On paper, Bogotá doesn't sound terribly appealing. For a start, the sprawling capital of Colombia sits at a heady 2600m above sea level, which means the weather is surprisingly cold and wet, despite being less than five degrees from the Equator. Then there's the graffiti that's scrawled pretty much everywhere in the centre of town, which is a subtle hint that there are areas of town that you should absolutely avoid, some of them quite central. Then the locals warn you never to flag down taxis in the street but to pre-book them instead, as there are fake taxi drivers out there who will pick you up, lock the doors, pull out a knife and take you and your credit card on an expensive tour of the local cash machines. And the Transmilenio public transport system groans under the weight of the morning and evening rush hours, with queues winding their way out of the stations while commuters press their noses up against the bus windows. On the surface, it doesn't sound like it's much fun.
But it is. A lot of this is down to the Colombians, who are such good-natured and stylish people that everyday urban challenges just don't turn out to be a big deal. Even on the one day that we accidentally ended up crushed into a Transmilenio bus at the beginning of the evening rush hour, the locals kept their cool and simply got on with the business of getting home; compare this to the insanity of rush hour in somewhere like India, and it's another world. And yes, at this time of year it is cold and rains almost every day, but there are plenty of museums and restaurants where you can hide from the weather. They're also making big strides in making the city safer, with a noticeable army and police presence in the centre of town and a smartphone app that lets you book taxis safely with the click of a button. And even the graffiti isn't that bad, if you look closely, as there are some genuine works of art out there (though there's still a lot of messy tagging around, which is much harder to appreciate).
It also helps if you stay in the north of the city, because the further north you go from the centre, the more pleasant the city becomes. We lucked out with our choice of lodgings; the India Chez Moi Hotel is a great place in a pleasant part of town, where it's all wide pavements, grassy spaces, middle-class locals, fancy skyscrapers and decent supermarkets. The wonderful Indian family that runs the hotel made us authentic home-cooked Indian meals during our stay, which, after six months of Central American food, was utter bliss. We settled into suburban life and took in the sights of the city at a sedate pace; Bogatá was the last destination on our six-month trip and when we arrived in town we were still recovering from being ill in Medellín, so we decided to take things slowly.
Luckily the India Chez Moi Hotel was just a short walk from the Transmilenio, which made it really easy for us to get into central Bogotá. As you would expect from the capital city of such a vibrant country, there's plenty to see in town, although we did keep getting caught in rain showers when we ventured into the city streets, some of them amazingly heavy (this part of the world has a second rainy season in April and May to complement the more usual October-November rainy season, and we're bang in the middle of it). As a result we didn't manage to explore as much of the city centre as we otherwise would have, but what we saw was enjoyable.
As far as tourism goes, the heart of the city is the large Plaza de Bolívar, which is surrounded by a mix of different building styles, from the neo-classical Catedral Primada and the colonial Sagrario Chapel, to the classical Greek style of the Capitolio Nacional and the French-influenced mayor's office. When we visited the square for the second time the cathedral was holding a memorial service for the famous Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who died on 17 April. The square was full of big screens showing the service, and as we stood there watching the service, not one but two people tried to interview us about Márquez and what we thought about him. To be honest, I've not yet read any of his books, which is a minor crime for a traveller visiting Colombia, but we smiled and said nice things about him, because he's an absolute hero in his native Colombia.
From the square we wandered through the government buildings to the south of the plaza, smiling at the soldiers who checked our bags at the various checkpoints, because that's what you do when someone younger than your children points to your bag while carrying a massive gun; happily they smiled back. We then wheeled round to the east to explore La Candelaria, the old colonial quarter with its steep cobbled streets and clusters of museums, churches and theatres. Unfortunately this is when the rain hit, turning the street into a river, so we ducked into a restaurant and enjoyed a typical Colombian meal of soup, fish and plantain, while the heavens washed away the people and left us blinking in the post-deluge brightness.
