While you may not be able to make it to these destinations for a weekend, let our guides inspire you to make the most of any 3-day adventure in a new city.
Mixing Colombian hospitality and European cosmopolitanism, Bogotá is a city asking to be explored. Americans may still be shedding the notion that Colombia is unsafe for travel; in reality, Bogotá is enjoying a cultural renaissance. The city was recently ranked among the top cities in South American – and, on some lists, the world – for gastronomy, street art, and LGBT tourism. With prices for food and lodging about a third of those in the U.S., even students can experience the best of Bogotá. You’ll fall in love with the city as it unfolds in front of you. Just don’t forget to pack a sweater - at 8,500 feet above sea level, you’ll definitely need it.
Bonjour! Parlez-vous francais?
French is not the language that you might expect to hear first thing in Bogotá, but any language goes when it comes to David’s La Candelaria AirBnB. A well-connected, Bogotá-based bon vivant, David constantly has friends visiting alongside his AirBnB guests – one being Dominique, a salt-and-pepper-haired Frenchman who dresses in a uniform of three-piece suits and dark wingtips. Guests aside, the high-ceiling loft apartment is splashed with saturated yellows and blues, a pattern and art-print paradise. The design suits the Spafrenglish tongue of the place.
The home is the perfect place from which to explore La Candelaria, the governmental, cultural, and touristic heart of Bogotá. Set your bags down and grab a flattop-grilled arepa from a street vendor before enjoying the internationally-acclaimed Graffiti Tour. Like the free city walking tours around the world, the tour has a pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth option that gives students extra flexibility. Angelica, our tour guide, was a local street artist – all tour guides are street artists, in fact – whose commentary spanned from street artist Guaché gossip to the now-famous Justin Bieber graffiti controversy. Given that Mayor Enrique Peñalosa is in the process of covering up much of Bogota’s street art, the tour takes on a new sense of urgency.
If you don’t mind substituting some wall text for a guide, head to the Museo Botero – one of the many Bogotá cultural institutions with free admission. The white stucco walls give the museum a little bit more character than its white-walled American counterparts, and its collection can easily compete. The museum houses 123 works by Fernando Botero, one of the most unambiguously loved artists both in Colombia and around the world. Sourced from Botero’s personal collection, there are also 85 works by household-name artists like Monet, Chagall, Miro, and Matisse.
You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike many other Spanish-speaking countries, Colombians eat dinner at the cozy time of 7:30pm. There is no shortage of good international eats in La Candelaria, but there are few places to find finer Colombian food. Savor a bowl of ajiaco – a thick soup made of three types of potatoes, chicken breast, avocado, and corn that is hearty enough to feed two in any restaurant. Some of the finest is served in a restaurant called, immodestly and unironically, El Mejor Aijaco del Mundo. If you’re feeling inclined, you can stop for an after-dinner drink at La Bruja, where the gin and tonic (and cinnamon, cloves, et cetera!) is easily matched in eccentricity by the men behind the bar.
Rejoice, late risers: Bogotá is hardly made for morning people, with most cafes and eateries opening no earlier than 10:00am. Start off your day with coffee and pastries at Varietale – an expansive, light-filled café with a young clientele vibrant enough to match its bright walls. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Colombian café scene can be pretty hit or miss: the majority of fine coffee is exported to the U.S. and Europe, leaving less well-equipped cafes with the bitter, brown stuff better kept in the cabinet. Varietale bucks the trend, serving as a reminder that “Colombian coffee” is more than just a tourist-focused buzzword.
Montserrate is a very short walk from the café. Those looking for a morning workout can hike 1.5 miles to the top of the mountain alongside neon-clad runners. For others, there is a funicular that costs about $6 round trip. From 10,341 feet above sea level, you can enjoy panoramic views of a city that spans further than your eye can see. For some variety, you can take the cable car down – just note that it is closed until noon.
For lunch, stroll down the hill to Sant Just Traiteur. It’s a little too curated to be called a hole-in-the-wall, but the graffiti-covered walls, wooden shutter doors, and plain red tile floors combine to create a space that is cool and unpretentious. Merging local Colombian ingredients with French cooking techniques, the streetside bistro is as savoreux as it is chic. Sit at the bar and watch the chefs at work, or enjoy making friends with the clientele – a lovely mix of students, travelers, and Dominique-types.
