Latin America on a budget: Bogota, Colombia

Not all the glowing stories about Colombia’s travel revival are true: a visit to Bogota can still be dangerous. I actually found myself in peril my first day in Colombia’s capital when I went for some authentic lunch. As I sat down for my first Colombian meal, a friendly local recommended the “Bandeja Paisa,” a hearty Colombian dish. Why not, I thought? Except his innocent meal was not what it seemed – the dish that showed up at my table looked downright terrifying: a dangerously delicious heart-attack-on-a-plate of ground beef, a fried plantain, a chorizo sausage, rice, a fried egg, avocado, crispy pork skin (are we done yet?), beans AND an arepa to top it off in case I was still hungry. As I consumed the tasty fare, I began to feel dangerously lethargic – my breath slowed, and I literally had to fight from slipping into a nap as I later explored Bogota’s nearby Museo del Oro. In other words, I was loving every minute of my time in Bogota.

Bogota, Colombia is still a dangerous place to visit these days. It’s just that it’s not dangerous in the way you’re probably thinking. In place of drugs and violence, this delightfully accessible Colombian capital is now “dangerous” for lots of good reasons: the dangerously gorgeous streets of colonial Candelaria, the city’s sinfully exotic tropical fruit juices and mouth-watering culinary delights and, most importantly, its threateningly inexpensive costs for North American budget travelers.

This past February, I made the remarkably easy five hour non-stop Delta flight down to Bogota from New York City to find out just what everyone was talking about. My mission: to explore the city on just $75 a day. Wondering what I discovered in this dangerously intriguing South American capital? Keep reading below.Orientation
The sprawling city of Bogota rests on a high mountain plateau set against the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. Within this metropolis of over seven million residents lie several distinct neighborhoods of interest to the budget traveler.

Visitors on a tight budget head for La Candelaria, an atmospheric neighborhood of gorgeous colonial facades and many of the city’s hostels and guesthouses. Though not quite as atmospheric, Bogota’s more upscale neighborhoods to the north, including Zona T, Zona G and Parque 93 offer equally leafy, park-laden confines swarming with restaurants, cafes and nightlife. Chapinero, just to the south of Bogota’s swanky commercial areas is an increasingly attractive option as well.

Where to Stay
Given my travel budget for Bogota, my initial search led me to Bogota’s cheaper Candelaria neighborhood, where I considered renting private rooms at Hostel Sue ($15/night) and Anandamayi Hostel ($30/night). Cheaper mixed dorm beds were also available. At the recommendation of Jeff, a Colombian expat who runs Career Break Secrets, I ended up checking out La Pinta, slightly further north in Chapinero, with private rooms for $27/night.

La Pinta proved to be the perfect match. Its pleasant backyard, proximity to nearby pubs filled with students and central location made a great base to explore Bogota’s northern neighborhoods as well as easy access to La Candelaria in the south.

Getting Around
Bogota’s progressive approach to city planning comes through in the city’s extensive transportation network. From the airport, it was within my budget to grab a regulated taxi, run by a dispatcher, for flat fare between $8-13. Make sure to look for the stand when you exit the terminal.

Once you make it to Bogota proper, getting around is fairly cheap as well. Even a typical taxi ride between the Northern and Southern parts of Bogota never cost me more than $10. Make sure to look for a regulated cab with 411-1111 or 311-1111 on the side to prevent scams. Though I typically took taxis, Bogota’s extensive and reliable Transmilenio express bus system is another attractive option at under $1 per ride.

My Bogota Experience
With little time to spare on my short weekend trip to Bogota, I headed straight out of the airport and right into Bogota’s buzzing weekend nightlife. I spent my first evening downing one dollar Aguila beers in the scruffy bohemian bars lining Carrera Septima (7th Avenue) near La Pinta. It was a delight to watch the energetic student patrons shuffle along to vintage Cumbia music inside the bars, their walls lined with Colombian flags and peeling Che Guevara posters.

The next morning was Sunday, a day many Bogota residents use to partake in the city’s Ciclovía: a weekly event when the city’s main road is closed off to cars and cyclists, walkers and joggers take to the streets in the beautiful 70 degree weather. I walked all the way from Chipinero to La Candelaria along the Ciclovía route, stopping for lunch at Sabrosita, a local Colombian chain, where I stuffed myself on a plate of hearty Bandeja Paisa ($3 for a plate) before continuing to Bogota’s famed Museo Del Oro.

It was at the Museum of Gold (Museo del Oro) that I began to realize what a gem of destination Bogota had become. The museum’s collection, housed inside a sleek, artfully arranged facility downtown, is composed of literally thousands of pieces of gold jewelry and ceremonial objects, each more stunning than the next. Best of all on Sundays, the museum is free of charge.

Thanks to a long weekend, I had one more day to enjoy in this cosmopolitan city in the Andes, and I truly made the most of it. I wandered my way back to Candelaria, stopping to take in the sprawling plaza at Plaza de Bolivar, and explore the nearby cobblestone streets lined with colorful facades, ornate woodwork and unique street graffiti. At this point my energy was flagging – a situation that I remedied with a drink made of a unique Colombian infusion of sugar, chocolate and…cheese (?) called Chocolate Santafereno at a famous Candelaria sweet shop called La Puerta Falsa.

I had read about Chocolate Santafereno, but couldn’t fathom why anyone would put a hunk of creamy cheese in a perfectly good cup of hot chocolate – until I tasted it. The salty, creamy queso blended perfectly with the sweet & spicy, thick pudding-like texture of Colombian hot chocolate. It was a pick-me-up, culinary novelty and comfort food, wrapped into one.

Much like that first taste of Chocolate Santafereno, my experience in Bogota was not what I was expecting. Colombia is indeed dangerous…dangerously addictive, that is. Take a quick taste for a weekend, and you’re likely to come back wanting more.

Hungry for more budget travel ideas? Be sure to check out Gadling’s budget travel archive.