Here is a section of my travel blog which relates to my 3 days in Bogota in Feb 2014.
It might be helpful for anyone who is planning a visit.
SAT 8 FEB 2014
DAY 1 IN BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
I got up nice & early for my flight to Bogota. I had a good night's sleep (9 hrs) so I felt 'raring to go'. I got a taxi into the centre of Medellin where I then got the airport bus (a huge saving on getting a taxi straight to the airport as the journey was 1 hr+). I had already 'checked out' the exact location of the airport buses yesterday as I didn't want any last minute panic! My first day experience of buses just everywhere with hordes of people & no obvious system of bus numbers (well, not obvious to me anyway) worried me a bit but the airport bus system was very slick & organised. Cost of my taxi from my apartment into town was £2.50 & cost of my airport bus was £2.50 (compared to approx £23 for a direct taxi - no contest!).
Just as I arrived at the airport, it started raining & was quite chilly (oh well, I suppose I needed to start to get myself acclimatized to UK weather!) Everything at the airport was very efficient (the airport looked pretty new to me). The flight was on time & was only 1 hr long. There was free wifi. Gatwick/Heathrow/Malaga airports etc could really learn some lessons on how to run airports. The ones I've used in South America are far superior! Also, free wifi should be 'not negotiable' in my opinion.
My homestay host (booked through the Airbnb website), Jaime, was at the airport to pick me up which was brilliant. I was very surprised that the weather was pretty warm & pleasant (I was expecting it to be very cold). The apartment was only 15 mins away so I was fixed up in my room very quickly. The apartment is another high rise one but I am only on the 5th floor. It is very nice & I have full use of the kitchen, lounge, bathroom, wifi & even the washing machine (however, I think I'll just wait now until I get home & just tip the entire contents of my bag into my washing machine. The apartment isn't in the historic centre of town (La Candalaria) but I remember now why I booked it (I had spent ages deciding where to book for Bogota because of its 'various problems'). This location is a very upmarket residential area which is very safe & is extremely close to the Transmileneo station (El Tiempo) & also to the bus station (both of which are very important for me). Also, it is just 4 blocks from a shopping mall (which I have just visited & it is huge).
Obviously, Bogota is a huge city. Before I arrived, I had been advised that by several people (& had also read on various websites etc) that it wasn't really safe to pick up a taxi from the street & that you needed to ring for one (from your cell phone!!! which I don't have as it is safely stored at home in the UK). Therefore, I needed to rely on the Transmileneo bus system + ordinary buses + my feet. The Transmileneo bus system is incredibly efficient so things shouldn't be as tough as I thought. They have their own dedicated bus lanes throughout the city & travel pretty quickly & you only have to wait a couple of minutes for the next one. They look a bit like Boris' 'bendy buses' but they have 3 sections so are much longer. I haven't quite mastered the art of changing to a different line but I'm 'improving'. I am also a bit confused about which side of the station I need to stand & have to keep asking people. They use a similar system to the Oyster card in London so it is all very slick & easy. My host had given me one of the 'Oyster cards' so I just needed to put a bit of credit on it & I was 'sorted'. Cost for each ride is around 50p I think. Security on the bus system is pretty tight at the stations. I spotted a lad who had squeezed through the barrier with another person to avoid the fare. The women attendant challenged him & he just ignored her. She then hit an alarm & several security guards pounced pretty quickly & dealt with him. Later on, a policeman got on my bus & wanted to see the ID of someone on the bus.
I managed to get myself to La Candelaria area which is the historic downtown centre. Once in the centre, it was all very well signposted & geared up for tourists. I found the tourist office pretty quickly to gather some information so I could plan my next couple of days.
My afternoon of sightseeing was extremely successful (& very cheap!). I visited the Gold Museum which was in a totally different league to the one I had visited previously. I could easily have spent half a day in there. It was absolutely incredible. Entrance cost was 90p!! Then I visited 3 museums that were all clustered together (& were all free!). First was the 'Money Museum' which was all about coinage & bank notes etc. Interestingly, all the machines that made the coins etc seemed to have been made in Birmingham. Then there was an Art Museum (most of it was a bit too modern for me). Then there was another Botero museum. I thought this would be too much like the one in Medellin but it was different & concentrated more on the paintings rather than the sculptures. I still found it fascinating.
I then started to head back towards the Transmilenio system & managed to find the right bus to get me back. En route, I passed a sort of 'demonstration' going on which all seemed pretty friendly. However, there were several police vans & quite a few policemen watching the proceedings in case things got out of hand.
