A great way to get your bearings in Bogotá is with the Free Walking Tour (3 hours long starting at 10am or 2pm). You’ll walk around La Candelaria (city center), view the plazas, learn where not to buy your emeralds, see the colorful backpacker and hostel area, and realize the city isn’t as dangerous as you were bracing yourself for. But the main reason for doing the walking tour is to get a taste of both Chicha, a corn alcohol that the indigenous tribes used to drink, and Chucula, the coffee farmers’ daily morning fuel to keep them going all day (a blend of chocolate and a variety of roasted beans- none of them coffee). I was told that the later cannot be found outside of Colombia. (Is that a challenge?) Towards the end of the tour, you’ll be brought to Calle 11, just around the corner from the Primera Cathedral, where you’ll see 4 traditional restaurants in a row. Try the oldest restaurant in town (dating back to 1816): La Puerta Falsa. Get the hearty Ajiaco soup (chicken, cream, capers and 3 types of potatoes with rice and avocado on the side), a Tamal (some say they serve the best in Bogotá), and their breakfast dish of hot chocolate and queso. You heard me right. Cut up a block of cheese and drop it into your hot chocolate, the locals can’t get enough of it. Side note: I would recommend sharing the above dishes; the Ajiaco alone is enough to fill a person up for the remainder of the day.
Now that you’re comfortable with the city of Bogotá, it’s time to start trying out the street vendors. This city is filled with mini coffee carts carrying large thermoses of coffee and tiny plastic cups for dispersing it (700 pesos a cup, or $.20). While it may not be the healthiest or safest way to serve piping hot coffee, it does the trick and acclimatized me to the environment quickly. I led a group hike after downing one of these bad boys.
After coffee, next up are the arepas: there are 42 different kinds in Colombia and you can’t leave without trying at least one. Thick pancake-looking tortillas made of corn flower, arepas can be found steaming from grills on nearly every corner downtown. Plain, with cheese or avocado, or made into a sandwich with meat, arepas are the daily meal and snack around here.
My favorite Colombian restaurants downtown are San Felipe and Dos Gatos y Simone. San Felipe, a traditional Colombian restaurant with its piggy banks dressed up on one wall and a wall painting of a Matisse on the other, serves its menú del día (drink, soup, salad, rice, french fries, and a meat) for 8,000 pesos, or $2.75 USD. Not too shabby. Dos Gatos (Mexican/American/Colombian fusion) is a little pricier, but may be the healthiest (and best) meal you have in Colombia. At 16,000 pesos, or $5.40USD, you can get an enormous salad with fresh cut veggies, vinaigrette and grilled chicken, or a plate filled with rice, guac, tortilla chips, and salad with grilled chicken tacos. Don’t forget to order their fresh agua frescas, or lemonade-like juices.
Have a budget and a kitchen? Visit grocery stores D1 and Justo y Bueno for Costco-like deals. Buy 6 apples for $1.30, a bag of potatoes for $.66, and frozen chicken for $1.38/pound. Olive oil? That’s $2.50. Going hiking? Stock up on single serving nuts and granola bars here and look like a hero when you disperse them to your group. (8 granola bars go for $1.30). You may have to bag your own groceries, but you walk out of there with arms full for less than $10.
If you want to dine upscale, there are plenty of options that rival any New York City restaurant at a fraction of the price. Check out Black Bear, located on a park and mimicking an atrium, this restaurant serves international food that looks like art and has impeccable service to accompany the ambiance. I have to say that I heard more English speakers in this restaurant than anywhere else in Colombia thus far, but I’ll forgive them. I visited this restaurant twice. Another gem and local favorite is Harry Sasson. Located in a beautiful brick home and glassed-in backyard, this steakhouse is definitely visited by the elite in Bogotá. Come with an appetite.
I never thought I’d come to Colombia for the food, but I’ll happily come back for it.