Harbor with a few of the high-rises that typify some of Cartagena’s modern neighborhoods.

This was a slow and smooth ride, departing from a dock in front of the Old Town walls and heading into the harbor area that serves cruise ships. The sailing provided sightings of a lot of New City’s skyscrapers as we headed away from the Old Town.

One of Cartagena’s horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on a sightseeing ride in the Old Town.

One of Cartagena’s horse-drawn carriages taking visitors on a sightseeing ride in the Old Town.

• Our group also sampled a very popular sightseeing mode — the horse-drawn carriage, which conveyed us up and down the narrow streets of the Old Town in the early evening. It’s another leisurely way to look at the city.

Such tours aren’t available during the heat of the midday, to protect the horses.

• Colombia produces 65% of the world’s gem quality emeralds, according to our host at the Joyería Caribe Emerald Museum and Factory in Cartagena.

We toured this site, a business that designs, manufactures and sells jewelry made with Colombian emeralds. Its plant includes a 4,000-square-foot jewelry exhibition area, plus a small museum with displays illustrating

Gold and red are popular colors for houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. These are on Plaza de los Coches, once the site of the city’s slave market.

Gold and red are popular colors for houses in Cartagena’s Old Town. These are on Plaza de los Coches, once the site of the city’s slave market.

the look of emeralds in the rough and exhibiting pre-Hispanic emerald and gold objects.

We were advised that Cartagena is 900 miles from the emerald mines in the Andes but that Bolivar state, where Cartagena is located, produces seven tons of gold a year.

Cartagena was the place to buy jewelry!

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Valparaiso: Shake, Rattle and Rebuild

Perched houses seen from Concepcion hill in Valparaiso.

Perched houses seen from Concepcion hill in Valparaiso.

VALPARAISO, Chile — The last time Valparaiso made a really big splash in North American newspapers was February 2010, when one of the world’s strongest recorded earthquakes (8.8 on the Richter scale) struck the Chilean coast.

Quakes regularly rattle this port city. Another 6.7-rated quake had struck in spring 2012 before my visit, with a small press group, about six months later. [Read more…]

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Atacama: A Desert With Many Faces

Hot springs at the site of the Tatio Geysers.

Hot springs at the site of the Tatio Geysers.

SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA, Chile — Northern Chile’s top tourist destination is this desert town. Visitors come to see salt flats and their flamingos, volcanoes and a salt mountain range, petroglyphs, saltwater pools (handy for a good float), hot springs, geysers and some incredible scenery.

Atacama is good for stargazing, as well. Tourists use hotel telescopes, but the desert also hosts the world’s largest astronomical project, funded by many countries including the U.S. and Canada.

San Pedro is worth some time, too, for its adobe architecture, museum, restaurants and shopping. Visitors generally stay at small in-town hotels or in one of several resort-like facilities on the outskirts.

I finally had the opportunity to discover some of Atacama’s attractions during a visit last fall, traveling with a small group of journalists.

To get there, we flew from Santiago north to Calama then drove for about 90 minutes to reach our hotel, the Alto Atacama. This upscale property, two miles outside of San Pedro, was built in the style of a traditional adobe settlement and blends in with the red mountains around it.

This imitative adobe settlement also includes llamas and an alpaca, mostly for guest viewing, and a garden of beans, quinoa and other foods the chef may use. Guests can offer treats to the llamas — and may

A llama on the grounds of the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

A llama on the grounds of the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

be sprayed with stinky spit in return. We were.

A dance program, reflecting Atacameno traditions, seen at a Saturday barbeque at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

A dance program, reflecting Atacameno traditions, seen at a Saturday barbeque at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa.

The Alto Atacama includes six small outdoor pools (one a Jacuzzi) and a spa. The resort also functions as a tour operator, offering guests a pricing option that includes all sightseeing excursions. The hotel was our tour operator, too.

As for the Atacama itself, it is the world’s highest-altitude desert, averaging 13,000 feet, and it includes the world’s highest volcanoes.

