Getting the hotel reservations nailed down was the easy part. The trip from OKC to Bogotá was tough. It was a grueling 14 hour trip through DFW with a connection in Mexico City where we changed airlines from American to Avianca for the final leg. The Mexico City airport always seems to be in a state of chaos, but for some reason I like chaotic airports, and this one fills the bill. What I had not counted on was that in order to change to Avianca, we both had to clear immigration and customs in Mexico City, and then had to stand in line for 2 hours at the Avianca counter just to be told the only seats left were the “dreaded” middle seats. What started out as a comfortable 3.5 hour layover in Mexico City turned into a race for the gate to make our flight.
Once on the plane, I was ready to start practicing my Spanish, so I introduced myself to my seatmates. Seated on my left was Marino, a lace salesman from Bogotá whose biggest client was Victoria’s Secret and no, I did not ask him any personal questions about his work!! Marino spoke very little English, but he did help me modify our Bogotá itinerary by giving suggestions on how to maximize the 23 hours that Jay and I planned to spend there. My other seat mate was Samantha, a beautiful girl from Peru who spent the better part of the 4 hr. 20 min. trip trying to convince me that she was not guilty of the visa fraud that she had been charged with by the U.S. govt . She had apparently been living in Miami and left the U.S. briefly to return to Peru to finalize her divorce and was told by U.S. officials that she was suspected of visa fraud and could not return to the U.S. She blamed it all on her ex-husband. Her story seemed pretty flaky, but since she was a “knockout”, I decided to believe her. My wife says it was very shallow thinking on my part.
We landed in Bogotá in a heavy rain. The Avianca pilot bounced the 757 on the runway 3 times before he finally came to a stop. By the third bounce I was wondering what the headlines might say about the crash of Avianca flight #73 from Mexico City!!!!
We had been advised by the language school in Cartagena that we should take advantage of the hotel’s private car service in Bogotá for security purposes. Since we didn’t know the city, and it would be our first time to visit, we thought the private car was a good idea. The rain and chaos of the Bogotá airport made for a real mess so we were very glad that we had a driver there to meet us.
Our driver, named Vladamir, was a law student who spoke fluent English (thank goodness). He was able to give us a quick summary of the city without us having to labor through Spanish that we probably would not have been able to translate correctly, especially since we aren’t real fluent.
Vladamir took us on one of the fastest, wildest rides that I have ever been on. He almost hit two guys that were standing in the middle of the road trying to flag us down. Finally I asked him why in the world he was driving so fast. He said because we were in a dangerous area, and he was afraid of being stopped by anyone like the two guys we had just seen standing in the middle of the road, so he was driving fast to get through the area. We weren’t sure that we believed him, but it made for a fun adventure.
Have to admit, when we finally drove up to our hotel in the dark, the area looked a little dodgy. A lot of security on the streets. Vladimir told us there was so much security because the Presidential palace was nearby. The Hotel de la Opera was beautiful and very Latin. Small, 24 rooms. The hotel employees were extremely nice to us and very protective. They advised us about what security precautions to take when on the streets. Their suggestions incuded: not flashing cash or expensive watches and to be sure to leave our original passports in the room safe. They also said they would call taxis for us. Nice touch!
Here is a pic of the front entrance of the Hotel de la Opera. Nice, huh?
For dinner we took a taxi from the hotel to the Gato Negro (black cat) restaurant in Parque 93 on the recommendation of Marino my seatmate on the Avianca flight. Bogotá seemed very much alive as we took the 25 minute taxi ride through the city to the restaurant. When we arrived it was raining, but two big bouncer-looking types in suits and wired with security earpieces came out to the taxi with umbrellas to keep us out of the rain. For a minute we were wondering what we were getting into.
Once inside it was obvious why Marino recommended it. This joint was jumping!! The restaurant walls were vibrating from the sound of the Colombian band that was entertaining the diners.
The beat from the band was electrifying. Every now and then, a couple would just jump up from their table and start dancing to the Latin rhythm right in the middle of the restaurant, while the rest of the crowd sat in their seats swaying to the music. Holy cow!! 24 hours earlier we were packing our suitcases in Oklahoma City and now we were in the middle of the Latin beat on a Friday Night in Bogotá, Colombia!!
It was a great restaurant with white tablecloths and extremely polite waiters moving around at a quick pace. Jay ordered a fried cheese plate, and based on the waiter”s recommendation, I had the seafood special.