Luckily this area is home to plenty of museums, so we managed to avoid the daily rains by spending hours shuffling round the Museo del Oro (the gold museum) and the Museo Botero (a museum devoted to the artist Botero, whose sculptures we'd admired in Medellín). Unfortunately, both museums suffer from the same problem: they're too much of a good thing. The Museo del Oro's collection contains more than 34,000 gold pieces and 20,000 other objects from 13 pre-Hispanic societies, and although not all of these are on display at the same time, it sometimes feels as if they are; as you go from room to room, all of them stuffed with so many gold objects, it does start to feel a bit repetitive after a while. Perhaps it was because we visited the museum of gold in San José not that long ago, but by the time we reached the end of the exhibition – in which a huge glut of gold artefacts are displayed in a round room to the sound of tribal chantings and a flickering light show that makes toddlers cry – we were a bit tired of gold. Indeed, from early on, Peta was more interested in the ceramic pots on display and I was more interested in watching the locals, who seem to be more obsessed with taking phone pictures of the displays than actually looking at them.
Meanwhile, the Museo de Botero contains a number of rooms dedicated to works of art by Fernando Botero, the artist whose sculptures of buxom women and animals fill the Plazoleta de las Esculturas in Medellín. We liked those sculptures, but a whole museum packed full of his paintings proved too much; Botero appears to be a bit of a one-trick pony, and his paintings of inflated people and endless still lifes of fruit and food became deeply repetitive after a couple of rooms. Luckily the collection was peppered with rooms dedicated to non-Botero works of art, and they were worth the effort, but we left the Botero museum with the same fatigue as we'd left the gold museum. It was a bit of a shame really, though the balance was redressed on the way to the Transmilenio, when we witnessed the filming of a Colombian hidden camera show in which a man dressed up like a piece of broccoli crept up to a man eating a burger and stole it off him, offering him a piece of broccoli in return. Cue hilarious irritation on the part of the burger-eating man, followed by a chase scene and eventually the big hidden-camera reveal. It wasn't art, but it was more entertaining than a lot of the works we'd seen that afternoon.
You couldn't say the view from the 3152m-high peak of Cerro de Monserrate was boring, either. Bogotá is built on a wide plain, the Sabana de Bogotá, which is surrounded by mountains, and the peak of Monserrate, which dominates the eastern edge of downtown, is home to a church that you can see from pretty much everywhere in the city centre. The hardcore can walk up the 1500 steps to the peak, some 600m above the city, but we opted for the cable car instead. The views from the top over the 1700 square kilometre sprawl of the city are absolutely stunning; with a population of nearly 8 million, Bogotá is a massive place, but you have to see it from above to understand just how big it is. The summit is so high that you can watch the rain showers swooping into the city across the plains, and it's even high enough for people to suffer from altitude sickness when they visit.
The view from Monserrate is deeply impressive, but it was trumped by our last excursion of our visit to Colombia. The family at the India Chez Moi Hotel were wonderful throughout our stay, and for our last Saturday night in the country, Akbar – the son of the hotel's wonderful matriarch Sundara, and the brother of the charming Ila, who manages the hotel with her friendly French husband Olivier – invited us out for a trip up towards La Calera with his friend Katherine. The road that winds up the mountains towards this small village boasts a small parking spot where couples and young people come for a hot cup of canelazo, a sugar cane drink that's flavoured with cinnamon and optionally a spirit. But it isn't the drink that attracts the locals, it's the stunning night view over Bogotá.
As we sat there sipping our drinks – canelazo with spirits, naturally, as it was cold up there – huge fireworks flashed in the distance ('It's Children's Day,' explained Akhbar), huge flashes of lightning lit up the clouds to the north, a stack of jet planes slowly glided their way into El Dorado Airport, and all around the blazing cityscape disappeared off into the distance. It's no wonder that this is a popular spot in Bogotá's weekend calendar, and as the last major excursion in our visit to Colombia, it felt particuarly appropriate, as we looked down on everywhere we'd visited in the previous week and marvelled at the endless suburbs of this, the beating heart of this vibrant country.