Manizales: The Colombian Coffee Region


The 5 hour bus ride from Medellin to Manizales, although treacherously windy, is absolutely breathtaking! Colombia has by far the most beautiful landscape that I’ve seen in South America yet. Huge mountains and deep valleys of luscious green foliage make for an unreal road trip trough the countryside. Low hanging misty clouds filled some of the valleys, which made the mountains look as if they were floating in the sky when you looked over the cliff edge. The roads wind from mountain peak to mountain peak and back and forth along the steep summits. It makes for wonderful sights and stomach lurching rides. The bus drivers drive like they are formula one racecar drivers. They pass semis, bikes and cars at alarming speeds around blind corners and have no problem throwing bags and passengers in all directions in the back. I spent a lot of time looking out the front window trying not to get carsick. The only thing I could do was throw in my headphones and stare out at my impending doom: putting all my faith in our driver and crossing my fingers every time we rounded a bend.

The city of Manizales was a lot larger than I had expected. It is right in the heart of the coffee triangle of Colombia and sprawls across the side of a mountain for kilometers. Just to get to the centro from the bus station, we took a long gondola ride up over the city to the top of the massive hill. The view of the city is wonderful from such a height, and although the city itself isn’t beautiful to look at, the valley that it nestles into is a wonderful backdrop. 
We weren’t sure what Manizales really had to offer, so we decided to walk lengthwise along the top of the mountain from our hostel to the city center and back (a good 2 hour walk). Just as our guidebook had suggested, there wasn’t much to see. No beautiful plazas or ornate churches, very few lookout points, and overall just another city in my eyes. So we decided instead to go on a coffee crawl from one cafe to the next to find the best coffee in the area. Why not when you’re in one of the greatest coffee regions in the world! 
Colombia has just recently begun to serve high quality coffees within its country. Historically, Colombia would export close to 80% of its good coffee and keep the lower grade beans for itself. Luckily for us, however, many of the coffee shops in Manizales now offer delicious coffees for a reasonable price! We especially found this in our second cafe, where the servers were obvious connoisseurs of coffee themselves and described all the flavors and aromas to us before letting us smell the beans, then drink the coffee. The coffee was served with a small piece of dark chocolate, which was supposed to be eaten before each sip to bring out the best of the flavors. It was delicious! Definitely the best of our afternoon’s coffee crawl!

By the end of the afternoon I was buzzing with caffeine jitters. I am definitely not as skilled at coffee drinking as Adam, who had even more coffee than I did during the day and felt fine. But it was a great way to explore the city and an awesome introduction to the region.


The next morning, we set out early to a tour of a coffee plantation! Just 20 minutes outside of Manizales, and down a long windy dirt road, we arrived at the plantation. Immediately, we were given small cups of strong espresso coffee. The plantation kept reminding us to “drink as much coffee as possible” while on the tour, and the beverage was readily available at any given time.

Our guide started out by explaining the history of coffee and the logistics of coffee plantations in Colombia. Colombia differs from many regions that make coffee because of its close proximity to the equator and mountain range. The cloud system that moves up and down the Andes, actually gives Colombia two full rainy seasons (unlike most places in the world) and so, the area can produce twice as much coffee in one year than most places. The downside to this, however, is that the beans on the plant all grow at different times. Some beans are ripe in May, while others on the same plant are ripe two weeks, or two months later. This, combined with the steep mountain terrain that the coffee region exists on, means that all the coffee beans have to be picked by hand by many laborers. Every 2 weeks the coffee pickers will go out into the field to pick the beans; this is an extraordinary 20+ times a year that the beans are harvested. The beans then go through a large drying process; they are shucked from their original shells, searched through by hand for the perfect bean selection, and eventually packed into large sacks and shipped out of the country. The roasting process of the beans fascinated me. The temperature of the beans has to be so exact, just like the heat of the water and how long you should pour each espresso. The equation is so precise, it is amazing that the batches can come out tasting the same time and time again!

We had a wonderful half-day tour of the plantation, walking through the fields, picking our own beans to roast, and seeing first hand each step of the coffee making process. One of the cooler things I’ve done on the trip, the coffee plantation made me appreciate the great tasting coffees we so often take for granted in Canada. Once the tour was over, we sat down to an amazing Colombian soup dish of potatoes, vegetables, capers, avocado and chicken. It was delicious, although I can’t remember what the name of it was for the life of me. Then we made the trek back to the hostel and finally off to Cali!

