Offbeat Bogotá

Bogotá bound: things to know before you arrive. If you're making your way to Colombia by air, there's a pretty good chance that Bogotá

If you're making your way to Colombia by air, there's a pretty good chance that Bogotá, the country's capital and by far most populous city, will be your first port of call.

In terms of a tourist hub, it doesn't get the same sort of glowing feedback that the likes of the nation's second city Medellín or the Caribbean gem Cartagena gets.

In some ways, it takes a bit of time to appreciate the place and thus a flying visitor mightn't just 'get it'. That aside, it is worth a look.

So for those who do decide to 'bite into Bogotá', here are a few things to bear in mind:

The old beating heart, with a bite
La Candelaría is the birthplace of Bogotá and for that it is the epicentre of tourist activity. It's here you'll find the majority of backpacker accommodation, with a sprinkling of more upmarket choices. Anyone visiting the city on a budget will more than likely end up staying around here.

It has plenty of charm to it. Quaint cobbled streets and plazas, and colonial-style buildings offer a nice contrast to the more mundane mega city offerings. It's also home to plenty of decent museums.

But for foreign faces, it can have an uglier side to it (and that's not just the seemingly ubiquitous rubbish). As it draws tourists in numbers, there are some undesirable types lurking about. In the milder forms you'll be pestered for money or asked if you want to purchase drugs; in more sinister ways you'll be singled out for blatant robbery.

As ever in such places, you need to have your wits about you. Plus, and unsurprisingly so, that you may be the victim of a mugging in Bogotá isn't exclusive to La Candelaría.

Double / triple standards
As in many cities in this part of the world, Bogotá has at least three faces; affluent, something a little more 'normal' and then very poor.

Generally speaking, although there are exceptions, it has a north-south divide; richer to the north, poorer to the south with the aforementioned La Candelaría seen as somewhat of a halfway house (depending on your viewpoint that is).

The strata system in operation in Colombia plays its part in this – each neighbourhood is given a number dictating its 'affluence'. These range from one, the least well off, to six, the wealthiest. Expect (as far as this writer is concerned anyway) to pay over-the-top prices if you're socialising in the 'fancier' parts. Very often you're paying for the location, as the service, or lack thereof to be precise, frequently leaves a lot to be desired.

Perched on a high
If you're coming from, and are more accustomed to, lower ground then you might find yourself short of breath and light-headed in Bogotá, at least initially. The average height of the main city plain is a lofty 2,640 metres-above-sea-level while the very popular viewing point of Monserrate, which offers impressive views of the metropolis and can be reached on foot, stands at an altitude of 3,152 m.

The best advice is to take it steady when you first arrive and see how your body reacts. If you feel a little uncomfortable, some people find drinking coca tea or chewing on coca leaves helps.

Now largely because of its altitude, the weather in Bogotá is far from tropical, despite its global position. On a clear, sunny day the temperature might hit 22 degrees Celsius or a little higher, but if there's little cloud cover, at nightfall (from 6 pm onwards) it could get as cool as six or seven degrees – a decent swing in the space of a few hours. So it's best to have something warmer than shorts and T-shirts at hand; indeed, if you're trying to be inconspicuous, wandering around in short pants and flip-flops, especially during the week, is not the way to go. A good rain jacket is also a prerequisite as torrential downpours are commonplace, with April, May, September, October and November usually the worst months. It must be said, when the heaviest rains come you're better off just staying indoors, unless you have a little boat to navigate streets that turn into rivers for a time; Venice, Colombian style you might say.

Transport chaos
The locals like to think that Bogotá transport is a mess. They're right in many ways, but you'll find similar problems in other cities with a similar population (it has about 8 million people or more depending on where you draw the line). OK, it doesn't have a metro but one is being planned; let's not hold our breath just yet though.

In its stead there's what you might call a metro-on-wheels, the Transmilenio. This functions reasonably well at off-peak times but it is, putting it mildly, a disorganised mess at peak times.

The city has been cumbersomely rolling out a 'modern', card-based integrated public transport system over the last few years to boost and compliment the Transmilenio, the goal being to take the old-school, stop-where-you-like private operators off the streets. So with this, things are slowly changing – old habits die hard – but the jury is still out if the public-private model is any better than what it's replacing.

There are always plenty of relatively cheap and safe taxis knocking around as an alternative; just try not to let them rip you off.

That last point is good advice for lots of things in the city.

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