Where to stay
BOG Hotel A contemporary hotel with an extremely smart and luxurious lobby, bar, rooftop pool, arty and modern destination restaurant, and well-equipped smart, functional rooms. It has an excellent location for a medium-sized, top-end hotel. Doubles from £95. Carrera 11 No 86-74, 00 57 1 639 9999, boghotel.com
Four Seasons Casa Medina Perhaps the most beautiful place to book in Bogotá, this converted colonial mansion, close to the top restaurants of Zona G, has excellent Spanish-influenced bars and restaurants, plus a spa and pool. Doubles from £260. Carrera 7 No 69A-22, 00 57 1 325 7900, fourseasons.com
Hotel de la Opera A classic, traditional hotel converted from two grand 19th-century houses beside the Colón theatre, just off Plaza Bolívar. The design is comfortable and attractive, and partly refurbished in art deco style. Facilities are adequate but not five-star. Doubles from £100. Calle 10 No 5-72, 00 57 1 336 2066, hotelopera.com.co
Hotel Porton This is a pleasant, modern, 35-room hotel, decorated in a pastiche English country-house style. It is situated in a quiet street, well away from traffic, but near to the residential, shopping and business areas of northern Bogotá. Doubles from £75. Calle 84 No 7-55, 00 57 1 616 6611, hotelportonbogota.com.co
Zona G Boutique Hotel A small, popular hotel in a converted house in the restaurant area, with bright, simple decor and café tables on the terrace. A good budget option. Doubles from £36. Calle 69A No 5-37, 00 57 1 347 5200, boutique-zona-g. bogota-hotels-co.com
Bogotá is the capital and largest city of Colombia, situated centrally in the country. Flights from the UK take around 11 hours 30 minutes and time is five hours behind GMT. Currency is the Colombian peso. In November, the average high temperature is 20C and the average low is 9C.
Avianca flies direct to Bogotá El Dorado daily from London Heathrow,
from £1,345 return. avianca.com
Delta goes from London Heathrow to Bogotá El Dorado with a stopover in Atlanta, Georgia from £978 return. delta.com
ProColombia provides all the information you need to make the most of your trip via its user-friendly website. colombia.travel
Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Vintage, £9.99) humorously focuses on
the pitfalls of trying to lead a normal middle-class life in 1980s Bogotá.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (Penguin, £6.99) is a daringly original rollercoaster through Colombia’s turbulent past, spanning six generations and combining politics reality with fantasy.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Bogotá, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 2.3 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £17.43.
Where to eat
Prices are for three courses for two people, including half a bottle
of house wine, unless otherwise stated
Abasto A light, attractive café-restaurant, Scandinavian in feel with
its pine tables and white walls, in a converted house on a pleasant
residential garden square. Traditional cooking from the Josper oven
provides hearty breakfasts – the ‘breakfast supply’ option combines
eggs, chorizo, cheese, potatoes and beans – to evening meals. From
£15. Calle 120A No 3A-05, 00 57 1 620 5262, abasto.com.co
Donostia Robust dishes are from a substantial but impeccable
menu, with strong Spanish influence. Set in a long, dark, yet inviting
room, expect brilliant seafood, veal and beef. From £32. Calle 29
Bis No 5-84, 00 57 1 287 3943, elorigendelacomida.co/donostia
Gaira A café/meeting place during the day, a fun outing by night, with a mix of decent food and cocktails, wacky entertainment and intermittently great music. There are dozens of regional dishes, from soups and fried tapas to grills and stews. From £30. Carrera 13 No 96-11, 00 57 1 746 2696, gairacafe.co
La Principal A colourful restaurant that has turned the ground floor of an old Bogotá house into regionally themed salons in which to sample top-quality regional cooking. There is good music, some of it live, to match. Try the terrific fried snacks, such as arepas de huevo (egg-stuffed corn cake) and carimañolas (meat fritter). From £15. Calle 67 No 7-38, 00 57 1 211 6926
La Puerta Falsa Excellent traditional dishes in busy, slightly
cramped, historic premises with swift, amiable service. Maize tamals
are its most famous speciality, but it also has good ajiaco and
sweets. From £20. Calle 11 No 6-50, 00 57 1 286 5091
Leo Cocina y Cava A pristine example of ethnological research
and high-level cooking that is at the forefront of Latin America’s
gastronomic surge. Alligator and ants are on the menu. From £75.
