The 52 Places Traveler: Beautiful, Complicated Bogotá: A Traveler’s Starter Kit

Scenes from Bogotá. Clockwise from top right: Ciengramos restaurant at the Click Clack Hotel; Upstairs view of Andrés D.C.; the bar at Ciengramos; a souvenir store at La Plaza de Andrés.

“So, where are you going in Colombia?” someone, usually Colombian, would ask me with anticipation. “Medellín? Cartagena?”

“No, Bogotá.”

“Just Bogotá?”

“Just Bogotá.”

“Are you sure? Can you change that?”

One Bogotá resident even used an expression I had thought only popped up in awkward workshops in Spanish class: “¡Qué lástima!” (“What a shame!”)

Bustling and built for governing, Colombia’s capital isn’t a colonial jewel of the Caribbean like Cartagena, or a hot spot like Medellín — Pablo Escobar’s former home base. Instead, Bogotanos seem to talk about their city the way the Milanese sometimes talk about Milan: as somewhere they love to live and work, but may hesitate to send an extranjero, or foreigner, to taste their country’s richness.

Richness, though, is everywhere in Bogotá, from its street art depicting a history of conflict to the looming hills of protected parkland that line its eastern border. And it is an essential place to visit to understand the country. I’d come here because I’m on a yearlong trip to visit every destination on The Times’s 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, and Colombia is No. 2.

Last summer, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) handed over their weapons to the government, ending decades of fighting. “It’s unprecedented how we can travel in the country now,” said Juan C. Rodriguez, an engineer and Facebook friend who offered to show me around. “I just took my family last year to Florencia, which used to be a major war hub, and the place that I live in, La Calera, 45 minutes from where we are; 25 years ago it was violently taken over by the FARC.” He later told me that the FARC had ambushed and murdered his cousin.

Safety is still a concern. Armed guards with bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs are standard at most public parking garages. Regardless, I was enamored enough with what I saw to extend my stay from six to seven days. Here’s a starter kit on ways to experience beautiful, complicated Bogotá. If this is Colombia’s ugly stepchild, I can’t wait to see the rest.

Before arriving in Bogotá, I heard two things: that I absolutely had to go to Andrés Carne de Res, and that it’s a rip-off and I’d be a walking cliché if I did. Both sides seemed to agree that it would likely be the gaudiest restaurant I’d ever see in my life — which, of course, meant I had to go.

Glowing red hearts, Catholic iconography and wrought iron chandeliers with bulbs of every color make up just some of this mini-chain’s “more is more” décor. On weekdays, go to Andrés D.C. for steak and traditional fare. It’s named after Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”; has themed floors for Infierno, Tierra, Purgatorio and Cielo; and was minutes away from the Click Clack Hotel, where I stayed some nights in the chic, uptown neighborhood of El Chicó. In a nearby mall is a more mellow food court, La Plaza de Andrés, where a young Colombian data journalism professor, María Isabel Magaña, took me one evening to gorge on queso-filled arepas de choclo, chicharrones and mashed-and-fried plantain patacones — still surrounded by things like a lifesize plastic cow wearing sunglasses. The flagship, Carne de Res, is in Chía, north of the city center. It seats 2,100 people, with room for 4,000 on its wildest nights, and is absolutely worth a trip on weekends when it’s teeming with sweaty rumba dancers partying till 3 a.m.

(For a rumba party that’s less of a trek, try Gaira Café, owned by the Colombian pop star and Shakira collaborator Carlos Vives.)

Usaquén is a charming colonial town north of Bogotá that became part of the city in the 1950s, but still feels like a world apart. A shopping and dining district, it’s home to Colombia’s only W Hotel, as well as a Sunday flea market where indigenous merchants sell handcrafted bucket bags and skateboarding sneakers embroidered with traditional patterns. One can find similar wares in Bogotá’s old town, La Candelaria, but I felt more relaxed wandering around Usaquén. Don’t skip the food stands, which offer everything from five-layer cake to grilled ears of corn on a stick, dripping with butter and salt.

