36 Hours in Bogotá, Colombia
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THERE seems to be a fine line between a drug-war battlefield and a hip bohemian city, and Bogotá has crossed it. In just a few years, this subtropical city has clamped down on violence, cleaned up its act and emerged as the trendy capital of Colombian cool, safe enough to visit but still seedy enough to feel far from home. With its stretches of drab urban jungle, Bogotá is not conventionally pretty and its pleasures not immediately clear. But it rewards intrepid travelers who hop across its archipelago of neighborhoods to unearth artistic and cultural gems.
5 p.m. 1) DO THE MACARENA
Don't be embarrassed by this Macarena. This hilly neighborhood, which is lined with turquoise, pink and orange buildings, has an air of downtown obscurity that attracts a fashionable, in-the-know crowd. The trendsetters can be spotted at Valenzuela Klenner Galería (Carrera 5 No. 26-28; 57-1-243-7752; vkgaleria.com), a contemporary art gallery once visited by wealthy drug lords looking for trophy paintings of lions but disappointed by its avant-garde offerings. Nearby is a local artisanal leather workshop, Giraldo Taller Manual del Cuero (Carrera 5 No. 26A-18; 57-1-342-8964; tallermanualdelcuero.blogspot.com), which stitches sumptuous leather handbags, briefcases, belts and backpacks in every color imaginable. And next door is the Luvina bookstore (Carrera 5 No. 26A-06; 57-1-284-4157), where local writers hold forth with admirers.
8 p.m. 2) PAN-AMERICAN FUSION
Peruvian cuisine is quietly colonizing South American cities, and at Matiz (Calle 95 No. 11-17; 57-1-520-2006), a little restaurant that continues to reinvent itself, a young Peruvian chef named Diego Vega, who trained in Italy, applies his methods to Colombian ingredients. The tables, draped in white, are spaced far apart and illuminated by candles; the terrace is warmed by gas lamps; jazz wafts gently through the place. Order the daily tasting menu. A recent one included a millefeuille of apple slices stuffed with crab meat and white fish; yuca cakes filled with meat; and a grilled lobster tail on a bed of green plantains. The tasting menu is 120,000 Colombian pesos, or $65 at 1,840 pesos to the dollar.
10:30 p.m. 3) CREATIVE COCKTAILS
Bogotá's night life is thriving, and it can be dizzying to watch local residents argue over the coolest new spot. Play it safe at BarDeLeo (Calle 27b No. 6-73; 57-1-286-0539; bardeleo.com/en), where new mingles easily with old. In the drug-tinged days, the place was reputed to serve martinis spiked with marijuana. Today, it has become a less controversial but no less creative producer of cocktails. The walls are a deep red, as are the shades on the chandelier; Cuban son music might be played live behind you. Try the starfruit (carambolo) and aguardiente martini -- aguardiente being an anise-flavored, sugarcane-based drink, a Colombian favorite.
10 a.m. 4) COLOMBIAN CULTURE
Three of Bogotá's premier cultural institutions are clustered in the Candelaria district. The Botero Museum (Calle 11 No. 4-21; 57-1-343-1212) holds the personal art collection of the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, which includes works by Renoir, Monet and Picasso, not to mention full-figured works by Botero himself. In a city whose colonial influences are apparent, the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango (Calle 11 No. 4-14; 57-1-343 1202; lablaa.org), just across the street from the Botero, seeks to remind visitors of the precolonial past and includes a collection of musical instruments that are indigenous to the region. Nearby, the Gold Museum (Calle 16, No. 5-41; 57-1-343-2222; banrep.gov.co/museo) traces the history of the precious metal and how it shaped Colombia.
1 p.m. 5) OCTOPUS AND OLIVES
Tucked inside one of Macarena's steep streets is a fashionably dim tapas restaurant called Donostia (Calle 29 No. 5-84; 57-1-287-3943). Install yourself in one of its multicolored leather booths and start off with soft, delicious bread and a dipping sauce of olive oil, tomato pulp and spices. Try the chorizo santarrosano made in-house; the lemony octopus ceviche; the lamb meatballs with salsa; and the shrimp with garbanzo beans. Lunch for two, without wine, comes to roughly 100,000 pesos.
