City of eight million. Perched on the Colombian high savannah. Notorious for crime, murder, drugs, danger; more recently for art, literature, world-class graffiti. Founded by the Spanish conquistadors. Heartland of Colombia’s independence movement. Bogotá, Colombia. Is it worth a visit?
The story of Bogotá begins with the Muisca people – by the way Muisca means people, so calling them the Muisca people is a little silly, but that’s what they’re officially known as – who occupied the Bogotá savannah in dense numbers in pre-Columbian times. There were at least half a million in residence, in 1538, when the conquistadors arrived on the scene.
El Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), Bogotá
The Muisca were rich in gold and emeralds. They had so much gold they used it to make all sorts of everyday handicrafts, like breastplates, headdresses, and coca holders. The presence of such items led to the creation of the legend of El Dorado, the lost city of gold.
Check out El Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) to get an understanding of just how much gold the Muisca had. WARNING: there is a staggering amount of gold in the museum. They have 55,000 pieces in total, of which 6,000 are on display. And don’t forget the Spanish melted down and shipped off every bit of gold they could get their hands on! The items in the museum are just the odd scraps that escaped their attention.
The conquistadors arrived on the Bogotá savannah care of one Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada, who, like many others at the time, was in search of El Dorado. De Quesada didn’t find a lost city of gold, but he did find the Muisca, to whom he, and his Spanish colleagues, gifted a suite of infectious diseases. The Muisca population never recovered.
In 1538 Bogotá became the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada (which encompassed Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and parts of Venezuela). It went on to become the capital of the fledgling nation of Colombia, following the Battle of Boyacá – in which the country gained its independence from Spain – in 1819.
La Candelaria District, Bogotá
The Candelaria district is the historic centre of Bogotá, amongst its narrow lanes are numerous baroque, art deco, and neo-classical buildings. In La Plaza de Bolívar (Bolívar Square) you’ll find many monumental structures including the Catedral Primada (Primary Cathedral), the National Capital (which houses congress), and the Palace of Justice.
La Candelaria district is also home to Bogotá’s colourful arts scene. Head for the narrow cobblestoned passageway known as Callejon del Embudo (Funnel Street), and you are bound to espy many diverting sculptures and murals, along with a remarkable array of street art.
Bogotá’s street art is world famous. Take a tour by one of the many street art curators to gain a better appreciation for the significance and celebrity of the artworks. Or take a look at my photo series: La Candelaria Street Art, Bogotá, Colombia.
Botero Museum, Bogotá
Fernando Botero is Colombia’s most famous painter (he completes the holy triumverate of Colombian artists along with Gabriel García Márquez and Shakira). He likes to exaggerate the volume of his subjects.
To put it another way: everything he does is fat. Fat trees. Fat horses. Fat houses. Fat bananas. The Botero Museum houses 123 of the artist’s plump paintings.
La Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, Bogotá
Funnel street culminates in La Plaza del Chorro de Quevedo, the public square in which Gonzalo Jiménez de Queseda, founder of Bogotá, established the city’s first military garrison. This little square, nowadays replete with street art, performers, and university students, is the birthplace of Bogotá.
Is Bogotá worth a visit?
Absolutely. The historic centre of Bogotá is full of character; its streets are narrow, gritty, grimy, and lined with empanada bars and amazing street art. If you like that sort of thing, then Bogotá is for you.
Is it safe?
Yes, it is safe for tourists, as long as you are sensible. La Candelaria district is safe to walk around during the day with your camera and valuables as long as you stick to popular thoroughfares. At night leave your camera at home and catch taxis. Think twice about using public transport. Be careful when making your own way to Montserrat or other isolated sites.
Practical information and how to reach Bogotá:
El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá has regular flights to the United States, scattered cities in Europe, and most major cities in South America. More transport info here.