Budget Vacation Guide 2012: Bogota, Colombia

Everything about Bogota, Colombia’s capital of culture, cuisine and Cumbia, begs for further exploration. From the rough-around-the-edges street art of colonial-tinged ‘hood Candelaria, to the fabulous golden Pre-Columbian artifacts at the Museo del Oro, to the buzzing coffee bars of Zona G, there’s a little something for every type of traveler in this rapidly rising mecca of South American tourism. Best of all, there’s never been a better (or cheaper) time to investigate this symbol of Colombia’s continued tourist resurgence.

Simply put, Bogota offers one of the continent’s most affordable blends of culture and cost. Thanks to a healthy exchange rate of around 1,900 Colombian pesos to the dollar, Bogota visitors can expect to experience the city’s first-rate amenities at positively rock bottom prices. A taxi ride to most attractions within the city costs less than $10, while a hearty plate of Bandeja Paisa, a gut-bursting sampler of Colombia’s culinary staples, will set you back less than $5. Bogota’s array of budget-friendly guesthouses offer private rooms starting for as little as $15-30/night.

And at just a six hour non-stop flight from New York City and three and a half hours from Miami, Bogota is surprisingly easy to get to. Move over Buenos Aires – Bogota is about to give South American travelers in search of a great value a run for their money.

Take a musical trip to Colombia with The Original Sound of Cumbia

I made my first visit to Colombia this past February and was immediately fascinated with the place. Everything from the rough-around-the-edges charm of Bogota, to the exotic tropical fruit juices, to the vibrant nightlife left me craving more. Today on Spotify I found an album that brought all of those Colombian travel experiences rushing back – a just-released compilation called “The Original Sound of Cumbia.”

What’s Cumbia, you say? Well, it’s a musical style uniquely typical of Colombia, an infectious blend of trumpets, drums and accordions that combines the influence of indigenous tribes, Spanish colonists and rhythms brought from Africa by slaves. Basically it’s the type of music that will have you dancing around your desk and shaking your hips to the pulsing, catchy tunes. Sound interesting? Well The Original Sound of Colombia is exactly what you need to get started. Created by the musical experts at Soundway Records, the 2-disc album collects some of the genre’s greatest hits from all the way back in 1948 all the way up to 1979. The meticulously selected songs chart the rise of this elegant, catchy, fun and joyous sound as it evolved from peasant party music to the official soundtrack of Colombia.

Many music-lovers are guilty of banishing non-American and non-European bands to a catch-all genre called World Music. Before you write off The Original Sound of Cumbia as just another collection of music from some strange South American country, give it a listen on Spotify or buy the CD from Soundway. Even if you’ve never been to Colombia, we promise it will have you dancing circles around your laptop while you book the next flight down to Bogota.

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.

Round the World in 80 Sounds – Latintronica

Welcome back to Gadling’s newest weekly series on music, Round the World in 80 Sounds. Europe and North America are not the only place for great dance music these days. Increasingly music fans, DJ’s and dancers the world over are looking south of the border to the dynamic and growing electronic music scenes in countries like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The forward-thinking sounds coming from these countries are strongly rooted in traditions of the past, blending local folk music styles with modern instruments and techniques to create a distinctly modern hybrid. It’s an energetic, fun and authentic musical experience any curious traveler will want to check out on your next visit.

The genre of electronic music began in American cities like Detroit and Chicago in the 80’s, springing to life as the Disco scene began to fade. Ever since, the music has been a fixture in the North American and European nightlife scenes. But it’s taken longer for the music to take root in the rest of the world. Only in the last 10 years have home-grown electronic music scenes started to blossom in regions like Asia, Africa and particularly in Latin America. In Argentina, a style called Digital Cumbia has risen to the fore, while in Mexico bands like Nortec Collective infuse traditional Mexican Norteño music with modern style. Meanwhile in Brazil, a slew of artists like Gui Borrato are bringing electronic music to a growing army of fans.

Ready to open your ears to one of Latin America’s most interesting musical trends? Keep reading below…Digital Cumbia in Argentina
Call it whatever you want – Electronic Cumbia, Digital Cumbia or just plain fun – the fact remains: a steady stream of good times and great music has been broadcasting from Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires now for several years. Centered around the city’s now-legendary Zizek Club, it’s a new musical movement based around Cumbia, a traditional South American musical style featuring strong rhythms and instruments like Claves, accordions and drums. Electronic Cumbia takes this traditional style to the next level, injecting it with synthesizers, hip-hop beats and gangster-style rhymes. Check out the video below and make sure to visit one of Zizek’s weekly parties the next time you make it to Buenos Aires.

