Guide to Bogota, Colombia

The history of Bogota

Santa Fé de Bogotá was founded in 1538. Its name was shortened to Bogotá after the independence from Spain in 1824, but it was later reinstated as Santafé de Bogotá.

The city was quite provincial until the mid-1900s, the bureaucratic home of government and intellectual activities. The main industries were breweries, woolen textiles and candle making. The residents - or Bogotanos - were considered by the rest of the country to be taciturn, cold and aloof. The Bogotanos considered themselves intellectually superior to their compatriots.

The economy of Bogota

In addition to being the capital, Bogota is the largest economic center in Colombia. Most Colombian companies are headquartered in Bogota, as this is where most foreign companies do business. It is also the center of Colombia's main stock market. The main offices of most coffee producing and exporting companies and flower growers are located here. The emerald trade is a very important activity in Bogotá. Millions of dollars worth of rough and cut emeralds produced in the country are bought and sold every day in the downtown area.

The city

Bogota is divided into zones, each with its own characteristics:

Zona 1 Norte: This is the most modern and upscale area. The highest income neighborhoods, major shopping centers and the best restaurants, malls and nightlife are located in the Zona Rosa.
Zona 2 Noroccidente: The city extends in this direction.
Zona 3 Occidente: This western sector contains industrial areas, parks, the national university and the El Dorado airport.
Zona 4 Sur: Industrial areas and large working-class barrios are located in the south.
Zona 5 Centro: The central sector is the main and most important commercial, cultural, governmental and financial area of the city.
Zona 6: This zone covers the surrounding areas.
Zona 7: This zone includes the other cities.

The mountains

Most places of interest to visitors are located in the central and northern areas of Bogota. The city has expanded from the colonial center where most of the large churches are located. The mountains form a backdrop to the east of the city.

The most famous peak is Cerro de Montserrat, at 3,030 meters or 10,000 feet. It is a favorite place for Bogotenes who go there for the spectacular view, the park, the bullring, the restaurants and a famous religious site. The church, with its statue of the fallen Christ Señor Caido, is reputed to be a place of miracles. The top of the peak can be reached by climbing hundreds of stairs - which is not recommended. You can also go up by cable car, which runs from 9:00 am to 11:00 pm every day, or by funicular, which only runs on Sundays between 5:30 am and 6:00 pm.

The churches

Most of the historical sites are located in the neighborhood of La Candelaria, the oldest in the city. The Municipal Palace of the Capitol and several churches are worth a visit:

San Francisco: Built in 1567, this church is elaborately decorated with a huge wooden altar and columns covered with gold leaf.
Santa Clara: Built at the beginning of the 17th century, this single nave church has beautiful frescoes that have been completely restored. It is now a museum. Its once cloistered convent of nuns is now dismantled, but the church has an exceptional screen that once served to hide the nuns' choir.
San Ignacio: Inspired by the church of San Jesús de Roma, this lavishly decorated church has very high naves, baroque altars and sculptures by Pedro de Laboria.
San Agustín: Built in 1637, it is one of the oldest churches in Bogota and it has been restored. Among its most outstanding features are the baroque altars, the choir and the beautiful proportions.
The churches of La Tercera, La Veracruz, La Catedral, La Capilla del Sagrario, La Candelaria la Concepción, Santa Bárbara and San Diego are all worth a visit if time permits.

The museums

The city has a number of great museums. Most can be visited in an hour or two, but be sure to allow time for the Museo del Oro, which houses more than 30,000 pieces of pre-Columbian goldwork. The museum is like a fort protecting the treasures inside, including the tiny Muisca boat representing the ritual of throwing gold into Lake Guatavita to appease the gods. The museum also displays crosses set with emeralds and diamonds from the colonial period.