Calle 27B No 6-75, 00 57 1 287 283 8659, restauranteleo.com
Mini-mal A 1930s home on a residential square that has been
converted into a restaurant. This is state-of-the-art, ethical and
experimental cuisine by one of the lynchpins of the Colombian
slow-food movement. Try pollo enchichado – chicken sautéed in
chicha (corn beer) with mashed native potatoes and Altiplano cheese
pesto. From £30. Transversal 4 Bis No 57-52, 00 57 1 347 5464
Tábula The sister restaurant to Donostia is similar and equally appealing in style with a hint less Spanish input, but unlike Donostia it is square, light and airy. It specialises in substantial dishes to share, such as the superb slow-braised shin of veal. From £32. Calle 29 Bis No 5-90, 00 57 1 287 7228, elorigendelacomida.co/tabula
- Avocado, larger and creamier than those usually sold in Europe. A common accompaniment for cooked dishes; also eaten on its own with salt and lime
- Agua de panela
- Traditional drink made of panela, the solid brown sugar substance derived from boiling cane juice. It is dissolved in water with added lime
- Either a type of small pepper or a common sauce made with peppers, plus tomato, coriander, onions and vinegar to accompany cooked meat
- Stew consisting of chicken, potatoes, corn, coriander and guascas (see below)
- A soft, flat bun of maize flour, baked, grilled or fried and eaten with other items, for example, cheese, or served stuffed. The celebrated Colombian arepa de huevo sees a corn cake cut open, filled with egg, closed, then fried for four minutes
- Chocolate con queso
- Drinking chocolate made with water or milk and traditionally consumed with a slice of white cheese immersed in the cup until it melts
- A key ingredient of ajiaco santafereño – Bogotá style – this herb, Galinsoga parviflora, a member of the daisy family, is regarded as a weed in the UK.It arrived at Kew Gardens from Peru in 1796, escaped into the wild, and acquired the English names of gallant soldiers or soldiers of the queen
- A common creole sauce to accompany meats and other dishes, typically made with tomatoes, shallots, garlic, coriander and cumin
- Similar to the Spanish variety, that is crumbs or chunks of stale bread fried with pork, but also made of stale arepa (see above)
- Papa criolla
- A generic term for the numerous varieties of native Colombian potato
- A stew or soup of mixed meats and vegetables, particularly tubers
- Tamal en hoja
- A delicious, hot snack made of a maize-flour dough mixed with pork, onion, garlic and sometimes chickpeas or other pulses, steamed in a plantain leaf
- Used as in Spanish for red (of wine), but also an old term, beginning to regain currency, for a small black coffee, equivalent of the modern espresso
Food and Travel Review
Let’s begin with the basics. Colombia’s most typical dish, eaten in Bogotá most historic restaurant: ajiaco at La Puerta Falsa. Bogotá-style ajiaco is a thick soup-stew, pale green, glutinous, mild and rich, composed of chicken stock, potato, coriander and a herb known as guascas. A generous portion of soft white shredded chicken reclines on the surface, a corn cob on a stick protrudes from the bowl, and a side dish contains buttery avocado, white rice, a little tub of piquant suero (sour cream) and another of fat green capers. Simple and totally effective, just like the place. A little off the Plaza Bolívar – Bogotá’s answer to Trafalgar Square – La Puerta Falsa is a small, bustling restaurant, its dark wood reminiscent of a London pub and the statue of the Virgen del Carmen in a niche echoing the neighbouring religious-effigy shops. Puerta falsa is an antique term for the side door of a church: the side door of Bogotá’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is opposite. Carlos Eduardo Sabogal, a sprightly octogenarian who invigilates over the bustle from behind the small counter, is the seventh generation of his family to own the place.
Since the Plaza Bolívar is also the location of the Palacio de Justicia, the city hall, the Capitol building and the presidential palace, La Puerta Falsa has witnessed a lot of Bogotá history, but a fire in 2003 destroyed the family’s photos and documents. Even worse in culinary terms, the loss of the recipes on the death of Sabogal’s mother was narrowly averted by the recall of Pepita, his ex-wife, who managed to recreate most of them, all Bogotá classics; from the ajiaco to the tamal en hoja (maize snack) and the curious completo – hot chocolate laced with molten cheese.
As for non-culinary history, Sabogal can remember more recent events personally, such as the 1985 hostage-taking and army siege in the Palacio de Justicia, which left almost 100 dead – the most dramatic event of the 50-year struggle between the state and Marxist FARC guerrillas. The day I visit, the Plaza Bolívar is hosting another major event, a rally to muster support for a referendum on a peace deal with the FARC. The government hopes that this will finally bring down the curtain on half a century of violence and let serious tourism resume. These days tourism, especially in Latin America, pays a great deal of attention to gastronomy.
