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The streets of La Candelaria

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Practical Advice For Diving Into Bogotá’s Food Scene

Everything you need to know about Colombia’s capital, from Uber to tipping in restaurants to dealing with the altitude

Planning which restaurants to hit and what to order is only part of a perfect eating trip; every city has its own nuances to navigate, from transportation to table etiquette. Bogotá’s altitude, for instance, can cause a number of literal headaches for those who go in unprepared. But Eater’s got you covered. From the must-see neighborhoods to the one thing you can’t leave home without, here’s everything you need for the ultimate visit.

What to Wear

Tourists often assume that since Bogotá is tropical, it’s also warm, and end up packing the kind of clothes you’d bring to the Bahamas. At nearly 9,000 feet altitude, the weather here is cool year-round: The average daily high is in the mid-60s, lows in the mid-40s. Add to that the fact that most indoor spaces lack central heating, and you’ll understand why soups and hot chocolate are so big here.

Pack a sweater or two, but dress in layers. The sun is strong at this altitude and when it is out, things heat up quickly. Also be sure to pack an umbrella or parka. It usually rains at least once each day — sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for the whole afternoon, but locals are unfazed. You can always spot the unprepared out-of-towners who duck for cover when the drizzle starts.

Dealing With the Altitude

Bogotá is the fourth-highest capital city in the world, and depending on your sensitivity to altitude, the effects can range from mild headaches and fatigue to nausea and even vomiting — not ideal when your goal is to cram as many arepas in your face as possible.

The city, viewed from Monserrate

The sage advice is still the best: Take it easy. Skip the morning run until you feel acclimated, and delay your day trip to the asado outpost in La Calera — a mountain town even higher than Bogotá — until later in your trip. If you do start to feel symptoms of altitude sickness, the favorite local cure is coca tea, made with the dried leaves of the coca plant (yes, that coca plant) steeped in water. It tastes like green tea, and acts as a mild stimulant similar to caffeine, with supposed additional medicinal properties to help with altitude poisoning.

Getting Around

Walking

With a gridded network of numbered streets — anchored by a few large carreras, which run north to south, and calles, which run east to west — much of Bogotá is easy to navigate on foot. Add to this the fact that most of the main restaurant, bar, and shopping areas are located within fairly close proximity, tucked along the far-eastern edge of the city by the foothills, and you could easily get through most of your trip without ever sitting in a car.

Biking

Bogotá is also one of the most cycle-friendly cities in South America, with miles of dedicated bike lanes that are safely separated from normal car traffic. The government launched an e-bike program in 2018, and every Sunday nearly 76 miles of streets are open only to cyclists and pedestrians during the weekly Ciclovía.

Ubering

There are some longer trips — down to the historic center, say, or out to Andrés Carne de Res in Chía — for which you’ll need to take a car. The best option here is Uber. Go ahead and use the app as usual; just be sure to select the Uber Black option, because UberX is technically illegal in Bogotá. Passengers using UberX are asked to sit up front to avoid suspicion, and the possibility of getting mixed up with the authorities is reason enough to opt for the slightly more expensive but still very affordable Uber Black. The Black cars are, counterintuitively, all white, and are registered as officially sanctioned rideshare vehicles.

The traffic in Bogotá is LA-level bad
Taxis

Taxis are prevalent throughout Bogotá and easy to use as well, though people are discouraged from hailing on the street. Instead, use one of two main Taxi apps — Smart Taxi and EasyTaxi — either of which will have a car at your door within minutes. Paying by card is not always an option, so bring cash.

TransMilenio

Bogotá’s public transportation system, the TransMilenio, is an intricate maze of color-coded buses that can be crowded and complicated to navigate — even for locals. The simplest route is the system of red buses, some of which run north and south along one of the city’s main arteries, called the Séptima. Tickets can be purchased in any of the TransMilenio stations, and the average price of a one-way trip is $2,300 COP (about 75 cents).

