How to Live the Local Life in Bogotá

“Welcome to Bogotá!”

Felipe shouted, joyfully, as we raced over yet another gaping hole in the road. His words were almost whipped from his mouth by the wind; I held on tighter to the back of his leather jacket, and scanned the streets for unseen graffiti as we turned up yet another side street.

If you’d told me a few months ago that I’d be riding around Colombia’s capital on the back of a motorbike with a guy I barely knew – and living in his house – I’d have laughed. But travel often throws you the most unexpected situations, and it’s totally up to you to embrace them.

“I want that you have the best time ever here!”

I met Felipe on the beach in Ecuador, during a Easter weekend filled with craziness. We only chatted for a few hours but ended up friends on Facebook, and I soon had an invitation to hang out in Bogotá if I ever made it to Felipe’s home city.

In typical British fashion, I just assumed we’d meet up when I arrived in Bogotá; but Felipe is Colombian, a native of the friendliest country I’ve ever been to, and when I told him I was taking Spanish classes at Nueva Lengua while in Bogotá, he insisted I stay with him.

How could I say no to this guy?!

“Mi casa es tu casa!” Felipe typed, repeatedly, when I expressed the tiniest amount of doubt in our message thread (which was being entirely conducted in Spanish by the way, in my efforts to get some practice in). I haven’t Couchsurfed yet, and most of my trip in South America thus far has been spent staying in hostels or with people I already knew. Living with a stranger for a week was an entirely new experience.

But what else is travel for but taking a chance on your gut feeling? Particularly when it’s screaming, “just do it already!!”

Which is why I arrived at Bogotá airport to a sign with my name on, and was driven in a pre-booked taxi to Felipe’s apartment. “This is your house,” he proclaimed, after a welcoming hug, a tour around his ridiculously cool apartment, and a loan of his spare set of keys.

And for the next eight days, it pretty much was.

Getting comfortable in Bogotá

Almost immediately, we established a pattern to our days. After cooking breakfast together in the apartment – usually eggs or arepas, with a hefty amount of strong, fresh coffee – Felipe would leave for work at his flower business. I’d lock the front door fifteen minutes later and head off to catch the TransMillenio metro to Spanish class with the other commuters.

Now, while I’d never say I missed the horrors of a crowded London tube at rush hour, there was something really satisfying about feeling like I had a purpose in Bogotá; a role to be played that wasn’t just ‘vaguely wandering tourist’. And I really relished not being stared at like a foreigner for the first time in a long while!

When classes finished in the afternoon, I’d head back to the apartment, say ‘hola!’ to the doorman, and get some work done until Felipe came home at about 4pm. Then it was Bogotá time – but not the way that other tourists usually see this city.

Living with Felipe offered a wonderfully unique viewpoint: the chance to see Colombia’s capital through the eyes of a local.

I started to realise that, for a week at least, I could let myself relax into a normal, city-living lifestyle. While in Bogotá, things were almost too good to be true. An awesome apartment, a wonderful host, a ready-made group of friends to hang out with, and this incredible city laid out at my fingertips, just begging to be explored!

So Felipe and I took on the challenge, and endeavoured to do just that.

Being kicked (gently) out of my comfort zone

First up was meeting the group of people I’d end up spending a lot of time with: a selection of Felipe’s closest friends. And what better way to do so than through a nice, easy game of indoor football?

Yep, you heard that right. Flora – the unsporty, the uncoordinated, the thrice-broken-toed – being subjected to sixty minutes of trying to kick a ball around on artificial grass. But it’s Felipe’s usual Monday evening pastime, and I wasn’t about to say no.

Even though I kind of wanted to put a halt to the entire proceedings to start with…

And after the first few minutes of terror, I realised there was actually quite a lot of fun involved. Particularly when every one of his friends kept passing me the ball and congratulating the most pathetic of kicks. Seriously, these guys were all support and enthusiasm.

It kept going throughout the week, too; the same enthusiasm, and the same introductions to activities I never thought I’d try. Why else would I find myself sat astride a polo horse on a wide open field under a brooding Colombian sky on a Sunday morning?

And why, too, would I ever be sitting in the audience of a town meeting in the small pueblo of La Calera, watching Felipe’s friend Alejandro give a speech about the importance of cooking – particularly on a day when I expected nothing more than a brief tour of the city?

But Felipe and his friends were always throwing me these kinds of experiences. So I sipped spoonfuls of sugarcane soup and ate fresh arepas in La Calera while discussing cooking with chef Alejo one afternoon, visited the finca he plans to renovate into a restaurant, and taste tested pretty much every herb, fruit and flower in his garden – all destined to be ingredients in his kitchen.

