15 Free Things to Do in Bogotá

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Bogotá and its price points tend to get a bad rap. This is a very valid point when you consider that the average monthly salary in the city as of 2013 was just over 1 million pesos (about $500 at the current exchange rate), and that it has the biggest inequality gap of any city in Colombia, with Estrato 6 (the wealthiest economic level) making 4.8 million pesos per month on average, nearly 14 times the average income of about 350,000 pesos for people in Estrato 1 (the poorest level). Like in most growing cities, rents are skyrocketing in the most popular neighborhoods, and the prices of many goods are slowly creeping up as well. It’s a familiar refrain we hear in major cities impacted by gentrification — the out with the old, in with the new mindset is leaving many people behind, and there seems to be little effort to stop its momentum.

With so much recent development and increased tourism and business coming into the city, many new restaurants, cafes and bars are aiming for the nouveau riche and foreign crowds, with few $4 lunch spots to be found — or so they think. In reality, there are plenty of places in the city that won’t burn a hole straight through your wallet. Sure, if you spend all your time in the Zona Rosa and Usaquén, dropping 8,000 pesos on a beer or 20,000 just to get into a club, then yes, your bank account will start to feel it pretty quickly. But that’s what we in the business [ed. I am not actually in any such business] like to call selection bias. There are plenty of places offering set lunches for 6,000, your standard almuerzo ejecutivo price. Some of them even have veggie options! My favorite mango biche dude sells cups packed with tasty mango for just 1,000 (about 50 cents, for those of you keeping score at home), and the bar where my friend and I befriended the bartenders last year has always kept the price around 2,000 per bottle (or sometimes zero, if the manager wasn’t around).

Like any city, there are plenty of places that will be only too happy to take your money, especially your fancy foreign money, but that doesn’t define the city (there are so many other things to love, after all!). There are just as many places that will offer you a deal, drop the price if your friend buys one too, or give you a discount if you just show up enough times. And then, there are the spots and experiences that won’t cost you a peso. They’re not always what you’ll see when you open up your guidebook, but for residents, they retain their luster much longer than any swanky club. Here are a few of my favorite free (or very cheap) activities and places in Bogotá.

  1. Parque Simón Bolívar – The outdoorsy heart of Bogotá, this park has basically everything you could need to be happy: a lake, a swimming center, a giant sports complex, a space for concerts, a world-class library, a botanic garden, bike paths, plenty of trees and a temperature that somehow always seems to be a few degrees warmer than the rest of the city (I may be imagining this last one, but it’s how it feels). The park hosts events year-round, from the al Parque concert series to street theater shows to August’s Festival del Verano, which alone contains a dizzying number of different events and inspires the appearance of more kites than I’ve ever seen before in my life. Whenever I want to escape for a few hours from the towering spires of concrete and the sounds of jackhammers outside my window, this is the happy place where I come.

    the sky doesn't always look like this

    The Botanic Garden in Parque Bolívar.

  2. Concerts Al Parque – One of my very favorite things that Bogotá offers is this series of free concerts, which take place at different set times throughout the year. Staged in several of the city’s biggest parks and outdoor spaces, the concerts are completely free (though they come with a VERY up-close-and-personal patdown courtesy of security staff, so beware if you have any qualms about being groped by a stranger) and cover a broad range of genres, from opera to hip-hop. The three-day Rock al Parque, which takes place in late June or early July, is the biggest free outdoor rock concert in South America, while September’s Jazz al Parque is set in an immaculate park that used to be a polo ground, with grass that personally begs me to bring a picnic and settle down for a few hours of free tunes.
  3. Ciclovía“Bogotá no tiene mar, pero tiene Ciclovía” (Bogotá doesn’t have the ocean, but it has Ciclovía). This phrase is sort of a joke amongst rolos, but the truth is that nobody actually seems that upset about the tradeoff. The pride and joy of the city, Sunday (and holiday) Ciclovía is, hands down, one of the greatest treats Bogotá has to offer. You can’t really get to know this town until you stroll one of the main streets when it’s packed with bikers, rollerbladers, skate punks, kids on tricycles, dogs lounging in baskets or trotting alongside their owners, juice vendors, roadside bike repairmen and just about everything else. All you need to enjoy Ciclovía is a pair of shoes, some water and a serious appreciation for the best people-watching in central Colombia.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

    I gotta get me a pair of rollerblades.