A note on traffic: It’s bad. Like, LA/Houston bad — especially on the roads leading out of town on the weekends, and really anywhere during the daily rush hours between 7 and 9 a.m., and 6 and 8 p.m. Avoid going crosstown during these times, or at least plan to add an additional 20 to 30 minutes to your trip.

Tipping and Table Etiquette

Bogotá doesn’t have much of a formal tipping culture. At sit-down restaurants there’s a “voluntary” 10 percent service charge added to your bill, which your server will ask if you want to accept. (You do.) Smaller cafes and coffee shops will have a tip jar, into which you can toss the change. But don’t tip your taxi driver unless they got you from La Candelaria to Usaquén during rush hour in under 10 minutes (in which case, they are likely a superhero). Hotels that cater to foreigners may have their own, more formal tipping system, but for the most part, you pay what you pay.

Diners at Salvo Patria, the most essential restaurant in Bogotá
Alejandro Osses

In general, water is not poured at restaurants, and if you order it, expect to pay for a bottle. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for free tap water, but you’ll likely be the only one guzzling H2O, since water is rarely drunk at meals — most people opt for juice, beer, or wine.

If you’re paying by credit or debit card, the law requires your server to bring the machine to you tableside, for security.

And a quick note on the exchange rate: It can be jarring to see a number like 120,000 on your bill, but the exchange rate is roughly 3,000 Colombian pesos to one U.S. dollar. Some restaurants have even stopped including the last three digits of a price on the menu, so be sure to ask if the amounts seem unclear.

The Neighborhoods to Know

Usaquén

This far-north neighborhood used to be its own small city, and still maintains a quaint central plaza and distinct architectural style. Today, it’s one of the most popular areas for tourists, thanks to its walkable cobblestone streets, weekly Sunday craft fair, and prevalent English menus. The restaurants tend to skew large and corporate, and get packed on weekends with foreigners.

El Chicó/Parque 93

Part of the larger Chapinero district (more on that below), El Chicó is an upscale neighborhood with plenty of the better trendy, mid-range hotels — B.O.G., Click Clack, NH Bogotá Urban 93 Royal — and includes two major parks, the smaller Parque 93 and the larger Parque El Virrey. Azahar 93, one of the city’s most cutting-edge cafes, is here.

Zona T

Also called “La T,” Zona T is actually a T-shaped intersection of two streets within the posh northern area of Zona Rosa. This was the first modern restaurant strip back in the ’90s, when chefs like Harry Sasson began tinkering with the idea of a modern Colombian cuisine. In recent years the neighborhood has transitioned into more of a shopping and nightlife destination, with a number of massive, ever-crowded clubs and bars.

A view of the mountains from Parque 93
Rosales

Rosales shares the cool cultural spirit of its fellow Chapinero barrios (see below), but with a slightly higher-end, residential feel. You’ll still find a number of destination-worthy restaurants here, and with its central location, leafy tree-lined streets, and decent hotels and Airbnbs, it’s a good place to make your home base.

Chapinero

This large, upper- and upper-middle-class district includes several of the smaller arty neighborhoods that are now at the center of Bogotá’s culinary explosion. Situated directly between Usaquén to the north and the historic La Candelaria district to the south, it’s also known as the epicenter for gay life in the city.

Chapinero Alto

For expediency’s sake let’s call Chapinero Alto the Silver Lake/Bushwick/Logan Square of Bogotá. This is where you’ll find your third-wave coffee shop butting up against a taco spot, a craft cocktail bar, and some of the city’s hottest restaurants — all scattered among quaint houses, apartments, and small local tiendas. This formerly quiet residential community at the base of the mountains is part of the larger Chapinero district, and many of the neighborhood’s original homes have been converted to house a variety of artsy businesses, ambitious restaurants, bars, and cafes. The chefs behind hot spots like Salvo Patria and El Chato were originally drawn to the area because it was considered less expensive than the city’s more traditional restaurant zones — but today these hilly streets contain some of the most in-demand real estate in Bogotá.

