Just Back: Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia

(No) Ellen Goldman visits the cloister of the Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa in Cartagena.

Ellen Goldman, an independent contractor with Largay Travel, visited Bogotá and Cartagena on a recent Colombia FAM trip. Here is her report.

Bogotá to Cartagena is only an hour’s flight, but they are a world away from one another. At 8,700 feet above sea level, eight million inhabitants and an average high temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, Bogotá presents a distinctly European vibe, especially with its clusters of brick Tudor buildings throughout the city. By contrast, sea-level Cartagena, with a population of one million and an average high temperature of 87 degrees Fahrenheit, has a laid back, Afro-Caribbean flavor. Combining the two, on a recent Metropolitan Touring Colombia and Waterstone fam trip, resulted in a highly satisfying, enjoyable and educational travel experience.

Bogotá sprawls out along the high plateau of the eastern Andes, where commuters can take up to two hours in each direction to reach their places of work. Comfortably ensconced in the historic Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina, we had no such logistical nightmares. With the expert planning of Metropolitan Touring Colombia, we were able to visit the many “must-sees” of Bogotá and its environs without any fuss. The Casa Medina sits in the middle of a gastronomic zone, with fabulous restaurants within a block’s walk. Its sibling, the Four Seasons Hotel Bogotá, resides in a tony shopping area. The two hotels are totally different in aesthetic, and each property has a variety of room types and attributes.  

Goldman, who was part of the Metropolitan Touring Colombia and Waterstone FAM trip, says the experience was enjoyable.

Sightseeing abounds in and around Bogotá. Two of my favorite museums in that city are the Gold Museum and the Botero Museum. The central bank of Colombia founded the Gold Museum to repatriate numerous archeological artifacts that had landed outside the country. It now houses the largest collection of pre-Hispanic gold objects. One cannot help but be dazzled by the exhibits. Fernando Botero, Colombia’s native son, is famous for his gloriously rotund portraits and sculptures. His own works, as well as his personal collection of paintings from Impressionism onward, hang in his eponymous museum in the Candelaria section of Bogotá. The museum is the perfect size to enjoy without being overwhelmed.

An unexpected highlight of our visit, especially since more than half our group did not drink java, was our “Coffee Baptism” at Café San Alberto. This was the equivalent of a coffee sommelier course. We learned how to identify quality beans, as well as differentiate between the various tastes and aromas, characterizing artisanal versus pedestrian brews.  

Just outside the city, the verdant mountain of Monserrate beckons. The cable car journey to the top rewards visitors with a spectacular view of the city. Pilgrims, as well as casual sightseers, will be inspired by the sacred Monserrate Sanctuary with its sculpture of the Fallen Lord of Monserrate. The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, uniquely carved out of a salt mine 600 feet underground in a cavern, is north of Bogotá and offers an arresting environment for worship, with its 14 stations of the cross and capacity for up to 8,000 people.  

A quick morning flight brought us to Cartagena de Indias, the walled colonial city and UNESCO World Heritage destination. Outside the walls, the high-rises and beach of Bocagrande lure those wanting easy access to the surf. Fortunately, the two areas are not mutually exclusive and provide an opportunity for a multifaceted stay. 

The Monserrate Church, built in the 17th century, is a famous pilgrimage site in Bogotá, Colombia, which is devoted to the Fallen Lord of Monserrate. // Photo by Getty Images / holgs

Our first stop was the boutique gem, Casa San Agustín. An aqueduct wall runs through the pool area and provides a unique backdrop for this oasis. The high, wood-beamed ceilings confirm the provenance of this 17th-century beauty. Spa goers will love the Aurum Spa with its gold-based treatments and private hammam.

The Sofitel Legend Santa Clara is ideal for those looking for a bigger resort experience within the walled city. Its huge, ground-level pool is a great location for families to hang out during the hot middays. Newer rooms surround the pool, while the older Colonial wing forms a beautiful courtyard full of lush trees and plantings (this tends to be the most popular section of the property). If you want “over the top but elegant,” go for the Fernando Botero Presidential Suite. Botero’s signature adorns a wall of the suite.  

One of our top trip experiences was a cooking class with Carolina Velez, co-owner of the Oh La La Bistrot in the Getsemani neighborhood of Cartagena. We prepared a full, three-course locavore menu, which just happened to be gluten free (interestingly, wheat is not native to Colombia; instead, we relied on corn and flours made of yuca and coconut). Velez provides options for the different courses and easily tailors recipes to dietary needs. Her commentary and instruction enlighten and entertain. 

Getsemani, Cartagena is known for its colorful houses and range of cafés. // Photo by Getty Images / Gary Tog

Prior to the class, Velez guided us on a visit through the Bazurto Market. Bazurto may be a tad too authentic for some clients — bowls of bovine eye balls and the seeming lack of cleanliness may be a turnoff — however, for those clamoring for a true local experience, visiting the Bazurto market with a knowledgeable market patron is a must. While on the subject of markets, the Paloquemao Market in Bogotá is tourist-friendly and renowned for its gorgeous flowers (Colombia is the world’s second largest exporter of fresh flowers after the Netherlands).

As the day wanes, crowds gather along the sea wall of the Old City of Cartagena to enjoy the spectacular sunset, toast the end of the day and enjoy a dose of music and festivity. It was a perfect ending to the day and our journey. 

For more information on all activities and hotels, contact Silvia Suarez ([email protected]) at Metropolitan Touring Colombia’s Dedicated Travel Advisor Desk.

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