Things to Do in Bogotá
Enormous and austere, Bogota’s broad, bricked central plaza was designed in 1553 to be the gathering place for tens of thousands at the hub of the federal government. Once known simply as the Plaza Mayor (Main Plaza) and serving as home to the city market, the plaza is a classic example of monumental Spanish civil engineering. Some of Bogota's most important edifices sit in the area: the soaring neoclassical national cathedral; the appropriately federalist capitol building; French neoclassical Edificio Liévano, seat of city government; and the ultra-modern stylized arches of the imposing Palace of Justice, most recently rebuilt after a 1985 terrorist attack. At the center of it all is the statue of Simón Bolívar, erected in 1846 to honor the man who liberated so much of South America from the Spanish.
You might want to start your exploration at tiny Plazuela Del Chorro Del Quevedo, where this city was supposedly founded in 1537, by Spanish Conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada. (Of course it is much, much older; Jimenez merely renamed the ancient indigenous town of Bacata “Bogota.”) However, this plaza—now the epicenter of Bogota’s hipster scene, with plenty of tattoos, Chucks, handmade jewelry and fire dancers—doesn’t really get going until dusk. Be sure to stop into one of the cool little cafes for the Candelaria’s signature beverage, a traditional Andean canelazo, made with sugarcane liquor, cinnamon and panela sugar, served steaming hot for the chill altitude.
But begin instead at sprawling Plaza Bolivar, surrounded by picturesque streets lined with more tejas-topped adobes, interspersed with the city’s finest museums, coolest casas cultural, and most ornate churches.
Among Bogota’s most popular and spectacular attractions, the Museo del Oro sparkles with more than 55,000 priceless archaeological and artistic treasures. Only a fraction can be displayed at any one time within the main edifice, itself a work of art, ensconced in elegantly and eloquently designed displays of Colombia’s dazzling bounty.
There are four floors of exhibits, signed in both Spanish and English, with audio guides available in a handful of other languages. From delicate filigree nose rings to carefully crafted containers for coca leaves to the famed “Muisca Raft,” depicting the legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” these objects have been innovatively arranged to tell tales of pre-Colombian mining, manufacturing and metallurgy.
The sensuous silhouettes and deliciously plump proportions of his subjects have become famous the world over. His presidents and prostitutes, bullfights and firefights, capture the Colombian experience with a whimsy that belies otherwise serious scenes shattered by earthquakes, war and relationships. All are instantly recognizable as Botero.
While Fernando Botero’s unparalleled talent across multiple mediums—from sculpture to watercolor to charcoal—has earned him international acclaim, it is his generosity that has made the artist Colombia’s favorite son. At the peak of his fame, the artist donated 208 pieces to the government of Colombia including 85 pieces by other masters including Chagall, Renoir and Monet. The entire collection was valued at US$200 million; you are invited to enjoy it all for free.
Mists permitting, you’ll be able to see the gleaming white Basílica del Señor de Monserrate high above the city, beckoning from the thickly forested mountains that form Bogota’s spectacular backdrop. Originally built as a monastery in 1657, it is no wonder that this glorious spot has been a site of pilgrimage ever since.
The original stone path marked by statues depicting the 14 Stations of the Cross still leads from the colonial Candelaria district up to the sanctuary. It is a steep climb to a chilly 3152m (10,339ft) still used by pilgrims (and exercise buffs), particularly on weekends and religious holidays. Most tourists take advantage of either the funicular, a steeply pitched train, or teleferico, a cable car system, which both make the trip inexpensively throughout the day. If you do choose to walk, note that there have been muggings, so it might not be the best choice if you’re alone with an expensive camera.
Aside from the thrill of “discovering” new lands, the Spanish conquistadores were endlessly driven by thoughts of discovering gold. Here at Bogota’s Casa de Moneda, walk amidst the spot where gold was first minted in Colombia, having stood in this spot since 1622 when the King of Spain ordered the production of gold coins in Bogota. Since money and power seem to go hand in hand, this museum that’s based around Colombian currency has many political undertones, where the type of currency that’s been minted through the years shows fascinating parallels between the political era and Colombia’s historical events. From the initial barter of ceramics and pots that was used by indigenous tribes, the currencies weave a chronological tale as viewed through production of money.
This massive stone-and-brick structure—built originally as a prison—houses Colombia’s first museum, founded in 1823. The imposing structure is now home to more than 20,000 objects that represent the Colombian experience, displayed in revolving exhibits that fill 17 permanent galleries where there were once only cells. An excellent exhibit of aesthetically and archaeologically important pre-Colombian artifacts, tells the story of ancient Colombia. But it is the Spanish Colonial collection, featuring everyday objects and impressive works of art, which really dazzles. Oil paintings, beautifully constructed furniture, religious icons and other well-preserved pieces offer insight into a bygone era.
An immense art gallery features the most famous works of Colombian artists past and present, with an emphasis on the experimental and modern. An impressive Afro-Caribbean collection illuminates the culture of Colombia’s coasts.