Bogotá’s gastronomy is essentially that of the region which surrounds it, the high forests and sweeping plains of the provinces of Cundinamarca and Boyacá; local dishes sometimes bear the adjective cundiboyacense, or santafereño, after the capital’s former full name, Santa Fé de Bogotá.
This is a cool, verdant region bursting with vegetables, maize, yuca, pulses, beef and pork, dairy products – traditionally worked into hearty Spanish-influenced stews such as ajiaco and sancocho – and grills. However, the city’s modern cuisine is both eclectic and pan-national. Leo Cocina y Cava, a couple of kilometres from La Puerta Falsa, is one of its flagships and highly regarded.
To get to Leo’s, you pass the circular, redbrick Santamaría bullring – rarely used for bullfights nowadays – and leave the historic centre to enter the huge, sprawling network of broad avenues, tall office blocks and hotch-potch of assorted 20th-century infill of the greater city. Like La Puerta Falsa, Leo’s occupies a colonial house with a heavy wooden door and ornate grille windows, but inside it’s sleek, modern, black and white, with a very un-Puerta Falsa menu.
Leonor Espinosa, the chef-owner, is in the vanguard of new high-level Colombian gastronomy, along with names such as Harry Sasson, Jorge Rausch and a handful of other members of the Blumenthal/Ducasse/Adrià caste of Colombia. Leo’s ajiaco is not ajiaco as we know it, but a neat cylinder of all the ingredients artfully assembled in layers, emerging from a silken-textured pool. And it’s one of the least adventurous in a repertoire that includes dozens of small, exquisite and complicated dishes. A rich mousse of alligator and cream; a piquant jus of ants, tasting rather like Marmite; Pacific mangrove snails teamed with fruit and vegetables bearing sonorous names like pipilongo and chontaduro; goat with sweet peppers and malanga; tiny jungle flowers; drinks made of corn water, sweet cucumber, acacia honey, fermented coca leaves, to name only the lead ingredient of half a dozen.
On the phone from Mexico City, where she’s attending Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, Espinosa explains her mission: to rediscover the overlooked riches of the great biodiversity that is Colombia, and then modernise them. Half her life is spent touring the indigenous communities in poor outback areas such as the bosque seco (dry forest) on the Pacific coast, her family’s home; transforming hidden jungle folklore into alta cocina (high kitchen). This process is encouraged by the Colombian government.
The Ministry of Culture runs a competition for traditional recipes, and the Ministries of Commerce and Tourism are behind the news that all-gastronomic Bogotá is buzzing about – the transfer of the Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant awards to Bogotá in October 2017, aiming to bring to Colombia some of the international limelight grabbed by Peru, Mexico and Brazil in recent years.
Between the extremes of La Puerta Falsa and Leo, Bogotá contains dozens of eating places that combine reasonable price, intelligently updated Euro-Colombian tradition and high quality. Behind the National Museum, two adjoining restaurants, belonging to the same team, are fine examples. In Tábula’s airy, glass-fronted, vegetation-walled interior, we eat a superbly rich daube-like skirt steak stew with achira crisps, while next door in Donostia, a spectacular grilled octopus with native potatoes and escabeche of sweet pepper. Donostia’s name pays homage to the influence of Basque cuisine, but also its role in pioneering market-led cooking, according to its chef Tomás Rueda. Like many of Bogotá’s more trendsetting restaurants – Mini-mal, for example, the creation of Slow Food Colombia luminary Antonuela Ariza – Donostia prides itself on sourcing directly from selected individual producers.
If this suggests a threat to traditional supply channels, a visit to Palequemao market indicates the contrary. A rambling patchwork- roofed complex south of the historic centre, surrounded by avenues, trucks and recumbent beggars, Palequemao’s alleyways are lined with hundreds of stalls selling all of the bounty of the surrounding countryside, along with expensively equipped fishmongers, ceviche bars, herbalists with coca and marijuana ointment for muscle pain, and excellent little diners offering steaming bowls of good sancocho or ajiaco for a couple of quid. For budget meals, the Palequemao is a find, but the street-food scene is sparse. No disrespect to the two rival Mick Jagger stalls behind the cathedral selling sugary corn oblea discs, like sweet communion wafers, named after the Rolling Stone who stopped by for a snack during a recent tour.