I am feeling pretty safe in Bogota. The tourist office pointed out a few areas on my map which I needed to avoid. Obviously, I won't be heading out in the evenings. However, I did walk to the mall before I came back to my room & it was all perfectly safe even though it was dark by then.
There was a pizza place in there which 'sorted' my supper. I then went into the supermarket & picked up a few supplies for my 3 breakfasts & some snacks for the daytimes (in case I don't find anything that I want to eat).
I've made my plans for tomorrow & am hoping that my travel methods will work out. The first part (the Transmilenio) will be fine but I need a couple of local buses after that & I then haven't worked out how to get myself back to the apartment. The 'no taxi' thing is a bit of a pain as that has always been my fallback option.
All in all, it's been a very good day in Bogota & has exceeded my expections considerably. I really thought that it was going to be horrible & seedy. My flight back to the UK is from Bogota which is the only reason that I am here.
Bye for now Christine
SUN 9 FEB 2014
DAY 2 IN BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
Transport is a big issue for me here in Bogota as taxis aren't possible (no mobile phone which I'd need to book one & it is not recommended to just hail one off the street).
I tried to plan my day (as best I could) around public transport. I set off at about 7.30 am to go to the Cerro Montserrat which is a sanctuary church high up on a mountain. I had researched it quite thoroughly so that I knew what it was all about.
I got the Transmilenio bus from near my apartment down to the final stop near the centre of town. I then had to walk for about 20 mins (uphill) to the funicular/cable car area. There were all sorts of street vendors en route & it was easy to find the route as I just needed to follow the hordes of people going the same way. (It was a Sunday & I knew it was a pilgrimage sort of place). Going early was a good move I think. I bought some bits of food from the street vendors.
There were 3 methods to get up/down the mountain (hike/funicular/cable car). The funicular only operated on Sundays which was part of the reason I was doing the visit today. Also, I wanted to 'people watch'. I did the funicular up which was fun. I then had another 15 minute walk up to the very top where the church was. En route, there were lots of religious statues & many of the Colombians were stopping to pray (out loud) at each one (reading from their little prayer books).
Once I got to the top I went into the church which was filling up fast. There was a separate area for people to do their 'confessions' & people were queuing up to do theirs. The morning service started soon afterwards with lots of singing & prayers etc.
Back outside, I then noticed all the people arriving who had done the hike up. They looked exhausted. I think it was their 'Sunday morning work out'.
The views over the entire city of Bogota were superb.
I then took the cable car back down.
I knew that t he next bit of my day was going to be tricky because of the transport issues. I needed to get a local bus to the northern part of the city (30 mins+ by bus). The Transmilenio didn't go anywhere near this area. I asked several people to try to find out where the bus went from & finally found out it was Street no 10. However, when I got there, I discovered that the street (& many more around Bogota) was closed to cars for Sunday for the 'cyclismo' (which happens quite often). I think that half of Bogota had got their bikes/roller skates/running shoes out to make the most of the clear streets. After another 15 mins of walking & asking people, I eventually got mysef to another street which was the 'diversion route'. I quite enjoyed the journey as I got to see quite a lot of Bogota.
My little map showed that the stop that I needed was right next to a McDonalds (helpful) so I made the most of the opportunity & enjoyed a large portion of fries (which I had been yearning for the last week or so), followed by a strawberry sundae - delicious!
I then spent a couple of hours looking around a large artisan market. Most of the items on sale were very good & handmade etc - not the usual 'tat' that you find at markets. I even bought a couple of souvenirs. There were entertainers on several of the street corners so it was nice to stay & listen. One band was very enthusiastic & had a big audience, including a family who were obviously on their way to a restaurant for a family celebration. The band then played 'happy birthday' to the mother. Another tune followed & everyone started dancing. It was a lovely atmosphere.
Then came the next tricky bit. I needed to get myself back 'into town'. I crossed over to the other side of the road to head back the way that I had come (that bit was easy!) & managed to work out which bus I needed & 1 came along pretty quickly. The hard bit was going to be working out where to get off. I had my map with me & my map reading skills improved considerably over the next half an hour. Whilst I was doing my crash course in map reading, I spotted the National Museum of Colombia was close to my route so I decided to get off & take a look inside.
That was a good move as it was free & it was nice & cool in there with lots of seats to rest on. There was lots of interesting stuff to see so I was pleased that I had found it.
