Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Urban Explorer´s Guide to Bogotá

A certain redhaired colleague of mine arrives in Bogotá the day after Bobby and I leave. I´ve been meaning to put together some information we have discovered about how to enjoy the city.
So, here comes the URBAN EXPLORER´S GUIDE TO BOGOTÁ. (co-written by Bobby)
Chapter 1: Money
The exchange rate at this time makes $1 equivalent to about 2,000 pesos. And here they write it "$2.000", so the zeros can be confusing. 1,000 is called a ¨mil¨, so ¨dos mil¨is about a dollar.
Chapter 2: Papel higienico
Many bathrooms, such as all the ones I visited at the Universidad Nacional, do not offer toilet paper. One might consider carrying a small amount when traveling around the city. Sometimes it´s available for sale, other times there is one large roll in the bathroom from which you must gather some prior to entering a stall. Used toilet paper goes into the little bin provided for this reason in each stall, rather than into the plumbing system. There are some fine ass bathrooms in the international center, at Parque Central Bavaria (where Séptima and Décima come together, near Tequendama), but my favorite is at the Centro Comercial San Martín, which is on Séptima at Calle 32. This bathroom features paper in the stall (only place I´ve seen this in Bogotá) and constant cleaning. Not that any bathrooms I´ve visited have been particularly messy. This bathroom just really goes the extra mile to make your stay there a pleasant one.
Chapter 3: Almuerzos corrientes
Perhaps my favorite part of staying in Bogotá has been the large, inexpensive lunches available absolutely everywhere. If you see a sign outside a cafeteria that advertises "almuerzos," you can just step inside, sit down, and say "un almuerzo, por favor." Soon after an array of foods will arrive, usually including soup, a plate of rice, chicken, bananos, and salad, and fresh juice. This costs between $4.000 and $6.000 (about $2-3). I stayed away from the uncooked parts of the meals at first, but now I´m digging into salsas and jugos de mora (raspberry) with gusto. And only one bout of stomach pain!
Chapter 4: Panaderias and other food notes
Colombians have a fine tradition of sweet breads. One can breakfast on a variety of roscones (kind of like donuts but not fried, with arequipe [sort of like caramel] or guayaba [yum] inside) and lots of other kinds. We´ve found that you can just point at what you´d like to try and say "uno de estos," and usually the clerk will supply the name of the bread. Another snack that´s actually meal-sized are the tamales available in most panaderias. Unlike Mexican tamales, which I find too dry, these tamales are soft and delicious. Each region in Colombia prepares them differently, we´ve had very good ones from Tolima. The best panaderias are in Teusaquillo, the neighborhood between Séptima and Avenida El Dorado and between the ciudad universitaria and the international center.
Chapter 5: Bebidas
Chocolate is prepared everywhere here. Thick, rich, not too sweet chocolate. I usually order a tinto (small black coffee) while Bobby orders chocolate. My estadounidense desire for lots of coffee has been best satisfied at Juan Valdez, the national equivalent of Starbucks, which has locations all over the city. The tinto grande is about the size of a small coffee in the EEUU, and it does the trick for this caffeine addict. Coffee in general can be found in every establishment, and many places do specialty drinks as well. Crepes y Waffles, another chain, offers many fancy coffee drinks in addition to the titular plates. Sodas are called gaseosas here, and if you want a sparkling water (which we do all the time), order an "agua con gas." And then there´s the jugos naturales. As I´ve mentioned earlier on this blog, Bogotá has a great variety of fresh juices available from a variety of native and foreign fruits. I´ve tried raspberry juice, guanabana juice, mango juice, pitaya juice (it was like sweet snot), maracuyá juice, and probably some others. Fortunately the water here is excellent for drinking, so I don´t think I´ve had any stomach upset from the juices. Also the quality of the water makes it easy to avoid purchasing bottled water all the time, something I avoid religiously in the states.
Chapter 6: Safety
It´s better to avoid streets that are empty. The beggars we´ve encountered in Bogotá have been young men who appear out of their minds on drugs or with mental illness. I´ve been told that it´s a good idea to just give them some money if they bother you in a deserted area to avoid aggression. Weekdays it´s fine to walk all over town, because so many people are out that it´s easy to stay in a crowd. Even in the evenings, up until like 10 pm, we´ve felt fine walking between buses and hosts´apartments. Saturdays are also boisterous evenings, but Sunday evenings get really quiet, since most people stay at home. I´ve felt a little uncomfortable walking after 9 pm on Sunday nights. It´s a good rule of thumb to just consider any of the things you´d usually be aware of in a large city. Bogotá does not feel any more threatening to me than Los Angeles.
Chapter 7: Transit
The transmilenio system (big red buses) is super easy to use, just look for the elevated bus platforms. They have maps that explain where the buses go just like in a metro system, so it is very convenient. However, the transmilenio certainly doesn´t go everywhere, so you will need to use the busetas, or colectivos, which are small buses that go all over town. They have signs in the front window that explain their route, which is confusing if you aren´t familiar with the city. If you´re not sure it´s best to ask a local which colectivo to take, as some places have the same name. You just flag them down at the side of the road to get on, and press a button by the door to get off. The taxis are also cheap, but we didn´t use them much.
Chapter 8: Ciclovía
Every sunday from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM many streets in the city are closed to cars and you can walk or ride a bike on them, which is very nice. Unfortunately, there aren´t really places to rent bikes here, which was dissapointing for us. We found one bike shop that claimed to rent, by the Heroés transmilenio station, but it was too expensive for our limited budget (30,000 pesos per day).
Chapter 9: Bibliotecas
There are some excellent public libraries in Bogotá, our favorites are Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango (BLAA, haha), and Biblioteca Virgilio Barco in the Parque Nacional. The latter is a very sublime Rogelio Salmona building, who is a very influential architect here. These are good places to find out about...
Chapter 10: Free stuff!
Bogotá is host to an amazing amount of free (or cheap as free) cultural events. Clicking around on the excellent official website of Bogotá can reveal some of them. The Universidad Nacional also often has free concerts and events. Adonia and I have seen the philharmonic of Bogotá, some modern chamber ensembles, a harp recital, and an Antonioni movie for free (or not more than $1 each). Tomorrow, if we have time, we´re going to see Lost in Translation for free at Teatro Jorge Eliecer Gaitan (named after a national hero presidential candidate who was assasinated in 1948, his name comes up all the time). Not to mention all of the museums that are also very cheap or free.

Here we are on top of Monseratte, which is the one really touristy thing we did. You can take a Teleferico (tram) up there that is pretty fun, with a superb view of the city.

In summation, Bogotá is a pretty amazing metropolitan city, with lots of interesting architecture, food, art, museums, and concerts. enjoy!