The anticipation of travel . . . it almost upstages the trip itself. If someone cuts you off on the freeway, you find yourself saying, “No problem, I’m going on vacation soon.” If someone is rude to you at work, you shrug it off with a “No worries, I’m leaving in 10 days.”
And as each day gets closer, the curiosities pique. The inner glow gets a little brighter. The “I’m bulletproof to stress and criticism and procrastination and apathy” becomes a little more realistic. It’s no longer an affirmation but a quiet truth. You have something to get excited about. It’s dynamic. It’s the uncertainty, the fear, the wonder, the thrill, and most importantly, the anticipation. It’s a weekend getaway in Bogotá!
When people learned that we were going to Bogotá, their response seemed almost rehearsed: “Isn’t it dangerous?” At some point I even got defensive, quoting Virgil from Ocean’s Thirteen: “Peligroso es mi nombre medio”.
Indeed, like any big city, Bogotá can be dangerous. But I’d been there in 2005, and I found Bogotá charming and not nearly as overrun by tourists as other places on the map. Sure, I’ve read Killing Pablo. Hasn’t everybody? And I did see the motorcade ambush on a Bogotá street in the Tom Clancy movie adaptation of Clear and Present Danger.
But there is a difference between the truth I see and the truth I choose to believe. Pablo Escobar died in 1993. The bone-chilling scene in Clear and Present Danger was filmed in Mexico. And when I first traveled to Bogotá, back in 2005, I didn’t see death squads and counterinsurgents. I didn’t see pock-marked buildings and people afraid to walk the streets. I saw great people refusing to be defined by the few who happen to be making the most noise.
Still, before taking Michelle to Bogotá, I collected data points from various sources, including the US State Department and TripAdvisor Forums. I even phoned the Four Seasons Casa Medina in Bogotá, speaking with the director of Human Resources for 20 minutes, asking about the local area, safety concerns, walkability, the food scene, etc.
But I suppose it was the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unkown that pushed us over the edge. The beef joint at Tábula and the tamale at La Puerta Falsa were enough to make us wish we could crawl into the TV, grab a stool, and commandeer what remained on Bourdain’s plate.
Traveling to Bogotá from Los Angeles for the weekend is no small feat. Avianca flies non-stop from LAX, but we are committed to flying United Airlines, so our route would be LAX to IAH (Houston) to BOG. That’s 8 hours of flight time plus a layover at IAH, and all of this time in transit would eat into our time on the ground in Bogotá, so we ventured a tad outside our comfort zone and chose “red-eyes”.
United made this an easy decision for us, as they were offering a premium fare sale that enabled us to fly First Class for little more than an Economy Class fare, affording us wider seats with greater pitch/recline for the outbound legs. Then, United sweetened the deal by giving us the opportunity to return on their internationally-configured 757-200 (on lie-flat seats) and their 787 Dreamliner (on lie-flat seats). If all went to plan, we’d spend Thursday night in the clouds, Friday night in Bogotá, and Saturday night back in the clouds (on lie-flat seats). That’d give us about 40 hours on the ground to eat well, play hard, rest, repeat.
The flights to Bogotá went according to plan. United was gracious enough to invite us into their LAX lounge, even though our itinerary was technically not lounge-worthy until we reached Houston.
Upon arriving into Houston, we bee-lined to the United lounge, as it’s a nice one, replete with showers, decent complimentary food, and most importantly, lots of space.
It wasn’t long before we boarded our second flight, which departed at 11:59 p.m.
And when we landed early at 4:30 a.m. — it could’ve been the saratonin, the dopamine, the adrenaline, or a combination of feel-good brain chemicals — we felt rested and ready for Bogotá.
I didn’t want Michelle’s first Colombian experience to involve any shenanigans with a Colombian taxi driver, so I booked a driver via the Four Seasons Casa Medina. Because of the favorable exchange rate and the strength of the US dollar, it cost $30 to have a driver waiting for us in the Arrivals Terminal.