As I went into the museum, I noticed that there was a Transmilenio station right outside. My heart leapt as I thought that it was going to be easy to get back to my apartment. I was wrong! After my museum visit, I went to the entrance to see which 'line' it was & if it was going to be a straightforward trip back. No, it wasn't. The girl started to explain the 3 changes that I would need to do. No thank you. Changes are very confusing & to have to do 3 of them was not 'on my agenda'. I looked longingly at the rows of taxis around the area but I knew a taxi ride was out of the question.
A bus was the only alternative. I eventually found out where to stand & which bus I needed. I managed to hail one & got on. The local buses here are a 'bit of a pain' as they have a turnstile at the top of the steps where you get on. It is difficult to interact with the driver & the person who takes the money as they are both at the front of the bus & there is just a little hatch where you pay (obviously this is all 'security' stuff). Anyway, I was on the correct bus but I discovered at this point that there are some buses which have their own 'oyster card system'. This was one of them. I didn't have one of these cards. You couldn't use cash as only a card would open the turnstile. Luckily, there was a woman on the bus who took pity on me & leapt up & used her card to get me on. I was then able to re-imburse her in cash for my ride. This bus got me back to the central area where I was able to get my regular Transmilenio bus back to my apartment.
It's been a good day & the weather has been very warm & sunny. I've been very surprised at how warm it has been as I was expecting 'cold & nasty'.
Tomorrow is my last full day here so I hope it is a good day.
Bye for now Christine
MON 10 FEB 2014
DAY 3 IN BOGOTA, COLOMBIA
Well, I've had a very good 'transport day' here in Bogota.
I had planned to get out of the city & spend the day visiting a small(ish) town called Zipaquira which is about 40 km north of Bogota. There is a Salt Cathedral there which is very famous.
My research (quite a bit of it!) said that I could get a direct bus from the bus terminal which is just 10 mins walk from my apartment. However, there is a Spanish couple also staying in my homestay & they said they had to get 1 bus to the terminal at the north of the city & then a connecting one. I got to the bus terminal at 7.45 am & it was pretty busy but I found the counter for my bus & paid my fare (1 way cost £1.20 for a 1.5 hr journey). I still hadn't ascertained whether I'd have to change buses so I just had to 'wait & see'.
The bus was pretty comfy & I had a very good seat (as I was first on the bus). The journey was very interesting -lots of 'people watching'. The conductor chap spent the first half of the journey hanging out of the door shouting out where we were going/stopping etc to try to get extra passengers. We had to drive right through Bogota (the apartment is in the southern part), to the northern part & then into the countryside. It was rush hour so it was all 'pretty crazy'. There were between 2 & 5 lanes (each way). Through the main city area there were 2 lanes for us & our driver weaved his way from one lane to another. He needed to be close to the 'potential passengers' but also wanted to be on the outside lane to go a bit faster. It was 'interesting'. It was a good way of doing a city tour - like the hop on hop off variety but without me needing to do any 'hopping off' (there wouldn't have been anything of interest to see anyway). Some of the areas were pretty scruffy but other areas were quite 'swanky' with smart shopping malls etc (a bit like my homestay area).
I was watching my map quite carefully & was 'plotting where we were' as I wanted to see if we were headed for the bus terminal in the north of the city. I was fairly hopeful that I was on a 'direct bus'. Once we got beyond the city limits & into countryside I knew all was OK which was great news.
There was lots of activity on the bus with more people getting on & off. Once I spotted the signs showing we were 2 km from Zipaquira I told the conductor that I was going to the Salt Cathedral & asked him if my stop was Calle 4 (Street 4) - which my research had told me. He said yes & made sure that the bus stopped exactly there.
Before I got off the bus I noted (very carefully!) the exact details of the bus (Rapido El Carmen was the name of the bus company & I wrote down everything that was on the reverse of the board in the windscreen as that would be the return journey). I really didn't want any 'disasters' as my return journey was 'very specific' in destination. General buses that returned to Bogota only went to the bus terminal in the north which would have been useless for me.
Once I got off the bus it was time for my first ice lolly of the day (I think I managed 4 today). I then fancied something to eat from a street vendor but had the same problem with meat fillings. The seller seemed to reckon that pollo (chicken) would be OK for vegetarians!!! I ended up buying a donut for later & another 'sweet type of empanada' for now. It tasted OK but I wouldn't say it was delicious.
