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Some years ago, before I had ever been to Cali, or anywhere else in Colombia, I flew into Bogotá to spend a week with a good friend. We stayed with her in-laws, who very graciously took it upon themselves to show the gringa, who had no clue what the hell was going on, around the capital. They took me to what you might call Bogotá's Greatest Hits—places that all tourists go the first time, and then seldom return to. I have been back to Bogotá many times since my first visit, and, other than frequent returns to the colonial Candelaria neighborhood, had not retraced those first steps until last month.
Unbeknownst to me, tourism boards organize trips for foreign tour operators, called "FAM" trips, to familiarize them with a country's destinations. I was invited on one of these trips in Bogotá, which is how I found myself doing the tourist rounds with 11 tourism professionals, none of whom could figure out why on earth I was on the trip with them (that makes 12 of us). More importantly, though: where did we go, and are these places worth visiting? And what did I see now, that I didn't then?
The first morning was spent in the Salt Cathedral and the colonial town of Zipaquirá. The town is both home to the Salt Cathedral and to the preparatory school where celebrated (and recently deceased) Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez studied. The Salt Cathedral is, rather improbably, constructed inside a salt mine, and it's a bit of a monument to the very strong Catholicism that continues to dominate the culture here. The cathedral is impressive in scale, and like many popular tourist destinations, it is very much worth a one-time visit. You are guaranteed some pretty striking photo opportunities, as well as the option of having coffee 500 ft. underground (Colombians never miss an opportunity to drink coffee).
Returning from Zipaquirá, we stopped for lunch at a place called El Pórtico, which is a beautiful colonial-style hacienda in the outskirts of Bogotá. El Pórtico was new to me, and if what you're looking for is a leisurely lunch in a beautiful location, it's certainly the place to go. The space is regularly used to shoot movies and hold weddings, making it "typical" in a picturesque countryside sense and atypical in that the prices are higher than you might find elsewhere. In some ways, the food feels secondary to the scenery.
By the by, the Bogotá region has some wonderful local specialties: ajiaco (creamy potato-chicken soup, a meal in itself), caldo de costilla (rib soup, for breakfast!), changua (cilantro-egg soup, for breakfast!), almojabanas (delicious cheese-corn rolls), and, new to me, budin de almojabanas, aka almojabana bread pudding, which I tried for the first time this visit at the Club Colombia restaurant. Club Colombia is the best mass-produced Colombian beer, and though I consumed no beer at their restaurant I would return just for the almojabana dessert. (I may or may not have written to the restaurant requesting the recipe, and they may or may not have ignored my request.)
Our second day in Bogotá was spent primarily in the old part of the city. We walked around the Candelaria neighborhood, which is and always will be a favorite of mine for lazy Sunday strolling and devouring enormous bowls of the aforementioned ajiaco. La Candelaria is full of Spanish-style architecture; many of the old houses in this neighborhood have been preserved in a city currently teeming with apartments. On top of that, the neighborhood is full of museums, bookstores (including the wonderful one housed in the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Center) and other curiosities to poke around in.
We focused on the Gold Museum, which is always a good place to start—lots of pre-Columbine artifacts, lots of gold. I hadn't been aware of how emblematic many of the figures were my first time there—pre-Columbine figures decorate the pages of the Colombian passport, and replicas in jewelry and other decorative forms are sold all over the country, instantly recognizable by all (for example: the Club Colombia symbol three pictures above). Though we didn't go in this time, I can also recommend the Botero museum, which is small and lovely and free.
After the museum, we went to Andrés D.C. for lunch, which is the second incarnation of what is currently the most notorious restaurant in the country, Andrés Carne de Res. My very first night out in Colombia I was taken to Andrés Carne de Res. I had no idea where I was being taken or why we were going there, but I was fascinated by the decorations and festive atmosphere. I had a fun, memorable night, without any reason to think all restaurants in Colombia weren't like that (spoiler: they aren't). These days, I know that Andrés Carne de Res (and Andrés D.C.) is notoriously expensive, notoriously crème-de-la-crème and ostentatious, notoriously unapologetic…and still really fun to go to.
For the uninitiated, going to one of these restaurants is entering into a sort of Colombian fun-house world. Costumed actors go from table to table, making quips and entertaining the kids. Roving musicians serenade birthday groups (of which there are many). You don't come specifically for the food, though the food is quite good. In the original Andrés Carne de Res, located on the outskirts of town, people stay partying late into the night, dancing from room to room and between (if not on) the tables. The above sign "Bueno Bonito y Carito" (Good, Pretty and Expensive) is a pretty in-your-face play on the very common phrase (and typically desirable criteria) "Bueno Bonito y Barato" (Good, Pretty, and Cheap), and rather indicative of the atmosphere of the place.
As Bogotá is the political and economic capital of Colombia, it is more cosmopolitan and offers many of the museums, high-end boutiques and hotels, and other amenities that many travelers prefer. Its big city status also means that it shares a lot of qualities with a city like New York-- people on a whole are known for being less friendly than they are in the rest of Colombia, and there are many, many non-Bogotanos living in Bogotá, having migrated for jobs and educational opportunities. Though this visit was focused on distinctly Bogotano sites, Bogotá is full of artisans from the Atlantic coast, coffee-growers from the Eje Cafetero (the coffee-growing region), musicians from Cali, and students from all over the country, making it possible to find almost anything that you might be looking for from the rest of the country.
It is always the case that the first time in any city it's only possible to scratch the surface, and as a tourist it's most often a very polished surface that you're scratching. That said, this being my second time around as a "first time" visitor, this is a pretty good Intro to Bogotá. Add in an afternoon stroll around Usaquén and a trip to one of the market halls to eat an overflowing cheese- and sweetened condensed milk-laden fruit salad (tastes way better than it sounds), and you've got a fine Bogotá itinerary on your hands.