Sampling the Bogotá eating scene

As if I hadn’t already guessed from Felipe’s career as an exporter of Colombia’s famous roses, the careers of his friends are equally cool.

From chefs to graffiti experts and designers to artists, they all spend their time hanging out in the quirkiest spots in the city – like Andre’s Carne de Res, without a doubt the weirdest restaurant I’ve ever been to.

The place is actually less restaurant and more a kind of food Disneyland; a sprawling complex of colour and noise, the eye constantly pulled every which way by never ending decorations (all made by hand), and a cast of extrovert actors, musicians and wait staff weaving between the tightly packed tables.

The Freida-esque geishas outside Andre’s were also pretty terrifying.

It was also a place where I couldn’t stop staring at absolutely everything. Even after the impromptu serenade from a musical troupe and the presentation of a giant platter of sizzling meat at our table, I was still taking photos.

Even on our way out, when Felipe was basically dragging me and my camera through the wonderfully decorated door, the gratuitously placed baskets of fresh strawberries scattered around were very much appreciated.

Throughout the week, we also indulged in ridiculously tasty burgers at Burger Kill, had a fondue party, created crazy concoctions of red wine, Coca Cola and fruit juice, and even drank tequila shots served in a half tomato – the group’s very own creation. Never say Colombians don’t enjoy experimenting.

The best part about it all, though, was feeling part of a group again. Since saying goodbye to my Ecuador friends, I’d gone back to the solo mentality; something I’m used to, and can handle, but it’s always lovely to be able to fit myself seamlessly into a new group, with old established friendships.

In fact, the only difference from hanging out with my friends at home was Felipe’s stipulation that I speak Spanish as much as possible – and his friends were given the same command. It was an agreement we made when I first arrived, and was something that helped my language skills no end.

Despite sounding a bit ridiculous when I’d had a few too many tequila tomatoes.

Getting the inside scoop on Bogotá’s graffiti

One of Felipe’s good friends (confusingly also called Felipe) quickly became my graffiti guru; educating me on the infamous Bogotá graffiti scene, which he’s intrinsically involved in.

See that giant piece of street art? It was commissioned by a lawyer on his building and features two homeless people kissing passionately – a strong political statement in Colombia.

We drove around the city as he pointed out every possible piece of guerrilla art on walls, doors, hiding around electricity pylons and poking through the cracks in advertisements, all the while explaining the struggles and breakthrough moments for various artists.

Sometimes we even caught them in the act.

And the crowning moment came when Graffiti Felipe ushered me into a closet in his apartment to reveal the stencil cutting board belonging to his friend Stinkfish, a Colombian graffiti artist and the master behind some of my favourite pieces around the world – including one that inspired my most recent tattoo.

One of Stinkfish’s newest pieces in Bogotá – but they’re all over the city.

Bogota’s weekly ‘Cycle Sunday’

But most importantly, my whole week in Bogotá was tied together by bikes. Almost every day, Felipe and I would spend some time on his motorbike – whether heading to the supermarket for cooking supplies, or for endless wonderful hours of zooming through the city on our own personal tour.

All too soon, we reached my last day in the city – but it just so happened to be a Sunday, when the entire city willingly hands over the use of its major road network to cyclists, joggers and dog walkers from 8am to 2pm. Alejo lent me a spare bike, Felipe treated us to breakfast empanadas, and the three of us spent six hours cycling the length and breadth of the cycle-friendly city.

It was the absolute best way to explore Bogotá, and I felt like I’d really seen a huge part of it. And as we cycled, Felipe mentioned more than a few times that he’d only recently started exploring this much of the city.

Since Uribe became president in 2002, things started to get a bit better in Bogotá – and it feels as if Felipe and his friends have just begun a process of rediscovering their city, now the dangerous period begins to dissipate.

A proclamation of peace in Bogotá

A Colombian childhood, take two

I haven’t grown up in a place where it’s dangerous to walk alone at night. Or where areas are strictly off limits at any time of day. In fact, throughout my childhood, I’ve only known there are particular activities I’d normally choose not to partake in – like riding horses, or playing football – simply because I don’t feel comfortable doing them.

But maybe that’s why Felipe and his friends kept pulling me from my comfort zone with those exact same things. They’ve been relishing in a newly safe city with all the things that go alongside it – and they knew I just needed a bit of a push, and a touch of enthusiasm.

It felt just like walking a tightrope!

And it worked; these little pushes consistently built themselves up into something much bigger.