Other interesting museums are

Museo Colonial: Located in the old Jesuit monastery built around 1640, this museum presents the life and times of the viceroyalty.
Museo de Arte Religioso: Exhibits include a collection of popular religious art from the colonial era.
Museo de Arte Moderno: This museum houses the works of contemporary artists.
Quinta de Bolívar: Located at the foot of Cerro Montserrate, the magnificent country house of Simon Bolívar exhibits the furniture, documents and personal belongings of the Liberator and his mistress Manuela Sáenz. Don't miss a walk through the lawns and gardens.
Other notable museums include the Museo Arqueológico Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares Museo del Siglo XIX Museo de Numismática and the Museo de los Niños.

Archaeological and historical treasures

You may be interested in the model of the Ciudad Perdida, the lost city of Taironas, which was discovered near Santa Marta in 1975. This discovery of a city larger than Machu Picchu is one of the most important archaeological finds in South America. The highlight of any visit to the Gold Museum is the vault, where small groups of visitors can enter a dark room and be surprised when the lights reveal the 12,000 pieces it contains.

The Museo Nacional de Colombia presents a wider range of exhibits of archaeological, ethnic and historical significance. This museum is housed in a prison designed by the American Thomas Reed. The cells are visible from a single vantage point.

The cathedral of Zipaquira or Salt Cathedral is not in the city proper but it is well worth the two hour drive north. The cathedral is built in a salt mine that was exploited long before the arrival of the Spaniards. A huge cavern was created in the 1920s, so large that the Banco de la Republica built a 23-meter high cathedral there that could seat 10,000 people. Colombians will tell you that there is still enough salt in the mine to supply the world for 100 years.

There is enough to see in Bogota to keep you busy for several days. When you've had enough of museums and churches, the city offers an active nightlife with restaurants, theaters and more. Plan to visit the elegant Teatro Colón during a performance - it's the only time the theater is open.

Getting around

Getting around the city is simplified by the way the streets are named. Most of the old streets are called carreras and run north/south. Calles run east-west and are numbered. Newer streets may be avenidas circulares or transversales.

Bus transportation is excellent in Bogota. Large buses, smaller buses called busetas, and the microbus or colectivo all run on the city streets. The modern articulated buses of the Transmilenio run on some of the main streets, and the city is working to add more routes.

Bicycles abound in the city. The ciclorrutas is an extensive bicycle path that serves all points of the compass.

Take precautions

Although the level of violence is down in Bogotá and other major Colombian cities, there is still a risk of terrorist acts outside the city limits by various factions rebelling against the government, the reduction of the drug trade, and U.S. assistance in eradicating the coca fields. Fielding's Guide to Dangerous Places states:

"Colombia is currently the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps the world, because it is not considered a war zone ..... If you travel to Colombia, you could be targeted by robbers, kidnappers, and murderers... In the department of Antioquia, civilians and military personnel are routinely stopped at roadblocks, dragged from their cars, and summarily executed. Tourists are drugged in bars and discos, robbed and murdered. Expatriates, missionaries and other foreigners are favorite targets of terrorist groups who kidnap them for outrageous ransoms that run into millions of dollars."
If you go to Santafé de Bogotá or anywhere in Colombia, be very careful. In addition to the precautions you would take in any major city, please take the following steps:

Let your consulate know that you are there and what your travel plans are.
Keep your passport with you at all times. You may be asked for it at any time. If you have any doubts about who is asking to see your documents, call any uniformed police officer for assistance.
Carry only the money you need and keep it close to your skin.
Do not wear valuable jewelry or watches.
Do not walk alone at night or in poor neighborhoods. Avoid suspicious areas. Women should not ride alone in cabs.
Do not accept candy, cigarettes, drinks or food from strangers. They may be drugged with burundanga, which robs you of your will and memory and makes you pass out. An overdose can be fatal.
Keep up with local news and events. Stay away from hot spots.
Do not walk to Cerro Montserrate.
Be aware, safe and secure to enjoy your trip!

Find all the tourist information on the city and the districts of Bogota: //