Colombia Diary — Driving in Colombia

I don’t know how many people rent a car when they visit Bogotá. If you’re mostly exploring the city you’ll do it via taxis and public transportation. (Pro tip: as near as I could tell the ratio between taxis and passenger cars was about 1:1.) If you’re making only one or two trips outside the city, there are buses that will take you. But if you want to do what I did, which is to use Bogotá as little more than a home base for daily trips outside the city, then a car is the way to do it. With that in mind, here are some miscellaneous observations.

Even/Odd Days

You are only allowed to drive in Bogotá on certain days. If your license plate ends in an even number, you’re banned from the city on even-numbered days. Ditto for odd-numbered license plates. I don’t know if this applies to cars that are merely going in or out via major arteries and I never found anyone to ask. In any case, I was going to leave the city every day regardless, even if I got a ticket, so it didn’t really matter.

In the event, I got no tickets—not that I know of anyway. I guess it’s still possible that I’ll get a big packet in the mail someday filled with photos of me driving on the wrong day; making illegal U-turns; and driving down streets reserved for buses. Nothing yet, though. And I’ll note that I got curious one day and started counting license plates. Only about 80 percent were driving on the correct day. The other 20 percent were scofflaws, but nothing seemed to happen to them.

Traffic

Overall, the traffic in Bogotá struck me as ordinary big-city traffic. I’ve seen worse in LA and New York. And the drivers themselves were generally not all that aggressive. So that’s not something to be worried about.

Traffic on Avenida NQS around 9 in the morning.

But there are a few things that make Bogotá traffic insane, especially for tourists. Most streets are one-way, which is not a big problem. However, often two streets in a row are one-way in the same direction, and this can be a problem. You move on the next street and finally turn in the direction you wanted, but then the street dead ends and you can only go in a direction that takes you even farther away from your destination. You try to backtrack, but then you run into a street that’s temporarily closed for construction. Then there’s another street that’s closed because it’s been turned into a pedestrian mall. If you know the city well, none of this will bother you. If you don’t, you’ll end up 20 blocks away from where you wanted to go, banging your head on the steering wheel and wondering if you’ll ever make it back. Much of this is deliberate. A regular reader who lives in Bogotá emailed me this:

There’s a story here about Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, the former mayor of Bogotá who is now back to being the current mayor. Ten years ago or so, he had a mission to rebuild the city in such a way that pedestrian walkways get built first, bus lanes get built second, and commuter car roads get built last (from his point of view, those rich folks can drive on dirt roads until the city gets around to serving them last).

Gary Hurst (documentary film maker that did the film Helvetica) did a wonderful film called Urbanized in 2011 and Enrique Peñalosa Londoño was a major segment in the documentary (and in the time devoted to the Mayor, he gives a great analysis of his city’s traffic problems, as well as how he plans to manage it all). The entire film is a great watch, and Mayor Peñalosa Londoño was one of a couple standout visionaries in the film that (almost) gave me hope for the future of human sprawl.

If the mayor wants to screw the Colombian fat cats and the rich Americano tourists, I guess I can’t argue with that. But it’s something definitely worth thinking about before you decide to tackle the streets of Bogotá.

The TransMilenio

Twenty years ago Bogotá decided to build a citywide network of dedicated bus lanes. On the big avenues this meant taking about six lanes out of service in the middle of the road. The center two lanes were converted into stations, and each station had half a dozen different sections dedicated to different bus lines. Like a subway, then, you just have to enter the station and find the right platform for the bus you want.

A TransMilenio bus pulls into a station. As you can see, the station takes up two lanes, there are two bus lanes, and there are two bus lanes in the other direction. On big avenues, a total of 6 traffic lanes were taken out of commission and handed over to the TransMilenio.

This has been a big hit, but it presents drivers with a problem: If you’re on a major avenue with a TransMilenio line in the middle, there’s no place to make a U-turn across the dedicated bus lanes if you decide you’re going in the wrong direction. You’re left with two options. First, you can drive a long time until you do finally find a place to turn around. They exist every ten or twenty miles or so. Second, you can wait until you approach a major street that has a bridge over the TransMilenio line. With Google maps in hand you can probably figure out how to get there—eventually. Then you go over the bridge and figure out to merge into the traffic going in the direction you want. If you’re lucky, there will be a simple loop to get you on. If you’re less lucky, you’ll have to take some educated guesses and hope that one or two of them allow you access to the Avenue.

It’s Construction Century in Bogotá

Streets are torn up everywhere. Other streets have been turned into pedestrian ways. Others are restricted to buses. And still others simply dead end for no apparent reason. There are orange banners strewn all over the city that tell you (I think) what’s what and where the detours are. To use them you’ll need to read Spanish and have some familiarity with the layout of Bogota’s streets. Good luck.

