Advice for visitors to Bogotá

By Stephen O. Addison, Jr.
This item appears on page 12 of the November 2015 issue.
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Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is worth three days of your time if you’re traveling to that part of the world. Staying in the atmospheric and historic La Candelaria neighborhood puts you within easy walking distance of the majority of the city’s attractions. There is plenty to see and do there.

I highly recommend that you begin your visit with at least one walking tour. The tiny tourist information office at the southwest corner of Plaza de Bolívar operates 2-hour English-language walking tours of La Candelaria each Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tours are free, but reserve in advance either in person or by email to pitcentrohistorico@idt.gov.co.

On our July 2015 visit, my wife and I were the only Americans with no immediate Colombian family on the tour. Unexpectedly, most of the 20 or so people in our group were from the Bogotá area.

We also took a custom day tour by foot, public transit and taxi for $60 each (including lunch), arranged by Thomas Doyer of DE UNA Colombia Tours (Cra 24 [Parkway], No. 39b-25 oficina 501, La Soledad, Bogotá DC, Colombia; phone +57 1 3681915, www.deunacolombia.com).

The tour was conducted by the personable and flexible Stijn Geljon, owner of DE UNA Travel Bar (Calle 11 No. 2-98, La Candelaria, Bogotá; phone +57 1 8066791, www.deunatravelbar.com).

Both Thomas and Stijn are Dutch, but they have lived for several years in South America. This was a great way to visit sites outside of La Candelaria and to gain insights into the local culture and daily life.

The good news —

Americans don’t need a visa to visit Colombia on stays of fewer than 90 days.

Due to the weakening Colombian peso and/or strengthening US dollar, your money will go far in Colombia.

We found it to be safe anywhere that most leisure and business travelers are likely to go. Regular police, private security officers and heavily armed soldiers (often accompanied by dogs) were plentiful. In La Candelaria, we saw plenty of friendly and helpful tourist police.

The Colombians we met appeared truly glad to see American visitors. We were always treated well.

Bogotá’s climate is comfortable and cool year-round (40°-60°F.) due to its elevation of about 8,600 feet. Total annual rainfall is less than 30 inches. Summer (June-August) and winter (December-February) are the dry seasons.

Bogotá’s tap water is fine to drink. However, it’s very soft.

Local cuisine is interesting. Exotic fruits (often available in juices and smoothies) and an amazing variety of potatoes from the Andes were highlights. While not bland, Colombian food is not as highly seasoned as most Latin American fare. Mealtimes are similar to those in the US.

Most museums are either free or charge only a nominal fee (around $1) for admission. If you’re at least 60, admission is typically free. (You’ll need your passport to document your age.)

Museums and art galleries almost always allow photography, albeit with no flash. 

Although Colombia doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time and is on Standard Time year-round, it is in the same time zone as the East Coast of the US, so jet lag isn’t much of an issue.

The not-so-good news —

You’ll likely experience difficulties getting cash from ATMs (Oct. ’15, pg. 12).

Sidewalks in Bogotá tend to be in a shambles. Also, apparently, handrails for stairs are optional.

Bogotá’s transit system (there are buses and minibuses but no subway yet) is confusing. If you do ride, expect the buses and minibuses to be crowded and hot.

Traffic is a problem in the city. Once it took us over a half-hour to travel three miles. (I used to be able to run a lot faster than that.)

English speakers, even at tourist sites and popular restaurants, aren’t as common as you would hope. 

Currently, there is a lot of noisy and disruptive construction in and near Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of La Candelaria.

Due to Bogotá’s high elevation, it’s easy to get sunburned, so use sunscreen and dress accordingly. Until you acclimate to the high altitude. you may find yourself getting out of breath going up hills and stairs. On your first couple of days, as you adjust, take it easy and drink extra water.

In most locations, the sewage system won’t accommodate toilet paper. You’ll need to place used toilet paper in the container provided nearby.

You’ll likely be awakened more than once by car alarms.

We were told we could not purchase beer (or probably any alcoholic beverage) in stores until 3 p.m. However, that was not the case in bars and restaurants.

Many visitors to Bogotá take a day trip to Zipaquirá to see its underground Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral). A bit overrated, it’s probably not worth your time unless you’ve never seen anything similar.

If you arrive in Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport from the US, expect to exit your plane on stairs down to the tarmac. There you’ll board a bus for a 5- to 10-minute ride to an entrance at the international terminal. Consider it an opportunity to witness the inner workings of an airport.

When checking in at the airport for your departure, you may be advised to stop by the Civil Air Authority’s booth opposite the check-in counters. There it will either be confirmed that your air ticket includes the “international airport tax” or that you need to pay this departure tax.

My wife and I stopped by the booth, and they confirmed that the tax was included in our ticket price; we each paid $37 (then, COP99,700).

This tax is sometimes called a fee, and it changes frequently (at least, in the amount of pesos). The current amount is thoughtfully displayed at the bottom left of the airport’s website homepage, http://eldorado.aero.

STEPHEN O. ADDISON, Jr.

