City Slicker: Bogota

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Colombia's capital is shaking off its crime-ridden past. And, if you still crave election fever, it's just the place to go. Paul Bignell provides a guide



Why visit


Colombia's capital is buzzing right now because presidential elections are taking place on 30 May. Plus considerable new development is redefining the city. Indeed, Bogota is fast shaking off its crime-ridden image and becoming one of the most forward-thinking and prosperous cities in Latin America.

It benefits from a cool climate (by South American standards), sitting 2,600m above sea level and cradled by steep Andean peaks. Once you've acclimatised, there is much to see and do in this often ignored gateway city.

New areas such as the Macarena, an up-and-coming dining district, provide plenty of different forms of cuisine. But, best of all, are the restaurants that offer a modern take on traditional Colombian dishes, using regional ingredients. The nightlife's great, too. Hear the country's favourite music, vallenato – a sound first based around the German accordion a century ago but since updated – pounding out of the many clubs in the centre and northern districts of the city.

For a quiet, more cultured stay, there are beautiful 17th- and 18th-century churches to see and a cultural centre named after the country's most famous literary son, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which hosts a range of events.

The vast 1,700sq km metropolis suffers from congestion, but if you take a bike ride on a Sunday you can make the most of more than 100km of roads that are closed to cars. A new bus system, the TransMilenio, which is still in the process of being developed, links Bogota from north to south via its own road way, while the city's taxis also offer a very cheap way to get around.

Don't miss

Bogota's birthplace. La Candelaria is a delightful, colourfully painted colonial barrio, with 300-year-old buildings – most now fully restored – which often run along steep cobbled streets. Visitors will find good local cafés, restaurants and museums. Make sure you stop in one of the many cafés to grab a hot cup of canelazo, which is usually made with sugar-cane alcohol and cinnamon.

The vertigo-inducing views from Monserrate Peak. Bogota's proud symbol – a white church – sits 3,152m above sea level, perched on top of a grassy mountain on the city's east side. It is accessible by cable car or by foot, for those brave enough to take the 1,500-step hike). However, the views across the city are quite spectacular.

The newly restored gold museum (banrep.gov.co/museo), which has more than 55,000 exhibits from pre-Hispanic Colombian cultures. It's the city's most famous museum.

The Sunday flea market, Mercado de San Alejo. It's open between 9am and 5pm and provides a great chance to sift through non-touristy knick-knacks such as posters, books and ornaments. Coca tea will sustain you while you browse.

Parque Simon Bolivar. Bogota's green heart is slightly larger than New York's Central Park and contains lakes, walkways, bike paths and stadiums, attracting almost a quarter of a million locals each weekend. Good for a break from the traffic-heavy streets.

The quaint historic town of Zipaquira, north of Bogota. It has underground cathedrals built in salt mines and is a popular getaway for locals wanting to escape the big city.

What's new

Usaquen

With its laid-back bohemian feel, Usaquen, in the northern part of the city, is one of the newer emerging areas. Small, cobbled side streets and colonial architecture cosy up to such ultra-modern places as Unicentro, one of the largest shopping malls in the country, as well as boutique shops, chic cafés and a student nightlife scene. Set against the eastern Cordillera mountains, the area was originally a village where Bogota's elite kept country homes. It has now been swallowed up by the city's relentless sprawl. Don't miss the Mercado de las Pulgas, an artisans' market selling art, jewellery and children's toys. Also, sample a bite from the many homemade food stands. There's even a country club if you fancy a spot of golf.

Pachanga

Just open, Pachanga has quickly become the favoured spot for trendy Bogotanos to come and let their hair down and dance to rumba rhythms. Such is the emphasis on dance, the building has been fitted with a modern ventilation system to prevent any unwelcome "overheating" on the dancefloor. The quirky interior design, the wide range of drinks and cocktails, and a number of themed nights – such as the recently held "retro" party night, which starred New York-based Dominican-American band Pryecto Uno – mean that Pachanga is the latest place to see and be seen.

Details: Pachanga (00 57 1 236 1417)

Andres DC

Andres Carne de Res's new restaurant in the Zona Rosa is something to behold. Set on four floors with a "heaven and hell" theme, it is part-restaurant, part-theatre and part-disco. Res is one of Bogota's most famous chefs but he is also an entrepreneur famed for his surreal decor as much as his legendary steaks. The huge menu puts a modern twist on classic Colombian dishes. The restaurant attracts a mixed clientele – even the odd former president (one of whom happened to be enjoying a drink the night I was there).

Details: Andres DC (00 57 1 863 7880)

Hotel de la Opera

Set in the heart of La Candelaria, this Spanish colonial-style hotel has recently been updated with the addition of a further 15 rooms. The more highly priced rooms come with balconies. The suites, however, are large and sprawling and have plenty of ornate period details. There's also a spa room and swimming pool tucked away in this Tardis-like townhouse. And there's a restaurant on the top floor, too.

Details: hotelopera.com.co

Insiders Secret: Tiffany Kohl, Salon Manager

"I originally arrived in Colombia for an internship and after falling in love with the culture and the people, I decided to stay. One of my favourite places is the Parque Chicaque, otherwise known as 'the cloud forest', to the south-west of Bogota, which has amazing walks and waterfalls in the rainy season."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Paul Bignell travelled to Colombia as a guest of Proexport, Colombia Tourist Office (020-7491 3535; colombia.travel). He stayed at Suites Grand House (00 57 1 403 4000; suitesgrandhouse.com), which offers double rooms from about $200 (£140) per night.

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