Cycling the city on closed roads led to zooming alongside fast cars and buses on a pushbike with no helmet; and my first attempt at playing an electronic drum kit (for three hours straight!) in a fifth floor apartment led to spontaneous jamming sessions with Alejo on piano and his musician dad on electric guitar.

See those drums? I’m now officially obsessed.

And as for my repeated exclamations at bizarre foodstuffs and awesome city graffiti throughout the week?

Well, my last ten minutes in Felipe’s apartment involved being dared to eat an infamous Colombian “giant assed” ant, and being handed a collection of aerosol cans to add my own mark to his wall of ever-changing graffiti.

New friends, old friendships

Normally, I’d find it hard to believe that this is a typical week for someone – but in Colombia, I get the sense that it’s very likely. My week in Bogotá made me miss my life in London in a way I haven’t for a long time – I miss the easiness with a group of friends you’ve known for years, the familiar things you do and the places you go.

But at the same time, discovering this same lifestyle in the middle of South America with a guy I met on the beach also made me incredibly happy. I’m finding there are always people willing to involve you in their lives, even if it’s just for a few days.

Bogotá graffiti really has the ability to make you think!

Colombia’s capital will always hold a special place for me. Quite apart from spending a week with the fantastic tour guide, ruthless Spanish teacher, impromptu drumming instructor and kindred spirit that is my friend Felipe, Bogotá is also a place where I let myself go, and actively allowed myself the option of being open to every possibility.

While we rode our bikes, Felipe reiterated why his motorbike was so integral to his life in Bogotá; the cheapness of the gas, the ability to cut through the traffic, the awareness of how the city works on a much more personal level because you’re always thinking about how to better get yourself around it.

The freedom to go wherever you want.

Which is why I’ll always think of Bogotá as a spider’s web of graffiti covered streets peppered with skyscrapers; viewed from the breathless backseat of a black motorbike, warm in a borrowed jacket, weaving quickly through the incessant traffic. Free, fast, and happy.

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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31 Responses to How to Live the Local Life in Bogotá

  1. Naomi September 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    Have you really never Couchsurfed?? It would be perfect for you – so may experiences just like this! And man, though all of this sounds amazing…the impromptu street art tour is T-H-E B-E-S-T. I’m gonna hit you up for that guy’s contact info whenever I make it to Bogota!! 😉

    • Flora September 13, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      I know!! I really don´t understand how I´ve managed to avoid it for so long. It will happen for sure in the next few months, that´s the plan!

  2. Kiara Gallop September 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Filipe sounds like the coolest guy EVER! I had a similar experience happen to me in northern Thailand. I was in Nan and wanted to do a trek. The hostel I was staying at pointed me (and another girl who was also staying there) in the direction of a guy they knew who did tour guiding in his spare time. Him and his mate took us both on the most awesome 3-day trek up in the mountains, we stayed with families up in the hill tribe villages, visited schools and hiked through some beautiful and remote areas we would never have otherwise known existed. At the end of the tour Tao invited me to stay at his house because he wanted to show me some more of his village and of the stunning countryside which surrounds it. I was so wary (i’m naturally suspicious/cautious/cynical) but I’m so glad I chose to accept and to embrace the experience that presented itself. He took me to local markets, we cooked food at his house, I met his friends, we whizzed around the country roads on his motorbike, he played guitar, we sang songs, I listened intently as he spoke about the time he spent as a monk…I just love that unexpected spontaneity you get with travelling 🙂

    • Flora September 22, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      Kiara, that’s exactly it – normally I’m really cautious in these kinds of situations (solo female travel etccc) but I’m SO GLAD I trusted my gut this time! Your experience in Thailand sounds incredible – and I’ve started to notice that the weirder the surrounding elements of a particular situation are, the better it usually turns out to be :p I hope you’re planning to write about your time in Thailand – particularly his experiences as a monk?! Fascinating stuff!

  3. Kay September 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    I’ve been waiting to hear this story! He sounds awesome and it seems like you had a really amazing time there. I definitely recommend CouchSurfing if you get the chance – it truly is life-changing!

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

      Oh I’m definitely going to give CouchSurfing a shot now, don’t you worry!

  4. Stuart Oswald September 13, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

    Although I know Bogotá already very well, thanks for sharing your great experiences here. It’s a fine post. Thanks.

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:22 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it Stuart!

  5. Katherine September 15, 2013 at 1:26 am #

    Hi Flora! I just started reading your blog this last week when I stumbled upon it while researching for my upcoming trip to Ecuador, and I just can’t stop reading! I love the way you write and I love your stories!

