Despite the fact that one taxi driver ripped me off and my skin was scorched to a crisp, I’d already fallen in love with Colombia in the space of two days. This was the start of my seven-month South American adventure and things could only get better, because I was heading north from Bogota to the Caribbean coast and the Lost City ruins next!
Bogota is often the first port of call for international visitors and, if that’s the case for you, these first impressions of Bogota might come in handy…
It’s not that hot
I’m talking a pleasant 20 degrees or so. I packed my jeans at the last minute because someone told me there’d be days when I’d just want to feel a bit more ‘normal’ and ‘trendy’. I didn’t expect them to get an airing on day one!
Don’t get me wrong, this weather definitely beats the torrential rain I left behind in England, but it wouldn’t have been a good idea to head out without extra layers. I’m yet to experience it, but I’ve heard it rains quite a bit here too.
Tip: Pack an extra layer as well as a waterproof in your day bag.
It’s incredibly easy to get sunburned
The comfortable temperature is deceiving. Today was partly overcast with some sun breaking through intermittently. I was out for less than 4 hours, part of which was spent in a museum, and yet the shade of lobster I’ve gone reminds me of the time I fell asleep all day on a Malaysian beach on a scorcher of a day and forgot to use sun cream. It seems that, despite the sun being 150 million kilometres away, the additional 2625 metres of elevation makes all the difference to the cooking time of human flesh.
Tip: No matter how overcast or cold it is, lather on some sun cream before you leave your accommodation.
There are very few other tourists
I was under the impression that Colombia is becoming increasingly popular as a travel destination. While I didn’t expect to see hoards of Europeans swarming over the tourist hotspots, I was surprised that I didn’t see anyone who didn’t look like a local and speak Spanish. This was despite being in typically touristy places, including the Cerro de Monserrate, which offers amazing panoramic views of the city. Be aware that being the only foreigner can make you feel uneasy. For the most part though, no one treated me any differently and I enjoyed being somewhere a little off the beaten track.
Tip: If you think you’ll find it difficult being so obviously out of place, stay in a sociable hostel and hook up with another traveller for the day, or advertise on WAYN (other travellers) or Couchsurfing (generally locals) for someone to accompany you.
No one uses DSLRs
If I hadn’t already stuck out like a sore thumb as a potentially vulnerable foreigner, my decision to sightsee with my DSLR didn’t help matters. I actually felt very safe on this occasion, but I think I will use my compact camera for busy cities in future.
Tip: If you do bring a decent camera out with you, try to keep it hidden in a bag that isn’t obviously designed for cameras. Mine is a Lowepro Passport Sling and I can’t fault it. There’s plenty of space, including a padded section for your camera, you can swing it in front of your body to keep an eye on your belongings and the compartments and sturdy zip keep your things out of reach.
Colombians are lovely people
Horror stories about knifepoint muggings and pickpockets are common, but I haven’t felt threatened at all while wandering the streets as a solo female. It’s very important to stay aware and to take precautions to protect yourself and your valuables, but the majority of the time, Colombian people are some of the friendliest, most accommodating you will ever meet.
Today, shop vendors and taxi drivers put up with my first ever attempts at holding a Spanish conversation. Many went out of their way to engage me in slow and awkward conversation just to help me practise. People offered to take photos of me with my camera when they saw I was alone. And, this afternoon, in the Museo del Oro, after stumbling across an arts and crafts group making colourful indigenous patterns with dyed sand, their teacher introduced me to everyone and I received a round of applause just for being from England! A sweet 10-year-old girl called Emely then escorted me around the tables explaining which region of Colombia had influenced each design.
Tip: Embrace their friendliness as much as possible. They won’t think you’re odd if you strike up a conversation in the ticket queue, and it’s a great opportunity to practise your Spanish.
Sadly, scams do occur
There’s no doubt that Colombia has come a long way in recent years. The numbers of kidnappings and murders have plummeted, but this doesn’t mean you should drop your guard. After two successes, I thought I’d mastered the art of flagging down registered taxis, but the last one today was a reckless maniac who charged me three times the going rate. I hadn’t agreed a price beforehand because I assumed he was one of the metred drivers, so I wasn’t really in a position to argue (although I did brave the world of yet more stilted Spanish to tell him he drove too fast and I knew he was ripping me off!).
Tip: If you need to get around Bogota during the day, it’s safe to flag down one of the yellow cabs, but make sure the meter says ’25’ when you get in and check that the passenger seat has the driver’s credentials hanging from the back. After dark, or in areas with a reputation for being less safe, it’s also a good idea to call ahead. The driver will give you a code, which you confirm when the cab has arrived.
Running and cycling is very popular
There are roads dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists, with a constant stream of people exercising. As a big fan of running, I’ve often found it difficult to navigate new places or even to know whether or not it’s really acceptable to be prancing about in tight lycra. The pedestrianised streets of Bogota are part of a grid system of crisscrossed roads that make it almost impossible to get lost.
Have you been to Bogota? What was your initial take on the city?