  4. Street performers – Sure, there’s plenty of excellent indoor theater staged throughout the year here, but there are great displays of talent in the middle of major streets, too. I personally have a pretty strong aversion to mimes (how am I expected to trust someone who willingly chooses to make alarming noises instead of speaking?!) so there are some spots I steer well clear of, but I’ve still seen gymnasts, fire jugglers, unicyclists, dancers and more than enough musicians (some significantly more talented than others) offering shows in the middle of intersections or sidewalks. Lots of famous folks started out busking or playing in subway stations, so who’s to say the next Liliana Saumet isn’t out there singing on a Bogotá bus right now?
  5. Free museums – Bogotá outdoes itself when it comes to providing access to art, free of charge. Many of the flagship national museums, including the iconic Museo Botero, the Casa de la Moneda and personal favorite the Museo Nacional (housed in a building that used to be a prison) have totally free admission (donations always welcome, of course). Others, like the Museo del Oro, do charge a small admission fee of about 3,000 pesos ($1.50) — it’s not free, but you won’t find many other museums that charge admission that’s little more than the price of bus fare.

    this room would make the Spaniards happy

    One of the rooms in Bogotá’s lovely Museo del Oro (Gold Museum).

  6. Exercise classes in Parque Nacional – A sprawling swath of green space that rolls down the side of the mountain above the Séptima just north of Candelaria, Parque Nacional is a great place for a mid-week picnic or friendly match on one of the tennis courts perched above the street. During the weekend, though, it explodes into a cacophony of steps, beats and breathing patterns, as different groups stake out space to offer free classes for a range of workout styles, from yoga to Zumba. Whether you want to dance off the beers from the night before or just find your zen space, you can do it free of charge — as long as you don’t mind a little gawking from curious passersby.
  7. Rooftop of Titan Plaza – We all know how I feel about malls, but I have to make an exception for Titan Plaza, familiarly known as “the only mall that doesn’t give Natalie a claustrophobic anxiety attack.” The best thing about Titan, though, isn’t its Forever 21, or the fact that it has a bridge connecting it directly to the TransMilenio station (although that last detail is pretty excellent). No, it’s the green space on the roof of the UFO-shaped building, which has a fountain, benches, flowers, and a great panoramic view of the city. Even though it’s adjacent to two of the biggest streets running out of the city, the height lets you feel a little more removed from all of the madness on the ground below. Plus, on weekends, the cupcake stand is open!
  8. Public art exhibits – These can sometimes be less of a planned outing than the result of an unexpected discovery, but isn’t that the best way to encounter art? During the International Theater Festival, it seems like practically every street corner holds the possibility of bursting into a spontaneous performance, but there are exhibits across the city all throughout the year as well. One of my favorites comes courtesy of the FotoMuseo, the national photography museum, which takes on the admirable task of bringing stellar photographic work to the streets and communities of Bogotá. Featuring local and international artists, these semi-annual exhibits pop up all over the place, including in libraries, galleries and even the middle of the swanky Zona T. Stumbling upon these exhibits is always a pleasant surprise, so I try to keep one eye out whenever I’m walking around (while the other eye is making sure I don’t fall into one of the gaping holes in the sidewalk).
  9. Paloquemao – One of the recommended highlights for first-time visitors to Bogotá, the Paloquemao market is a sensory attack of colors, flavors and smells (some more appealing than others). It’s where nearby farmers and flower-growers come to sell their wares and where a large portion of the city does its weekly veggie shopping. Entrance to the massive covered market is free, but you’ll be forgiven if you end up dropping a few pesos on some fresh chicken or beautiful local tomatoes.

    roots grow up now

    Hanging fruits and veggies at Paloquemao market.