3 p.m. 6) BOUTIQUEY BOGOTá
A resurgent Bogotá is bursting with boutiques, and some of the best are in the trendy districts of Zona Rosa and Zona T. The Bogotá designer Amelia Toro (Calle 82 No. 12-10; 57-1-610-9296; ameliatoro.com) sells slim-fitting quilted overcoats; frilly, patterned blazers; and dress after colorful dress. Prices start at 300,000 pesos and can drift many times higher. Xoco (Calle 82 No. 11-78; 57-1-622-0443) is an innovative chocolatier that produces its truffles and bonbons just upstairs. They come in flavors like orange, cherry, ganache, anise and ginger; a box of nine chocolates costs 22,000 pesos.
6 p.m. 7) TAKE IT FROM THE TOP
Bogotá is a vast urban frenzy -- that is, until it runs into the Andes mountains, where it quietly ends. Take the funicular (14,000 Colombian pesos for a round-trip ticket) up to the top of Monserrate (Carrera 2 este No. 21-48; 57-1-284-5700; cerromonserrate.com), and find yourself with the throbbing city on one side and the virtually deserted green mountains on the other. Then settle in for a glass of wine at Casa San Isidro, a mountaintop restaurant with a wide selection.
8:30 p.m. 8) CLUB STEAK
Colombians love to "rumbear," a word that captures the country's culture of music and dance and late-night revelry. But until recently, Andres Carne de Res, a beloved spot that offers a hard-to-explain combination of steakhouse and all-night dance party, was situated in the remote outskirts of town. Thankfully, last year the club opened a branch downtown (Calle 82 No. 12-21; 57-1-863-7880; andrescarnederes.com). Come early, install yourself at a table and feast on its famous steak (the peppery lomo sellado is excellent), washed down with a customary bottle of rum. Dinner is about 160,000 pesos for two, without alcohol. Then, as the music grows louder and the night grows older, the place morphs into a nightclub. Professional dancers in blue mink coax you onto the floor. If you leave six hours after you came, you're leaving too early.
9 a.m. 9) BICYCLE POWER
Bogotá's flirtation with a post-automobile city is being studied -- and copied -- by urban planners worldwide. On Sundays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., more than 70 miles of streets in the city center are open only to bicycles as part of the Ciclovía program. The car-free thoroughfares are spiced up with cultural offerings such as aerobics and rumba lessons and the vending of fresh juices and snacks. Bogotá Bike Tours (Carrera 3 No. 12-72; 57-312-502-0554; bogotabiketours.com) has beach cruisers and mountain bikes starting at 15,000 pesos for a half-day.
11 a.m. 10) FASHIONABLE BRUNCH
A traditional Bogotá breakfast would include steaming chicken tamales, a spiced egg soup and hot chocolate. But as the city looks outward, brunches have gained a foothold. A fashionable favorite is La Bagatelle, in the Holiday Inn Express Hotel (Calle 94 No. 11A-12, 57-1-256-1619; bagatelle.com.co), which serves fusion fare to young Colombians hiding hangovers behind sunglasses. The fried egg and chorizo comes in an iron skillet, with corn arepas. Breakfast for two, 45,000 pesos.
1 p.m. 11) GREEN STROLL
Despite its congestion, Bogotá has plenty of green, with tree-lined avenues and the hulking Andes on its edge that always seem just around the corner. Make your way to the Jardín Botánico José Celestino Mutis (Calle 63 No. 68-95; 57-1-437-7060; www.jbb.gov.co), a roughly 50-acre oasis of palm trees and lush tropical gardens. There is an orchid gallery and butterfly tent, a trove of cactuses and floating lotuses the size of dinner tables. It is a quiet refuge in a city working feverishly to become part of the global bustle.
IF YOU GO
Continental, Delta and Avianca offer nonstop flights between New York City and Bogotá. A recent online search found round-trip fares from Newark from $556 on Continental for travel in mid-August.
Opened late last year, the Bogotá Marriott (Avenida El Dorado No. 69b-53; 57-1-485-1111; marriott.com) has bright colors, plenty of amenities and modern rooms starting at $215 a night.
A good midrange value in the central Candelaria district is Hotel de La Opera (Calle 10 No. 5-72; 57-1-336-2066; hotelopera.com.co). Book a room in its colonial wing, with its heritage furniture, tiled floors and pastel walls. Rooms from 375,000 pesos, about $204.
For a budget option, try the Hotel Ambalá in Candelaria (Carrera 5 No. 13-46; 57-1-342-6384; hotelambala.net). It offers clean and functional rooms starting at 121,000 pesos, including breakfast.
First Published July 4, 2010 2:00 am