Colombia is a tourist’s paradise… a diverse, tropical country of charming, good-natured people, an abundant array of exotic, delectable fruits and savory dishes, natural beauty, exhilarating music… and the unfortunate reputation of a violence-torn jungle nation of trigger-happy drug cartels. If you’re considering a visit to Colombia, don’t let its reputation stop you.
As long as you take reasonable precautions and do your research about what areas you should avoid, you’ll be as safe as you are anywhere else on the planet.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a week in the capital city of Bogotá; a mountainous, cosmopolitan city of about 7 million, filled with fabulous restaurants, enticing shopping malls and hopping night clubs.
Bogotá also has many visit-worthy museums including the Botero Museum (see photo), which features nearly 120 drawings, paintings, and sculptures from Colombia’s most revered artist, Fernando Botero, as well as the Gold Museum and the National Museum of Colombia.
Top Must-See in the Bogotá vicinity
La Catedral de Sal (the Salt Cathedral), considered “the first wonder of Colombia,” is only an hour drive north, in the town of Zipaquirá.
Man and nature worked together to create this marvelous underground cathedral, built inside one of the world’s largest salt mines. About 250,000 tons of salt were extracted during its construction.
Inside the mine, visitors are guided through a long, winding underground salt-walled tunnel which leads to the cathedral.
This tunnel is punctuated by 14 small chapels representing different stages of the life of Jesus Christ and is said to symbolize a pilgrim’s journey from the physical to the spiritual world.
To further enhance the experience, the use of soft lighting throughout the tunnels and in the cathedral itself provide for an ethereal atmosphere.
Once inside the cathedral you are allowed – even encouraged – to taste the walls and see for yourself that they are in fact, salty. I can personally assure you that they are.
Colombian coffee stop
If you are visiting the Cathedral by car, a good place to stop and eat on the way back to the city is El Humero, a steakhouse in the suburb of Chia.
You’ll eat old schoolhouse cafeteria-style at wooden tables and benches.
El Humero serves fantastic coffee (I recommend the Cafe de los Nevados) and gigantic portions, including the largest patacones (fried mashed plantains) I’ve ever seen (see photo). Yum!
If you want to experience lively Colombian dancing where hips don’t lie, the restaurant transforms into a rumba dancehall on the weekends.
Nightlife in Bogotá
Bogotá is known for its great nightlife, and the Zona Rosa is just the place to find it. You’ll have your pick of great bars and restaurants. The vibe here is happy, fun-loving, and people will dance with you without any sleaziness.
If you’re looking for a traditional Colombian good time, Andrés Carne de Res is a well-known landmark a short 40 minute drive outside the city. It’s not a bad idea to starve yourself for at least a few hours before visiting this one-of-a-kind steakhouse.
To experience Andrés in true Colombian style, you should hire a party bus, purchase a bottle of aguardiente along with some disposable plastic shot glasses, and get the party started as soon as you get in the vehicle.
The shot glasses are about ¼ the size of a typical 2 oz shot glass. Aguardiente is to Colombia what tequila is to Mexico and what ouzo is to Greece. In fact, its black licorice flavor is very similar to ouzo’s. Some may consider it an acquired taste – I personally acquired it very quickly. Just remember – it’s strong!
After the 40 minute drive to Andrés, you’ll be warmed up and ready for the festive crowd and sumptuous menu waiting for you.
Even if you’re a vegetarian, Andrés‘ extensive menu has plenty of options for you – and the drink menu is just as lengthy as the food menu.
Be forewarned that this is not the place for a quiet, relaxing meal – this establishment can fit over 3,000 people, and it’s usually filled to capacity on the weekends.
My advice: Don’t eat so much thick, mouthwatering steak or cheese-filled arepas that you can’t dance afterwards… the dance floor is packed all night long with locals and tourists alike shaking their hips to rumba, merengue, salsa, and a few other dance styles.
Valuable tip: When you leave Andrés, be sure to stop at the stands in the parking lot where empanadas and hot stew are served. These delicious empanadas are meant to prevent hangovers, and they’re very effective.
If you’d like to venture out of the city for a quieter, non-touristic town and warmer weather, the city of Melgar is 3 hours south of Bogotá by car. Many residents of Bogotá keep summer and weekend homes in Melgar.
If you decide to make the trip, I would recommend going with a local friend or hiring a driver.
You’ll be surprised at how quickly the vegetation changes to tropical and you’ll be mesmerized by the spectacular scenery along the winding roads.
These are just a few of the experiences Bogotá, Colombia has to offer!
Have a Colombian experience of your own to share? Comment here!
* Photos courtesy of Sonya Stoa; Botero Museum photo courtesy of Ricardo Plancarte