The original foundations for Bogota’s Catedral Primada, more properly called the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, were laid in 1538 when Spanish conquistadores first christened the old indigenous city, “Bogota.” Then a simple thatch-roofed hut on a muddy market plaza, it was gradually rebuilt into a sturdier adobe structure in the 1590s.
As the spiritual center of a city prone to earthquakes and social upheavals, it is no wonder that the national cathedral has been rebuilt several times, most recently in 1823. Despite a long history of disasters, today’s neocolonial beauty, with its tasteful echoes of mission revival style, remains the final resting place of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, the city’s Spanish founder.
The elegant whitewashed interior, with its stately rows of gilded Egyptian columns, isn’t the city’s most ornate by a long shot. But these arches overlook Colombia’s most important masses, and the place is packed on Sundays.
More Things to Do in Bogotá
Home to both the Columbian Congress and Senate, the grand National Capitol (Capitolio Nacional) building is the center of Colombian politics and makes a striking sight, looming over the south end of Bolivar Square.
With its dramatic colonnaded frontage, central dome and neoclassical design, the National Capitol building is also one of Bogota’s most significant architectural works. The masterpiece of British architect, Thomas Reed, it took over 75 years to complete and was finally completed in 1926. The building’s crowning glory was added in 1947 – a magnificent fresco by Santiago Martínez Delgado, depicting the Bolivar and Santander leaving the famous Cucuta congress.
Parque 93 is more than a grassy square in the center of Bogotá. It is one of the centerpieces of the city with great restaurants, exciting nightlife and outdoor activities. Many locals come here for a walk, for a sporty outing and a picnic with friends or decide to attend one of the numerous events. Not only are there are regular festivals and art installations taking place under the shady trees, but the park is often frequented by Bogotá’s wealthy. Thus, if you plan on a night out in Parque 93, be prepared to be surrounded by the local jet set crowd.
Head to Bardot Bar, which is popular with the Colombian models and actors, or pop in at the Bogota Beer Company, where you can get some of the city’s best brews. At El Salto Del Angel you can grab both a steak and prove your salsa skills on the dance floor. Classic Colombian parties can be found at Kukaramakara and El Sitio, which are a favorite among the local crowd and feature local bands.
Bogota’s Museum of Modern Art, affectionately referred to as MAMBO, offers an entirely different experience than the capital’s other museums. The sleek building, designed by Colombian architectural icon Rogelio Salmona in the 1980s offers four floors of clean-cut galleries hung with outstanding 20th-century art. While the museum focuses on the Colombian masters of the last 40 years, a world-class permanent collection includes famous pieces from international figures such as Dali, Picasso, Otero and Andy Warhol, represented here with his famous “Marilyn” silkscreens. Modern design and photography are also well documented in this most thought-provoking of museums. Temporary exhibitions, artsy films, workshops and other activities are almost always on offer; check their official website (Spanish only) to see what’s on when you’re in town.
Zipaquira’s attractive Spanish Colonial center, built with the wealth of the massive nearby salt mines, was founded in the 1760s some 50km (31mi) north of the Colombian capital. Today the “City of Salt,” replete with quaint cafes and souvenir shops, is Bogota’s most popular day trip—you can even make it in an antique steam train.
You are here to see the famed Zipaquira Salt Cathedral, considered one of Colombia’s “Seven Wonders” and its architectural crown jewel. Climb to the Parque de Sal (“Salt Park”), just southeast of downtown, to enjoy the Plaza of the Miners’ great views and evocative art. From here, you’ll begin your journey 180m (590ft) into the heart of an enormous salt mountain.
A slim cascade tumbling nearly 2,000 feet (590 meters) from a cliff side in the middle of the jungle, La Chorrera is Colombia’s tallest waterfall and among it’s most striking natural attractions, hidden away in the mountains surrounding Bogota. Despite being less than an hour from the capital, La Chorrera is still one of the region’s least visited sights, making it a top choice for those looking to get off-the-beaten-track and the tranquil falls offer the ideal backdrop for adventure activities like horseback riding and abseiling.
The only way to reach La Chorrera is on foot and the scenic journey is all part of the experience – an easy 1-hour hike from the nearby El Chiflón waterfalls, winding through wild rainforest trails and misty cloud forest, and offering impressive views over the Colombian Andes.
The Legend of El Dorado, the “Golden Man,” once inspired the Spanish conquistadors to historic acts of bravery, blunder, and bloodshed. Those stories of outrageous wealth and waste almost certainly started here, with the glittering pre-Columbian ceremonies that once took place at this small crater lake. (Which is really the lake’s first mystery; though geologists speculate that a meteor made this scenic spot, no one knows for sure).
The rumors that captivated the cold-hearted conquistadors told of Muisca shamans and chiefs completely covered in gold and draped with every sort of gem and precious metal. These gleaming and godlike figures would then be carried out on ceremonial rafts to the center of pretty little Lake Guatavita, where they would pour their riches into the water to appease some monster, perhaps a serpent god, hiding below its deceptively serene surface.
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