BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s capital city lures tourists with its mild year-round weather, booming nightlife and its museums about gold, emeralds and the artist Fernando Botero.
Once sleepy streets buzz with crowds at outdoor tables and modern art graces courtyard cafes.
Wildlife from the tropics spills into the city, 8,612 feet (2,635-metres) high. The Bogota area harbors hundreds of bird species. Nearby valleys grow a dizzying array of fresh produce sent to local restaurants.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit.
4 p.m. - For a bird’s eye view, take the cable car to Montserrat, a mountaintop shrine 10,340 feet high (3,150-metres high). Stalls sell coca tea to cope with the thin air. Also on sale are 26-ring palm-leaf hats, foldable to hand size.
5:30 p.m. - Dine at the Victorian-style Santa Clara restaurant, with its 11 walls of windows overlook the city.
Start with the house salad with three types of lettuce, garnished with uchuva (Inca berry) with its paper-like petals. Warm up with ajiaco, Bogota’s signature stew, typically cooked with three kinds of local potatoes, spiced with capers.
Setting the mood for nightlife, the downhill cable car plays seven kinds of Colombian music, including drum-driven Caribbean tunes and accordion-laced cumbia.
8 p.m. - Walk in the pedestrian-only Zona T, packed with bars and restaurants. As nighttime temperatures dip below 60 degrees F (15 degrees C), outdoor tables feel like cozy islands of warmth, cosseted by heaters bolted to overhead umbrellas.
9:30 p.m. - Take in Colombian music, sometimes fused with rock, at Quiebra-Canto (www.quiebracanto.com),
Colombia is the third-most populous Spanish-speaking nation, with a cultural life to match. Museums abound in the La Calendaria district, a jewel of colonial-era architecture.
10 a.m. - An outstretched hand, cast in bronze, and taller than a man, welcomes visitors to the Botero Museum, housed in a former archbishop’s palace.
Spanning three decades, its 123 Botero works include his well-known rotund portrayals of men and women, but also reveal other styles, including some violent works such as one of an earthquake rocking a colonial town and another showing a bar sprayed by gunfire.
One block away is the Centro Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with a sunken cafe. Encircling a pond is a store selling hundreds of the Noble literature laureate’s books.
12 p.m. - A short stroll away, the police museum traces the U.S.-backed hunt for Medellin Cartel chieftain Pablo Escobar. Roof tiles are stained with blood from the felled drug lord; a mannequin replicates him at death. A DEA certificate commends police for snaring the “world’s most sought-after criminal.”
2:30 p.m. - At the Emerald Museum, walk through a tunnel mimicking gem-rich mine shafts. Colombian emeralds are three times as pure as elsewhere due to Andean geological uplift 65 million years ago, the museum explains. Emerald-pocked pebbles sell for as little as $12 at the museum store.
3:30 p.m. - The must-see Gold Museum is next door, with about 6,000 pieces on exhibit. An homage to the inventiveness of Colombian natives, it spotlights intricate metal work with spiritual significance. Suspended in mid-air, gilded bird-like humans represent shamans who take flight after ingesting hallucinogens. Chants reverberate around a ceremonial well.
6 p.m. - To buy folk art, go to warehouse-sized El Balay. Look for miniature ceramic fleets of rural “chiva” buses, with roof-borne fruit. A few doors away, Murcia & Murcia has vibrant Cuna Indian color textiles sown into high-finish leather bags.
8 p.m. - Dine at Andres Carne de Res, a combo restaurant, bar, disco and nightclub, known for showmanship. Trapeze artists swing from the ceiling; actors and musicians perform. Floors take their names from books of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
9 a.m. - Colombia has about 15 percent of the world’s plant and nearly one-fifth of its bird species, the government says.
To glimpse the biodiversity, go to the Botanical Garden, with 86 bird species sighted, or around one-third of the number in Bogota and its contiguous savannah.
The garden’s indoor Tropicario showcases Colombian ecological regions like the Pacific rain forest, Amazon and cactus-studded desert. Guides reel off colloquial names such as the jungle boa, a tree which snakes horizontally, dotted with eye-like horizontal ovals. Among the garden’s 2,700 flora species are more than 150 types of Colombian orchids.
11 a.m. - Eat brunch at one of a half-dozen courtyard cafes in Usaquen, a village preserved amid encroaching high rises.
The multilevel Balsamico cafe features balladeers with acoustic guitars. Stroll the flea market for well-made handicrafts.
For your sweet tooth, ask for ice cream samples at outlets of Crepes & Waffles chain. Colombian fruit flavors include fejoia (pineapple guava) and curuba (banana passion fruit).
2 p.m. North of Bogota, descend to the Salt Cathedral, 600 feet underground, the hub of what amounts to a subterranean salt theme park in exhausted shafts of a still working salt mine. Attractions include a 3-D movie theater, brine museum, curios mall and a hard-hat tour with pickaxes.
A three-nave church, tunneled in the mine, is 60-feet high. Almost as tall is a carved cross. It features a blood-red blob, blinking where Christ’s heart would have been.
Reporting by Walker Simon; editing by Patricia Reaney