I traveled to Bogotá, Colombia, for the first time and stayed for only 24 hours.
I was curious how much I could experience on a short visit, and planned my must-dos before arriving.
I was impressed by how easy it was to explore the city and how diverse its neighborhoods were.
In September I visited Bogotá, Colombia, for the first time for just 24 hours. I flew direct from Orlando to Bogotá, arriving at 1 p.m. on Saturday only to depart at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
The pandemic canceled my original plans to visit Bogotá for a few days in 2020. Now, with a two-year-old to take care of at home in Orlando, I thought a 24-hour visit would be a manageable way to get a small, yet fulfilling, taste of Colombia's capital.
When I arrived in Bogotá, I was immediately impressed with the modern El Dorado airport. The variety of restaurants, retail shops, and the rentable nap pods made it feel very lavish.
It took me about an hour to pass through customs and immigration, so at 2 p.m., I hailed a taxi from the airport to go check out Distrito Graffiti, which is two blocks decorated with murals near the city's industrial center.
I thought Distrito Graffiti's murals were eclectic. Some were vibrant pop-art cartoons and others had motifs reflecting Colombian culture or native wildlife.
I found out about Distrito Graffiti online, but didn't realize until I got there that it isn't within walking distance of other tourist sites. This open air museum is roughly halfway between the airport and Bogotá's main tourism area.
With the help of translation apps, my taxi driver said that he wanted to wait for me while I walked and looked at the murals, and also wanted to take me on a mini tour of other large murals throughout the south end of the city.
The murals my taxi driver drove by were also cool to see, but most were either in heavily congested areas where we couldn't easily park, or located on less populated, back alley roads that felt a bit out of the way, and I was eager to prioritize my itinerary over time spent driving around.
After seeing the murals, my taxi driver dropped me off at Hostal Macondo, the hostel I'd booked for the night, located in the Chapinero district's tiny Quinta Camacho neighborhood.
The neighborhood's red brick buildings and quiet, tree-lined streets made me forget I was in Colombia's bustling capital city.
Hostal Macondo, where I stayed, is a two-story building with an open living space downstairs that had a bathroom, dining area, and cafe/bar where guests could order beer, coffee, and snacks. Overall, the hostel was quiet and I didn't see many other guests.
Up the creaky wooden stairs, there was one female dorm, one uni-sex dorm, and a private room. Down the hallway, the shared bathroom had shower stalls and a single toilet, and I was impressed by how clean it was. I'd hoped to mingle with other travelers, but I was alone in my six-bunk room aside from one other visitor. Towels were available to rent for a fee, but thankfully the sheets and pillow were included, which I thought made the run-of-the-mill mattress in my bunk much more comfortable.
I ordered an empanada and Americano from the cafe downstairs. Both were tasty, although I thought the coffee wasn't as strong as the brews I'd had the weekend before while visiting the country's Coffee Triangle region.
After a quick refresh at the hostel, I headed outside and walked about two blocks to Stromboli, a restaurant that serves deep dish, Chicago-style pizza.
I read online that the area around Hostel Macondo is referred to as Zona G, or the Gourmet Zone, because of its many international restaurants.
Stromboli was tucked down a small alleyway and hardly visible from the street. I would have walked right by the unassuming storefront if I hadn't known the address. I knew that Chicago and Bogotá are sister cities, so I wanted to see if Stromboli's menu was on par with the Windy City's offerings.
The restaurant's small interior led to an open-air courtyard where there were trees dressed in string lighting, a dozen tables set on a rocky floor, and outdoor patio heaters. I thought it was such an intimate space that I regretted not having my wife with me to enjoy a romantic dinner.
I ordered a pie stuffed with smoked bacon and caramelized water apples. I thought it was exactly like a Chicago pie should be: savory sauce, piping hot cheese, and a crust that's not too crispy, but still sturdy enough to hold the toppings together.
I also ordered a plate of hot Paipa cheese and bread, and one of the restaurant's signature cocktails, called the Brisa de Chicago, which was an espresso mixed with Baileys and Smirnoff, and I thought was quite strong.
During my meal, I asked if Stromboli's owner, Chef Juam, was available for a chat. To my suprise, he drove over to the restaurant just to sit and share a few bottles of beer with me. Then, he offered to give me an unofficial walking tour of the neighborhood.
Stromboli's owner Chef Juam told me he wanted to take me to one of his favorite breweries, and then a French-inspired speakeasy bar.
We walked 20 minutes north to Birrería Macha, a small independent brewery, to sample their pilsners and helles. Then, we headed to the hip El Bandido Bistro, a swanky speakeasy bar serving French-inspired cuisine.
Chef Juam told me Birrería Macha was one of his go-to watering holes, and he specifically took me to El Bandido to show me another example, besides Stromboli, of how Bogotá's dining scene was embracing contemporary, international menus.
Around 10:30 p.m., Chef Juam and I parted ways, and I headed back towards my hostel.
A few blocks away from the hostel, I heard heavy metal music blaring from the second floor of a restaurant, and couldn't resist checking it out.
Walking up to the second floor of the restaurant Herbívoro Cocina Vegana, I realized I'd stumbled into a performance by German black metal group Attic. There were about 60 people and everyone was dressed either in head-to-toe denim or rocking their favorite metal band tees. Any other day of the week, I'd usually be found in ratty jeans and a Slipknot shirt, but, of course, this was the one time I was wearing a collared button-up and pants.
I drank Club Colombias and Pokers, two beers I saw throughout restaurants in Colombia, and stayed until just after midnight listening to the music. After leaving the show, I decided I wanted to try my hand — and feet — at salsa dancing, and found a club, Salsa camará, about a block away.
There were a dozen people waiting in line outside, and I stood in line for about 15 minutes before cutting my losses and heading back to the hostel. I was exhausted from the day, and decided I needed the rest for my plans the following day.
