Colombia is an unconventional destination for those who seek adventure without the constructs of luxury travel and pasteurized tourism.
Manizales is an experience for both the voyager and the student, packing an delight that’s more contained than the highly charged capital Bogotá, but no where near, as wild as other parts of the Colombian terrain. Abundant with colleges and universities, the city is always injected with a sense of young energy amidst a more persnickety, conservative population. Divided into an older, more historical district that integrates antiquated churches with structures strongly influenced by the 70’s and 80’s, Manizales defines an architectural lateral that’s rather idiosyncratic. Interestingly, the Parque Caldas building downtown has been voted as the ugliest building in Latin America. In contrast, the newer segment of the city boasts a plethora of geometric, white cement structures, suggestive of a new found Bauhaus fixation amongst the city’s planners and urban developers.
The terrains of Manizales are very hilly. Crags and peaks define the roads and streets that thrum with little stick-shift cars that maneuver their ways frantically, up or down hill. Motorbikes of all shapes and sizes also dominate the Manizales streets. This is due to the fact that they are cheaper and easier to park than cars. Magically, they weave through the zigzags of hilly terrain. Nonetheless, here there is an unruffled harmony that ties the old, the new, and nature altogether. No matter where you are in Manizales, or even Colombia for that matter, breathtaking mountains will always be embracing one’s gaze when navigating the terrains of this majestic country. Much like in Medellin, cable cars are a commonplace mode of transport in Manizales for many who do not own a car or a motorbike. Prior to turning into a public mode of transport, cable cars used to transport the abundant coffee and fruit that grow in this part of the country.
For breakfast or an afternoon pick me up, head to La Ricura, Manizales’ most prized panaderia (bakery). Nestled in the newer part of town, the two story brightly hued storefront serves freshly squeezed orange juice in large pitchers, along with the best pandebono (cassava flour cheese bread) you can rip into. Buñuelos, akin to pandebono although lightly fried and sweeter, are also available, along with potato and beef empanadas. Throughout Colombia empanadas are strictly made with corn and are fried. They come with a standard filling of mashed potato and beef. A noteworthy touch: The dashingly strong espresso at La Ricura is always served with a side of hot water in a creamer.
Arepas (corn pancakes) are standard fare in Colombia. However, in their most delicious form they are sweetened corn griddlecakes, topped with butter and cheese…
Manizales is part of the coffee triangle where much of the nations coffee beans are cultivated and processed for export. Also, in the area is Cinecafé, a research institute that partners with Colombian coffee growers and the government to protect the coffee crops from pests and other risks to the country’s natural resource. Pereira, Armenia, and Quindío, are some of Colombia’s most important coffee growing territories.
What struck me most about Colombia was that the country’s national campaign which encouraged its population to drink coffee. “Toma Café”, (Drink Coffee) is a testament to the interesting coffee paradox that exists in Colombian society today. Feedback from the locales led me to conclude that when considering the amount exported, to the amount consumed, Colombians do not really drink that much coffee. And when they do drink it, most can only afford the cheaper varieties, which come from India and Vietnam.
Wax Palms are Colombia’s national tree. Native to Quindío, in Northwest Colombia, they are a bizarre presence in an area surrounded by mountains and temperatures that can be quite low. Akin to a thin, tall, sexy, model, Wax Palms are a must see. The tree has been protected as an endangered specie. Mostly due to the fact that it’s growth is extremely slow.
Salento in the Quindío region is a touristic destination you would want to be trapped in. Beyond the abundance of tchotchkes sold, the doors of Carrer 6, also known as Calle Real are a visual delight of color and art.
After a horse ride through the mountains, not too far from the Cocora valley, be sure to partake in eating Trucha de Solento, the trout of Solento, a creamy herbed delight paired richly with fried smashed plantain.
Here in Salento, I had the most delicious espresso during all of my time in Colombia. The coffee had been grown at the very top of a mountain in Quindío, not too far from where we were. The shot was pulled from a cylindrical 80-year-old espresso machine, imported all the way from Italy. Sadly, it was a treasure of a shot, rare, one I could never repeat, unlike any other coffee consumed during the trip. It was dark but surprisingly titillating, packaged with all the milder more nutty notes often described when marketing Colombian coffee. This got me thinking. It was one thing to grow good coffee and another to roast it properly.
While the Juan Valdez Coffee Company does a fantastic job promoting what is a venerable national initiative (support Colombia, support our local coffee!), I believe a focus on roasting could bring forth a cup of coffee whose origin does not only stem from the best, but it’s process, from bean, to fermentation, roast, and preparation is just as exemplary.
Rabbit Chorizo from Chorisant in Santa Rosa made for delicious dinner after a dip in the hot springs of Quindío. A nation with a complex identity and a rich culture, Colombia is a South American destination that need not be overshadowed by the more frequently visited Brazil or Argentina. Nonetheless, both countries remain quite high on my travel list.