  10. Chapinero mountain hike – Monserrate gets all the attention, but there are other paths to explore in the mountains looming over the east side of Bogotá. One of the best-kept secrets of these alternative routes is a path that winds up from the edge of Chapinero Alto from the low 70 streets above the Circunvular. The hike goes through the vegetation on the mountainside and offers some great views of the urban sprawl below — without any of the crowded madness of Monserrate. The only catch is that the gate at the entrance of the path is locked for the day at 10 a.m., so this walk is only for the earliest of risers.
  11. DIY graffiti tour – There are several companies and individuals that offer tailored graffiti tours to hit some of Bogotá’s best works of street art, and some of them are very knowledgeable about the pieces and their significance in a social context. However, if you’re strapped for cash or prefer to move at your own pace, there’s no reason you can’t stroll around on your own and admire the many talented artists decorating walls, facades and underpasses. There’s interesting street art in almost every corner of the city, but some of the best places to see it are the Centro/Candelaria, inside the Universidad Nacional (don’t miss Plaza Che!) and major streets like the Séptima, Avenida Boyacá, the NQS and Calles 26 and 80.
  12. Public libraries – If you judge a city by how much its population loves books, Bogotá should be at the top of the list. In addition to the International Book Fair and hundreds of used book sellers, Bogotá is home to some seriously beautiful — and seriously popular — libraries. The flagship library, the Luis Angel Arango in La Candelaria, receives millions of visitors each year, but the El Tintal (southwest of the city), El Tunal (south), Santo Domingo (north) and Virgilio Barco (central, in Parque Simón Bolívar) libraries are also all stunning architectural creations and great resources in their own rights. In fact, I’m writing this post from one of the libraries right now!

    these are important words to know, here

    The walls of an exhibit on water inside the Luis Angel Arango library.

  13. Night bike rides – In case Ciclovía hadn’t already made you abundantly aware, this is a bike-crazy city. However, the local two-wheeled fanatics don’t allow their enthusiasm to be contained within one day, which has led to the proliferation of recurring ciclopaseos throughout the city. The most popular of these is the Ciclopaseo de los Miércoles, which takes place, as the name suggests, every other Wednesday at a different, predetermined starting point. Anyone with a bike is welcome to this friendly event, which can draw anywhere between a few dozen to several hundred people, depending on the week, location and, most of all, the weather.
  14. Art shows in the García Marquez Cultural Center – The basement of the center, right next to the Juan Valdez in La Candelaria, has a constant revolving art exhibit on display for any visitors who want to wander through while sipping coffee or hiding from the rain. The theme and style vary (I’ve liked some exhibits far more than others), but the curators always choose interesting Latin American artists, and it’s certainly worth a look when you’re in the neighborhood, if you’re not museum-ed out by then. The Center itself is also free and has a solid calendar of public events as well.
  15. La Calera lookout – Perched right above Bogotá, the town of La Calera and its eponymous lookout spot might have the best view in the whole city. From this corner of the road, it’s possible to see the entire expanse of the metropolis stretching away across the sábana — and, unlike Monserrate, it’s safe to be up here at night. In fact, this is a very popular nightlife spot, for couples and families that come to sip canelazo and enjoy the view, as well as for the partiers on board the chivas rumberas that chug up the hill carrying those aboard to one of La Calera’s late-night discotecas. It’s another perspective entirely on the city, and as close to a bird’s-eye view as one can get without actually leaving the ground. The lookout itself is free, but unless you’ve got a solid set of lungs, you’ll probably want to take the bus up from the Séptima (fares to the lookout are less than 2,000 pesos).

I’m sure there are plenty more of awesome free things that I’ve left off the list, but I’ve either yet to discover them, or I just want to keep them all to myself. If you know of any worthy additions, though, feel free to add your suggestions — I’m always on the lookout for more ways to enjoy this city without incurring any more infuriating Bank of America ATM fees!

OISA: Chivas

This week, in my other writing gig over at Only In South America, I explain chivas — Colombia’s answer to the party bus, and the cause of this one time I thought I witnessed my friend die. Don’t drink and try to step out of a moving vehicle, kids.

Quien lo Vive…

So as I may or may not have mentioned, I made up for my (lazy, broke, bad-at-planning, unmotivated) omission of last year and made sure I spent the second weekend of this past February in Barranquilla for Carnaval. Obviously a big part of this was the fact that Brighid lives there now, so it was a great excuse to go visit her, but it’s also one of those things that you just have to do when you live in Colombia. Or, judging from the number of gringos in attendance, even when you don’t.

