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Seven reasons why you’ll love Manizales, Colombia

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Two weeks ago, with nothing more than a small suitcase and the clothes on my back, I took 3 flights that took me from London’s bustling metropolis to the mountain city of Manizales, Colombia.

Manizales is a city filled with hills, winding roads, colourful houses and equally colourful people. The population is just over half a million people and the city sits 2,180 metres above sea level. It is known for being a university city with more than 8 different schools.

Manizales would be my home for the next month as I worked at a fair trade coffee company, the prospect of which was equally exciting and intimidating. I had no idea what to expect from Colombia at all; would I feel safe? Would I enjoy myself? Well, during my first two weeks in Colombia I have done more than just enjoy myself - I have completely fallen in love with this city and all the people in it, and here are seven reasons why you will too: 

1. Manizales’ neighbourhoods

There are so many great neighbourhoods in Manizales, and most of them you wouldn’t know about if you didn’t happen upon them or get a recommendation from a local.

Downtown Manizales is a great place to introduce yourself to the city and get your bearings. It is a bit touristy but you are rewarded with colourful houses and historic buildings. Fruit stalls line the streets where you can buy delicious cups of fresh mangoes, pineapple and so on, with all sorts of spices on top. While in Downtown, climbing to the top of the cathedral is a must. The cathedral sits on one of the highest points in the city and at the top, you will be greeted with an amazing 360-degree view of the city and the mountains.

 

Nearby is the neighbourhood of Chipre, situated on the highest point in Manizales. From the Fundadores Monument viewing point, you can apparently see 5 different departments of Colombia. The neighbourhood is filled with ice cream shops, restaurants and nightclubs. However, if you’re looking for good local shops and restaurants, you want to head to the neighbourhoods of Palermo or Milan.

Palermo is a great low-key neighbourhood filled with cafes, bakeries, restaurants and food stalls (it is the area I live in, so I am a bit biased). It is the perfect area to wander around and grab lunch or sit reading a book in a cafe. It is also one of the safest places in Manizales. Even at night, the streets are lit and busy with people.

Popsicles, or paletas in Spanish, are very popular in Manizales and ‘Venecia’ and ‘Paletta’ are two of the best places to buy them in Palermo. ‘Juan Charrasqueado’ is a stand that makes the best tacos I’ve ever had in my life, and ‘Green Creation’ makes acai bowls and smoothies that are to die for. Last but not least, ‘Casita de chocolate’ is known for having the best brownies in Manizales. Milan is a short distance uphill from Manizales, with views that look out over the city. The main street in the neighbourhood is dotted with romantic restaurants and swanky bars. ‘Ozul’ is an edgy, laid back bar with food and décor to match, and if you want to really go all out, ‘Vino y Pimienta’ y ‘Candelaria Casa Brava’ are two of the best restaurants in Manizales, with food that looks like art and tastes just as good.

2. Coffee Farms

Manizales is a part of the ‘Coffee Triangle’ or ‘Axis’ (a UNESCO world heritage site) which is made up of the Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío regions. As a result, the city is renowned for its associations with coffee. Probably the best part of my job is that every week I get to go out and visit coffee farms all around the region.

The days I am visiting the farms I am in the car by 5:30 or 6 am to drive three or more hours down continually winding mountain roads to reach remote farms in the mountains (it often includes quite a bit of hiking as well). By no means is it easy, but it gives me so much respect for these farmers who work so hard on these mountains every day. Having seen the entire lifespan of the coffee (seed to cup, as they call it here), I have so much more appreciation for the industry, because I've interacted with the real lives and hard work that goes into every cup.

Lucky for you, visiting the coffee farms doesn’t have to be so arduous, as there is a range of coffee tours you can take from Manizales. I can’t recommend it enough, you will see the incredible beauty of the mountains and learn a lot in the process (plus drink some great coffee).

 3. The roads

You might be wondering, why has she included roads in the reasons she loves Manizales? Roads are, well… roads, right? That might be true for many places in the world, but not Manizales. Colombian roads are an experience in themselves. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a straight road in Colombia, at least not anywhere near Manizales. Luckily, the continual swerving is paired with stunning views of mountains and valleys filled with endless groves of coffee, sugar cane and banana.

In between the vistas, you regularly pass small villages dotted with multi-coloured houses and stalls of fruit, catching small glimpses into people’s lives. The roads place you in stark moments of contrast. At one moment you feel like an ant as you drive through a valley of sugar cane which resembles grass twice your height, the next moment you are so high that you can look down at the clouds blanketing valleys below, and you feel like a bird watching another world from above.

For all their beauty, Colombia’s roads are perilous. Dogs and children play on the sides of the road, and roads are also frequently obstructed by landslides. Every 10 minutes or so we could see where the mud and rock from a landslide had been pushed to the side of the road, a reddish-brown scar still on the hillside. A few times we would have to wait while they cleared away the rubble from a landslide that had just occurred. But, it is this constantly changing nature of Colombia's roads that makes every journey new and exciting. Manizales' roads puts the phrase, “it’s the journey, not the destination” in action and force you to really interact with your surroundings.  