Security

As our Colombian friend Ana has told us, all cars in Colombia are equipped with automatic doors that lock after 30 seconds. It’s for your protection! There are two lessons to be learned from this:

  • If you leave your car, even if you absolutely, positively know it’s just for a few seconds to take a look at something, take your car keys with you. Every time.
  • When the rental folks give you an emergency roadside assistance number, don’t just toss it aside. Enter it in your cell phone and then dial it immediately to make sure you entered the country code, etc. correctly.

My car, locked, with the keys safely inside.

Speed Limits

Speed limits are very low in Colombia. On the Autopiste Norte, a very nice multi-lane highway (though not a full restricted-access superhighway) the highest speed limit is 80 km/hr. For you Yankee imperialists, that’s 48 mph. What’s worse, a lot of people tool along at 40 mph or less. I’m not talking about trucks or motorbikes, just ordinary passenger cars that are happily backing up traffic behind them at 40 mph.

Nor does there seem to be an official concept of a fast lane and a slow lane. On a two-lane highway, there are just two equal lanes. Trucks hang out in the left lane if they feel like it, as do the pokers driving 40 mph. The only exceptions are the motorbikes, which reliably stay in the right lane.

The upshot of all this is that you should double the time you think it will take you to get anywhere. The autopistes are limited to 48 mph in theory, and in practice you’ll be lucky to sustain 35-40 mph for all but a few wide open sections. And when you exit the main highway, all bets are off. The road you choose might turn out to be perfectly nice, but still twisty enough to keep you from going more than 30 mph. Then again, it might turn out to be mostly unpaved and you’ll be lucky to sustain 20 mph.

Traveling Outside Bogotá

This was the most mysterious part of my trip. I am very much hoping that someone will chime in with some trick that I was missing the entire time I was driving through small towns in Colombia.

Here’s an example. Suppose you’ve reached the town of Tunja and want to exit to the south to continue home to Bogotá. Here’s a map that tells you how to do it:

Coming in from the west, there’s no way to get through Tunja except to snake a path directly through the center of town.

You’re coming in on Highway 60, which becomes Carrera 19 in town. Keep going south and it becomes Calle 22. Make the left onto Avenida Colon and follow it around a curve to Carrera 10. This will take you to a roundabout that allows you to turn south onto Avenida Oriental, which become Oriental 21, then Oriental 20, 19, 18, 17, 14, 10, 8—at which point it becomes highway 55—and then Oriental 7, 6, 5b, 5, and finally Oriental 4, which merges into Carrera 14. Then it truly becomes Highway 55 and heads you home.

Is there a way to shortcut this mess? I tried. I figured I was due for some good luck, so when I got to Calle 24 I turned east toward Avenida Oriental. This is the green dashed line. Unfortunately, Calle 24 was a bridge that went completely over Avenida Oriental on Viaducto Norte. A couple of miles later there’s a roundabout that allowed me turn around onto Viaducto Sur. This takes me over Avenida Oriental again and becomes good old Calle 24. Google Maps suggests a quick left on Carrera 7 and another left on Calle 22, and that finally gets us to Avenida Oriental and south out of the city.

This was pretty typical. It’s one thing to have a weird route that shunts everyone through the busiest part of town, and it’s yet another to have “shortcuts” that don’t work but aren’t obvious on Google maps. But it’s a whole nother level of fucked-ness to have no signage anywhere along the way to assure you that you are indeed still on Highway 60 until it transitions to Highway 55.

If anyone has traveled in Colombia and can crack this code for me, I’d appreciate it. Don’t worry about making me look like an idiot. I don’t mind.

Bottom Line and Most Important Rule

Put all of this together and the upshot is that it will probably take you twice as long to get anywhere as you think. It’s a minimum of an hour just to get out of Bogotá and after that you’ll be driving pretty slowly and almost inevitably making mistakes that might take one minute to fix or 20 minutes to fix. Don’t let it bother you. If you need to pay an extra toll, pay it. 8,000 pesos is only three bucks. Just pay it and keep moving. If you stop for lunch, make it someplace quick. The food is probably just as good.

Where to Stay?

Without knowing any of this, I chose to stay in Central Bogotá. That was probably a mistake because it takes too damn long to get from centro to anywhere outside the city. My tentative guess now is that you might actually be best off staying at an airport hotel on the west side of town. From there you can exit the west end of town in a few minutes and hook up with roads leading north, south, and west. If you want to go east to drive over the mountains—which I recommend—even that’s not too hard. You just follow the airport highway east and it will take you to Carrera 1 and then over the mountains. And if you want to visit the city the TransMilenio will whisk you right in. If I had it to do over again, that’s probably what I’d do.

TOMORROW: Friday, Kevin’s last day in Bogotá. But it will be surprisingly photogenic thanks to a business class seat with a clean window.

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