Food and music go together in Colombia. Anyone with the slightest penchant for Latin rhythm mustn’t miss this goldmine of homegrown styles. The loping cumbia and vallenato, the accordion- rich cowboy favourite, is arguably the best salsa in the world. High on a visiting list in Bogotá is Gaira, the restaurant of Carlos Vives, an actor and rock star who is one of the best practitioners in Latin America of the fusion of modern rock with wild, old redneck tradition. Gaira’s kitchens in the big, animated restaurant/music hall converted from the family house are overseen by Vives’s brother Guillo; and the cocktail and food menus contain jokey music references – shakiras are Colombianised falafels, a nod to the country’s Arabic food influence and its half-Lebanese pop diva – as well as a good range of dishes from around the country. It’s all accompanied by a show combining broad popular entertainment, comic James Brown impersonations and the like, with sections of great music when Carlos V’s accordionist gets to work. If Gaira is a bit too rumbustious, another good combination of food and music can be found half a kilometre away in an area actually named after its restaurant life. La Principal, a grand 19th-century townhouse with a typical Bogotá interior patio, offers a particularly well-presented menu from the different regions of the country with music to match, all on the edge of the district of redbrick 1930s villas with mock Tudor gables known as ‘Zona G’, the G standing for gastronomica.
After a couple of days in traffic-clogged Bogotá, it’s time to succumb to the lure of the hills. You see them all around the city, surprisingly vertical, like a theatre backdrop at the end of a street in the centre; thickly wooded and emerging from layers of high-rise apartment blocks as you leave the suburbs and climb higher. We travel out 50km to visit one of the páramos, moor-like tropical ecosystems that supply water, country weekend excursions, and desirable country residences to bogotanos. Near the summit of the winding road out of Bogotá, we stop to admire the view back over the metropolis, sharing it with a squadron of camouflage-uniformed soldiers – ‘Here to keep a visible presence,’ they say. We drive past fields of black-and-white cows, dairy factories, gated developments, the town of Guasca with its white stucco church and 19th-century town hall, and on into the hills.
On a little peak sits a neat, modern house, its balconies offering panoramic views of broad green valleys, rich black soil, isolated haciendas and many flower-growing polytunnels. ‘The páramos are absolute water machines: they even have plants which extract water from the air and disperse it into the ground,’ explains our host, Daniel Aristizabal. We’re here to discover his edible-flower farm Terra Santa, followed by lunch supplied by Alejandro Cuéllar, a restaurateur from Bogotá, and Gonzalo Marín, a diminutive man dressed in trilby, clogs and a T-shirt bearing the legend ‘Wok Da Fok?’, who owns a 1920s speakeasy-style cocktail bar. He serves us inventive beverages containing ingredients such as rum or mescal, corn purée, cane molasses, copasu fruit foam and flowers.
The flower farm reveals a surprise: of the hundreds of varieties of edible blooms, the most profuse and successful is the humble nasturtium, Amazonian in origin, full of vitamin C and carotene, and nowadays ubiquitous. They’re included on our dishes of local smoked trout and succulent grilled octopus with crunchy cubios, indigenous local tubers like large grubs – a disappearing species. ‘I was the first to use nasturtiums,’ says Cuéllar. ‘A dozen years ago, the pioneering chefs started looking into rare Amazonian species, but I’d already been introduced to nasturtiums in salads by my mother. She got the idea as a student while in Paris.’ There is one other very Colombian field of gastronomy undergoing major change: coffee. The country is a leading producer, but is only belatedly bringing its upmarket coffee practice into line with its top- level gastronomy. For decades, a complicated government policy meant that Colombians exported the best coffee beans and drank lesser blends, improved by sugar. Now every serious restaurant features its own beans, sourced from individual growers. I meet Luis Velez, a former insurance broker, one of the avant-garde of the coffee revolution, in his Amor Perfecto café. There’s a touch of the Starbucks in the leather sofas, a small demo laboratory behind a glass wall, and a state-of-the-art Reneka espresso machine. Velez has me taste pairings of single-malt whiskies with single-growth coffees: 15-year-old Glenfiddich with a coffee from the fourth- generation grower Gustavo Patino of Narino; an 18-year-old with beans from Patino’s neighbour and rising star Astrid Medina. Breaking with a century of Colombian practice, the new coffee connoisseurs frown on sugar, and the traditional alternative panela – evaporated cane juice – only slightly less. It’s bad news for the country’s important sugar-cane industry. Salvation may be at hand, however, in the shape of the new generation of rum makers. The rum industry, also languishing for decades under a restrictive state monopoly system, is expecting to be liberalised any day now and artisan rum makers are readying their stills. There are exciting times ahead, but that’s another story; one of the many waiting to be investigated in this enticing and evolving city.
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