When I first told people I was going to Colombia for a couple of months they usually told me some variation of, “Be safe!” as if my life depended on it. A recent terrorist attack in Bogota also raised dangerous concerns, especially for my parents. Nonetheless, I think Colombia’s reputation as a dangerous place is not entirely deserved. Yes, it has a violent history and it was once the kidnapping and murder capital of the world however things have changed drastically in the past decade and Colombia no longer holds those titles (its neighbor Venezuela is far more dangerous). Today, my first impression of Bogota is one of pleasant surprise and dare I say I think I’m already in love. Here are some of my first impressions of Bogota, Colombia.
My first visual impression of Bogota was graffiti, its everywhere! Some of it is artistically done and adds a colorful edge to the city’s colorless walls. Other graffiti is simply just tagging. On the taxi ride to my Air BnB colorful graffiti greeted my eyes the entire ride and it seems it doesn’t matter where you travel in the city, you can find it almost everywhere. The place I am staying at is located in Northern Bogota, which is one of the nicer suburbs of the city (it’s in Estrato 4 – Bogota has 5 estratos with 5 being the highest) and artistically done graffiti was still prominent on buildings.
Unlike most major cities, Bogota does not have a metro, but it does have a very modern bus system called the Transmillenio. The Transmillenio is easy to use and even resembles a metro system with the way its set up. You enter the stations by way of a turn stall with ticket agents available to purchase tickets and provide assistance. The routes are a little complicated to understand at first, at least for me, and on my first venture I ended up taking the wrong bus and ending up in the western part of Bogota. Luckily, I asked for help and took the right bus, but still ended up getting off one stop too early. Now the next stop was nearly a 30 minute walk away. While part of me loves walking and would gladly do it in other cities, I still exercised caution and just went back and waited at the bus station to get to the correct stop. Another interesting thing about riding the bus in Bogota are the bus performers. Now, that happens in a lot of cities, but what I found interesting is how the passengers actually engage with the bus orator/performer and willingly provide money with no pressure needed. In one instance, a man came on the bus and started preaching about equality in Colombia, and then he started making individual raps about the passengers on the bus. The bus gladly engaged with him and didn’t try to avert their stares like I’ve seen happen in China, Belgium and Italy.
Colombians do love their coffee and it is plentiful and cheap! And Colombia is also one place that Starbucks has mostly left untouched. There are a few Starbucks here, but nowhere near as prolific as other countries I’ve traveled to. When I lived in Shanghai, coffee was actually harder to come by (unless you lived near the main tourist areas) and it was overpriced and usually not the best quality. Here, I had un tinto (black coffee) for under a dollar at a café located in the Candelaria district that had a hipster vibe/tourist vibe. The quality of the coffee was excellent and as a coffee lover it’s a dream come true to always have access to quality coffee at inexpensive prices.
When you think of Colombia you probably think of tropical temperatures and I surely felt that way when I arrived in Barranquilla for my layover, it was hot! But Colombia is full of micro-climates and Bogota is known for being quite chilly. They say Bogota has fall year-round and I found this to be true after wearing a skirt and seeing that most of the Bogota women had wisely chose to wear pants (a lot of skin-tight pants, but still a wise choice nonetheless). It also rains often in Bogota so bring an umbrella just in case.
Bogota is safer than I thought it would be…
I admit, everyone’s concerns did raise some worries in my mind but if we’re being honest, is there anywhere in the world that is 100% safe? No matter where you go, you do have to use some common sense and that applies here in Bogota. While I have adjusted some ways I conduct life, I am not fearful at all, even as a solo woman traveler. I don’t listen to music or podcasts while strolling or on the bus. I make sure to follow my gut and avoid going down streets with men who appear drunk. I keep my purse in front of me at all times and have it zipped. And I do my best to avoid looking like a tourist (which is easy for me since I’m of Latina descent). As the Colombians like to say, don’t “dar un papaya,” literal translation means to give a papaya, but the figurative meaning is don’t give people an opportunity to take advantage of you. I have actually felt safer here than I thought and I am planning to just keep being mindful of my surroundings so I don’t “dar un papaya.” There are also a lot of police officers stationed in the city, in the popular Candelaria district there were tons of police posted at every block. While I won’t go roaming around at night by myself, I do feel safer than I thought.