$30 for a 45-minute drive from El Dorado International Airport to the Four Seasons Casa Madina sounds like a great deal. However, given the price of transportation in Bogota, $30 is highway robbery. We could’ve taken Uber (which is more expensive in Bogota than taxis) for $5. But again, my focus was on Michelle’s first impression. It’s sometimes difficult to embrace a new city if the relationship begins with fear.
Our driver did not speak much English. But since I’d been boning up on my Spanish via Duolingo (a free language-acquisition program, and Apple’s choice for “app of the year”), we were able to communicate a little. And regardless, even if I couldn’t speak a lick of Spanish, he knew to simply collect us and deliver us to the Four Seasons Casa Medina (there are two Four Seasons properties in Bogotá).
Bogotá is the third highest capital in South America. Its altitude is over 8,600 feet, which is over 1.5 miles above sea level. I was keen to know how Michelle and I would respond. I’ve had altitude sickness in Ledakh, India (9,800 feet) and Cusco, Peru (11,152 feet), so I was prepared to fork over enough money to afford us early entry into our hotel room should our bodies require it.
Fortunately, we felt great! My Spidey-Sense continued to tingle, but we didn’t experience any breathing issues, and we didn’t have headaches. (Michelle said we were acclimated during our flights, as our cruising altitude was 35,000 feet at an adjusted cabin pressure of over 8,000 feet. I’m not sure how that works, but for whatever reason, Bogotá’s altitude did not adversely affect us).
When we arrived at the Four Seasons Casa Medina, there was an intimacy we’d not seen before at other Four Seasons properties. The hotel was formerly a mansion and later deemed a National Historical Conservation Monument in Colombia. The 62-room resort is, in a word, charming.
At 5:15 a.m., the fireplace in the lobby helps flavor the resort’s first impression. Not to be outdone by the ambiance, the gentleman working the front desk, Daniel from Venezuela, made sure our first impression exceeded our expectations. To read a short post about how the Four Seasons, essentially, paid us to stay there, click here.
We could not have been more enamoured with the property.
The second floor, en route to our room:
Our room. Note the trunk-themed desk:
There is no A/C. Each room comes with a quaint (and adorable) oscillating fan:
A posh and ulta-modern bathroom, including a rainfall shower head!
We were in our room by 5:30 a.m., and instead of getting some rest, we opted to walk around Zona G (the area around our hotel, aptly named because it is the gastronomy district). Not much was open, other than the Starbucks, so we walked through the Financial District.
A view of the Four Seasons Casa Medina from the outside:
Walking within a mile of the Casa Medina seemed perfectly safe. You do need to watch out for potholes, however. The one indication that Bogotá is a bit third-world is its sidewalks (which regularly rise and tilt, as if they were victims of an earthquake). It’s a good city for walking, but perhaps not the best city for texting while walking.
Our next item of business was a food tour! Since it began across town, we took Uber. (A quick note about Uber in Bogotá. It’s a steal. We took several 30 and 45 minute rides via Uber for under $4.) Here are some of the charges for our Uber trips:
We did our best to work up an appetite, as our food tour was about to begin at 9:45 a.m. Our food tour, booked via Bogota Foodie, promised to be a tour of Bogotá’s best. And instead of a large group, it was just me, Michelle, and Loon (the owner).
We began at Paloquemao Plaza, an open-air market replete with flowers, fruits, and food stalls. First up was the Sancocho, a curry fish soup with potatoes, plantains, yucca, and catfish. (Not pictured is the arepa, for I devoured the flat, cheese-filled, ground-maize-dough breakfast staple before having the presence of mind to photograph it.)
At such high altitude, and with such high rainfall, Bogotá’s fruit production is abundant. We saw avocados in the thousands.
Many of the fruits we recognized.
And their sugar mango was sweet!
Here we are, waiting for Pastel de Juca (a dough made from yucca filled with rice, meat, and boiled egg). Loon (sitting at the table with Michelle) is a Malaysian who was raised in Australia and now lives in Bogotá, where he takes hungry tourists like us on food tours.
At this point we were already stuffed. But we dug deep to summon our inner foodie as we waited for our pan de bono (cheese bread) and almojabana de maiz (corn and cheese bread) to come out of the oven.
