Looking for non-touristy things to do in Bogota? If you want to get off the beaten track in Colombia’s capital city, a Bogota cooking class and salsa lesson with 5Bogota—a local, women-led tour company—is one of the best things to do in Bogota.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Bogota, Colombia’s capital city. As with most big metropolises, Bogota’s scale (it’s huge!) and pace (things move relatively fast—even by Colombian standards) are the two things that impressed me most.
It’s easy to feel alone and a bit overwhelmed in a city like Bogota. It’s tempting to just slip into anonymity, jump between tourist sites and keep to yourself. But that’s not the kind of Bogota experience we wanted to have. Determined to figure Bogota out and see a different side, we went looking for ‘alternative’ tour companies.
5Bogota, a women-led tour company managed by two local sisters and their mum, is dedicated to guiding visitors through Colombia’s capital city with the five senses in mind. Crafted itineraries and local experiences are designed to allow outsiders to see, smell, touch, taste and hear the ‘real’ Bogota through a local lens.
When Diana and the 5Bogota Team invited us to enjoy an afternoon of empanada-making, cocktails and salsa dancing, we gladly took them up on the offer. Here’s what we got up to in Bogota!
All things Colombia, culture & cuisine
Say what you will about Bogota, the capital is still an ideal place to learn about Colombia’s history and way of life. If you want to come away with a new appreciation for Colombian diversity and culture, an ideal path to learning—perhaps even better than visiting the city’s museums and galleries—is through traditional Colombian food.
Every culture has something stuffed and fried and utterly scrumptious as part of its national cuisine. In Colombia, it’s all about the empanadas.
As diverse as Colombia itself, empanadas come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and textures. My personal favourite are the super-crispy kind with an outer crust made from cornmeal (which makes them an excellent choice for gluten-free travellers to Colombia!). Saturday is traditionally empanada day, when households all over the country converge on the cocina to roll and pinch plateloads of tasty pastries. As Diana, our 5Bogota guide told us, preparing empanadas for the whole family can take a whole day or more—especially when you consider that each person eats no fewer than six in one sitting!
Nowadays, many restaurants and street stalls make their empanadas using whizz-bang machinery or pastry molds at the very least. Only a handful of vendors still craft empanadas the old-fashioned way, completely by hand. Lucky for us, Diana has the technique down pat (she originally learned from her mum) and showed us the complete process of making these half-moon morsels, from flour to finished product.
Our Bogota cooking class
Our Bogota cooking class (like all 5Bogota local experiences) took place in a local apartment. In our case, it was the home of Diana—a gorgeous light-filled loft in central Bogota. Homely and comfortable, this turned out to be the perfect atmosphere for learning. We were joined by a group of three friends from San Francisco who had also signed up for the Cooking Lesson that day.
Before we got down to the business of making empanadas, Diana had a little treat for us: A platter of local fruit, which we eagerly tucked into. We had already tried most of the offerings in Medellin during our fruits and marketplaces tour, but this was a perfect way to start the day and get our palates prepped.
Aproned and ready to go, the students’ first job was to make our starter: Patacones. Patacones—basically hand-sized, wafer-thin disks of smashed plantain that are deep-fried and eaten with salsa—are one of my favourite Colombian side dishes. I had no idea how they were made, though!
Diana bought out some chunks of deep-fried plantain from the kitchen. After she placed one piece between two cutting boards wrapped in cling film, it was our job to take turns jumping on the top board to squish the plantain. Once flattened, the patacones were deep-fried again.
We also made a super-simple guacamole and crushed up some fresh fruit for juice.
Prepping the hogao
Next, it was onto the main attraction: The empanadas. The first step was to prepare a simple hogao—a mix of finely diced onion and tomato that’s cooked down and seasoned. Hogao is a typical sauce in Colombia and also used as a base for many traditional dishes, including empanadas. In separate bowls, we mashed some potatoes and flaked a fillet of white fish. Diana then mixed these with the hogao to form the base for our three varieties of empanada: Fish, potato, and fish and potato!
Kneading the pastry
The empanada pastry was the most interesting part of the cooking class for me. I was surprised to learn just how easy the recipe is. To make the dough, Diana mixed cornmeal (ground corn flour) with a dash of water. Because she is a pro, she did everything by feel without the use of scales or measuring cups. Due to the high altitude (Bogota is 2,640 metres above sea level), the flour-to-water ratio used is unique compared with other parts of Colombia. A dash of vinegar and a sprinkle of panela (sugarcane) later, and the dough was ready to knead.
Each of us five students were given our own bowl and dough mix. Diana gave us a quick demo of the ‘grandmother-style’ kneading process, which involves sitting with spread legs and working the dough in a basin nestled in your crotch. She somehow still managed to make it look good (unlike us!).
Kneading, Diana told us, takes precisely 15 minutes. Every now and then she stopped us to feel the consistency of our dough ball—it’s sometimes necessary to add more water to the mix, depending on whether the chef has moist or dry hands. I love this little quirk.
After kneading, we divided our dough into three even-ish portions, rolled each into a sphere, then flattened each one out into a disk.
Filling & frying the empanadas
Next came the hard part. Once our dough disks were big enough to hold a spoonful or two of filling, Diana loaded them up for us. Turning the flat dough into a perfectly shaped empanada was very fiddly—first we folded the disk in two, then sealed it by pinching the edges. Any breaks were repaired with a sprinkle of water.
The technique reminded me a lot of our time in Tbilisi making Georgian khinkali dumplings.
