Unforeseen Beauty Amongst The Andes

Santa Clara Restaurant, which serves delicious, traditional Colombian food, overlooks a magnificent panoramic view of Bogot CBS/Melissa Castellanos

Flying between the clouds, the drifting fog gently lifts over the Andes Mountains that surround Bogotá, Colombia, revealing glimpses of snow-capped mountain tops, green pastures and sun-kissed, shadowy valleys that encompass the urban jungle below.

One of the most spectacular vistas from above, Bogota's vast and expansive city thrives as the two worlds of modernization and antiquated life gradually mesh together with each passing year.

Colombia is blessed with natural riches of coffee beans, known as some of the best in the world, exotic fruits and flowers, precious emerald stones, a spectacular gold collection from its ancient past, and herbal remedies from the Amazon.

With a tarnished reputation caused by its tumultuous past and present involving narco-trafficking and kidnappings by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, cultivation and corruption have plagued parts of the country, shielding the true beauty and essence of Colombian culture.

Photos: Images of Bogota and Zipaquira
If you know the right places to visit and don't venture too far off the beaten path, you will find that the country is safe for the most part and a hidden gem that many tourists aren't aware of, or are too cynical to visit. As with any city, you have to be aware of your surroundings and take the proper precautions.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Bogotá and surrounding towns to reunite with family on my father's side. It had been 13 years since I last visited Colombia and it had been almost 30 years for my father, who was born in Bogotá, but moved to the U.S. at age 15 and became a U.S. citizen.

Since a majority of people there don't speak English, it is a good idea to learn some key phrases to get you around. Have a Spanish/English dictionary on hand.

(CBS/Melissa Castellanos)
Due to the high altitude, the weather can be a little chilly. The sun is usually out during the day, but oftentimes you can expect a late afternoon shower, which usually passes quickly. So, dress in layers as if it were fall weather and have a couple of sweaters and a light jacket. Bring a few T-shirts as well because you may get warm in the sun.

While visiting Colombia, your money can go a long way, which makes the trip very appealing. Although there are slight changes in the conversion at times, the U.S. dollar is strong in Colombia, with one U.S. dollar equivalent to almost 2,000 Colombian pesos. So, you will be able to score some great deals, eat well, travel and not feel guilty about it. You will also get more bang for your buck in comparison to the Euro.

According to a recent article on Bloomberg.com, "almost 2 million foreign travelers checked into Colombia's hotels last year, bringing in $2 billion in foreign currency and helping maintain the fastest economic growth in almost 30 years. The Colombian economy grew 6.8 percent in 2006 compared with Mexico's 4.8 percent and Brazil's 3.7 percent. Foreign direct investment was $6.5 billion; triple the $2.1 billion in 2002."

Lodging is not hard to find in Bogotá. The suggested areas to stay in are La Candelaria, El Centro and La Zona Rosa. You can get nicer budget hostels that run from $5 USD for a one bedroom to $15 USD for a two bedroom with a bathroom. There are also many nice mid-range hotels ($40 USD) and expensive hotels ($100 USD) to choose from. For the real scoop on lodging, you can visit www.poorbuthappy.com, which is also a good source for finding good bars and up-to-date information from residents and travelers.

If you are traveling throughout Colombia to -- Calí, Cartagena and Santa Marta for example -- it's recommended that you take a flight instead of traveling hours by bus throughout the Andes Mountains, just to stay on the safe side.

In la Zona Rosa, nightlife thrives with outdoor restaurants and cafes that fill up with people sitting outside sipping their tinto (Colombian black coffee) or a popular Colombian beer called Costeña, which is has a light, non-watery taste.

Beware of a popular Colombian alcoholic beverage called Aguardiente ("firewater"), which is derived from sugar cane and has a 29 percent alcohol content. It's mostly consumed as a shot and isn't used in cocktails. It can catch up with you sooner than you think. Colombians are used to the "burning water," so I would advise trying one or two and leaving the rest to the locals.

Also, in the north you will find popular boutiques and shopping areas called Centro Comercial Andino, Hacienda Santa Bárbara, Bulevar Niza and Unicentro. You can also find little family-owned shops that have more of an authentic Colombian charm.

(CBS/Melissa Castellanos)
Transportation in Bogotá has greatly improved during the past few years with the introduction of the TransMilenio, a new bus service that has a separate lane that runs throughout the city, which is home to over seven million people. The driving can be crazy at times, so it may be best to take the bus or a cab instead of renting a car.

La Candelaria, a historical center in Bogotá with small shops and old churches is a must see. In the center of the plaza, you can see the statue of Simón Bolivar, who helped Colombia gain its independence as well as Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia.

Across the way is the National Capitoleum, seat of the Congress of the Republic, which has a facade of 12 columns. On the left side of the Plaza de Bolivar you will find the Catedral Primada de Bogotá, which is a beautiful representation of Spanish Colonial architecture. It also holds the remains of Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who is known as "the founder of the city."

Don't be alarmed when you are in the center of Bogotá if you see armed military walking around; they are there to protect the city.

In Bogotá, you can cruise the marketplaces where stellar craftsmanship is on display from wicker furniture, woven baskets and hanging planters to colorful hammocks, leather purses, straw hats and your typical Colombian souvenirs to bring back to the States.

The Cerro de Montserrate, an Andes Mountain peak, is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Bogotá, which has the most spectacular panoramic views of the city. Monserrate is accessible by teleférico (cable car), funicular railway or by foot on walking trails. The teleférico (cable car) and funicular railway, which take about five minutes, are highly recommended instead of walking on foot to avoid any beggars that may cross your path.

(CBS/Melissa Castellanos)
On your way up to the top The Stations of the Cross align beautifully landscaped cobblestone walkways. Dedicated worshippers made their pilgrimage to the church that lies at the top of Monserrate, which was built after the original chapel was destroyed by an earthquake in 1917. It has been said that many miracles have happened inside of the church by a statue of Señor Caído (Fallen Christ).

  • Melissa Castellanos

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