Something tells you it will be a colorful visit when your plane drops down over majestic ramparts of the Andes to an airport named El Dorado.
Men hawk the country’s precious emeralds along one city street; on another a farmer’s burro is bedecked with a rainbow of paper flowers; vendors everywhere press bouquets of radiant blooms and lush fruit at you for a few pesos.
(From what we’ve been told, there are money transactions taking place here for other merchandise in this “coke capital” of South America, although we didn’t see even a hint of it.)
Welcome to Bogota, a city of 6 million that satisfies the senses with the old La Candelaria quarter, new skyscrapers and enough churches, art, museums and cultural activity to keep you hopping throughout your stay.
The daily changing of the guard is more like a strolling of the guard, as young soldiers have a cheerful smile for everyone if not the precision of West Pointers.
Hoary tradition was brought home to us by the appearance of two formally clad gentlemen, their claw-hammer coats, top hats and briefcases hardly the costume for midday city streets. They were bill collectors on their rounds, making sure that neighbors knew it when a laggard was in arrears.
Charming anomalies seem to characterize this city.
Here to there: Eastern and Avianca will fly you here. A taxi into town will cost about $3.25, a 25-minute ride.
Getting around town: Choose your cabs carefully, sticking to the ivory-and-green tourist taxis you’ll always find outside your hotel. Their fares are set by the government tourist office. Lots of colorful buses, usually rather crowded. Traffic can be atrocious, if you have driving in mind.
How long/How much: Three days should do it for all but the avid museum-hopper, who could use another. Prices for hotels and dining are low enough to keep you happy.
A few fast facts: Colombia’s peso recently traded at 180 to the dollar, banks and hotels giving the same rates. Change as little as possible, but put aside $15 for departure tax, travelers checks not acceptable. Many merchants are happy to take dollars at the going rate. Any time of year is pleasant for a visit, the town’s high altitude keeping temperatures between mid-50s and mid-60s, some rains March-April and November-December. As in many large cities, don’t flash your wealth or stroll the slum areas.
Getting settled in: Nueva Granada (Avenida Jimenez de Quesada 4: $38 double, $44 suite) is the bargain to end them all, a thoroughly modern place with Iberian overtones. Spacious lobby and rooms, marble columns, deep leather chairs, traditional carpets and a delightful French restaurant, one of three. With a staff that bowls you over with friendliness, it’s no wonder this one is so well regarded by locals.
The most elegant hotel is Hilton International Bogota (Carrera 7, No. 32; $67-$119), also a bit of a bargain with its broad selection of rooms and rates. Beautiful French-continental dining room, La Hacienda, on rooftop with spectacular city views, serving Colombian specialties. Pool, health club, several handsome bars and almost all of the rooms are suites, a pleasant surprise at these prices.
Bacata (Calle 19, No. 5; $37) is a good example of a four-star hotel at Bogota’s friendly prices. It’s downtown, modern, nice bar and restaurant, rooms with most of the amenities you need.
Regional food and drink: Get ready for great Creole food, a wonderful discovery for us being ajiaco , a thick and delicious soup made with, among other things, chicken, several kinds of potatoes, capers, herbs, sliced avocado and often with a half-ear of corn lying in the bowl. Order it as a first course or as an entire meal.
Exotic fruits are everywhere; three on our breakfast buffet one morning were curuba, guanabana and lulo.
Arepas is a thick cornmeal patty eaten with every meal. Obleas , two pieces of wafer bread with caramel inside, is eaten anywhere at any time, including on the streets where they sell for about 10 cents.
Most meals in Bogota start with a fruit drink, one of the most popular made with curuba, milk and sugar blended and chilled. Most of Colombia’s wines come from Chile, not cheap, with Club Colombia being the best beer. End meals with rich Colombian coffee.
Moderate-cost dining: At Casa Vieja de San Diego (Carrera 10, No. 26) you’ll fall in love with Colombian food and we guarantee it. An old colonial home built around an inner patio, authentic artifacts used beautifully, attentive waiters and lively guitar music add to a fine meal.
Start with little empanadas, turnovers with bits of meat inside to be dipped in a zesty green sauce. Then on to an Andean mountaineer’s platter of beans, plantains, chorizos, pork cracklings and a few more things with rice, then cover it yourself with slices of avocado. With beer, your bill will be about $6. Lots of other Colombian specialties at similar prices.
At La Hacienda in the Hilton you’ll find more colonial atmosphere, marvelous Indian murals and probably the best ajiaco in town. Or try to get through one of their gigantic lobsters with two vegetables for $10.
For a romantic dinner, take the cable car to top of Monserrate and then a short walk to San Isidro, an old home with heavy, carved wooden doors, tile floors and all of Bogota’s lights twinkling through the open windows. Roses on the tables, music, a French-continental menu with such as steak au poivre for $4.50, lobster bisque $2.
On your own: Start things off with a turn through Plaza Bolivar where the city was founded in 1538, now surrounded by government buildings anchored by the cathedral. We were far more impressed by Sagrario Chapel beside it with an ornate red-and-gold interior. Take the ride up Monserrate for the view and a look into the little church. Then stroll La Candelaria for the town’s most interesting architecture.
The town of Zipaquira calls for a 40-mile ride, worth it for the Salt Cathedral built within an old mine. Museum of Native Handicrafts should not be missed, and the Gold Museum has the greatest collection of pre-Hispanic gold treasures in the world, a dramatic and breathtaking collection of riches.
For more information: Call the Colombian Government Tourist Office at (212) 688-0151, or write (140 East 57th St., New York 10022) for brochures on Bogota and all of Colombia. Ask for the Bogota Package.