Once pinched, the empanadas were ready to be fried. We left this part to the expert, passing the finished parcels onto Diana’s kitchen helper! Diana usually hosts this cooking lesson with her mother, but since she was away travelling, a friend of hers lent us a hand instead.
The finished product!
I think we were all a little gobsmacked when the plate of finished empanadas came out of the kitchen. We made those!? Incredibly, not one split, and all turned out to be perfectly coloured and crisp. In my opinion, this was solely down to Diana’s excellent tutelage! Before they were fried, we each marked our personal empanadas with our initials so we could pick them out.
The empanadas were just one part of our feast—we also had the patacones (which we enjoyed with guacamole), our fresh fruit juice, and a little sweet fruit dessert that Diana made for us.
We came into our Bogota cooking class with the full knowledge that we had no clue about making empanadas. We did, however, think that we knew how to eat them. But oh, we were so wrong!
Our final lesson was learning how to ‘correctly’ chow down on an empanada Colombian street-style. This entails grabbing the empanada with a napkin, nibbling a corner to let out some steam, then squeezing a little lime inside before heaping on a spoonful of guacamole. Every single bite of the empanada should be done like this—first a squeeze of lime, then a spoonful of guac. And believe me, they taste so much better that way! The crispy cornflour shell contrasted with the smooth avocado; the citrus cutting through the salty tomato filling—perfectly balanced and for sure the tastiest empanadas we’ve ever had.
Finally we had an explanation for why we often see people sauntering around street food stalls for long periods—they’re hanging around to re-load their sauce!
The 5Bogota City Guide
After our cooking class, we wandered down to La Candelaria, Bogota’s old town area. Diana very kindly gifted us a copy of Bogota Through the 5 Senses—a small city guidebook she and her 5Bogota colleagues and friends authored. It contains their top tips for the city and favourite food spots.
We followed her recommendation and made a beeline for a lovely little French bakery. Later in our trip, we lent the book to some friends who also used it to find a couple of similarly great ‘local’s favourite’ restaurants.
If you’re visiting Bogota and you’re interested in getting off the beaten tourist track, I highly recommend ordering a copy of the e-book online and reading up before you arrive. You can pick up a digital copy here.
Learning salsa with 5Bogota
Our day was far from over. After a little pick-me-up at the bakery, we went off to meet Lina, another 5Bogota guide who had something very different (perhaps even more challenging than the empanada making!) in stall for us.
Born and raised in Cali on Colombia’s western coast, Lina lived in the UK where she worked as a Spanish tutor and salsa teacher. When she decided to move back to Colombia, she chose Bogota as a place to live and decided to keep up with the salsa training. Tonight, Lina was about to face one of the biggest challenges of her career: Teaching us some salsa moves!
Being from Cali, which is widely considered the world capital of salsa, Lina lives and breathes rhythm. Her husband also works in the music industry, and their home—and incredible apartment designed by a famous architect and built almost completely of bamboo—is filled with instruments and wall-to-wall shelves stacked with vinyl.
As she flicked through her record collection, Lina told us all about Cali and what it was like to grow up there. Close to one of Colombia’s biggest ports, Cali is extremely multicultural and heavily influenced by all the different styles of music introduced through vinyl (and actual musicians) coming into the port from the Caribbean, the US and elsewhere.
In Cali, Lina told us, salsa is a way of life. It’s much more than a style of dance: It’s a form of communication. During her childhood, block parties—huge gatherings where everyone would get together to eat, dance and play music—were the norm every weekend. As Colombia’s cartels peaked in the 1980s and 90s, the music scene in Cali thrived because the clubs had cash in hand to pay the bands—often huge ensembles with up to 14 members.
Dancing goes with music, which goes with drinking—so part of our evening was preparing three traditional Colombian cocktails with fruit and sugarcane rum. As the night wore on and our salsa moves got progressively more advanced, the cocktails got stronger and stronger!
Salsa & cocktails
With vinyl spinning and Lina demonstrating the basics, we started our salsa lesson. First, we did some freestyle dancing (blindfolded!) before Lina taught us three basic solo Salsa steps. Transitioning to partner work was definitely the biggest learning curve, and we struggled a bit to move in sync. Luckily, Lina chose tracks with a relatively slow tempo so that we could try to get the hang of it.
I’ll spare you the photos of us attempting to salsa (it’s not pretty!). Suffice it to say that it was a lot of fun, but we’re no experts. Lina is a natural dancer and a fabulous teacher—encouraging, kind, and firm when she needs to be. She taught us the most valuable lesson of Salsa: As long as your feet are moving, it doesn’t really matter.
I love that there’s no real right or wrong way with Salsa. As long as you feel the beat and stay in time—and keep those toes busy—you’ll be just fine.
How you can have a local experience in Colombia with 5Bogota
5Bogota was founded by Diana and a few of her friends when she returned to Colombia after a period abroad. She wanted to get to know her country again, and thought that showing other people the ins and outs of Colombian culture would be a perfect way to do it.
5Bogota is exactly the kind of small business we try to support wherever and whenever we travel. I love that the company is managed and staffed by local women. Being welcomed into a local’s home is also a very unique experience and one of the things I enjoyed the most about our afternoon with 5Bogota.
5Bogota has grown to encompass a team of local guides who offer local experiences in Bogota as well as Medellin. Foodies, photographers, graffiti lovers and architecture buffs will all find something to suit their sensibilities. To see the full range of local experiences and to book, visit the 5Bogota website.
Diana recently started offering her cooking classes through Airbnb Experiences, so you can sign up there too.
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Transparency: We were hosted by 5Bogota for our cooking class and salsa lesson during our visit to Bogota in November 2018. As always, all opinions and recommendations are 100% my own.