Barranquilla, normally your typical mid-sized industrial port city, goes all-out for its Carnaval, which they never hesitate to tell you is the second-largest in the world (after only Rio, which, if you’re going to be second to something when it comes to Carnaval festivities, is really the only option). The city essentially shuts down for a whole week, during which time everything is covered in decorations, paint, banners, and anything red-green-and-yellow, the Carnaval colors. The people undergo a similar transformation — everyone is dressed in outrageous, neon, sparkly, bedazzled, insane festive clothing or costumes and covered in wigs, face paint, more sparkles, hats and other peculiar hair accessories. As if this weren’t enough, the two major spectator pastimes of Carnaval are drinking and throwing maizena (flour) and espuma (foam) at both friends and strangers until everyone in attendance looks as white as an Indiana frat boy on his first trip out of the country.

The days are filled with parades, dancing, music and celebration, and the nights — are pretty much exactly the same. We spent 2 hours one night just wandering from one block party to the next, weaving between neighbors dancing together and changing songs as we passed from one set of blaring speakers stacked higher than the surrounding houses to the next. People always talk about how joy is contagious, and this is one of the best places to see that in action — sure, we’re all sweaty and dirty and covered in flour and glitter and our feet hurt from standing and dancing, but we are all having one hell of a good time. Barranquilleros were, without fail, warm and welcoming and delightful people, and I couldn’t think of a better group to serve as my festival guides. For four nights straight, Brighid and I rolled into bed past 2 a.m., filthy and exhausted and probably dehydrated — and then the next morning, we got up and did it again. Because that’s what you do when it’s what everyone else is doing. We were just following the motto of Carnaval, after all:

Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza (S/he who lives it, enjoys it)

And enjoy it I did. Who’s up for 2014?

[full disclosure: I did not bring my fancy camera to Barranquilla, because beer + intense sunlight + flying foam + copious opportunities for robbery = disaster, as far as I’m concerned. So I’m sorry these photos don’t look so nice, but it’s the price we pay for caution. And it’s worth it]

Some Thoughts About Bureaucracy

One thought that kept coming up during my valiant (and ultimately successful) quest to get myself a visa was how much worse the whole thing could’ve been. Sure, getting up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday to go stand in line at DIAN and then sit inside the freezing building for 4 hours wasn’t exactly my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me in Colombia, but it also wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I survived. And from then on, everyone was so nice to me that it made the entire ordeal feel significantly less challenging than it could have.

I guess by now I shouldn’t be surprised that people in Colombia are just pleasant, even when they work at undoubtedly mind-numbing desk jobs, but there’s a part of my brain that’s still firmly lodged in the American (or at least Northeast region) mindset of only being civil when absolutely necessary, and definitely nothing ever past civil. We are exactly as polite as we need to be to get things done, and you can be sure you’ll know if you’re inconveniencing us. Not so here.

As I mentioned, the first time I went to register myself as a business at the Cámara de Comercio, I didn’t know I needed a copy of a utilities bill. I had all my other documents ready to go, but this one little thing was missing. It was too late in the day for me to go home, get it and come back before the office closed, so it was going to be one more day of delay in the process. But instead of just waving me away from the desk, the extremely helpful young woman working there (who, as I said, was as pregnant as she was helpful) sat down with me and filled out the entire document I needed, reviewing all the sections to make sure I was doing them correctly and telling me the smallest possible amount I could give as the value of my company, to limit taxes. “This way,” she told me, “you can just bring in the bill tomorrow and you’ll be all set!” And that’s exactly what I did.

She didn’t have to be that helpful. She could’ve just let me wait until the next day — it certainly wouldn’t make any difference for her job. But she did the good thing, and that’s the only reason I left the office that afternoon smiling instead of growling in frustration.

