Is Bogota really the next Buenos Aires?

Yes is the short answer. Bogota is indeed the next Buenos Aires. But before we get to why this is the case, we need to understand why Buenos Aires is the current Buenos Aires.

Travelers have an insatiable appetite for great cities that are cheap, and there’s probably no demographic that pursues this particular type of destination more than the next-destination-early-adopters, or NDEAs. Buenos Aires enchanted the NDEAs back in 2002 and 2003 when the Argentinian economy was in terrible shape and things were dirt cheap. Here was a beautiful, European city reminiscent of–gosh, what? Paris? Madrid? Rome? Milan? A little of all of these, and yet unmistakably Latin American, too.

There were rich neighborhoods where things were very cheap for visiting North Americans and Europeans, and slightly gritty tourist neighborhoods like La Boca with good restaurants tucked away on side streets. There was Palermo, a massive neighborhood with pockets of cute little streets and boutiques that seemed as if it might transform into an outpost of international cool. Visitors saw for sale signs across wealthy neighborhoods. They saw enormous lines of Argentines in suits queuing up in front of banks; other banks, covered with spray-painted graffiti, appeared to be essentially boarded up.

Things changed. The Argentine economy made its way out of the cellar. In 2006 a splashy article in New York Magazine broke the then-mainstream story that New Yorkers could live high on the hog in this charming, warm, incredible city at a fraction of the cost of staying at home. There was a time when every other 28 year-old in New York was openly fantasizing about spending a season in Buenos Aires. I exaggerate, but not by much.

Will this sort of thing happen to Bogotá? In 2014 will we see a story in New York Magazine about how Bogotá is the perfect place to live well on not all that much? Probably not. It’s cheap and it’s got lashings of the fabulous, but it doesn’t have the glorious weather that Buenos Aires enjoys for eight months of the year. Nevertheless, there are at least five powerful forces at play that will continue to motivate journalists and other serious travelers to proclaim Bogotá a next big thing for the foreseeable future.

1. It has lots of rich people. Most tourists like being around rich locals doing things that would cost more money at home. The north of Bogotá sees one rich neighborhood after another full of shopping malls, rich ladies, and teenagers projecting clubby ennui.

2. It’s starting at a terribly low point in the international public imagination. In other words, the Colombian national brand really sucked until fairly recently. The news stories about drug cartels, politically-minded paramilitary organizations, physical danger, and kidnapping came to define the entire country. No matter that my new Colombian friends tell me that they’ve never felt unsafe in Bogotá. The narrative is out there, and only recently has it begun to assume a different shape.

3. It’s a completely exciting city, both pretty and brutal. Candelaria, the area of the city that grabs so much attention, is Bogotá’s colonial core, with excellent museums, awe-inspiring churches, tourist shops, and restaurants. It feels vaguely chaotic, and happily unpredictable. Colonial abuts art deco. It is less a union of opposites as a planning crapshoot that turned out well. And while it doesn’t exactly feel dangerous, it does feel like a place to mind your backpack or purse, and this is part of the city’s lure, frankly. It’s a crowded city that, despite its many upgrades (see below) remains gritty and crowded.

4. The city is in flux. Road works are everywhere, and it’s clear that the city is fully swept up in a state of development and renewal. Two mayors over the last several years (Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus) both engineered significant changes in Bogotá. The result: a series of real improvements for residents as well as major urban planning upgrades. The latter includes bike lanes, fewer vehicular fatalities, an improved park system, pedestrian-only roads on Sundays, and a mass transit system.

5. Bogotá is not that far from the United States. It’s five hours from New York by airplane, and the frequency of air links is decent. It’s an easy place to visit from North America for a long weekend, and it’s been a consistently well-priced route for several years now.

Want more Colombia travel inspiration? Check out Elizabeth Seward’s recent Medellín itinerary tips post for Gadling.