When it came time to leave, the restaurant insisted on calling a taxi for us as opposed to letting us hail one on the streets. Seems to be a little bit of a security issue.
We finally returned to the hotel around 12:30 a.m. Bogotá was still jumping but we weren’t. We were done.
Next time—Bogotá, the city—it’s what we came to see, but how do we do it in 10 daylight hours?
I am not a professional writer, but I do like to travel, and I like to put my thoughts down on paper. My writing style is not formal, but it is just a simple reflection of what I experience and feel in my journeys off the beaten path So, for the purpose of this website, I will take a stab at some travel writing and let you try to experience what I see through my eyes and the soles of my shoes. I will be interested in what you think.
I will start out by sharing a little of my most recent journey to Colombia. Here goes:
A couple of months ago, my friend Jay and I were eating lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant, when I looked up from my food and said “Jay, I’m going to Colombia—I hear its still undiscovered as a tourist destination and I think now is the time to go”. Jay just looked at me and said, “Are you crazy? It’s too dangerous!” 3 weeks later he was signed on to go with me.
“There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown. A pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.”
So began the plans of a trip I had been dreaming about for a long time–Colombia!! Have to admit, it was a struggle to get it off the ground because my wife, Carol, and the rest of the family didn’t want me to go. Carol was concerned about safety issues. I had been trying to convince her for over a year that Colombia would be a fantastic place to visit.
Since I had been studying Spanish for a couple of years, I thought it sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea to do a language immersion program at the Nueva Lengua School in Cartagena and live with a non-English speaking Colombian family that the school would arrange. Carol finally gave in, but said she wanted no part of the trip even after I showed her a travel magazine story and a report from a friend who visited last year that said, “Cartagena on the northern coast is a great place to visit”. Knowing that I sometimes like to wander off the beaten path, Carol stipulated that as long as I went STRAIGHT to Cartagena and BACK, with NO traveling around the country, she MIGHT be OK with the idea of me going. Keeping the promise would prove to be easier said than done.
The next night, while I was planning the trip and looking at fares on the internet, I discovered an obscure fare combining American Airlines with Avianca (the Colombian airline) routing us through Mexico City and returning through Miami. As I began to read the small print on the booking restrictions (I know, no one ever does that), I noticed that it allowed unlimited stopovers in Colombia as long as the stopovers were 24 hours or less. I experimented by adding stopovers in dream cities (Bogotá and Medellin) and the fare remained exactly the same. Too good to be true!! I could fly to Bogotá-spend 23 hours, then on to Medellin for another 23-hour stopover, then on to Cartagena for 5 days in the language immersion program.
I couldn’t book the fare on-line so I called AA just to test price the routing and see if they could ticket it all the way through for me. The AA res agent was skeptical she could make it work, but after 40 minutes on the phone with her, she finally got it to price correctly! I booked it at that instant! Unfortunately I had been so caught up in the excitement with the success of booking the ticket that I forgot the promise to Carol that I would ONLY go STRAIGHT to Cartagena and back with NO DETOURS! I had lots of selling to do but finally convinced her I would be extra careful and stay in a very nice, SAFE hotel (4-5 stars) in a very nice area in both cities (Bogotá and Medellin). Plus, Jay was going with me.
As I researched hotels in the chic, upscale, and safe Zona Rosa area of Bogotá, I saw plenty of the standard top-notch names such as The Intercontinental, El Presidente, etc, etc that would all fulfill my promise to Carol. But, I felt I was betraying myself by taking the more comfortable way out. After all, this would probably be my only chance to get to Bogotá, and I wanted the “real” Bogotá! Why would I sell my travel soul by staying at some “brass and glass” place when the “real” Bogotá awaits me?
I bought a map and tour book (hard to find) and discovered an area called “Old Bogotá” and a neighborhood called “La Candelaria” 6-7 miles south of the Zona Rosa in the oldest part of the city referred to as the “heart and soul of Bogotá”. I knew instantly this was the neighborhood for us! To make Carol feel better, I searched for the nicest hotel in La Candelaria and came across the Hotel de la Opera in the center of the neighborhood. From there it would be easy walking to the many sites of interest even though it is not advisable to walk the narrow streets of this neighborhood at night.
So as not to bore you, I will stop here and pick up the story in a few days—stay awake, it gets better.