Home to the world’s largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts, this museum offers free tours in English or Spanish. You’ll learn about the spiritual lives of Colombia’s indigenous tribes, who believed that gold contained the energy of the sun and assigned it no monetary value. I got, dare I say it, bored looking at all those static, shiny objects. But after talking to Mr. Rodriguez, I had a much better sense of the museum’s significance. “It’s the story of how the Spaniards came all the way through the jungle looking for El Dorado, a city of gold — and there was some truth to that — but they came for the money, and they destroyed these highly spiritually evolved people,” he said. “It’s a story of greed. That’s the story of how Bogotá became a Spanish town.”

Cyclists here often seem as abundant as cars, streaming down equally abundant protected paths. Bogotá is credited as the first city to host a Ciclovía — and it still does, shutting down large swaths of street every Sunday for bikers, pedestrians and even acrobats.

Itching to get on two wheels, I joined a three-hour ride that offered a fascinating look at the city through the eyes of our guide, Michael Steven Sánchez Navas, a graffiti artist and passionate enemy of inequality. He told us about Justin-Bieber-gate, when the Canadian singer tagged a wall under police protection just a few months after the police had shot and killed a popular graffiti artist — and inadvertently sparked a street artist uprising. He also briefed us on mistakes he’d thought had been made in the city, including the introduction of nonnative, invasive trees to the Cerros Orientales (Eastern Hills). “Our government decided that the pines and the eucalyptus make our city more fashionable,” he said.

Some fruits in Colombian markets can be found elsewhere, but the freshness and variety here is unparalleled. Among my favorites were pitahaya amarilla, or yellow dragon fruit; granadilla, a relative of passion fruit; cherimoya, filled with white flesh wrapped around inedible black seeds; mangostino, a purple bulb containing sweet wedges that look like garlic; and uchuva, which look like orange cherries, grow in pods, and taste like heaven. Towering above all of them, though, is the lulo: tart and kiwi-like. It’s often chopped up and mixed with water, lime and sugar for a drink called a lulada that is so thick you have to eat it with a spoon. I dream about it daily.

After three attempts to take a cable car up to Monserrate, a famous hilltop with a cathedral, and being stymied by weather or operating hours, I’d given up on getting an eagle-eye view of the city. Then Mr. Rodriguez showed me the lookouts on Via La Calera, north of the tourist sector. It was a stress-free way to understand Bogotá’s vastness.

The invitation to this clandestine, monthly Mexican dinner came from a friend of a friend who’d married a Colombian and had moved to Bogotá from New York City. We followed instructions to gather in an apartment building lobby and then filed into a private library with a table set for 20. There, the chef Ximena Leal served us a home-cooked, four-course meal with unlimited margaritas for $32 a person. Best of all was the conversation, particularly from a clinical psychologist, Maria Meme Esguerra, who declared: “We won’t talk about politics and we won’t talk about religion, but we can talk about sex because that’s the one thing we can agree on.”

While eating ajiaco (a thick stew of potato, chicken and corn) at La Puerta Falsa in the old town, I befriended a retired couple. They were headed to Teatro Colón for “Vive Zaperoco,” a musical about the cowboy culture of Colombia’s Llanos Orientales (Eastern Plains), and it turned out there were tickets available in the nosebleed section. The Spanish was too advanced for me, but the dancing was marvelous: rhythmic stomping and mating rituals between men in black cowboy outfits and women in colorful skirts that flared out to their waists when they twirled. When the audience stomped along with them, the whole floor shook, like an earthquake of appreciation for the arts.

Memorize where you’re going on a map before you set off on an outing. Locals warned me against walking alone at night and pulling out my phone in public. When I got bold, at 11 a.m., and texted a friend from a food market, both the female purveyor at the fruit-salad counter where I was sitting and the gentleman dining next to me cautioned that I’d likely marked myself for robbery. He happened to be a taxi driver and got me to my next destination. At Hotel-Spa Casa de Lavim, where I stayed for $47 a night in the hip Chapinero district, the male staffers often walked with me on distances as short as between cabs and the front door. On the plus side, I got the sense that I could turn to anyone on the street and get an immediate helping hand.

Jada Yuan will be traveling to every place on this year’s 52 Places to Go list. Follow her on Instagram @alphajada.

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