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Bogotá's surroundings also have much to offer in the way of natural and mystical attractions – points of interest are still sacred to the indigenous cultures living here prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
You can hop on a classic train and travel to the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá. Hikers can make their way to waterfalls, through cloud forests and across páramo (high desert). There are also opportunities to spot wildlife at Chicaque. If you like legends, travel to Gautavita to hunt for the gold of El Dorado.
Most places listed below can be visited on public transportation, with the exception of the páramo, which is best seen with a guide. If you are headed to the mountains, bring snacks, water and an extra layer of clothing.
The Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral
The Zipaquirá Salt Cathedral, located 200m underground in the Cundinamarca region, is one of the must-see tourist attractions when coming to Bogotá. The site was originally a salt mine built by the indigenous Muisca people. In the 1930s, locals developed the site into a giant cathedral. Extensive renovations and expansion were done in the 1990s.
Pass through the colorfully-lit entrance and descend into a series of large rooms containing the Stations of the Cross, statues and other religious icons. The final chamber contains a towering cross. The journey here is worth it if only to witness this impressive feat of engineering.
After touring the Salt Cathedral, take a stroll into the Plaza de Bólivar of Zipaquirá. Take in the colorfully painted balconies on the colonial buildings lining all four sides.
You can also try your hand at the national sport of “Tejo”. This game requires a strong arm, eagle eye aim and a tolerance for beer – no game is complete without a few rounds of local beers. Participants are expected to throw a metal disk a distance of roughly 20 meters and hit small envelopes of cordite, referred to as mechas. The traditional sport of Tejo dates back to pre-Columbian times and is still widely practiced today.
The game is played in the afternoons daily except Monday. Ask directions to the nearest Cancha de Tejo, there are several in central Zipaquirá.
- Where: Zipaquirá is roughly 57km north of Bogotá.
- When: Most agencies typically offer a morning departure to the Salt Cathedral, leaving before the capital’s notorious traffic jams.
- Duration: Full day, including the visit to the Salt Cathedral and exploration of Zipaquirá.
Turistren de la Sabana
The Turistren (tourist train), an antique steam-powered train, is the most interesting way to travel to Ziparquirá. The train, which travels on Saturday and Sunday, leaves in the early morning from the neoclassical and imposing Sabana Train Station in downtown Bogotá. The journey passes through Usaquen in Bogotá’s north, the towns of La Caro and Cajicá before reaching the final destination of Zipaquirá.
The journey is only 57km but takes around 3 hours. A musical troupe wandering up and down the wagons injects an energy into all travelers, perhaps somewhat lethargic due to the early start. Despite the slowness of the train, it's a great way to see Bogotá's neighborhoods and some lovely countryside outside the city.
- Where: Sabana Train Station.
- When: The Turistren runs on Saturday, Sunday and public holidays and leaves at 8.15am.
- Duration: Full day. A return from Zipaquirá to the Sabana Train Station arrives at approximately 5.30pm. It’s also possible to return by bus.
Pack a raincoat and prepare yourself for a short, high-altitude ramble at 3100 meters above sea level to contemplate the legend of El Dorado at the sacred lake of Guatavita. Providing us with what is potentially the most realistic claim to being the source of the El Dorado legend, the lake is an ancient and sacred ceremonial site for the Chibcha people.
Each time a new cacique (leader) was named, a ceremony was performed where the individual in question would be covered in gold dust. He would submerge himself into the icy waters of the lake while his subjects would share offerings of gold statues by throwing them into the lake. There have been many attempts to drain the water from the lake to recover the presumed wealth (one involved an attempt to dynamite one side of the lake).
Gautavita remains a sacred place for locals. The walk up and around part of it reveals a variety of microclimates and an otherworldy cornucopia of flora not found at lower altitudes.
- Where: Guatavita lake near to the town of Sesquilé, 75km north of Bogotá.
- When: Tuesday to Sunday.
- Duration: Full day. The journey from Bogotá takes approximately 1.5 hours.
La Chorrera Waterfall
The hike to the 590m high La Chorrera Waterfall, located close to the town of Choachi, is one of the best day hikes in the Bogotá area. Signs point the way to the trailhead from the main road between Bogotá and Choachi.
