Bogota’s Tasty Historic Center

July 14, 2009 at 11:05 am | Posted in Colombia, history, South America | Leave a comment
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by José Balido

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

One of the sloping streets in Bogota's La Candelaria district

For reasons that certainly don’t need repeating, until fairly recently informing your nearest and dearest you’re considering a vacation in Colombia might’ve been considered grounds for dialing the dudes in the white coats. But these days, the country’s capital is optimistic, as safe as anywhere in Latin America, and in the midst of a boom in restaurants, la rumba (nightlife), and the economy and society in general. Apart from an impressive mountain setting and comfily cool weather all year round, what makes a visit well worth the flight is the city’s intensely atmospheric colonial core, La Candelaria. Dating back to Santa Fé de Bogotá’s 1538 founding and anchored by the expansive Plaza Bolívar and the neoclassical presidential palace, Casa Nariño, the old quarter’s 2¼ square miles of sloping brick- and cobblestone-paved streets are crammed with enough sites, sights, and stuff to do for several very rewarding days, all against the dramatic, cloud-wreathed backdrop of the surrounding Andes.

Start with the digs – there’s a nice selection budget hostels and midrange small hotels; folks seem to particularly like the Platypus, and others include Hotel Internacional and El Dorado. If you can spend a bit more, check out a pair of restored buildings that combine the colonial with mod-cons: the elegant 81-room Hotel de la Ópera (check out that fancy spa and pool in the basement, ay, caramba!) and the smaller, less pricey Hotel Casa de la Botica, with a more contemporary flavor inside. Getting fed is fairly easy, too, from tasty street food to a range of cafés and restaurants.

Stops on your sightseeing itinerary should of course include several of the old churches, of which the cathedral is the largest but far from the most interesting (for truly over-the-top art and gilt, check out San Ignacio, Santa Clara, and San Francisco). Must-visit museums, meanwhile, are devoted to conquistador-era art and furnishings; the roly-poly folks painted and sculpted by the world-famous Fernando Botero; and above all pre-Columbian gold tribal artifacts that will just knock your knickers off. You can even apply for a tour of Casa Nariño.

One thing especially worth noting is that, unlike, say, Old San Juan, La Candelaria is far from just a kitschy tourist zone. A dizzying spectrum of bogotano society bustles along its streets every day, and you can easily dine with them (a variety of eateries range from humble and funky to fancy and pricey) and shop with them (there are several colorful covered markets, and green-bling fans can even browse for the local gem specialty on an “emerald alley” along Carrera 6). Some have noted a crime problem at night, once the daytime crowds are gone — but anyone used to navigating big cities with care and common sense should be able to manage just fine.

So yes, by all means take time out to hop the funicular up looming Monserrate hill with its Sugarloaf-style Virgin Mary statue and va-va-voom city views; to hit the restaurants and clubs in North Bogotá’s Zona Rosa and Parque de la 93; to browse the Sunday street market and charming old plaza in Usaquén; and to take day and even overnight jaunts to coffee country and the impressive salt-mine-turned-underground cathedral in Zipaquirá. But just make sure to give yourself the leisure to soak up the atmosphere of La Candelaria, one of the most historic and flavorful working neighborhoods in the Americas.

For more info, see go-lo’s Colombia group.

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