Norteno and Mexican Techno
For Americans, Tijuana is not much more than a hedonistic border town. A place for those looking for a night of entertainment and cheap prescription drugs. But as it turns out, there’s a lot more going on south of the border these days, including a thriving music scene. A collection of DJ’s and producers call Tijuana home, tapping into Northern Mexico’s vast wealth of Norteno music for inspiration.

Norteño, a style of Mexican “polka” with lots of noisy horns and plenty of strong rhythms, has gotten a modern rework by Mexican electronic acts like Nortec Collective, who remake Norteño with a into a uniqeuly modern style. Along with Mexico City-based musician Mexican Institute of Sound, these artists are part of a growing electronic music movement based on Mexico. Check out this 2005 tribute to Tijuana by Nortec Collective:

Brazil’s Exploding Pop Scene
Of all the great music happening these days in Latin and South America, none is as dynamic as the exploding music scene in Brazil. Considering Brazil’s long and rich musical history, from Bossa Nova to Samba and Caetano Veloso, the current wave of innovation comes as no surprise.

Electro Rock bands like Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS) have earned consistent international attention, with their catchy, danceable rock sound. In the realm of dance music, Brazilian producer and DJ Gui Boratto has been rocking the international club scene since 2007. These Brazilian electronic music innovators take their cues less from traditional Brazilian sounds, instead applying a distinct Brazilian interpretation to the global music scenes abroad in Europe, North America and beyond. Have a listen to Boratto’s 2007 single, “Beautiful Life:”

Round the World in 80 Sounds: What’s World Music?

What is World Music? How has such a bland, vague term come to describe the rich and divergent music of thousands of cultures, from sub-Saharan Gnawa to Colombian Cumbia and Tuvan Throat Singing? For too long, it’s been the descriptor anywhere we buy or hear international music, from record stores to digital outlets like iTunes, relegating hundreds of diverse artists to a single heap because of their “otherness.” In fact, World Music is a Western term describing music outside the traditional “pop music canon:” the familiar American and European bands that long-dominated our radios and laptops. But World Music is on its way out: a hunger for the varied sounds from around the globe is rising to take its place.

The term “World Music” is a relatively recent phenomenon. Coined by a musicologist by the name of Robert E. Brown in the 1960’s, it was created to describe styles of ethnic or folk music found in more remote corners of the globe. World Music actually worked OK for much of the last 50 years, as long as the Western World remained the center of economic, political and cultural force. In the 20th Century, the West dominated the global airwaves, with icons like Michael Jackson and The Beatles winning hearts and record players from Bogota to Beijing. But by the end of the 90’s, it was clear the term was increasingly irrelevant.

As we push into the 21st Century, the Western dominance of the global music scene has waned. A new global musical consciousness springs up in its place, driven by the power of a global economy and music distribution systems where digital files and streaming videos are the norm. The hot sounds of 2010 don’t just come from New York and London – instead, rhythms ricochet across the globe, from Angola to Argentina and to Angkor Wat, finding eager listeners and receptive audiences in the farthest corners of our planet. It’s not just that music lovers are just discovering new global favorites, it’s also having a profound impact on what we listen to at home. The DNA of this global music phenomenon has worked its way into the music of our favorite singers and bands, from M.I.A. to Shakira to Vampire Weekend.

The global phenomenon of music is also tied to travel. Wherever we go, music permeates our consciousness, buzzing from tinny taxi radios, echoing off the chambers of metro tunnels and pumping from giant speakers. But alluring as it may be, discovering global music can also be confusing and intimidating. There are enough countries, artists and weird musical genres to make your head spin. What’s a traveling music-lover to do?

Today we’re unveiling a new feature here at Gadling called “Round the World in 80 Sounds.” The phenomena of global travel and music are inextricably intertwined. Each Thursday over the course of the coming weeks and months we’ll be taking a look at some of the world’s most fascinating music personalities, emerging musical trends and musically inclined destinations. We’ll introduce you to new styles of music you haven’t heard, and help you to take a fresh look at some of your old favorites with a global eye. What qualifies as World Music in 2010? Everything and nothing, it seems, all at once. Prepare to take a journey into the fascinating world of music today as we head Round the World in 80 Sounds.

Curious about the sounds of the world? Read future Round the World in 80 Sounds posts HERE.