    It sounds like you just had the perfect week in Bogota and I’m very happy for you! What you’ve experienced is what a lot of us dream of, and thank you so much for sharing!

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

      Hey Katherine, thanks so much for such a lovely comment! When are you heading to Ecuador, and do you know where? I’d be more than happy to give you some tips if you want – I love that country 🙂

  6. Helen Anne Travis September 15, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    Great post! I was in Bogota last week. You really captured the vibe of the city. Colombians are so welcoming and so eager to show off their capital. Felipe sounds like an awesome guide. I’m so glad you had a great time.

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:38 pm #

      He was an incredible guide, I’m so grateful to him (in case it wasn’t already obvious in this piece!) Great to hear you think I captured the city’s vibe – I really loved the energy and vibrancy of the place 🙂

  7. Makis Giokas September 16, 2013 at 1:59 am #

    Some of those graffitis are extremely well done. You seem to have had a lot of fun! I was smiling while reading this! Thanks for sharing this experience 🙂

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

      I had a wonderful time! Yep, Bogota’s graffiti scene is utterly awesome. I need to go back just to see how many of them have changed!

  8. Brenna September 19, 2013 at 12:20 am #

    Wow, what an amazing week. It’s so much fun to live like a local, especially with someone so fun and involved! Unfortunately I didn’t make it to Bogota (despite spending six weeks in Colombia, whoops) but this post definitely makes me want to go even more than before. Great article as always! x

    • Flora September 21, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

      Haha I’m sure you’ll be back there again before long! I swear Colombia has that effect on people..! Thanks for reading, Brenna 🙂

  9. Carlos Carrillo September 29, 2013 at 12:40 pm #

    You are right girl! A week in Bogota is awesome, but a real life there is a nightmare. Imagine this: you are a Colombian girl, then you met a British guy on the beach and with his fluent and accurate Spanish invites you to London. As son as you get Heathrow, there is a pre-booked black cab waiting, for you and it takes you to his ridiculously cool flat in Chelsea. Next morning, instead of taking you to the nearest Pret he cooks a fantastic porridge and bacon muffins for you (cutty) Next day he takes you to the most expensive restaurant in London, the favorite place of the royals, where you can easily meet Prince William (Mr Uribe’s sons love Andres Carne de Res) Do you really think you got an accurate picture of Bogota? Colombia is the third must unequal economy on Earth, toilet paper is more expensive than in London and the average salary is about 190£ per month.

    • Flora September 29, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

      Thanks for turning my post on its head, Carlos – being from London, I know just how unlikely the situation you suggested really is! I understand that ‘real life’ in Bogota is in no way comparable to the week I had there, but this was the experience I was offered and I’m wholly glad I was able to enjoy it to its fullest.

      I’m sure I didn’t get an entirely ‘accurate’ view of the city, but I do like to think I saw at least a bit more of some (and yes, this did mean ‘more wealthy’) local people’s lifestyles than the average tourist would. Of course, this doesn’t mean I understand Colombia’s economical imbalances in the slightest: however, gaining a glimpse into how any particular group of a country’s social system lives will always be a slight improvement in understanding how the country itself works. For instance, while volunteering in Ecuador I taught English at a rather poor school, but lived with a rather wealthy family; it gave me a much more interesting insight into how Ecuador works than if I’d just done one or the other.

      Similarly, when I was staying with Felipe in Bogota I also spent time volunteering at a charity-run kitchen in the slums, serving lunch to kids who otherwise probably wouldn’t eat. Two different worlds in Bogota, at different ends of the spectrum, but both of which I felt privileged to be involved with.

      But I really appreciate your reminder that a traveller’s brief glimpse into a particular lifestyle doesn’t provide them with the whole picture. I’ll be more aware of that in future 🙂

      • Carlos Carrillo September 30, 2013 at 6:28 am #

        Flora, I have met quite a lot of good intentioned people from the first world, but they tend to be a bit naïve when it comes to political stuff, which I think is perfectly understandable. The real problem is Colombians, and their unbearable habit of covering up all the problems of the country. The 99% of the people here is negationist, even poor people; they have received a blitz of systematic lying, pure propaganda that uses their lack of critical thinking to implant that shallow notion of nationalism. Did you listen to the National Army radio station? They play tropical music in the public buses, all day long, and every 5 minutes remind us how The Heroes of the “Patria” offer their life for us, bla, bla, bla. Did you know that after 50 years of internal conflict we still no have war correspondents? What is in the news is always the official version, the happy story of the good soldiers fighting the dehumanized terrorists. I’m really glad you had had a good time in Colombia, just hope you get a wider picture of the country, specially about the super complex political issues. Regards

  10. Gina September 29, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

    How to Live the WEALTHY (very-little-tiny-small percentage of the actual population) Local Life in Bogotá

    “Since Uribe became president in 2002, things started to get a bit better in Bogotá”, same city where last week my aunt had to go to the floor in a bloody bank robbery and same city where gunshots in general are a common daily thing for those who don’t live in a bubble.