The hostel was quiet when I arrived. Even with the windows open in my dorm, I didn't hear any street traffic or any music from the nearby bars.
The next morning, I woke up early and hit the streets at 7 a.m., heading south to La Candelaria, which is the city's historical heart with sites like the Botero Museum and the Catedral Primada de Bogotá.
As I walked around, I was surprised to see that hardly any cafes were open this early. I passed by probably a dozen that were still closed, and only after walking for 20 minutes, I finally found one or two that were just opening up. Sundays are La Ciclovía in Bogotá, a weekly event in which many streets across the city are closed to vehicle traffic to promote walking, running, and cycling.
After wandering south for over a half-hour and still finding nowhere to eat, I took an Uber to the Mercado de las Pulgas de San Alejo in the Santa Fe neighborhood in hopes of finding food. But I had no luck there, either, as it was mostly a flea market filling the sidewalks with used merchandise. So I decided to continue walking for another 30 minutes to Plaza de Bolívar, which was about a mile away, hoping this district filled with hostels and museums would have at least one open cafe.
Plaza de Bolívar is a massive square in the La Candelaria area of Bogotá, surrounded by Spanish colonial architecture, government offices like the Capitol, and a variety of tour operation businesses.
I thought the area was charming, full of hilly avenues and walls of street art, and I could see why the popular location and buzz made the many tourists around use this area as their base camp. I finally found a food stall selling arepas, and then grabbed a coffee at the cafe at hostel Selina La Candelaria Bogotá.
Next, I decided to walk to the nearby Plaza de Mercado La Concordia, a modern indoor market that had a dozen food stalls, booths with fresh produce and cheeses, and a handful of souvenir shops. I bought a little crochet fox for my son from an artisan booth, and then spent five minutes walking around the photography exhibit lining the building's outdoor patio.
After the market, I took a tour led by Breaking Borders, a company founded by former gang leaders that organizes guided tours through their former territory in the neighborhood of Egipto.
Before arriving in Colombia, I booked the tour online with Breaking Borders, a company founded by locals from the Egipto neighborhood of Bogotá. Their tours aim to teach tourists about the culture and history of the area, and they share stories from their past lives as former gang leaders.
I wanted to take this tour because I wanted to learn more about Bogotá's history and the realities of local life than what I'd find in the tourist-focused parts of the city.
Bordering the La Candelaria district, Egipto is a barrio, or neighborhood, that sits at the top of a steep hill. There were eight of us total on the tour and two guides.
As we walked around Egipto, the two guides told us about the history of the barrio and the way of life there.
We first stopped by what the guides told us was an indigenous-turned-Catholic church, the Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Egipto. Then we explored the surrounding streets, learning about local history and way of life. Most of this story was told through street art and murals, which I noticed often memorialized the dead.
One mural I saw was of a young boy wearing an eagle helmet, pretending to fly. The tour guides told us that the boy pictured had been the son of a gang member. He was killed by a rival gang to send a message and his body was discarded in the trash, around 20 years ago.
For years prior to the boy's death, the guides told us, the children of the barrio were becoming more educated, encouraged by their parents to grow up and find life outside of the gang. Our guides said that the killing of this child in cold blood had a harsh impact on the hopes of an entire generation, and, only now some 20 years later, the children of the barrio were again starting to see hope for a better future.
I thought the tour of Egipto was heartbreaking yet inspiring. The Breaking Borders initiative I thought demonstrated the hope the locals of Egipto have to connect with the greater Bogotá community as well as tourists, and reframe how their neighborhood is seen. Still, it cast a shadow over the visit for me knowing that children were still living there under the threat of gang violence and poverty.
My 24 hours in Bogotá were nothing like I expected. Some areas like where I stayed in Chapinero felt as lively and contemporary as a European capital, while other areas felt very unique and unlike anywhere I'd been before.
If I were to return to Bogotá, I'd skip Distrito Graffiti since it was somewhat difficult to get to. I'd also stay in La Candelaria, instead of Chapinero, to be closer to sites like the Gold Museum and Monserrate Hill, which I didn't have time to visit on this trip.
I lost a lot of time trying to walk from my hostel in Quinta Camacho to Santa Fe because I wrongly assumed that there'd be something to do, see, or at least eat along the way. A 15-minute Uber ride would have cost less than four dollars and saved me the time I spent walking, so next time I also would rely on Ubers to explore more of the city.
Chef Juam's mini tour was a highlight of my 24-hour trip as it showed me parts of Bogotá I'd never have discovered on my own. But if there was one activity I'd repeat, it would be the Breaking Borders tour of Egipto.
In the two hours I spent on the tour, I was able to explore an area of Bogotá few tourists see, learn about the realities of local life, and leave with a new perspective about how small organizations like Breaking Borders can have a positive impact on the community. As a bonus, I thought I was able to get a great view of Bogotá's skyline from the Catholic church in Egipto where we stopped on the tour.
In the end, my 24-hour trip proved to be the perfect introduction to Bogotá.
The limited time forced me to consider which activities would be the most rewarding, but also gave me the chance to come across unique experiences, like a personal bar tour, that can't be planned.
I've traveled to over 30 countries, staying only 24 hours in most of them, and I think that Bogotá is a cost-effective, practical destination for a short trip like mine. If you're traveling through South America with a short layover in Bogotá, I think you can check off a handful of hallmark sites as long as you plan out your route and transportation.
If you're lucky enough to have an overnight layover, I recommend staying in La Candelaria district, so you can see both the historical and contemporary side of the city. While I do plan to return to Bogotá for a longer trip, I also plan on taking 24-hour visits to other cities around the world as I thought it was a fulfilling, albeit fast, way to get an introduction to local culture.
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