If you have the energy after a serving or four of house wine, there are plenty of options for late afternoon excursions. The famous Museo del Oro is more a richly-researched anthropological look at Colombian history than a repository of all things shiny. You might also consider a walk down the nearby Calle del Embujo, the oldest street in Bogotá and the best place to grab chicha, a fermented drink derived from maize that has been a part of Andean culture since the Inca Empire.
Of course, you can also get started with your journey towards the AirBnB of Martha and Hugo. Nine floors above the modernist, monochrome base of the apartment complex, the home is a stark departure from its plain surroundings. As if from a descriptive passage of a Marquez novel, the home is a panoply of panoplies – a display case for everything from mirrors to mugs, from ceramic skulls to satin fabric figurines. Cat memorabilia features prominently, and if your introduction goes anything like the way mine did, you’ll be treated to a decades-long history of household cats – a history that culminates with the most recent feline permutation, a duo affectionately named “Pink” and “Floyd.”
Spend the evening exploring the Zona Rosa, Bogotá’s cosmopolitan center for nightlife. Picking the perfect restaurant, bar, and club trifecta in the Zona Rosa would require a few months of trial nights out. For those of us who have just a few nights, you can get a sample-platter of nightlife at Andres D.C. Purists may take issue with this recommendation, given the size of its cousin Andres Carne de Res, a 2.76-square mile hall of dining and dancing located at the north end of Bogotá. Nevertheless, D.C. delivers: performance art and prime beef are just two of the things that will leave you talking. And with a dancefloor dominated by people from across the world, it won’t be long until you move from fork to feet. Reggaeton will never sound so good again.
While you may think you’ve woken up earlier than your Colombian hosts, don’t be fooled. If the apartment is empty on a weekend morning, Hugo is probably out picking up his favorite croissants for breakfast. While Martha and Hugo don’t list breakfast as an amenity, they love sharing food and conversation with their guests. Expect travel stories, laughs, and hot chocolate mixed with cheese – a Colombian treat with a name that hardly does justice to its rich flavor.
Such is the kind of fuel that you’ll need for a day of travel outside of the city limits of Bogotá. From Guatavita, a gorgeous lake that was long ago the site of the ceremony of the legend of El Dorado, to a multitude of nearby coffee tours, there is no shortage of experiences to be had in Cundinamarca. That said, you can’t go wrong with a trip to Zipaquirá. Take the TransMilenio bus to Portal del Norte, after which a roundtrip ticket to Zipiquirá will run you only $3.50.
Established on July 18, 1600, Zipaquirá is now a town of about 124,000 with a markedly different tone – and volume – from that of Bogotá. Like many small Colombian cities, Zipaquirá is home to a beautiful town square with Spanish colonial architecture, happily quieter than its many counterparts. You can kill some time with a walk around the town, but you shouldn’t be afraid of rushing over to the highlight of the city: the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá.
The Salt Cathedral isn’t an actual Cathedral; a former salt mine isn’t particularly hospitable to bishops, after all, and the similarities stop at the makeshift pews and crosses. But much like seeing Sagrada Familia or the Vatican for the first time, walking through this hollowed-out underground is awe-inspiring to even the most secular of visitors. In 1932, miners had begun to carve out sanctuaries in which they could start their day with a prayer. The Salt Cathedral began to resemble its current structure in 1954, when three knaves were built and the primary cross was carved out of the largest stone wall. Outside organizations have since funded further developments and renovations, and the site is regarded as an architectural masterpiece. That much is plain to see – a few gimmicky boutiques notwithstanding, the towering crosses and psychedelic coloring of the caverns makes for an experience that can only be described as otherworldly. Stay for a few hours and take it in – there are buses back to central Bogotá every thirty minutes.
If you’re in town for a few more hours, you can unwind with a walk through the Colonial Quarter of Usaquén. Characterized by Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone pathways, the central area exudes the warm sense of cohesion that it must have for several hundreds of years. However, the Colonial Quarter is anything but a vestige of the past. You’ll hear expats tell French jokes with Spanish punchlines, you’ll eat in restaurants that feature food from at least five continents, and you’ll feel wrapped in the glow of evening lights as the sun goes down. In many ways, it’s an apt metaphor for Bogotá, a city where the only prerequisites to enjoy are a little bit of curiosity and a whole lot of warmth.