Bogotá is a surprisingly easy city for intrepid tourists to navigate. Addresses in Bogotá are amazingly precise, and helpful; after you get your head around how the numbers work. Carreras (sometimes abbreviated to K) run roughly parallel to the ever-visible mountains (North-South), while Calles (Cll) go east-west. The smallest numbers of each (i.e. K 1, and Cll 1) are in La Candelaria, at the foot of the mountains; and once you know what Carrera/Calle corner your destination is near, it’s not hard to track it down.
A great proportion of the famous landmarks of Bogotá one would want to see during the day are bunched together in that charming, old colonial part of town, La Candelaria. Here, you will find the grand old Plaza Bolivar, with its accompanying buildings, such as the Primary Cathedral. Waiting in Plaza Bolivar’s wings are a good chunk of the best museums, among them the spectacular Gold Museum (Museo del Oro), and the unmissable collection of Colombia’s own Fernando Botero’s work; along with great little restaurants, bars, and hostels, all jostling for space.
A quick jaunt from La Candelaria will put you right at the foot of that most famous of Bogotá landmarks; Monseratte; the mountain and church which are the guardians of the city, and which can be seen from nearly anywhere in Bogotá’s bounds. As the day draws on, grabbing a taxi will take you further north, either to the funky bars and clubs around Chapinero; the fancier restaurants and clubs around Zona T; or somewhere in between. And even further north, just out of town, is the outrageous Andres Carne de Res – is it a restaurant? bar(s)? club? – that deserves at least one night’s visit for a larger-than-life experience.
When traveling in Colombia – or most South American countries for that matter – it doesn’t take long to realise that Simon Bolivar is the boss. His name and features can be seen all over Bogotá ; but first and foremost amongst these loving tributes is the square named in his honour, Plaza Bolivar. We say first quite literally; as the bronze statue in his majestic likeness which holds pride of place in the centre of the square has stood there since 1846; which means it was Bogotá ’s first public monument. And foremost; as the square lies right in the middle of the oldest part of the city, La Candelaria.
Being so venerable and central, this plaza has witnessed a lion’s share of the country’s ups and downs. Fire, sieges, celebrations; the bronze Bolivar has seen it all, and still gazes stoically into Colombia’s bright future. These days, he watches on as flocks of pigeons; the occasional demonstration; street vendors offering anything from chorizos to llama rides; puppet shows; and snap-happy tourists congregate before him. The tourists certainly have plenty to snap: of course there is the unmoving Bolivar aloft on his now-multicoloured base; but also the Palace of Justice; the National Capitol; and also the impressive Primary Cathedral of Bogotá, alongside the Holy Chapel, where mass is still fervently attended.
In our opinion though, all these photo opportunities are rivalled by the endless parade of Bogotanos that circulate around the square. Go on a Sunday, when the closure of Carrera 7 (the Septima) to cars unleashes a torrent of dawdling, happy citizens on Bolivar’s domain. Music pumps, street performers do what they do best, and just try to choose from all the street food being peddled – chips, coloured popcorn, fairy floss (cotton candy) or ice-cream to name a few of the options. Around Christmas time, El Libertador graciously shares his space with a massive tree, adorned with an equally proportioned star.
Plaza Bolivar, figuring so prominently in Bogotá’s past, is a vibrant focal point for the present day. For the tourist, it is an excellent jumping-off point into the energy and life of the capital. Use it as a handy base as you explore the many restaurants, museums, and bars that crowd around it. And tip a respectful hat to the proud sentinel of the square as you walk by. He deserves it.
Museo del Oro
Smack-bang in the middle of bustling La Candelaria stands this meticulously thought-out, comprehensive and sensitive tribute to the indigenous people of Colombia. Free on Sundays, and not much more otherwise, the Gold Museum is a project of the Bank of the Republic which was set up to preserve and regain Colombia’s archeologically important artefacts. Guided tours are available – both in person and on headphones – to help you fully appreciate both the care and imagination used in putting this museum together.
The Museo del Oro in Bogota actually consists of four galleries, designed to follow the story of gold in the land now known as Colombia. Start off with an exhibition that shows how the ancient peoples found the gold, and how they crafted it into such exquisite objects. Next, you are lead into the intricacies of indigenous cultures, to learn of the special relationship that this metal and the peoples enjoyed; gold being an integral facet in their religious, political, and social lives. Rise up into the vault and fill your head with the symbolism and cosmology inherent in these stunning golden works of art.
The most memorable experience is yet to come, however, as you are invited to participate in “The Offering,” the ceremony behind the El Dorado myth. One of the most precious artefacts, the beautifully delicate Muisca Raft with its powerful and precious cargo, is held in lonely pride of place to introduce the event. Don’t miss the finale as you near the end of the story. There will be a staff member asking people to wait, before guiding you into a pitch-black room. From there you will be right in the middle of the ceremony, complete with lights, sounds, and singing emanating from the walls; in a satisfyingly fitting crescendo to your journey.
The Gold Museum is clearly dedicated to showing how gold’s brilliant qualities can mean so much more than just monetary value. It was integral to the way life was lived. Museo del Oro is a celebration and homage to the many indigenous cultures of this country and represents a gesture that is sorely needed; as too often – here and all over the world – first peoples are swept to the side of the street. Walking through these halls provides a glimpse of the beauty and majesty of such golden cultures; and can leave you pondering just what we could be missing out on.
Turn your head east pretty much anywhere in Bogotá, and you’ll see the heights of Monserrate peering benevolently back at you. This mountain is a focal point for the city in a number of senses: particularly in terms of orientation, religion, and tourism. Perched three kilometres above sea-level is Monserrate’s church, where an important Catholic shrine to “the Fallen Lord” is lovingly ensconced. Colombian pilgrims make the steep, hour-long climb up the track on weekend mornings to pay their respect to their saviour. If you’re feeling sprightly, why not join them? Not only is the climb bracing and the church beautiful, but the top of Monserrate is without question the best way to get an overview of how big, bustling Bogotá all fits together. For this reason alone, it is a great choice amongst the historical landmarks in Bogotá for the first trip to do once you make it to the capital.
Don’t despair, though; there are more leisurely means of transportation to the peak and its panorama. A train makes its way up and down the incline in the mornings, and a cable car (or funicular) takes over the job once the train’s had enough. Either way, it will take just a few minutes; and will set you back less than COP$20,000 return, significantly less – and earlier – on a Sunday. Even if you are feeling energetic, this form of conveyance up the mountain is recommended when there aren’t groups of good weekend pilgrims accompanying you.
Once there, take your time to catch your breath; because you are liable to lose it once again when you see the entirety of Bogotá stretched out before your feet. Around Christmas time, the mountain and surrounds are arrayed with festive lights, just adding to the spectacle. Reward yourself with a snack, drink, or souvenir at the stalls clustered around the corner. There are also a couple of restaurants if you feel you need something more substantial. Congratulations! You’ve just experienced the best view of the city, and thus are able to have a stronger grasp on what this energetic, rambunctious city is all about.