It was more or less the same at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, where I actually got my visa. I made damn sure to show up there with every single document I could ever potentially need, partly because I was so anxious to get the whole thing over with and mostly because you have to pay $50 every time you go there and I was sure as hell not going to pay $50 just for being a forgetful idiot. Even so, the guy I talked to there was so friendly and asked me questions like he was genuinely curious, rather than trying to trick me into saying the wrong thing. If I were a foreigner applying for a visa in the U.S., the process would be somewhere between a jail interrogation and a private investigator background check, and I would probably feel like a criminal without having done anything wrong. The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is so much easier to deal with in these kinds of processes — I was already nervous enough about applying for the visa. A mean agent probably would’ve made me burst into tears. Instead, I left with the world’s biggest grin and a promise to my interview agent that I would write nice things about Colombia.

Promise kept.

Food Friday: Papas Criollas

Between my three-quarters German heritage and my Bostonian (so, Irish by osmosis) upbringing, it should surprise no one that I would choose potatoes to make a major appearance in my hypothetical last meal. I could happily eat potatoes nearly every day, in whichever form they wished to appear: fried, slathered in mayo and cubed into salad, baked with rosemary and salt, covered in butter and mashed into topography on my plate — you name the potato, and I’ll be there to eat it. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my favorite vegetable, but it turns out that I didn’t really know what true tuber love was until I arrived here in Colombia and met the papa criolla.

Salty criollas and a michelada on the sunny lakeside boardwalk: my ideal recipe for happiness.

Papas criollas are one of several species of potato native to Colombia, and they’re reason enough alone to convince any true potato aficionado to visit here. They’re small, gold-skinned potatoes with soft insides, ranging from the size of a marble to about a ping-pong ball (although they don’t play games, as far as I know). Papas criollas are one of the three types of potatoes used to make ajiaco, Bogotá’s traditional soup, and they show up alongside everything from hot dogs to picadas (essentially a plate of meat with toothpicks). This is one of the sides I’m thrilled to receive with meals — no matter how many other starches the Colombians throw on the plate (and rest assured, they will be many), you’ll never catch me complaining about the criollas.

I’ve consumed them in towns across the country, eaten them with forks and toothpicks, found them rolling across plates, tucked in napkins and piled in plastic cups. I don’t know why they taste so much better than other kinds of potatoes, but the fact remain that they do, and I’ll just have to keep eating them until I figure out what the secret is. In the meantime, does anyone know how the USDA would potentially feel about the import of really, really tasty potatoes?

Kite Season

Image

kites everywhere

With “summer” in Bogotá comes the wind, and with the wind come the kites. On the last Sunday of the Festival del Verano (Summer Festival) in Parque Simón Bolivar, they were out in full force. Maybe someday I’ll be this good at kite-flying.

25 Reasons Why I Love Bogotá

About four months into living in another country is when one allegedly hits that first real “low” of culture shock. It takes different forms and manifests in various ways for different people, of course — I’m overall a pretty upbeat, cheerful person, so anytime I don’t feel like hugging half the city is a warning sign for me. Luckily, this is fairly uncommon, and I usually just blame my bad-mood days on the rain, PMS, a painfully crowded bus or the fact that I cannot get my sixth-graders to shut up for two minutes, for the love of god.

Personally, I have yet to really hit that all-out valley of crap feelings — and, barring some sort of traumatic event, I’m not entirely sure I ever will, at least not completely. It’s barely been five months, and I already feel so at home here, in so many ways. The difference between how I feel at five months in Bogotá (blissfully happy) and how I felt at five months during study abroad in Buenos Aires (oh my god get me on a plane I miss baseball season and walking down the street without people saying creepy shit to me more than anything in the world) is just astronomical. I know this is blasphemy and everyone loves Buenos Aires and yay you can totally function there without even really speaking Spanish and blah blah blah etc., but all I can speak for is my own experience. While I’d love to go back and visit all of the parts of Argentina I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, I don’t think I’ll ever be tempted to live there again. The way I feel here right now, they’ll be dragging me out of Colombia kicking and screaming in December, if I end up leaving at all.