Medellin: The Search for Pablo Escobar

In the 1980’s and 90’s, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in South America. It was home to drug lords such as Pablo Escobar, and its reputation was synonymous with big time drug cartels and violent crimes. Today however, Medellin has cleaned up its act, and is an incredibly welcoming city, with a busy downtown core and neighborhoods with character! The Poblado district, where we stayed, was one of the nicer neighbourhoods we’ve explored on this trip, in fact. The area was full of well kept, charming parks and loads of restaurants serving international and local cuisine.


On our one and only full day in Medellin we decided to explore as much as possible; we started with checking out Pablo Escobar’s grave. We took the metro to the designated stop and immediately realized that finding the cemetery would not be easy. The station was right in the middle of a busy neighborhood and no cemetery-esque areas were visible. Luckily we had all afternoon, so we just started to walk through the streets. After a while, we admitted we were lost and asked a little old lady where the “cementerio” was. She pointed up and down blocks, told us to turn left and then right and we’d find it. So we carried on. After stopping 4 times to ask directions, and each time getting a completely different answer, we found it! A huge white building with a statue of Jesus on the cross was right in the center of the place.  From there, thousands of plaques with cremated remains spread outwards in a giant maze. It was going to be a daunting task finding the right grave.

Unfortunately, as we went to open the gate, we found a big lock on the outside. Next to the gate was a sign that read: “closed from 12:00 to 14:00”. We looked at Adam’s watch… It was 12:04. Fantastic. So we grabbed a couple drinks at a local bar and waited out the two-hour siesta break.

As soon as the cemetery opened we were in the gates! The place was a little overwhelming with the number of names, and there was no touristy indication that Pablo Escobar’s grave was the center of attention. So we walked and read, walked and read and after way too long searching, we came across two guys that worked there. We asked them if they could help us find Pablo Escobar. They looked at us like we were crazy, then the younger guy perked up. “Pablo!!” he laughed hysterically, “you are in the wrong cemetery my friends! You are looking for the big one. It’s huge, with a big building and big monument!” Seriously? We’d been sitting around for over 2 hours waiting for this cemetery to open and all for nothing?  So even with directions we decided to take a cab; we specifically asked for Pablo Escobar INSTEAD of cemetery, and the driver took us right there. So much simpler for a 2 dollar cab ride!

Our sad faces when we realize we’re at the wrong cemetery.


The taxi driver pointed over to a large building across the cemetery and sent us on our way. We felt so stupid. The place was huge! And the building that he pointed to had a tonne of cars, a bus and people milling around. Obviously it would be a tourist destination, and not a desolate old cemetery in the middle of the city! So we walked toward the building determined to take a photo and get on with our day of sightseeing (now that we were so far behind on our day).

Stoked to have finally found it!

So we walked into the building like the biggest tourists ever: cameras out, backpacks on, ready to throw elbows through the crowd to get a picture and get out. We smiled at a security guard on the way in the building and he looked at us strangely before smiling back. Then we moved our way through a group of people into a room that everyone was staring into. When we walked into the room, we walked STRAIGHT into the middle of an open casket funeral that was going on. The dead man’s wife was wailing over the casket and about 90% of the people in the room were crying: then there was Adam and I. The only gringos in the whole area, who just pushed through a grieving family with our cameras out, determined to snap some shots. I went so red, and the ridiculousness of what just happened made me want to laugh out loud: although I’m sure that would have made things worse. So we hightailed it right back out of the funeral and back to the front door with the security guard. “Pablo Escobar?” we asked. He just shook his head, smiled a bit at us, and then led us to a very modest sized family grave on the backside of the building. How MORTIFYING! 
It took us a total of three minutes to take a photo, check it off our tourist list and head back towards the metro…3 and a half hours later. Fail.

The downtown core of Medellin, our next destination, had a great ambience. Street venders lined the main street for block after block selling their goods: pirated dvd’s, music, clothing, trinkets and street food among many others. We walked the main drag for a good stretch before coming across a beautiful plaza. The city itself is so much more beautiful than Bogotá, and the vibe is both livelier and warmer. Later in the evening, we asked a man for directions to a restaurant. When he realized that he’d given us the wrong directions to the place he left his shop, and ran down 5 blocks to find us and let us know the right way. It’s unfortunate that Colombia, and in particular Medellin, has such a bad reputation, because the people are so lovely and accommodating. All throughout the country we were surprised by how friendly and helpful all the locals were to us! I suppose that’s why Colombia’s new tourist tagline is “The most dangerous part of Colombia, is not wanting to leave”. And I believe it!