4. The fruit

I could write a whole article about Colombian fruit alone (maybe I will) but for now, I’ll just give you a snippet of how amazing the fruit in Manizales is. To analogise, if fruit was a pastry, English fruit would be the plain bran muffin and Colombian Fruit the luxurious triple chocolate cupcake.

When I first stepped into a supermarket in Manizales I was amazed at the variety of fruit: mangoes, pineapple, guava, plantains, plus dozens of fruits and vegetables that I had never even seen before. Not only that, but the sizes of fruit are incredible, avocados triple the size of those in England, mangoes as big as my head. I found out that most of the tropical fruits and veg we have in England only come in one variety (usually the easiest to be shipped) when in fact there are many.

There’s a whole world of fruit out here just waiting to be discovered. For example, one of my favourite new fruits is called Corossos. They are like mini coconuts, the size of a grape. They have a red flesh but when you peel it off there is a hard shell which looks exactly like a coconut. You can crack it with a rock, and eat the inside which has exactly the same flavour and consistency of a coconut.

The best part is that fruit is everywhere in Manizales: stands along the street sell cups of freshly cut fruit, or you can just pick it off the tree. Tip: the fruit in the supermarket is alright, but if you want the good stuff, go to a family owned stall or even one of the stands on the side of the road. They have the freshest fruit and often have types of fruit not even sold in the supermarket!  

5. The Natural Beauty & Los Nevados

One of the best ways to make the most of Manizales is to get outdoors because the natural beauty here truly is unparalleled. I read somewhere that the whole of the Andes chain has one-sixth of the world’s plant species in just 1% of the land area.

As I mentioned before, one of the best ways to experience the outdoors near Manizales is to just drive and explore the region, but there are also a variety of fantastic parks and nature reserves. Just a short taxi ride will take you to ‘Recinto del Pensamiento’ park on the edge of Manizales. A guided tour takes you up a cable lift through the rainforest, to a hummingbird watching point, through a butterfly house, a natural herb garden, and then back down the mountain through a luscious orchid-filled rainforest. Tours are in Spanish and English and it is a wonderful way to learn more about the biodiversity and wildlife surrounding Manizales (and take super cute pictures of Hummingbirds, if you can catch them).

Credits to Darnold Hiking

Of course, a trip to Manizales isn’t complete without a visit to Los Nevados National Park. Los Nevados is one of the most famous national parks in Colombia, and one of the most beautiful. It sits in the centre of the Colombian Andes and is known for dramatic glaciers, lakes, and volcanoes. It has one active volcano, Nevado Del Ruiz.

The best way to visit the park is through a guided tour (Ecosistemas is the most well-known and highly rated). Tours take you to different regions of the park, such as Nevado Del Ruiz (when the volcano isn’t acting up) or Nevado Santa Isabel. You can take day tours or go on expeditions for 2-5 days, depending on how adventurous you’re feeling. Standing at the precipice of a glacier looking out over miles of open plains and stark blue lakes, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped onto an alien planet.

6. Thermal hot springs

Thanks to the volcanoes in Los Nevados, Manizales is gifted with a number of natural hot springs. The thermal hot springs are filled with natural medicinal water and are perfect for if you want to relax and pamper yourself. Termales del Otoño and Termales Tierra Viva are the best two in Manizales, and you pay a small fee for an afternoon of relaxation. The ‘Termales del Otoño’ is part of a lovely hotel where you can stay if you want the full experience.

7. Santagueda Valley

To really experience Manizales like a local, you have to take a trip to Santagueda valley. Santagueda is a 45-minute drive from Manizales and is a stunning valley where it is popular for families from Manizales to have farms (a vacation home, of sorts) where the whole extended family goes to relax during the weekends. Many of these farms are beautiful colonial-style homes with fruit groves and pools and vistas looking over the valley for miles. If I’ve learnt anything during my last two weeks here it is that Colombians are some of the kindest and most welcoming people in the world, so don’t be surprised if you are invited by someone you meet to their farm for the weekend.

Otherwise, there are plenty of resorts and hotels where you can stay and swim, ride horses,  unwind and take in the beautiful views. It is better to ask where you are staying for recommendations rather than look online as there isn’t a lot of information about the valley on the web and they’ll know the best places to stay. One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive is the weather. Manizales, at its high altitude, is about 20–22 degrees and balmy, whereas Santagueda is much warmer at 27-30 degrees and humid, so make sure to pack your bathing suit!

These are just nine of many reasons why you’ll love Manizales, and this wonderful mountain city is just the tip of the proverbial Colombian iceberg. Comment if you have any questions or tips about travel in Colombia, and tune in for more articles about Colombia coming soon!




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