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Go to Bogota, Colombia

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Bogotá offers abundant contrasts: modern shopping malls and open-air markets, high-rise apartments and makeshift shanties, futuristic glass towers and colonial churches. Simultaneous displays of ostentatious wealth and shocking poverty have been a feature of life here for centuries. In the neighborhood of La Candelaria a rich assemblage of colonial mansions grandly conceived by the Spanish were built by native peoples and financed by plundered gold.

Bogotá, a city of more than 7 million people, has grown twentyfold in the past 50 years. It suffers the growing pains typical of any major metropolis on the continent (insufficient public transportation, chronic air pollution, petty crime) and a few of its own (a scurrilous drug trade and occasional acts of political violence). However, recent mayors have made some progress in cleaning up parks, resurfacing roads, and implementing a new transportation system. In fact, a recent survey indicates that while a majority of Bogotanos feel that the political situation is worsening in Colombia, conditions are improving in Bogotá.

Here are things to see in Bogota.

Catedral Primada

The imposing cathedral on Plaza de Bolivar’s eastern end is the biggest in Colombia and one of the biggest in South America. A neoclassical masterpiece that would match almost any in Spain, it looms over the rest of the square like an old lord surveying his subjects. La Catedral Primada was erected in 1823 on the site of the city’s first humble church, when Bogotá was made up of a few simple houses. The city’s inaugural mass is also said to have taken place on the site in 1538. The inside is eerily solemn and surprisingly bare. Paul Theroux generalised Bogotá’s church interiors as “elegant…with a touch of voodoo”, and in the case of its cathedral, he was onto something. Apart from some paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, it houses one of the largest organs in Latin America and the tomb of the city’s founder, Jiménez de Quesada.

El Museo del Oro (Gold Museum)

Internationally renowned, the Banco de la República Gold Museum boasts some 34,000 gold pieces from all major pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia, making it one of the most important gold museums in the world. Spread across two floors, visitors will find incredibly intricate jewellery, shamanic tools, headdresses and plenty more from numerous cultures and civilisations spanning the millennia before the Spanish Conquest. Guided tours in English and Spanish are conducted daily.

Museo Botero

The art collection at Museo Botero, donated by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, is thought to be one of the most important in the country's history. The collection consists of 120 artworks, mainly paintings, drawings and sculptures by European artists such as Picasso, Chagal, Dali, Renoir, Matisse and Monet. There are also a number of oil paintings and sculptures by Botero himself, especially from the last 20 years. His earlier work (up to 1960s) can be found in the National Museum, also in Bogotá.

Cerro de Monserrate

One of the peaks overlooking the sprawling city (Sabana de Bogotá) from the east, Cerro de Monserrate towers 3,160m (10,367 ft) high. There is a church on the top, which was erected when the original chapel was destroyed in the 1917 earthquake. It gets very busy on Sundays when pilgrims and tourists flood the place. Apart from the church itself, the surrounding area is commercialised with food and souvenir stalls, but the view from the peak is magnificent. On a clear day one can spot Los Nevados, the volcano range in the Cordillera Central, 135km (84 miles) away to the west. Cerro de Monserrate is accessible via cable car, funicular railway or by foot along a recently restored footpath.

La Candelaria

This is the historic centre around the Plaza de Bolivar. Despite some unfortunate architectural influences from 20th century, the barrio remains largely soaked in the colonial spirit and lifestyle. Some buildings are being restored to their former glory, others remain dilapidated. The first buildings were built in the 16th century and today's La Candelaria is actually a group of old districts such as La Catedral, Egypto and La Concordial. The area was declared a National Monument in 1964. The streets of the old Santa Fe are full of old Spanish-style mansions with heavy doors, large halls, spacious rooms, patios, thick walls and various styles of balconies. The 19th- and 20th-century buildings are locally known as Republican. La Candelaria of today has a strong bohemian, cultural and academic flavour.

Church of Santa Clara

Thought to be the most representative of a cluster of colonial churches in the old town, the Church of Santa Clara was built between 1629 and 1674 as a part of the Poor Clares Convent. As one of the city’s oldest churches, it is lavishly decorated with 112 paintings and 24 sculptures dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s a museum church run by the municipality, so not free to enter, but is certainly worth every peso.