Living in Bogotá, Colombia: A Guide
Living in Bogotá as a foreigner presents little everyday challenges that pampered westerners from first world countries might not be used to.
So you enjoy the integrated public transport systems of Berlin, Barcelona and San Francisco; swapping between trams, trains, buses and the metro with a swish of a magnetic card, do you? Welcome to Bogotá, where we’ve recently welcomed the innovation of the bus stop.
So London can be held to ransom by its underground drivers because the city can’t function without an underground, right? Bogotá has the same population as London, yet has never had an underground. Not even a single line.
Finding an apto
Indeed, the biggest practical problem with living in Bogotá is mobility, and that’s something you can mitigate as soon as you arrive by choosing a flat carefully. How do foreigners find a flat? Use your contacts already there, the Facebook group Bogotá Short Term Rentals, or CompartoApto.com. It’s key that you get a location that’s appropriate for where you’re going to be spending most of your time.
Will you be studying or working at IH or one of the central universities? Then live in La Candelaria or nearby La Macarena.
Will you be working at the British Embassy, British Council, or other offices near the Zona Rosa? Then live in that area or in nearby Chapinero Alto.
Will you be working in offices further north? Look in Usaquen.
Will you be teaching English for an agency who are likely to send you all over the city? Then Chapinero is probably your best bet – it’s the area roughly halfway between central La Candelaria and Usaquen, respectively the furthest south and furthest north most foreigners will ever need to go.
Getting around town
Bogotá’s public transport system is improving, but it’s got a long way still to improve. Your choices are buseta, SITP bus, Transmilenio, or taxi.
The busetas are the wee old dirty rust-buckets that cover every inch of the city, spewing black smoke. Do your best to read your destination on the placard at the front window, then hail it, anywhere, and give the driver a 2000 peso note. He might give you change – buseta prices differ by company, by route, by time – but 2000 will cover it.
Because they stop anywhere, buseta journeys are slow, and because they stop everywhere, they cram as many people in as they possibly can. It’s not uncommon to see passengers hanging out of buseta doorways. If you see that, wait for the next one.
The new SITP buses are more comfortable than busetas, faster because they only stop at bus stops, and safer: the card system prevents thieves getting on surreptitiously, as can’t be prevented on busetas. But they don’t go everywhere, yet. Check out sitp.gov.co to find all of the SITP routes that might ever be useful to you, and memorise them.
The Transmi – buses, overland, in exclusive lanes, with stations – is the fastest way to get across the city at off-peak times only. During peak times – which means around 7-9am and 4.30-7pm – it’s packed full and a little crazy and chaotic: avoid it. The card you use for the SITP can also be used for the Transmi, finally.
By British standards, Bogotá taxis are really cheap, though try not to apply British standards to costs of living in Bogotá, unless you’re lucky enough to be getting paid by British standards! Taxis have a bad reputation in Bogotá, and there have been very rare instances of kidnappings by fake taxis, so while hailing one from the street will almost always be safe, it’s even more secure to use an app like Tappsi or EasyTaxi. Also keep an eye out for unscrupulous drivers who might try to overcharge foreigners, as happens everywhere.
Better than all these options: get a bike. There are hundreds of miles of cycle paths in Bogotá, and it’s mostly flat, so a bike can often take you where you want to go faster than any vehicle.
Is it safe?
The other major issue in Bogotá is security, and that’s the one I get asked about most commonly. Colombia, in general, is both far, far safer than it used to be, and far more dangerous than the UK. That means it’s a lot safer than most people imagine. I lived in downtown Bogotá (La Candelaria) for 2.5 years without any problems whatsoever, and most of my friends never had problems either – but some of them did. All you can do is learn how to minimise the risk.
Specifically, the risk in Bogotá is street robbery. Pickpocketing happens in crowded areas – for example, a packed Transmilenio or buseta – so keep valuables at home or in a zipped pocket, preferably not your back pocket. You’ll learn to be alert in the streets, especially at night, and to cross roads tactically. If you walk down the wrong street and are confronted by somebody with a knife, give them what you’ve got, it’s worth a whole lot less than your life. They will run away as soon as they’ve got something, and that’s it, over. Possession of a gun in Bogotá is a criminal offence, so guns are very unlikely to be used in a mugging. Wherever you choose to live, you will learn the areas that are better avoided: from La Candelaria, it’s Belem, Egipto and Tres Cruces on the fringes; from La Macarena, it’s La Perseverencia and Santa Fe; from Chapinero, it’s the other side of Caracas, and so on. Be smart, be alert, but don’t be paranoid.
Why live in Bogotá then?
Because you’ll meet so many lovely Colombians, who are delighted that the outside world is finally paying positive attention to their country, and determined to show it in a positive light; because there are a lot of interesting immigrants there too, like you, who’ve all had roundabout reasons for choosing to live there; because it’s a land of opportunities, with good jobs available sooner to well-educated foreigners, and plenty of potential market gaps for entrepreneurs to explore; because from Bogotá you can travel to other, smaller, prettier and hotter places around it; because you can learn Spanish and salsa, arepas and aguardiente, reggaeton and rum.
Colombia is, in many ways, a different world from the UK, so living there in turn helps you see the world differently. It’s a former Spanish colony with a pervading conservative Catholic influence, with a former slave-holding Caribbean coast, a Pacific coast, an Andean heritage, and is half-covered in Amazon jungle: and all of those peoples and cultures are in Bogotá, along with the drag queens of Chapigay, the militant leftist students of La Nacho, and the racing guinea pigs of La Septima. In Bogotá third world slums sit across the road from first world multiplexes, the road to the country’s most exclusive university is so pot-holed it’s like a rollercoaster; and the Presidential palace is a stones’ throw from the lawless crackdens of El Bronx. It’s a country full of warm, wonderful, loving people, and yet: that history is real, too. How do you reconcile that?
Bogotá is never as straightforward as it might seem. The answer to one question is two more questions. And from facing a different set of questions comes a different way of thinking. How do you adapt to a less than perfect environment? By learning that holes in the road might give you a bump, but they’re really no obstacle to happiness.
Find more insider guides to living abroad at theskinny.co.uk/travel