Practical Advice for Backpacking in Bogotá

I think more and more people are beginning to visit Colombia, but the capital city of Bogotá doesn’t yet seem like a tourist destination. I spent a whole day visiting what you’d normally consider ‘tourist’ areas: the downtown plaza, the historical La Candelaria neighborhood, the Monserrate cable lift – yet I ran into just 3 other tourists! A retired couple from Ireland, and a guy about my age from Montana. The coastal areas of Colombia are much more popular tourist spots.

Also, because very few people from English-speaking countries visit Bogotá, you will hardly meet anyone who speaks English. The only person I’ve met so far is my couchsurfing host. Even the border agent didn’t speak any English. If you can study even a little Spanish before coming, it will help a lot.

Given that it’s not (yet) very tourist-oriented, I have really had a crash course in getting acquainted here. I had a hard time finding information online, and it’s difficult to ask around locally since they’re not used to tourists and don’t speak English. So, rather than give you advice about what to see here, I’m going to focus on the logistics of getting around and feeling comfortable in Bogotá.

It’s Easy to Get Oriented

 

There is a huge mountain range lining the side of the city to the East. This makes it really easy to figure out where you are. If you’re facing the mountain, North is to your left and South is to your right. Simple! And very handy if you happen to get lost.

The city is also arranged more or less on a grid. Streets running East-West are always named calle and streets running North-South are carrera. They are numbered so you can figure out where you’re going by the street names. The calles get higher the farther North you are.

 

Transmilenio & SITP Buses

 

The Transmilenio App

It took me a week of confusion before an Italian guy at a hostel told me about the Transmilenio app. This is incredibly helpful!! Make sure you download it. It’s called Transmilenio y SITP. The Transmilenio is a major bus line, basically like an above-ground subway. It has its own lanes and goes directly through the city. The SITP buses are much smaller and navigate the side roads in the city.

 

To ride the bus in Bogotá, you need a pre-loaded card called ‘tu llave‘ (your key).

How to purchase a tu llave card:

If you are flying into Bogotá: When you exit the airport, if you turn toward the left and navigate the flood of taxi drivers offering you a ride, you’ll find the bus stop. One or two people will be sitting in plastic chairs with a little money bag and a magnetic card reader. These people are actually legit bus employees, and this is how you get a bus card.

If you are arriving some other way: If you’re not flying in, you can also purchase the card at the Transmilenio bus terminals or at stores that have the tu llave sign in the window. Keep in mind you can NOT buy the card on the bus, nor can you use cash. You have to plan ahead unless you’re going to one of the major terminals.

The bus card costs $3,000 COP (a little less than $1 USD at the time of this writing). That is the cost of the card, and will not actually cover any bus fare, so make sure you give them more money to actually load onto the card. Bus fares on the Transmilenio are $1800 COP per trip, and on the SIPT (smaller buses) they are $1500 COP. Adding about $10,000 pesos will last you several days.

The Transmilenio app will also tell you locations where you can add more money to your card (puntos recarga). To check your balance, there’s a magnetic pad on the side of the Transmilenio ticket booths; just hold your card up to that and it will tell you how much is left on the card.

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Know Ahead of Time Which Bus Routes You Need

 

Bus names/numbers are not at all intuitive, although the bus system is actually pretty well designed otherwise. The Transmilenio are fast and come frequently so you don’t really need to worry about when to catch the one you need. The SITP buses are much less predictable and I had a hard time figuring out which one to get on, so I finally started taking taxis or walking between the Transmilenio and my final destination.

One of the confusing things about the bus routes is that the same route will have one name going one direction, and a completely different name going the other direction. I took the purple J72 going in to town and the exact same way coming back was an orange B42 or something. I’m not really sure how to navigate this other than to make absolutely sure you know which bus you need to take (in both directions) before you head out, and do not get on any other buses. Many different buses come to the same stops so make sure you wait for the one you actually need. Once you’ve gotten on the wrong bus and lost your original plan, it’s quite difficult to get re-oriented.

A Taxi Might Be Worth It

 

If you’re backpacking on a budget, the bus is fine, but if you have a little extra cushion financially, I would honestly spring for a taxi most of the time. It’s extremely cheap and much faster than the bus. In many places there are ‘official’ taxis, where a sort of concierge will write a ticket with your name, destination, and the price. You prepay, and then you and the driver are both given copies of the agreement. I like this a lot.

There’s an app for taxis in Bogota, too. You can use this to make sure you’re getting an official taxi. It’s called “Tappsi – Safe Travel.”

When I took a taxi otherwise, though, I asked the price up front and I never had a taxi driver try to change it or drive in a convoluted direction. I felt the price was really reasonable (just a few dollars) and a welcome relief from the very overcrowded, bumpy buses.

 

 

Pre-Load Your Phone With Offline Resources

 

If you don’t speak Spanish and you run into confusion while out and about, you will really be lost. My best suggestion is to add as many offline resources on your phone as you can before you leave a WiFi zone. The ones I used were:

  • Download the Bogota area on Google Maps for offline use
  • Download the Spanish translation set on Google Translate for offline use
  • I used an app called SpanishDict a lot; its translations seem to be more accurate than Google.
  • Download a currency converter app (XE Currency app works offline)
  • If you’re from the US, download a Unit Converter for Android or iPhone (converting metric units to imperial, i.e. meters to feet).
  • The Transmileno app & the Tappsi app.

Google Translate is particularly helpful because even though I speak a little Spanish, sometimes I just had no clue what someone was trying to say to me. I had them type it into Google translate (they could speak to it too of course, but since they don’t seem to use this feature here they seemed confused by it) and it made everything much easier.

I hope that makes your trip to Bogotá a little easier to navigate so that you can spend less time trying to figure things out and more time enjoying this beautiful city!

Maggie