But back to the culture shock for a minute. Last weekend I was talking with a few friends about how a lot of us volunteers — who all arrived here at the beginning of January —  are probably going through similar low points around the same time. Living abroad, it’s even easier to feel isolated than it is at home; or to think you’re the only one feeling the way you are; or feeling a lot of pressure to keep up a happy facade, whether it’s for friends and family or because everyone else seems happy and you don’t want to be the only Debbie Downer of the group. This is normal, but it’s not positive. We all have bad days, but we also all have reasons why we came here, and reasons why we haven’t left yet. And those bad days are the times when it’s most important to remember those reasons.

One of my friends already wrote a very entertaining blog post about some of her favorite things in Colombia, and another excellent gringa blogger in Colombia has a really delightful list of reasons to love Bogotá. Encouraged by these ladies’ efforts, I want to toss my own hat into the ring. You can call it copying — I call it inspiration. Everyone else is talking about what they love about Colombia, and I just don’t want to be left out!

just, you know, about 40% of the time

See? It doesn’t rain ALL the time!

So, ladies and gents, in what I expect may be somewhat of a continuing series:

25 Things That Make Me Never Want To Leave Bogotá

1. No matter where I am in the city, I can see mountains. It is impossible to overstate how beneficial this is to my mental and emotional health.

2. It is totally socially acceptable for adults to walk around eating all kinds of sugary treats.

3. People stop to help other people change their flat tires. In the middle of the street. At 11:30 at night.

4. Crepes & Waffles. Oh my god, Crepes & Waffles.

5. At most tiendas (and grocery stores), a beer costs about US$1.

6. Random people at bars will buy you a beer, invite you to join them at their table and talk to you like they’ve known you for years.

7. Everyone has a finca outside the city. And they all want you to visit. You could spend months just finca-hopping every weekend.

8. Walks of shame do not visibly exist here (or are at least extremely covert), because tons of women are normally walking around in dresses and heels on weekend mornings.

9. People drink hot chocolate at breakfast and dinner.

10. Colombians will invite you to their birthday parties after knowing you for exactly two hours — or to their weddings after two months.

11. You can buy a cup of strong, dark coffee on pretty much any street corner in the city, for about 25 cents.

12. Also lollipops, if you’re into that.

13. When the guy at my favorite local bakery calls me “amor,” it actually does make me feel just a little more loved.

14. There are dogs everywhere. Everywhere. And they are beautiful.

15. Passengers on crowded buses will happily pass bus fare and change back and forth between fellow passengers and the driver.

16. The cops posted at every TransMilenio station are basically unofficial travel agents in flourescent jackets. The only things I’ve ever seen them do are text, give people directions and occasionally ask random people for identification if they’re feeling especially bored.

17. People keep their horses in the strangest, most surprising places. Like the field next to the Éxito on my walk home from school. Or their back yards.

18. Eggs are fresh, delicious, cheap and probably came from the chicken strolling down the sidewalk outside the store.

19. Reading is considered a worthwhile and normal use of personal time.

20. They have beer towers in more than a few bars. I missed you, college.

21. If you’re an hour late arriving somewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to blame it on the traffic, even if it’s not true. Everyone will understand.

22. Sundays are exactly the way Sundays should be: lazy, quiet, with empty offices and full bike paths and cafés. You can even get away with walking around in sweatpants on Sundays.

23. There is some sort of holiday almost every week. Most of them are celebrated on multiple days, and they often involve presents.

24. For some reason, stilts are really popular here. At almost any kind of large public event, there are guaranteed to be people on stilts. I think I’ve seen more stilts in my five months here than the rest of my life prior to this year.

25. Teenagers are not too embarrassed to be seen in public with their parents. Sometimes they even hug them.

#26: Chocolate-covered strawberries. They have stores specifically for these treats. I’m never leaving.

Link

If there was any further question about why I’m happy here, Colombia is ALL OVER this mental_floss listicle of “11 Fabulous Libraries in South America.” Disregarding their weird geographic decision to pretend that Costa Rica is part of South America, it’s a pretty cool list, and it’s exciting to see Colombia occupying so much space on it. So far, I’ve only made it to #8, Virgilio Barco, which is in Parque Simón Bolívar here in Bogotá, but I’ve got seven months to make it to all the others. In the meantime, how amazing does #1 look? It’s like Brazilian Hogwarts!