Arriving in Bogotá, Colombia after a mere six hour flight from New York City, I should have felt refreshed and ready to hit the streets but what ensued after Colombianos partied all night celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows what happens when travelers visit a place unprepared.
In reality, I broke every rule in my self-proclaimed Travel 101 Guide.
1.) Blend in with the locals. It is obvious I have blonde hair and already stick out in most countries but I normally pack demure outfits as to not draw attention. With colors blazing on my first day in Bogotá, I donned my purple vest and pink fleece to attract even more gawkers. If that wasn’t enough, I let the sun scorch my face and now I am certainly not blending.
2.) Check for environmental limitations: When I was huffing and puffing up Cerro de Montserrate, I blamed lack of exercise the last few weeks but then my mouth begged for water and it dawned on me I was suffering from altitude. Ding ding..that would be the right answer as Bogota sits at 8,660 feet (2,640 meters). Oh and I am susceptible to altitude sickness. No bueño!
3.) Ask a local: When in doubt, ask a local they are typically keen to assist. What I did was plain wrong. I asked every local I passed by if it was safe to walk down this block. Even though many locals commented on my poor Spanish or prompted that I take the bus, I convinced myself the exercise seemed more important than my safety, which brings me to my next point.
4.) Safety: Former Colombianos living in the United States told me safety concerns were definitely exaggerated. Articles online referenced petty theft so I mentally prepared myself to be mugged (It’s a common thing for me). After spending a few hours walking around and dodging many of the roughly 8 million people who live here, I am now bracing to be killed at the hands of a daredevil motorcyclists or an everyday bicycler rather than a mugger but I am open to that as well.
5.) Vulgar language: A tourist should never raise her voice when talking to locals. It’s a sign of respect and privilege to be visiting another country. That lasted for all of 45 minutes once I missed two buses, toured four different blocks looking for another bus and returned to the hotel exasperated. I highly recommend having a breakdown in English when the hotel staff only speak Spanish. They are convinced I am deranged. I am confident my performance was effective.
6.) Hire a local guide: When my first attempt at public transportation and touring failed, I hired Gustavo, an English speaking driver who lived in NYC for 20 years. He promised me a three-hour scenic tour, which turned into five hours because we sat in traffic much of the loop. If learning is a priority, book tours in advance or figure out an agency to visit right when you arrive. I paid by the hour.
7.) Eat local: It’s early. I am in a new country and I see a Starbucks like a mirage in a desert. I pause and even go inside but I depart wiftly and walk to MY girl’s favorite neighbor Juan Valdez because 1.) Juan has a bathroom I desperately crave and 2.) this Starbucks is not selling my prized collector mugs. I only ended up at Juan Valdez because my patience got the best of me and I abandoned dunkin donuts after a 10 minute wait (in fairness my seatmate told me their dulce de leche donuts called Arequipe.
8.) Shop ’til you drop: Markets and I are like salt and pepper or Baileys and coffee or maybe eggs and bacon. When the driver pointed out the gold and emerald jewelry shops, the skin on my arms stood alert and my heart started to beat a little faster but then he described how the area area used to be controlled by the cartel and the thought of being ripped off and finding myself followed by thieves curved my appetite.
9.) Don’t ask Stupid questions: I maintain I am very respectful of my host country but in this instance I claim utter stupidity. Bogotá is divided by a social class system, 1 being the very poor and 6 being rich, after about 2 hours with my driver I thought it would be a smart idea to ask him which class he considered himself. He answered 4. I thought that sounded pretty good until he pointed out typical 4 housing and I realized the middle class in Bogotá get by but nothing more.
10.) Trust yourself: My driver gave me a second cell phone and at first I thought it was strange but then I realized he cared for my safety and didn’t want me to get lost. I smiled. I felt welcomed and I confirmed this will be a great trip.
Up Next a Historical look at Bogotá