The first time I backpacked for more than just a couple of weeks, I was 23 years old and finishing off my degree in Biology. Chris (my then boyfriend, and now husband) dropped me off at the airport. This was almost twelve years ago, but I still remember the butterflies in my stomach. I was really nervous. A friend of mine would be meeting me – and her mom and sister, who were on the same flight as me – at the Colombia Metropolitan Airport.
For this very first backpacking trip, I travelled to Bogotá – the capital city of Colombia, and one of the 30 largest cities in the world with an estimated population of 8 million people (a number that grows to 11 million if you include the entire metro area). It is also the third highest capital city in the world, at an average of 2,640 metres above sea level.
Knowing that I would be connecting with my friend once I arrived made a big difference in terms of the level of comfort I felt. She spoke Spanish fluently and had already spent quite a bit of time travelling around South America. She’d even been to Bogotá before and had friends around the city. I felt secure knowing that my friend would be there to help us navigate and keep us safe. She was my touchstone.
All three of us arrived in Bogotá at about 8 or 9 at night. There’s a reason I remember this detail. A taxi cab picked us up at the airport and took us to the front door of our hostel. Located in a pretty central place in the city, there were two doors leading onto the grounds: a gate and the courtyard front door. The taxi driver told us to stay in the cab while he got out and pushed the buzzer. He would not let us leave the taxi until our host had opened the gate. After that we were quickly escorted in.
During our trip, we were highly encouraged to get home before dark. This was an important and relatively easy caution to abide by and we listened to their advice. Nearly everyone we met there genuinely cared about our safety and wanted us to get the most out of our trip. As with any city, there are certain areas that you should probably avoid. I have one memory of two local women stopping me and my friend while we were exploring the city and about to turn down a certain street, telling us in Spanish “no, don’t go down there, it’s not safe.” I felt like the people around us really had our backs.
I like what travel blogger Becky Pokora has to say on the issue of safety: practice vigilance and care, maybe travel in a group (especially if you’re a women, unfortunately), and store your valuables in a safe and discreet place. You should always exercise caution whenever visiting a new country or city, and Bogotá is no different.
On the reverse side, Bogotá is considered one of South America’s most LGTBQ friendly cities.
One more quick piece of advice regarding travelling to a new city! If you don’t speak the language, get yourself a pocket dictionary. I carried around an English-Spanish dictionary with me during the trip, and even though my friend was a fluent speaker it came in handy. Don’t make the assumption that there are going to be English speakers around, be prepared. The people who live there will appreciate the effort and thoughtfulness.
Now, moving onto some of the most memorable experiences from the trip. We only spent a few days in Bogotá, and there were a lot of fun and interesting tourist spots to choose from.
Here are my two favourite experiences in Bogotá:
This is a gem that is highly recommended by many tourist websites, but it is also, literally, very high up. This small tramway takes you from 2,640 m to 3,152 m above sea level, and gives you an absolutely breathtaking view of the city. The trip up takes just four minutes. Keep your eyes open, because the view up is worth the price of admission just as much as the destination. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the sky as being quite so blue – this doesn’t just relate to the view from Monserrate, but everywhere. It’s a wonder.
One word of caution with this one: you may find it a little more difficult to breathe. I know I did. You’re going to be very high up, so be ready for that.
This had a huge and unexpectedly lasting impact on me. Specifically, their Archaeological and Ethnographic Collection: “The 34,000 gold and 20,000 other objects are a representative sample of the life and works of the cultures that worked metals in today's Colombian territory, since 2,500 years ago.”
At this point in my life, although I was making jewelry, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I could do it as a career. Jewelry design was a hobby that I enjoyed, but I was finishing off my degree and was pretty certain I knew what I was going to be when I grew up. I remember the Museum of Gold because it completely mesmerized me. I was enamoured, and afterwards bought a replicated piece of one of their ancient designs at the gift shop (which I still have, and love) and a book about the museum and the different exhibitions – it’s not generally recommended that you buy yourself a book when backpacking and have to carry everything you buy around, but I couldn’t help myself.
In conclusion... Bogotá was my first backpacking trip, but it definitely was not my last.