It’s Colombia, not Columbia* (Bogotá for Beginners W/ Kids in 2 Weeks)

I ate a big butt ant (salty!).

I nearly drowned myself in a mud volcano.

I dipped my cheese in hot chocolate and loved the savory-sweet juxtaposition.

I felt the graciousness of so many Colombians that it makes me take pause.

Our trip was our first to Colombia. Next summer, we’re planning the Second Act. Our First Act focused entirely on Bogotá and Cartagena – my personal style of travel prefers to stick to one or two places to get to know it, so now I know how much more there is to go back to! (See bottom section for probable Second Act destinations.)

There are not a lot of tourists in Bogotá, and I suppose that is due to the prevailing reputation of narco-guerrilla violence leftover. But I tell you, it couldn’t be a nicer surprise. Arriving to Bogotá, we were greeted by the vast and sprawling city surrounded like a jeweled necklace of lush green voluptuous mountains. My girlfriend told me “me llenan”, they fill her, and I get it. They would be overwhelming if they weren’t so nurturing. The only thing that rivals these Andes are the constituents it protects.

20-30 years have gone by with few tourists during the dark ages of violence so to speak, though Colombia has soldiered on culturally, artistically, and academically to emerge as a sophisticated and complicated metropolis. To arrive as a foreigner, the Colombians are beyond gracious to make sure that you enjoy their beautiful country. It is everyone’s second question after a proper greeting, “How do you like it? Do you like Colombia?” I feel like a small renaissance is under foot. It is a jewel that the rest of the world has yet to discover due to lingering outdated fears.

Except for Andres. Everyone knows Andres Carnes de Res in Chia, and if you don’t, you need to put that on your list as a “must-do” in your lifetime – I recommend it for any age, but suggest that the sooner you go, the more time you have to enjoy the spectacle. Go without kids at night. Go with kids for lunch on the weekend. Do both. SPECTACULAR #fun #whimsy #howdoIexplain.

Specific needs regarding Shelter and Transportation in Bogotá:

Hotel Hill House in Usaquén: This was a great hotel and area to stay in. Very reasonably priced hotel rooms with kitchenettes (around $80-$90/night including breakfast) with excellent, courteous, and helpful staff. Usaquén is a unique area within Bogotá that is easy to walk around; there is a grocery store around the corner, a mall down the street, and an artisanal outdoor market every Sunday. I plan to stay here again.

Uber is wonderful in Bogotá, cheap and controversial, as it is in many cosmopolitan cities. We also used both yellow and white taxis, though I was warned by several not to grab a (yellow) cab from the street without requesting a “secure (white) taxi” by phone first. Our godsend was a Driving Tour Guide, named Yamile, with whom we were acquainted and I highly recommend for families! A Colombian, who is 100% Spanish-English bilingual, with two young girls of her own – she knows Bogotá and can help you do, see, go anywhere (email me and I’ll give her your info!).

Lastly, I recommend a direct flight if possible. We did not, which is why I recommend.

So with 2 weeks to spare and kids in tow, here’s where I’d go!

Zipaquirá: a cathedral that has been carved into a historic and still functioning salt mine. It feels otherworldly once you are inside. There is a slight sulfur smell as you enter into the touristy tunnel and my children were giving me the looks of ‘how long do we have to do this’ until… we forged into the depths – stunning! Surreal! Colossal. We opted for the Miner’s Tour after our General one, and that was the move. How do miners do it? Such hard work, dangerous, and not altogether healthy, for so little pay. We walked in tunnels with zero light, 200 meters (650+ feet) below the earth, and took pick axes into our hands. I’m so glad I wasn’t born a miners daughter #SissySpacek.

Travelling the back roads via Sopó into La Calera on the outskirsts of Bogotá, we dreamt of horse back riding in the electric green Andes as I tried my damndest not to get carsick on the curvy roads. As luck would have it, we discovered a beautiful equestrian center and galloped to our hearts content – or until I was so sore for two days after such that I am now looking into horseback riding lessons to tone my butt! What can I say except that it was glorious and we yahooed our way through holding on for our dear lives. Stunning countryside. Great trainers.

The other touristy days we spent in Bogotá as a family were at Montserrate, Plaza Bolívar, and La Candelaria. Montserrate offers a funicular to the heights of Bogotá crowned by a 17th century church. It is here that my daughter coined “Beautiful Orange Bogotá” for the vast enormous range of rooftops that could be seen across 613 square miles. Giant city, it is. Really great for perspective.

From the top, we travelled to the center, Plaza Bolívar. The impressive epicenter of government in Colombia set within the historic and culturally important area of La Candelaria. Fantastic graffiti art and murals, colonial styled architecture, home to the Botero Museum (free), Museo del Oro, and La Puerta Falsa (famous for its tamales, hot chocolate, historic construction and lines!). More time needed to explore to greater extent.

To explain ourselves, the other reason that brought us to Colombia was our old and new friendships with several Colombians. And this is what made it the most rich. My girlfriend and her two children are there for the summer, and her extensive family folded us into the parts. One of my daughter’s BFF’s is there with her family every summer, and another dear friend of ours led us to Cartagena in style. Without these connections, we might have been any-tourist seeing the sights. With these relationships, however, we were afforded true insight into a culture rich in history that is storied like a sophisticated telenovela but with characters that are gritty and interesting, political, gorgeous, highly educated, insightful, and very multi-cultural.

So my children were able to attend the Piragua Camp our second week and they claimed it the “best ever” begging to return next year. Primarily run in Spanish (with plenty of English speaking counselors if needed) at an incredible club on the outskirts of town, they made friends from around the world, played lots of soccer, and spent their final night in sleeping bags watching the full moon rise through fog peeking over the storied mountains. For all of us, it was a night to remember - that’s when we snuck away as adults to Andres!

Our weekend in the middle was celebrated in Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of few walled cities in the world. All I can say is that I can’t wait to go back. We stayed in the Old Section, surrounded by hundreds of years of architecture and growth. We visited La Isla Barú, Volcan de Totumo and the Castillo. At the suggestion of many, we toured the city by horse-drawn carriage, ate in open air plazas, walked the fortress walls at sunset, ogled over gorgeous Colombian weddings, and rejoiced at the street rappers who bridged cultures and music with the tourists and made it personal. We learned about Champeta (music) and the chocolate process, and we are going back. We didn’t get enough – it was more of an appetizer for our feast to come. We are kinda hungry peops.

Due to our fresh Colombian crush combined with lack of time, we are heading back next summer. Colombia is big, rich, and multi-faceted, and I’m hoping for a month next time. My targets include some combination of the following places I missed: Medellín (charming, thank you Pablo Escobar), The Lost City (not missing this!), Chingaza, Las Islas San Blas (a must I’ve been told), Chocó (we could surf?), Valle de Lleyas (you could also do this as an excursion from Bogotá for a night or two), the coffee area, and so much more.

Thank you dearly to my friends, Amanda A., Meryl E., Juan D., and Michelle N. You directed me as only locals can, shared your families, and I hope to someday show you some jewels of LA unknown by the mainstream!

~ Amy Conroy

*It's Colombia Not Columbia is a social movement that promotes the beginning of a change on the perception held abroad of Colombia. The main goal is to share the current positive features and qualities of the Country, and let everyone know that today Colombia is in the spotlight of big investors from around the globe, thanks to the economic, social and cultural growth experienced in the past 15 years.