Atacama is the world’s driest desert. As I reported in my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, some parts have never experienced a recorded rainfall. A key source of moisture is fog, which locals capture in special fog-catcher nets.

Finally, given the altitude, this desert is the world’s coldest, averaging between 32F and 77F.

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Santiago: A Foodie’s City

The lunch table in Maria Eugenia Terragno’s kitchen in Santiago.

The lunch table in Maria Eugenia Terragno’s kitchen in Santiago.

SANTIAGO, Chile — The Chilean capital is spread across a broad valley rimmed by mountains, most spectacularly the snowcapped Andes in the east. Other ranges add to the drama and with the Andes encircle Santiago.

It helps to have an elevated vantage point to visualize all this, and so it was that my press group visited San Cristobal, the hilltop site of Santiago’s 21,000-acre Metropolitan Park. From here, our guide Carlos pointed out the neighborhoods. He also advised that the government has stopped the city’s continued spread, forcing more development within the existing city’s confines. [Read more…]

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Buenos Aires For the First-Time Visitor

Argentina’s Presidential Palace is called Casa Rosada, or Pink House, for good reason. Located on the Plaza de Mayo.

BUENOS AIRES — It may be a commonplace, that Argentina’s capital is South America’s most European city. To see it for the first time is a revelation of sorts, nevertheless.

Other cities on the continent offer plenty of evidence for their European roots, too, but in this case, uniquely, think Paris.

Buenos Aires stands apart in other ways, as well. A higher percentage of the population is of European descent (as is true for all of Argentina) than elsewhere on the continent, and, although the country was a Spanish colony, it attracted a broader mix of European — and even American — immigrants. [Read more…]

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Peru: The Incas, and All That

Pisac’s market offers an extensive array of choices for the shopper. All photos by Nadine Godwin.

CUSCO, Peru — I visited Peru, backpacker style, in the 1970s when I had friends based there in the Peace Corps. I returned in late 2011 with a small press group for an update on some of Peru’s touristic high spots. In the intervening 30-plus years, the South American country suffered from a deadly Maoist insurgency that cost thousands of lives while scaring tourists away from a fascinating destination. The insurgency’s leader was captured in 1992, and his movement fizzled soon after. Tourists and business travelers have since returned in significant numbers. From my standpoint (as the perpetual tourist!), Peru was much as I remembered it despite significant changes that, as far as I could tell, were mostly for the better. [Read more…]

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Lima and Arequipa: Gifts from the Conquistadors

Peru’s Presidential Palace, located on the Plaza Mayor in the heart of Lima’s historic district.

LIMA, Peru — Peru’s two largest cities, Lima, the capital, and Arequipa, were essentially creations of the Spanish conquistadors. Their historic city centers date from the 16th century and appear on UNESCO’s list of historic sites.

I visited both during a recent press trip. It had been more than 30 years since I had seen either so it was about time I revisited and updated old memories. The refresher course was admittedly quick, but enlightening. [Read more…]

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El Zanjón, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

El Zanjon in Buenos Airesby Kelly Monaghan

In the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, on Avenida Defensa, lies what must be the city’s most enigmatic tourist attraction. El Zanjón (the term translates as “deep ditch” or “ravine”) is a . . . well, what exactly is it?

Twenty-five odd years ago, Jorge Eckstein bought a derelict house in the once fashionable barrio. Actually, ruin would be a better description. His motivation was commercial. It could be a restaurant, something. But then fate intervened.
[Read more…]

Bus Travel in Argentina

Argentina Bus Travel via Andesmarby Kelly Monaghan

Argentina is blessed with an elaborate public transportation system of long-haul intercity buses. In this vast country, people apparently think nothing of hopping on a bus and heading out for ten, twelve, even twenty-two hours across the Pampas or the wide open spaces of Patagonia.

When I heard that there is a regular schedule of high-end overnight “executive” service buses featuring “Cama Suites” with lay-flat seats similar to those found in first-class airline cabins, I was intrigued. I’m a great fan of overnight train travel and have sampled a wide variety of rolling stock, so I was curious to see how a bus would compare.
[Read more…]