    Lucky you Flora for being British and finding doors wide open in a third world country where such (again wealthy) locals wouldn’t be as inviting to random backpackers if they were Colombians, lucky you because it’d be hard to write this post the other way around.

    Very nice pics by the way!

    • Flora September 29, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

      I’m really sorry to have touched a nerve, Gina. I do hope you didn’t think I was purposely (or ignorantly) ignoring the struggles and violence that are still hugely prevalent in Bogota, and Colombia itself. As I mentioned to Carlos above, I’m well aware that my time in Bogota belonged to one specific kind of social sphere.

      It’s very difficult for someone from another country to truly understand the experiences that locals go through. I have been, and will often be, treated very differently to a local when I travel; I can’t hide the fact that I’m English, and to be honest I wouldn’t want to. Because you’re right, it does open many doors that are often closed to others – and this is why I choose to volunteer in the countries I visit. Working with displaced families in the favelas of Medellin, or serving soup to kids who wouldn’t otherwise eat in Bogota – these are experiences that not many locals would have either, perhaps because their own problems require the majority of their attention.

      My main motive for volunteering is to gain as much insight into the place I’m in as I can – which helps me to understand why people and countries behave the way they do. And living in a bubble is certainly not a good way to achieve this, which is why I tend to avoid a long-term bubble-lifestyle as much as I can 🙂

      • Cobber October 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

        I’m glad someone brought a reality check to this situation! It’s great to have these experiences but as an English person and a girl I daresay this is a great sampling of the life of the bogota elite bubble.
        It’s awesome that such a scene exists though and a testament to the desire for Colombians to show the hospitality and progress in their country!
        I guess when I read this article with the title as it is I was expecting more of an account of life there rather than a week of madness!
        I don’t think the others wanted to burst your bubble, but I know how easy it is to rave about a place and get so excited when you’ve had such an unreal experience…!

        Great read regardless and really lovely To! .

  11. Punam shah December 2, 2013 at 1:58 am #

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed your blog. I’m going to Bogota later this week to interview for a job. I’ve been trying to get in touch with ex-pats living there to see what it’s like, and came across your site. Love the stories. Best of luck in crossing off the rest of your bucket list!

  12. EscapeWriter January 14, 2014 at 10:03 am #

    Great photos, I see Bogota has intense street art life!
    But the city has this dangerous feel to it…

    • Flora January 19, 2014 at 12:15 am #

      There are elements of danger in Bogota, certainly, but that’s usually the case in most large cities around the world. And the street art definitely gives it a different atmosphere!

      • Alexander January 23, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

        Great blog made me feel really good about going to bogota to study spanish for two weeks. I’m from england but i’m half colombian and have never visited the country before and have been really nervous about going. You made me want take more risks as it really sounds you like had alot of fun when trying new expreiences there.
        Thanks

        • Flora January 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

          I’m so glad my writing helped to prepare you for Colombia a little! I’m sure you’ll have an incredible time there 🙂 Do you have a Spanish school already booked?

  13. Brian Murphy December 16, 2015 at 3:26 am #

    Hi Flora,

    Happened upon your blog while reading up on the Kogi peope of the Sierra Nevada and drifted on to this one as I enjoyed your writing.

    Anyway, sounds like you had a blast in Bogota, but the reality is you only experienced the way a hugely lucky and very tiny minority live in one of the most unequal and it should be noted very dangerous cities in the world.

    I would hate to think of unsuspecting prospectice visitors to the city expecting to have a similar experience when the reality is often so different.

    I had three different stints in the city over the last six weeks and was apalled at how completely unaware some tourists were of the dangers. I also met three different people who were robbed.

    I spent time with a local I had met in Palomino and he filled me in on what the reality is for most natives. People have been killed for iPhones and buses are held up by armed gangs.

    Simple things like walking around with phones or cameras on view is inviting trouble for tourists, while walking the streets after dark is not a good idea in the city centre. Hailing cabs on the street is another no-no.

    For the sake of balance and to make sure fellow travellers are fully prepared for Bogota, I would have included some of those caveats.

    Bogota is a wonderful city but it can very quickly turn into a nightmare if not given due respect.

    Keep on travelling and writing,
    Brian.

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