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!

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“THIS Song Again?!” The Inescapable Travel Soundtrack

One thing I’ve noticed through the course of my travels is how closely places are tied, in my memory, to music. Of course, most of us have strong associations with all kind of songs — Radiohead’s “House of Cards” will always bring me back to a transcendent moment at Bonnaroo in the summer of 2006, while Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” reminds me instantly of an ex-boyfriend (yeah, I know. The weird thing is, I hear it more often than you’d think). But there’s something about traveling, about going out to clubs and hearing the same song three times in one night, for a month straight, that creates these indelible impressions. Almost every place I’ve visited has at least one song associated with it — some have more, and some memories are stronger than others, but they’re all there, and I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon.

I certainly won’t bore the Internet by enumerating the entire list (there are plenty of other blogs that will be more than happy to do so), but there are a few particular tunes that are permanently stamped on my memory, and I think it’s fun to see which songs — some deep and meaningful, others stupid and mindless — stay through years of experience.

When I was sixteen, I visited one of my best friends at her home in the Dominican Republic. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country on my own, my first time in the Caribbean, my first time trying rum, all kinds of firsts. Like most sixteen-year-olds, music was vitally important to my life experiences, and it became even more so when I was there. I think we tend to be especially open to the impact of music when we’re already trying to absorb everything else happening around us, and that was certainly the case for me. I still remember with perfect clarity sitting in the back of a pickup truck with about ten other teenagers, driving through the dark streets of Santo Domingo and yelling the lyrics to the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong,” and having it just mean so much in that moment. To this day, I still can’t hear that song without thinking of warm night air and that boy I totally had a crush on.

And then there’s Wisin y Yandel’s “Rakata” — one of my first introductions to the much-maligned but secretly widely-enjoyed genre of reggaeton. People in Latin America have such strong opinions about reggaeton: it’s fun, it’s lower-class, it’s crude, it’s hilarious, it’s offensive, it isn’t real dancing, and so on. While most or all of these may be accurate in various situations, the truth of the matter is, when you get anyone drunk, they LOVE reggaeton — or at least they’re perfectly happy to dance to it and keep their class-based opinions to themselves. Maybe its because I don’t have an official place in the Latin American social structure, or because I can’t dance to complicated beats, or because I secretly love songs with really absurdly dirty lyrics, but I kind of enjoy reggaeton. Not all the time, mind you, but when I’m in the mood to dance, or I’m feeling really good about my outfit that day, why not jam to a little Don Omar in my headphones?

It may all have started with that Wisin y Yandel song, though. That song was absolutely inescapable for the two weeks I was in the DR — blasting out of car windows, playing in bars, tumbling from the top floors of apartment buildings. My favorite memory, though, is my friends’ four-year-old brother inventing his own dance routine to this song, and showing it off to everyone. I don’t remember the specifics of the dance, but I do remember that it was adorable, and probably more coordinated than I could manage today. They start them early on the islands.

If anyone else was in Argentina during the first half of 2009, you probably remember this song. Good lord, this fucking song. I’ll admit that I’m sometimes prone to exaggeration, but I am dead serious when I say that there were about three months when it was IMPOSSIBLE to go to a single bar or club in the city without hearing this song at least once. I think my record for one night was five times. The only reason I didn’t want to cut my ears off — like I would if it were, say, another goddamn dubstep track — is because it’s actually sort of sweet and really catchy, in a Spanish “Call Me Maybe” kind of way. I probably walked around singing it to myself for about two weeks straight. Even when I listen to it now, I still feel like I’m strolling through Palermo snacking on an alfajor.

But travel music doesn’t only apply in other countries. On the contrary, I think some of my strongest musical travel associations were born in a car somewhere in the U.S. Road trips are, I suppose, the ultimate scenario for creating these kinds of musical memories — trapped in a car with another person/s who you may or may not like, surrounded by snack wrappers and GoogleMaps printouts, you have few places to seek solace other than music. And while most of us don’t repeat the same song five times over the course of our trip (unless all the iPods are dead and we’re stuck with the one Peter Frampton cd someone’s dad left in the car five years ago or, god forbid, the radio), there are still certain moments that stand out, like driving through foggy Tennessee dawn with Phish turned down low so everyone else in the van could sleep, blasting the Allman Brothers immediately upon crossing the Mason-Dixon line, cueing up the Dropkick Murphys to greet us at the Massachusetts border, or my roommate and I speeding across Indiana singing Britney Spears at the top of our lungs because it’s the only way to survive crossing that state with our sanity intact.

The jury is still out on what my Colombia songs are going to be — after all, I still have seven months left here, and there’s no way to know what music will inspire memories until I’m in a place where they’ll be memories, rather than my current reality. Still, I’ve had “Tu Sin Mi” bouncing around in my head since March, when I heard it twice a day while vacationing on a long weekend with some friends, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon. And now it’s probably in your brain, too. Misery, company, etc. You’re welcome!

I’m not self-absorbed or deluded enough to imagine that I’m the only one with songs that take me back to special places I’ve been, though. Anyone else have some meaningful or amusing travel songs that will forever remind them of that ridiculous weekend in Beijing, or the time they got lost trying to get to Rome? Please share — I’d love to hear about some other musical voyages!

Totally Inexplicable Things Colombians Love: #10. ’80s Rock/Hair Metal Bands

To be fair, this isn’t exclusive to Colombia. I noticed it when I was in Argentina, too, but I’m here now, and it’s amusing and widespread enough to merit a mention.

People here just love bad (and some good) ’80s music. Don’t get me wrong — I am a huge proponent of a large portion of ’80s music. I’ve watched the Breakfast Club more times than anyone without a recurring case of mono should, I have been known to dance around my room singing The Cure, and last week when my co-workers peer pressured me into doing karaoke with them, what did I sing? That’s right: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” I have no doubt that I would’ve been awesome at the ’80s, and I have a healthy amount of respect slightly embarrassing love for synth-based pop tunes. However. I draw the line at hair metal.

this axl looks better than the real-life one

Welcome to the (Colombian) jungle.

My students — my sixteen-year-old students — listen to Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Iron Maiden. People wear these band t-shirts, unironically (heaven forbid!). The favorite band of my best friend at school is Guns N’ Roses. This is admittedly part of what makes her so awesome, but let’s be serious here: I don’t even know if Guns N’ Roses (whatever the current iteration may be) like themselves anymore. My bus driver the other day sure likes them, though — he had a GNR logo painted on the roof of the driver’s section of the bus.

Personally, I think it’s kind of great, since the ’80s are a chronically-underappreciated era in gloriously terrible music, but I can’t help laughing when one of my 8th-graders tells me how much he loves “Livin’ on a Prayer.” Just wait ’til you finally catch up with the ’90s, I want to tell him. There’s no way you’re ready for what EMF can throw at you.

(seriously, though, it’s worth your 4:00 to watch that video. It is rather, dare I say, unbelievable?)