Some mothers play bridge or canasta, others make quilts, my mom’s hobby was winning contests. There was no magic or secrets about it, it was simply a numbers game, fill out enough entry blanks and you were bound to win some of the contests. I guess some of that rubbed off on me. I don’t enter as many as she does, but I certainly look for contests that have cool prizes where I don’t think there will be that many entries. One such contest I targets was LAN Airlines’s Travel Slam contest, available only on their USA Facebook page. LAN is a giant airline in South America, but not that well known in the US, I liked my odds.
It is hard to describe the excitement of opening an email that serves as a notification of a grand prize contest win. My prize was one round trip ticket from any of their US cites to any destination in South America. My mind raced on where to go. Buenos Aries has always been high on my list. Rio just screams fun. I had to make some tough decisions. I knew I couldn’t let this prize ruin my finances, so I had to plan smart.
Most of South America requires US tourists to buy expensive travel visas. Before anyone gets too upset, I should say that the visa is in response to the US requiring citizens of South American countries to pay the same expensive visa fees to enter the US. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay $160 for a travel visa for this trip. I also knew that if I could keep the value of my prize under $600, I wouldn’t have to pay income tax on my winnings. I saw a sale for Bogota that would keep my prize tax free and I wouldn’t need a visa, I was sold.
My knowledge of Colombia was pretty limited before the trip. I was hoping to run into Shakira (which didn’t happen). I knew former Colombian soccer legend Carlos Valderrama lived in Tampa, so I probably wouldn’t run into him there. My friend Karloz who is from Colombia kept alternating his story with me. Half the time he told me that I would never survive, the other half the time he kept asking me to bring a package back for him. I am pretty sure he was kidding about the former, I’m still not sure about the latter.
After offering my wife the chance to go with me (and receiving her rejection), I turned to my most trusted travel partner, my dad. I made a deal with him, since I had British Airways miles to spare, I took care of his plane ticket and he used his Hilton Honors points to pay for our 4 nights at the Embassy Suites. Miami to Bogota is only 10,000 miles in coach, 20,000 in business each way using British Airways miles, which is a steal compared to what the US based airlines would charge for this trip. Embassy Suites is a great choice for a trip on a budget, you get a great breakfast each morning, and their free happy hour is a great way to wind down over some local beers and snacks.
We felt safe walking around the neighborhood the hotel was in, even after dark. It is always nice to have a market in walking distance, which we had. We made sure to explore the colonial old town for a day, went to a mass in the Cathedral and toured the highly respected Gold Museum. Standing in the square outside of the cathedral, we ate roasted corn that had a red cob under the kernels. What was funny to watch was all the vendors, including the “give me a dollar if you want to take a photo with my llama” group, running off and hiding when the police showed up, then reappearing as soon as the police moved along.
Another day we rode a cable car up a mountain to visit Monserrate, a mountain with a 17th century church overlooking downtown Bogota. If you have a chance to visit be sure to pick a clear day, the highlight will be the view.
We found Bogota safe, affordable and charming. A worthy destination for any world traveler. I wish I could share some photos with you, but my father requested to be the trip photographer because he had a camera with a roll of 35mm film in it to use up. About half way through the trip I told him the camera didn’t have any film in it, he refused to believe me. So I kept posing for imaginary photos, and I bet him $10 I was right. Lets just say I came home with a ten dollar bill and relieved we never paid anyone a dollar to have our photo taken with their llama.