As I sat in a little shop on a cobblestone street in Bogotá, talking to people in a mix of French, English, and Spanish, I wondered if this was supposed to be something that was easy… or am I so far along in this “journeys” thing that it doesn’t phase me… sitting in a shop with strangers speaking three different languages, a wall of musty books behind me, and another wall full of bikes and bike parts. Everyone is mellow and chatty… no one cares that I’m a stranger… everyone is super nice.
¿Quieres un café? a man asks me. Si. Tinto.
I’d picked up this little idiosyncrasy earlier that morning. In other countries I’d been in, I’ve used tinto with wine and negro with coffee. But, I’m now questioning all those instances in the past. Was I wrong? No one ever corrected me… but they do in Bogotá, where people politely try to fix my terrible Spanish. I’m happy about it.
But… back to the shop. They are friendly and welcoming here. There’s no stress. There are no expectations.
I’d been in the country less than 12-hours when I walked in. The plan was to take a bike tour with Mike from Bogotá Bike Tours. The young, frequent travelling, adventurous parts of the internets highly recommend the tour. Mike is the Bogotá Blogger, an ex-journalist who came to South America to spend a year improving his Spanish. A decade later he’s lived in multiple South American countries and now owns his own business with a partner.
The tour is worth the time and I’d recommend taking it when you first arrive in Bogotá. As another cyclist pointed out, we learned more about Colombia and saw more of the city in one day than most people learn in a week of wandering on foot. The other benefit of partaking in the tour early is you develop a camaraderie with the people who cycle with you. In the days that followed, I would periodically run into these people, get tips, share stories, enjoy a coffee, meal or a drink, and simply know that I wasn’t completely alone in the city.
However, I will also point out that this isn’t a tour for a beginner or unsure cyclists; the guides take you through busy traffic, over time worn/broken Bogotá streets, and to places that can be difficult to navigate. The tour also requires a certain level of fitness… especially since Bogotá is 2,640 m (8,660 ft) above sea level. This has an impact on you physically if you have not yet acclimatized to the elevation or are not used to exercising at altitude. But the same can be said for walking Bogotá’s steep streets.
For me, this experience would become a lifeline later in the week because every time I got lost, I would recognize places we experienced on the tour and know which direction to go. This even saved me after the creepy-drug-smoking-guard experience at El Cementerio Central, when I stumbled upon Pre-Colombian statues that we visited during the tour and knew where to find a safe cafe.
The biggest highlight for me: finally experiencing chicha after learning about it 20-years earlier in my Pre-Colombian Archaeology classes. For those who don’t know, chicha is corn alcohol fermented using the saliva in the maker’s mouth (through chewing).
Note: some of the photos in the gallery are courtesy Mike and Bogotá Bike Tours. Many of the things we experienced during the tour are in other Bogotá posts.