Then it was a 15 minute walk (which actually took me 30 mins but maybe I was just slow). I had to keep checking my route as it wasn't obvious & I really don't like having to 'double back'.
I got to the entrance of the Salt Mine/Cathedral area by about 10.30 am & was hopeful that I had 'beaten the tour groups'. The reviews on the Salt Cathedral said it was best to avoid the guided tours (as well as the tour groups). Apparently, you were just rushed through & hardly had a chance to take any photos. I really didn't fancy that idea.
I managed to get well over half way round before I heard the first tour group so I had peace & was able to enjoy my visit for much of the time. It was wonderful because every now & again there was piped music of a choir singing Ave Maria which echoed throughout the tunnels/chambers. Being on my own made it a wonderful experience - quite moving.
The salt cathedral has been created within the tunnels/caves etc that occurred when the salt was mined from the area. It is 180 metres below ground. There are 12 crosses that have been carved into the first tunnels that you pass & then you get to the huge chambers where the main 'nave' & cathedral part is. It was quite breathtaking & some of it looked a bit like an 'ice hotel'.
I took lots of photos (& was so glad that my camera is working OK now). I then had a cup of Colombian coffee (delicious) in the cafe that was 180 metres underground (another photo opp). There was a film that described the history of the salt mine which had English sub titles so I was able to 'fill the gaps' in my understanding of everything.
I then visited the little museum that was on site which was fascinating. I don't think the organised tours got to go in there as they were on restricted time. I did spot several wealthy looking foreign tourists who arrived in 'hotel cars'. I believe that the cost of these trips was in excess of £60 so my bus trip was a bargain.
Next up was the 'tourist train' trip around the historic centre of the town (think Noddy train at Hengistbury Head or perhaps the tourist train that runs along the seafront at Torremolinos & you will have the picture!). It was a bit 'naff' but it did show you all around the town without needing to use your own feet (mine are feeling pretty tired after 5 weeks of sightseeing).
I then needed to get a bus back & I was really praying that this was going to work out OK. It did. I waited on the same corner where I was dropped off (I took careful note of exactly where it was as it was in my interests to do so). I had the name of the bus & knew the 'livery' that it was painted in (I think this is how the Colombians are able to identify the bus that they want so easily). I was very lucky as my bus approached within 5 minutes. I managed to get a seat (lucky!) & all was well. My return journey was going to be a 'doddle' as the very final stop was the bus terminal which was 10 mins from my apartment. Even if I fell asleep (which I nearly did), I couldn't go wrong.
I had to go past the big shopping mall to get back so I popped in for some 'supplies' (I needed to stock up on snacks for my return journey as I usually get an 'attack of the munchies' when I travel. Also, I have a stopover at Madrid airport & don't plan on buying any expensive airport food (which is usually pretty horrible anyway). I also needed to buy some cigarettes for my sister, Lesley. I had put a question onto the travel forum of Tripadvisor as I needed advice regarding duty free prices at Bogota airport. I knew that sometimes it was cheaper to buy the cigarettes in Bogota itself. Luckily, I got an answer from someone (just in the nick of time), saying that I should avoid the duty free at the airport. I've managed to get a reasonable supply (approx £1 per packet of 20 instead of £5+ for a packet in the UK).
I'm now back in the apartment & have caught up on my e mails & now need to cook some supper for myself (well 'cook' is a slight exaggeration, it's a 10 minute pasta meal from a packet). I have also bought myself a last bottle of 'Aguila' lager (famous Colombian beer).
Tomorrow, I'm planning to go to the Botanical Gardens which are only about a 20 minute walk from here. I want a gentle morning as I then need to set off mid afternoon for a 3 pm check in for my flight. My host (Jaime) is kindly taking me to the airport which is great. It is only a 15 minute drive away. (I am SO glad that I chose this location for my stay - it has proved absolutely perfect in every way. My extensive research paid off).
I've just done my online check in for my 2 flights (Bogota to Madrid with Iberia & then Madrid to Heathrow with BA). The web check in wouldn't let me choose my seats & I have been allocated a window seat for both flights. I don't think so!! I am not prepared to be 'trapped' by the window, especially for the first 10 hr flight. I hope they can change my seats when I get to the airport otherwise I'll be 'doing battle' with the check in person.
Well, that's the end of my 2014 adventure. I've had a truly wonderful trip & have some fantastic memories to keep me going until next year .......
Bye for now Christine