Then it was off to the pig stand. From what I understand, the cooking process involves the following: empty the pig, shred the meat, place the meat back inside the pig, stuff it with rice, cook the whole thing for several hours, and voila!
The result was salty and mouth-watering.
Of course, our food tour ended with dessert and coffee.
Despite the strong coffee, it was time for a siesta, so we Uber’d back to the Casa Medina for a little R&R.
By the time we awoke from our slumber, it was time to eat again. For whatever reason, even though we were in Colombia, we were craving Italian. Fortunately, there was a great spot next to our hotel: Pizzería Julia.
We started with the beat salad:
And then we each ordered a pizza:
Bogotá enjoys heavy rainfall, but it’s the mercurial sort, almost like what you’d expect in Hawaii. There was a deluge while we ate, but by the time we finished, so had the rain.
We returned to the Casa Medina, sufficiently prepared to enter a food coma. When we awoke, it was morning. And time for our complimentary breakfast!
Fresh-squeezed mandarin juice!
The house specialty: Calentado Casa Medina (traditional Colombian hash: beans, rice, chorizo, blood sausage, sausage, fried egg, and arepa bogotana).
Anthony Bourdain called it “a thing of beauty,” so even though we weren’t hungry, we went on a treasure hunt to find the La Puerta Falsa tamale. Located just off the Plaza Bolivar in the main tourist hub of Bogotá, La Puerta Falsa didn’t reek of gringo tourists who hold TripAdvisor forum badges, or Lonely Planet toting backpackers in search of a hip reprieve from their hostel. It was, instead, a place packed with Colombians (there was a line out the door). We appeared to be the only “outsiders”.
We ordered a tamale and a Cundinamarca specialty (hot chocolate with cheese). The tamale, wrapped in banana leaves and packed with a chicken drumstick, was delightful. (In fact, as I write this, I’m drawn to that tamale. I want another. And I’m not even hungry.)
The hot chocolate with cheese:
And for our final meal in Bogotá . . . another recommendation from Bourdain: Tábula. (Tábula was especially hard for our Uber driver to find. It may be easier to be dropped at the Colombian National Museum, and just walk up the street that borders the museum exit.)
We were early. By the time we left, the place was packed.
We started with chorizo.
And then the coup de grâce: braised beef joint!
We made quick work of it.
Next up was a leisurely stroll through Zona Rosa, an upscale area stocked with European-style pubs, chic restaurants, patiseries, gelaterias, and high-end shops like Louis Vuitton and Tiffany.
And finally, a few hours before our departure, we went hunting for Amor Perfecto. (I must confess. We were immediately smitten with the name, but Loon — our food-tour tour guide — said it was the best coffee in Bogotá). So we tramped about in the dark, up and down the cambered sidewalks, until just along the outskirts of Zona G, we found it.
We sampled several cups of coffee, found ourselves adequately buzzed, and began our sojourn to the airport.
Michelle’s whack-a-mole impression aboard the United Airlines 757-200 international configuration with lie-flat seats:
And the obligatory socks-shot, to emphasize the legroom aboard United’s 787 Dreamliner:
Overall, the trip was such a success! We left on a Thursday night, a little haggard and war-torn from a hard week, and returned on a Sunday morning with new energy from a shared experience. For the price of a weekend in Las Vegas, we tried something new.
We left the continent for a weekend . . . in search of that look. You know it when you see it. I’m learning that when you love someone, you do everything you can to find that look, that smile, that light in their eyes that says “I am purely, unadulteratedly, happy”.
Some people get it when they hear their child laugh. Others simply require a favorite TV show or a phone call from a friend. But for Michelle, a weekend getaway to Colombia was just what the doctor ordered. As soon as the flight attendant brought out a plate of mac & cheese with sprinkled bread crumbs (ahhh, comfort food), we were golden. Michelle had that look, and she held onto it for the rest of the trip.
We won’t be doing this every weekend. But the truth is, had we stayed home for those three days, we’d have been busy doing things we’d likely not remember. So we took a chance, and come Sunday afternoon, while we lazed on the sofa watching Netflix, I couldn’t help but think, “damn, it was a good idea to fly 3,500 miles for a cup of coffee.”
Ferris Bueller may have said it best: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”