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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