La Macarena

With its collection of museums, art galleries, and restaurants, the green, hilly area of La Macarena is considered the bohemian heart of Bogotá. You’ll also find the small Plaza la Perseverancia nearby, known for its lunchtime vendors selling Colombian classics like tamales and ceviche.

La Candelaria

With cobblestone streets, grand government buildings, and colonial architecture, the historic center oozes character. Some of Bogotá’s main tourist attractions are here, like the much-hyped Museo del Oro (gold museum), the Plaza de Bólivar, and the beloved snack shop La Puerta Falsa, known for its chocolate, tamales, and ajiaco. You don’t need to stay here, but plan to make a day of strolling the winding streets and exploring the landmarks — and be sure to grab lunch at Prudencia, one of the area’s most experimental restaurants. The cable car up to Monserrate, with its sweeping views, mountaintop church, and traditional food market, is not far away.

Inside of Plaza de Mercado Paloquemao

The Markets to Hit

Plaza de Mercado Paloquemao

This is inarguably the market in Bogotá. It’s massive, indoors, and not particularly scenic, but what makes it a must-visit is the mind-bending assortment of produce from remote and far-reaching corners of the country — never-before-seen stuff for most foreigners. There are also stalls selling local breads and pastries, empanadas, salpicón (like a fruit cocktail with optional-ish ice cream), and a particularly great lechonería that sells hunks of whole slow-roasted pig stuffed with a mixture of meat and rice, and giant, juicy, banana leaf-wrapped pork tamales. As more companies launch group tours through the market, the vendors are growing less accommodating to casual visitors. Be respectful, don’t loiter, and buy everything you touch.

Usaquén Flea Market

Every Sunday, the cobblestone streets of Usaquén become one giant, snaking craft fair, with wooden boxes and colorful woven bags made by indigenous tribes — as well as plenty of dreck for tourists. Interspersed among the stalls are vendors offering a variety of empanadas, coffee, obleas (wafers sandwiching dulce de leche with endless toppings), fruit, and coal-grilled mazorca, a deliciously chewy variety of corn. You’ll hear more English spoken here than Spanish on market days, but it’s hard to deny the charm.

Plaza la Perseverancia

Every morning until about 3 p.m., the plaza near the bohemian enclave of La Macarena transforms into an outdoor market of vendors — mostly women — from across Colombia cooking and selling their regional specialties. It’s a favorite lunchtime destination for local office workers who come for affordable and stellar tamales, ceviches, empanadas, and more from all around the country. (Note: The market is almost as renowned for its pickpockets as for its food, so keep an eye on your stuff.)

Outside a fruit vendor in La Candlearia

Don’t Give a Papaya

There’s a local expression here: “No des papaya,” or “Don’t give a papaya.” It essentially means, don’t make yourself a target, or don’t get taken advantage of. Foreigners often hear mixed reports of how “safe” Bogotá is today. But walking around the streets, especially during the day, feels no different from strolling down Broadway in Manhattan. Just use common sense: Look where you’re going, don’t walk around with your phone out, zip your bag, and leave your high-end watch collection at home. That’s papaya territory, all the way.

Balancing New and Old

Colombia’s traditional dishes — tamales, bread-y amasijos (arepas, empanadas, etc.), soups, and ceviches — are undeniably satisfying, but some of the most interesting and delicious food can currently be found at the spate of new-wave Colombian places, where local chefs, often trained abroad, are finding new, creative uses for local ingredients and ancient techniques.

This sounds like a trend that’s happening everywhere, but it’s striking to see the difference in how much more acid, heat, and intense flavor is deployed at newer places compared to the milder fare at traditional cafes and street carts. And, increasingly, Bogotanos agree: Ask many people where to eat and they likely won’t send you to the tamales shop down the street, but to one of the groundbreaking restaurants like Mini Mal, El Chato, Salvo Patria, Mesa Franca, or Leo. This is not to say you shouldn’t relish every classic pandebono and cheese-stuffed empanada, but if you’re here to sample Colombia’s best, save plenty of stomach space for the new spots.

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