Charlotte, NC

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Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, is worth three days of your time if you’re traveling to that part of the world. Staying in the atmospheric and historic La Candelaria neighborhood puts you within easy walking distance of the majority of the city’s attractions. There is plenty to see and do there.

I highly recommend that you begin your visit with at least one walking tour. The tiny tourist information office at the southwest corner of Plaza de Bolívar operates 2-hour English-language walking tours of La Candelaria each Tuesday and Thursday at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tours are free, but reserve in advance either in person or by email to pitcentrohistorico@idt.gov.co.

On our July 2015 visit, my wife and I were the only Americans with no immediate Colombian family on the tour. Unexpectedly, most of the 20 or so people in our group were from the Bogotá area.

We also took a custom day tour by foot, public transit and taxi for $60 each (including lunch), arranged by Thomas Doyer of DE UNA Colombia Tours (Cra 24 [Parkway], No. 39b-25 oficina 501, La Soledad, Bogotá DC, Colombia; phone +57 1 3681915, www.deunacolombia.com).

The tour was conducted by the personable and flexible Stijn Geljon, owner of DE UNA Travel Bar (Calle 11 No. 2-98, La Candelaria, Bogotá; phone +57 1 8066791, www.deunatravelbar.com).

Both Thomas and Stijn are Dutch, but they have lived for several years in South America. This was a great way to visit sites outside of La Candelaria and to gain insights into the local culture and daily life.

The good news —

Americans don’t need a visa to visit Colombia on stays of fewer than 90 days.

Due to the weakening Colombian peso and/or strengthening US dollar, your money will go far in Colombia.

We found it to be safe anywhere that most leisure and business travelers are likely to go. Regular police, private security officers and heavily armed soldiers (often accompanied by dogs) were plentiful. In La Candelaria, we saw plenty of friendly and helpful tourist police.

The Colombians we met appeared truly glad to see American visitors. We were always treated well.

Bogotá’s climate is comfortable and cool year-round (40°-60°F.) due to its elevation of about 8,600 feet. Total annual rainfall is less than 30 inches. Summer (June-August) and winter (December-February) are the dry seasons.

Bogotá’s tap water is fine to drink. However, it’s very soft.

Local cuisine is interesting. Exotic fruits (often available in juices and smoothies) and an amazing variety of potatoes from the Andes were highlights. While not bland, Colombian food is not as highly seasoned as most Latin American fare. Mealtimes are similar to those in the US.

Most museums are either free or charge only a nominal fee (around $1) for admission. If you’re at least 60, admission is typically free. (You’ll need your passport to document your age.)

Museums and art galleries almost always allow photography, albeit with no flash. 

Although Colombia doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time and is on Standard Time year-round, it is in the same time zone as the East Coast of the US, so jet lag isn’t much of an issue.

The not-so-good news —

You’ll likely experience difficulties getting cash from ATMs (Oct. ’15, pg. 12).

Sidewalks in Bogotá tend to be in a shambles. Also, apparently, handrails for stairs are optional.

Bogotá’s transit system (there are buses and minibuses but no subway yet) is confusing. If you do ride, expect the buses and minibuses to be crowded and hot.

Traffic is a problem in the city. Once it took us over a half-hour to travel three miles. (I used to be able to run a lot faster than that.)

English speakers, even at tourist sites and popular restaurants, aren’t as common as you would hope. 

Currently, there is a lot of noisy and disruptive construction in and near Plaza de Bolívar, in the heart of La Candelaria.

Due to Bogotá’s high elevation, it’s easy to get sunburned, so use sunscreen and dress accordingly. Until you acclimate to the high altitude. you may find yourself getting out of breath going up hills and stairs. On your first couple of days, as you adjust, take it easy and drink extra water.

In most locations, the sewage system won’t accommodate toilet paper. You’ll need to place used toilet paper in the container provided nearby.

You’ll likely be awakened more than once by car alarms.

We were told we could not purchase beer (or probably any alcoholic beverage) in stores until 3 p.m. However, that was not the case in bars and restaurants.

Many visitors to Bogotá take a day trip to Zipaquirá to see its underground Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral). A bit overrated, it’s probably not worth your time unless you’ve never seen anything similar.

If you arrive in Bogotá’s El Dorado International Airport from the US, expect to exit your plane on stairs down to the tarmac. There you’ll board a bus for a 5- to 10-minute ride to an entrance at the international terminal. Consider it an opportunity to witness the inner workings of an airport.

When checking in at the airport for your departure, you may be advised to stop by the Civil Air Authority’s booth opposite the check-in counters. There it will either be confirmed that your air ticket includes the “international airport tax” or that you need to pay this departure tax.

My wife and I stopped by the booth, and they confirmed that the tax was included in our ticket price; we each paid $37 (then, COP99,700).

This tax is sometimes called a fee, and it changes frequently (at least, in the amount of pesos). The current amount is thoughtfully displayed at the bottom left of the airport’s website homepage, http://eldorado.aero.

STEPHEN O. ADDISON, Jr.

Charlotte, NC