Bogota and The Salt Cathedral

Our flight to Bogotá left at 3:58am from Manaus, had a 45 min layover in Panama City, and finally arrived in Colombia just after 9am local time. I’m pretty sure we were sleepwalking to our hostel from the lack of sleep we’d had. Short naps, no longer than 30 min on each flight, 3 hours the evening before, 2 hours Thursday, and 6 DAYS in an uncomfortable hammock before that. All we wanted to do when we arrived in Bogotá was go to bed! When we arrived about 10am, it was still 2 hours to check in. We passed the time staring at a wall until we were finally allowed to crash in our room for a couple more hours.

We took it pretty easy our first day. Hung out drinking coffee at a local cafe, then walked around the city, checking out its bustling streets (with lots of crazy homeless people). One huge difference in Bogotá was its temperature. It was absolutely freezing (If the freezing temperature was 10 degrees Celsius)! The city is at such a high altitude, that even the sunshine during the day is several degrees cooler than we have been acclimatized to. Both of us bought a pair of jeans, and I spent two days wearing three layers of shirts.

After a good night’s sleep it was time to do some sightseeing. We went up the cable cars to the Cerro de Monserrate, which is a lookout over the whole of Bogotá. The city is mostly just urban sprawl for as far as the eye can see, but the mountains on the other side are gorgeous! At the top of the lookout there is a church, which was packed with people on the Sunday that we went. There are also a bunch of souvenir stores and a plethora of eateries for a snack or a full-fledged Colombian lunch!

Instead of spending our afternoon in museums, we decided to check out the Catedral de Sal in a city just outside Bogotá. A local Colombian we met in Sao Paulo a month earlier recommended the “salt cathedral” to us.  He had said it was one of his favourite things in Colombia. So we made the two-hour trek to Zapateria to check it out. Surprisingly, we figured out the bus system in Bogotá (which is a hundred times more difficult on Sundays) and ended up in Zapateria within a short couple hours. 
The city was absolutely beautiful. It sported large brown brick churches, bustling cobblestone plazas and had a rustic, small-town feel. Zapateria is nestled in a little valley, with gorgeous green mountains towering over it – an idyllic little getaway from Bogota’s much less aesthetic surroundings.

The Catedral de Sal is an underground system of tunnels that have been designed into a church that stretches over a huge space. The walls of the tunnels are covered in salt deposits that have built up over the years, thus the name “the salt cathedral”. Our tour group was entirely in Spanish, and with the speed that our guide was talking, combined with his loud, inaudible microphone, it was almost impossible to understand what was going on. I picked up some dates – like 80 years and 6 years, but have no idea what they referred to. So Adam and I ditched the tour and explored the place on our own.

The cathedral was a huge labyrinth of passageways that led to large, stone-carved crosses and statues of religious icons.  These “points of interest” were spectacularly lit up in changing colours of glowing light. Bright red one second, then the statue transforms into a softer green or electric blue. The place was so surreal; one moment everything is shrouded in the darkness of the cave, then all of a sudden, larger than life carvings glow into focus.

Most of the crosses that we’re scattered about the cathedral were about 6 to 10 ft high, but as you wound your way down to the main cavern, there was a huge display with an altar, a few larger than life statues and a cross that stood about 60ft high. Pews were lined up and the place very well could be used as a functioning church: although without our guide there to explain, I really have no idea. We spent at least an hour exploring the strange underground cathedral before finally climbing back up to the daylight and finding our way home.

The next morning we set out on a 12-hour bus ride to Medellin. Just getting out of the city to the bus station was an ordeal. Our taxi took 20 minutes to make it only 6 blocks along the city center. The streets were completely crowded with buses. Big city buses, tour buses, mini buses (which seems to be the favoured mode of transportation around Bogotá), but all of them were empty! The place was one huge gridlock traffic jam with hundreds of empty buses. I never saw one bus with more than 3 people on it. It was a strange sensation to say the least.

When we finally did catch our bus to Medellin, we were placed in special “gringo seats”. These were seats that were about 6 inches closer to the chairs in front than any other seats on the bus. Immediately the young guy in front of me reclined his seat back to its full potential, crushing my legs and essentially leaving his head in my lap. I had to spend the bus ride with my legs in Adams leg space, and his in the isle, because even with an upright seat it was impossible to have your legs in front of you. After 10 hours of this man stretching and pushing back on the seat, I thought I was going to murder him. I just wanted to rip off his little green hat and throw it off the bus!! It didn’t help that we lurched through windy mountain passes the entire 12 hours and I was in a motion sickness haze for the better part of the day. Luckily, the man arrived alive, and I am not wanted by the police for murder… But let me tell you, it was close!