With a mild climate similar to San Francisco, a compelling mix of cultures, cuisines and location in the geographic center of Latin America, Bogotá, Colombia, has the potential to become the next great family destination in the Southern Hemisphere.
This statement may be surprising to some skeptical parents, but thanks in part to a strong economy and numerous improvements in its urban planning, perceptions are sure to change. Graffiti provides a perfect metaphor for the city’s evolution. While it was once a marker for urban blight, “street art” is now held in such high esteem some artists offer guided tours. Elaborate murals enliven all corners of the city, from trendy Zona T and Usaquén to historic colonial district La Candelaria and the Central Business district.
In addition to street art and historic landmarks in and around Bolivar Square, the capital has an impressive number of museums that will grab and keep kids’ attention for hours. Locals single out The Gold Museum as Bogotá’s can’t miss cultural spot. The presence of roughly 55,000 gold pieces from Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures is impressive. However, the layout makes it meaningful as it factors in the process of how the artifacts were made and their historic importance in religion, mythology, politics and even day-to-day life in a few cases.
At the Museo Nacional de Colombia, young history buffs will discover through a mix of fine art and historic artifacts that Colombia’s history is as complex and fascinating as any place they may be learning about in school. It also has a nice interactive section for preschoolers and kids in the early grades.
The Botero Museum in La Candelaria houses many of living legend Fernando Botero’s whimsical paintings and sculptures, as well as pieces from his personal collection by Picasso, Miro, Dalí, Matisse, Monet, Chagall and several of his Colombian contemporaries. Its free admission adds to the charm, as do the adjoining Casa de Moneda and Museo de Antioquia. When visited together, they constitute a perfect rainy day adventure bringing Colombian art and history alive.
On a sunny day, a visit to Monserrate is time will spent. The 10,341-foot high mountain flanking the city’s east side is noted for the Church of the Fallen Christ at the summit, and breathtaking vistas of the mountains and the city. There is also a nice expanse of vendors selling local crafts and street food. As getting there is part of the fun, visitors can choose between a funicular, telerifico (a cable car) or hiking trails.
Another way to explore Bogotá is to take advantage of Ciclovia, staged on Sundays and holidays. The city closes off its biggest thoroughfares to encourage the citizenry to get outside. While bikes are the vehicle of choice and there are plenty of places to rent them, you’ll also see entire families running, walking and skating. Several parks also have stages set up for impromptu Zumba and yoga classes open to anybody who wants a workout.
The Catedral de Sal de Zipaquira, 30 miles north of Bogotá, is a Roman Catholic Church built out of a former salt mine. While this architectural marvel is a pilgrimage site encompassing 14 chapels representing the Stations of the Cross, it also includes informative exhibits covering salt mining and geology, choral and symphonic performances benefitting from fantastic acoustics and a light show.
If you want your kids to gain an appreciation for the staples of the Colombian family’s diet, it’s best to show them where locals shop. At Paloquemao Market, there are no boutique-y booths vending designer donuts or Etsy-ready souvenirs. Treasures waiting to be discovered include granadilla (similar to passion fruit), lulo (a sour, citrusy fruit in the tomato family), mamoncillo (a grape-like fruit that tastes like a cross of lychee and lime), mangosteen, pitahaya (yellow dragonfruit), tree tomatoes and chontaduro (a high-protein palm fruit which could be the next acai).
Several restaurants also offer a colorful showcase for Colombian cuisines. MISIA by Leonor Espinoza is a home-y delight with quirky artwork and picnic table seating. Fresh, sweet-and-sour fruit juices are a highlight, and nicely wash down home-style preparations of egg-stuffed arepas and cheese or chorizo empanadas. Restaurante Rey Guererro provides a lovely introduction to the food of the Colombian Pacific, shaped by techniques Colombia’s former African slaves developed when they incorporated communities in Quibdó, Buenaventura and Tumaco, and added influences from the Spanish, French and other groups coming through the Americas.
Andrès Carne de Res DC in Zona T is a mash-up of the House of Blues venues, Cirque de Soleil and Tim Burton’s imagination. Although service runs a bit slow, simple meat and chicken dishes are superb, the people watching fascinating and the coconut limeade insanely delicious. El Cebollero Chapinero, in contrast, is a true neighborhood “find” built into a former garage specializing in a rotating selection of meat and vegetarian sausages, accompanied by a “paint box” of zesty condiments
Live concerts are the focal point of Colombian pop star Carlos Vives’ Gaira Café. A spread of concert posters, record album covers, gold albums, guitars and memorabilia such as Shakira’s skirt gives it a “labor of love” authenticity the Hard Rock Café juggernaut will never match. It is also a family-oriented spot on many levels. Carlos’ brother, Guillo, and their mother are the driving force in the kitchen, and children’s musical theater performances are staged at lunchtime. The menu features Barranquilla-region inspired snacks, including egg arepas, shellfish-topped patacones, Pipián-style empanadas and carimañolas (yucca balls stuffed with meat or cheese).
The Parque 93 neighborhood is a superb choice for a family tour base with its proximity to restaurants, shopping and other attractions by foot or inexpensive taxi and Uber rides. Hotel Estelar Parque 93, the EK Hotel and Hotel GHL Collection 93 deliver a 4- or 5- star boutique hotel experience for less than half the price of a comparable hotel in a U.S. city. The Four Seasons Bogotá, built into a century-old former apartment building near Zona T, is beautifully equipped for families, with its impressive selection of amenities for babies and children and astute concierge staff.