We disembarked with some trepidation at El Dorado airport – Colombia hasn’t quite shaken off its reputation for being an extreme danger zone.
Pleasantly surprised that it took us far less time to get through passport control and customs than it did in Panama, we were all set to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Bogota is a spread-out city and it takes a long time to get from A to B. Although not quite legal, Uber is invaluable. You do have to sit next to the driver, however, to avoid the perception of being a passenger.
Our first destination was Hotel Exe Santafé, a 5 star establishment in the heart of the finance district.
Given that we only stayed a night there, the only thing to write about was the outstanding breakfast buffet.
This stands out as one of the two best we have ever had on our travels, including as it did a huge variety of fresh fruit and juices, Cuban porridge (a cinnamon flavoured drink, this), pastries, meats, traditional Colombian delicacies and the most delicious coffee on tap.
Just opposite the hotel is the first Bogota Beer Company (BBC) outlet we visited. This, we discovered, is a chain.
The waitress asked us if we wanted lemon and salt with our beer, so we said why not.
Dos Micheladas, por favour
The ubiquitous beer cocktail may sound off putting when reading about it, but you have to trust me when I tell you it’s one of the best ever invented and totally addictive. It took us a while to figure out it had a proper name, michelada, and once we did life just became easier.
The BBC (beer, not UK news media corporation) has a vast range of beers (dark, red, pale, non-alcoholic and even pumpkin).
The michelada is served in a salted rim glass with freshly squeezed lime juice at the bottom. There are several variations on a theme including hot sauce and even tomato juice, but the basic version is the best, the most refreshing and more-ish.
Do order the accompanying snack platter which consists of beer-marinated grilled beef, chicken and a sort of a thick frankfurter style sausage, along with bite size boiled salted potatoes with a selection of hot dips. It is absolutely delicious.
While in Bogota we met with Felipe Lopez Cabaillero, owner and publisher of Semana, and brother of former Colombian Ambassador to the UK, Alfonso Lopez Cabaillero. He charted our activities for the following day, which included visits to the Bottero and Gold museums.
We also changed hotels, indulging our partiality to the Four Seasons group.
The Four Seasons Bogota
The hotel is split in two, in the sense that it occupies two buildings, within 15 minutes drive of each other.
We stayed in the modern building, located in what we discovered was the most vibrant and trendy part of town.
This is a relatively small hotel (just 69 rooms), in a distinctive red brick building, beautifully renovated inside and out.
The rooms are suite size, with an island wardrobe area beyond which is the glass encased shower room and free-standing washbasin mini-station.
The beds are king size and extremely comfortable; service impeccable and friendly.
The hotel has a spa on the lower ground floor, with a full size gym, treatment and steam rooms.
The lobby is where the heart and soul of the hotel are. A walk-through area, comprising indoor and open air lounging spaces, a street level covered terrace, and the breakfast room with a green wall atrium beyond complete this ensemble, allowing guests to pick and choose where they want to have a drink or a meal.
Just opposite is the Brasserie, a European style, super-trendy eaterie, and next door, an Italian restaurant, both very smart and sophisticated, with an affluent clientele.
In fact, smart and sophisticated, with a great buzz to it is a description that would fit the whole area, teeming with elegant boutiques, shopping malls, designer wear and countless fresh fruit smoothie bars.
We tried every variety and felt refreshed and renewed after our unfortunate Costa Rica experience.
Bogota is a tourist-friendly city, even though the underlying danger, mostly of pickpockets, is still there.
We never once felt threatened, in spite of discreet warnings, and spent hours walking around.
The area of the museums (Bottero and del Oro) has many bars and shops selling gems, primarily the country’s mined gem, emerald.
Selina is a super-cool bar some 50 meters from Bottero Museum, in a former warehouse unit, beautifully decorated in a sort of shabby chic style, with a courtyard wall decorated by a local artist.
Sofas and armchairs are arranged to suggest a private library room. Atmosphere is relaxed, informal and friendly. We ordered our micheladas with home-made chip patties, accompanied by guacamole and “black humus” which is a black bean dip.
The music is South-American jazz and soul, and English and French are spoken in addition to Spanish (the manager is from Marseille and made us very welcome). He explained Selina is a brand, with hostels and bars throughout Colombia and Costa Rica. We loved the concept and dreamed of replicating it in Europe.
Shopping in Colombia
The Colombian straw hat is every bit as good as the Panama one, but much less expensive. We bought ours for $8.
Colombian beef and dry sausages are extremely good and street food (skewered meat and fish) perfectly safe.
Colombian hand-rolled cigars are mild but nicely flavoured.
Local fashion designers can be almost as expensive as in Europe but worth checking out. We bought a Silvia Tcherassi skirt that’s a statement piece for about $200.
Trainer type shoes made in Colombia are funky, well-made and a fraction of the price you’d pay in Europe.
Coca leaf tea, Moringa tea and Maca powder are just some of the health products sold in herbal shops and are great providers of minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants.
Leather saddles, belts, bags and gaucho trousers are phenomenal, but not exactly cheap.
Giant avocados, flavoursome limes and tons of fruits are available at every corner and are really inexpensive and delicious.
Emeralds and semi-precious gems can be bought cut and uncut/unpolished, set or loose. Prices, like everywhere else on the continent, are what you can negotiate.
The Monte Carlo on the South America Caribbean is Cartagena.
This well-established resort consists of two cities: the old fortified and very touristy one, and the new, multi-level apartment blocks and yacht marina town.
There are some beautiful colonial buildings in between, with large roof terraces where you can down your micheladas while relaxing in the sun and sea breeze wondering why, oh why do you bother living in Europe, especially in the winter, unless you are stuck in a 9 to 5 job.
Seafood restaurants are aplenty and ceviche is the popular dish, prepared with a variety of yummy dressings.
At night, the old town is ablaze with parties, live music everywhere, street vendors and tourists drinking generously sized cocktails.
Pronounced Medejin by the locals, this is of course the city of drug cartels infamy, thankfully now in its past.
Today, Medellin is probably Colombia’s coolest, most manicured and business-friendly city, with a residual frisson from its narco past.
We stayed in a 5 star hotel in the safest and wealthiest district Poblados and this was a good bet for a number of reasons, not least its dominant position in a town that’s spread over hills and valley.
Poblados is very modern but designed in a way to retain a village-like atmosphere, with its cafe and shop-lined streets, backed by snazzy and well secured tall brick apartment blocks.
It is quite literally carved out of the tamed and now polished jungle, with wild river streams, bridges, palm trees and vast parklands everywhere.
Residents are expats and wealthy Colombians, mostly in their 30s or younger, well-dressed and very social.
Restaurants and bars serve delicious cocktails in pitchers, vast bowls of fresh guacamole (just rough mashed avocado with lime, salt and hot sauce), beef and Chilean salmon carpaccio and local specialities.
The beef carpaccio, thinly sliced and dressed with sesame seeds and lime dressing, is quite simply out of this world.
There are other safe residential areas in Medellin and although the hotel hands you out a list of precautions to take while walking around, the most you have to fear are urban predators (I don’t give papaya is a local expression for I am not an easy mark) and at night, some real wildlife ones. Although they don’t roam the cities, Medellin is sufficiently spread out, with forested areas between barrios, to harbour night prowlers.
A remote area north of the city is known to be teeming with tigrillos, leopards, pumas and armadillos.