The first part of the hike passes a few farms before reaching the cloud forest. After about 45 minutes you'll come to a small restaurant serving basic meals and drinks. You'll pass the Chiflon Waterfall, after which the path narrows as it heads up to the main falls. On the way, you'll catch some nice views of Bogotá. You'll also spot various species of orchids, birds and other flora and fauna. Take care along the path, which is narrow and slippery in spots.
The falls drop spectacularly into the forest, it's particularly dramatic after a strong rainfall. The journey on foot to the falls takes about 2.5 hours.
The hike covers ground at altitudes ranging between 2320m to 2480m above sea level so it is imperative that you are acclimatized before heading out on this adventure, and don't forget with the altitude comes a chill and the possibility of rain. Bring warm clothes and rain gear.
- Where: Take a bus heading to Choachi and ask the driver to let you off at the trailhead to the waterfall (you'll be on the bus for about an hour).
- Expert tip: Bring rain gear for the hike and a pair of dry socks to change into for the ride back to the city.
- Duration: 4-5 hours depending on your fitness.
The Páramo of Sumapaz
The Páramo of Sumapaz is the world’s largest Páramo (Neotropical high mountain biome) with altitudes reaching 4000 meters. Reaching the area involves a 1.5-hour drive from Usme (southern Bogotá), so an early departure is required.
Sumapaz offers stunning open vistas across the departments of Cundinamarca, Meta and Huila. You are likely to experience a variety of climatic conditions, including wind, rain and sunshine, so come prepared with appropriate clothing. The area is a high-altitude desert and a sacred place for the Muisca indigenous people (who considered it the origin of mankind). The area is now a protected as it is a source of water for the Bogotá region.
On the way through the national park you'll spot fragile desert plants, wildflowers and fields of espelita (frailejónes) plant. The landscape features rolling hills with numerous small lakes. The area is also home to the Andean bear, one of the world's most endangered bear species.
The park is large with various areas to visit so a guide is recommended to bring you to the best places for hiking. Bring warm weather clothing and rain gear.
- Where: PNN Sumapaz, a 1.5 hour drive south of Usme in south Bogotá.
- When: Daily
- Duration: Minimum 6 hours including driving and nature walks.
Chicaque Parque Natural
The small Chicaque Parque Natural, located a 30-minute drive from of Bogotá, features over 20km of well-marked hiking trails through the cloud forest. You can stay overnight with campsites and cabins available to rent. The area appeals to walkers and birders: there are an estimated 300 different species of birds in the park. Sloths, llamas and deer are some of the animals you might spot. Biologist guides can be hired to show you through the park.
There are options available for thrill-seekers too, including canopy rappelling from an 80-meter-high oak tree and a 340-meter-long zip-line over the cloud forest’s canopy. The zip-line reaches speeds of over 40 km per hour as you take in some breath-taking views of the Magdalena River valley in the distance. Horse riding is also available.
Chicaque is reached by heading south through Bogotá to Soacha on the Autopista Sur. The park authorities provide a bus service from Terreros Station, check their website or call 317 432 1979 for more information.
- Where: San Antonio de Tequendema, 30 minutes west of Bogotá.
- When: Daily
- Duration: All day or a multi-day trip.
Hacienda Coloma is a working coffee farm located a 90-minute drive from Bogotá. It's a great place to learn about the production of coffee and sample some of the delicious local product, especially if you don't have time to visit the Coffee Country in southwest Colombia.
During a 90-minute tour of the farm you will learn about all stages of the coffee making process, from planting the seeds to roasting the beans. The science behind the production of coffee is truly incredible to behold, as you will witness how many stages the coffee bean passes through from seed to cup.
The perfectly tended red-trim farm is located on the outskirts of Fusagasugá, 62 km southwest of central Bogotá. Buses depart regularly from Bogotá to Fusagasugá, from where you can take a taxi to the farm. Bogotá-based tour companies also run tours here, it's a popular day trip for travelers on a long layover at the airport and it's an escape from the chillier climes of the capital.
Fusagasugá, which has a pretty church and town square, plus some worthwhile galleries and museums, is also worth a couple hours of exploration in particular if you have some interest in historical architecture as you can view some buildings dating back to the 19th century and designed to resemble homes in Coburg, Germany.
- Where: Hacienda Coloma is located in the city of Fusagasugá, 62 km from Bogotá.
- When: Open daily, reservations not needed for groups of less than 10 pax.
- Duration: Full day tour