Monday, April 25, 2011

Semana Santa in Colombia’s Coffee Region

Manizeles is a short flight from Bogotá.
Standing on the crowded TransMilenio bus sporting my overstuffed travel pack, I might as well have been dressed up as Uncle Sam with the looks the other passengers were giving me. Normally, I can avoid stares by keeping a low profile and keeping my mouth shut, but with my giant gringo travel pack, I wasn’t fooling anybody.

After linking up with two other volunteers, I arrived at El Dorado International Airport with plenty of time to spare. When it was time to board, the flight staff led us down a short flight of stairs and ushered us onto a bus that took us to where our plane was waiting further down the runway. Although I was slightly taken aback by the fact that the plane had propellers rather than jet engines, I had no choice but to surrender to the will of the aviation gods and board. Thirty-six minutes after takeoff, we landed on a small runway in La Nubia Airport in Manizales, Colombia.

Thus began my Semana Santa in Colombia’s Coffee Region.

Manizales is San Francisco's South American twin.
Mountain Hostel and Manizales Night Life

Watching the city pass by on the way to the hostel, I could not help but feel that I was back in San Francisco. As the taxi powered up steep hills, passed through tunnels and weaved through incongruent streets, a strange air of familiarity hovered over the city just as the fog often does over the city by the bay.

After arriving at Mountain House, our home away from home… away from home for most of the week, we checked in and got ready for a night on the town. Many of the WorldTeach volunteers from across Colombia had come to Manizales for Semana Santa and were all staying at the same hostel, so I was excited for a mini-reunion.

That night when we went out to check out some of the Manizales night life, I was immediately struck by the differences between the bar scene in Bogotá and Manizales. Whereas Bogotá’s is huge and spread out, the Manizales bars were concentrated in a relatively small area. The streets were filled with college students having a good time, drinking on the streets within plain view of patrolling police. Although much of that night became an aguardiente-induced blur, the highlight of the night was dancing and drinking with friends at a place called Cable Bar.

Salento, Colombia.
Two Days in Salento

The next day, after forcing myself out of bed, making some scrambled eggs and chugging two cups of coffee, I left with the others on a bus for the nearby town of Salento. As the bus navigated the coffee region’s comically crooked roads, my enguayabado self endured three excruciating hours of doing my best not to vomitar. About two hours into the trip, our bus was stopped by a roadblock of Colombian soldiers carrying big guns. The soldiers were cordial as they frisked us for any hidden weapons. When they were satisfied that we weren’t gringo guerillas, we got back on the bus and continued towards Salento.

Hills near La Serrana hostel.
The bus dropped us off in Salento’s main square and I fell in love with the town at first sight. Salento had retained nearly all of its colonial architecture, accentuated by an old white church making up its center. Merchants set up stands throughout the square, selling a variety of art, jewelry and clothing.

After a pleasant jeep ride over an increasingly more rural road, we arrived at La Serrana, and I fell in love yet again. The place resembled a bed & breakfast resort more than a hostel and encompassed a large property overlooking rolling green hills. After checking in and dropping my bags in my room, I went for a walk to take in the surrounding area. Looking out at the painfully beautiful green pastures and peaceful tree-covered hills, I couldn’t help but smile—this was the Colombia I had been itching to see since the day I set foot in Bogotá. After four months of living in a polluted, overcrowded metropolis, I savored every breath of fresh mountain air.

Riding on the back of the jeep.
The next morning we headed into town to find transport to the Valle de Cocora where we planned to do some hiking. After hiring an old Willy’s jeep to take us, we piled on to the vehicle and I rode standing on a foot plate sticking out the back. With the wind blowing in my face as the jeep passed through some of the most breathtaking countryside I had ever encountered, I could have sworn I heard the Indiana Jones theme song playing from some invisible speaker.

When we reached our destination, the jeep dropped us off and we continued on foot through the Valle de Cocora. Colombian soldiers stood guard near the entrance to the trail to protect against guerilla activity that continues to pose a threat in the region. After entering the Valle de Cocora, I felt thrust into a Dr. Seuss book—the impossibly tall wax palm trees standing in the distance gave off an otherworldly aura. I would later learn that these trees were the tallest palm trees in the world and Colombia’s national tree.

In Valle de Cocora.
We spent a good five hours hiking through the mountain jungle, crossing makeshift bridges and ascending steep rocky inclines. Halfway through it started to rain and the already-muddy trail devolved into an even muddier trail, enveloping our boots with thick, brown mud. Although a pervasive fog prevented us from enjoying the view when we reached the top of the mountain, it was still worth the hike.

The Hot Springs

At the hot springs.
The day after we hiked through Valle de Cocora, we returned to Manizales to finish up the rest of the week checking out the area. On Wednesday, we attempted to visit one of the few places in Colombia that has snow—Nevado del Ruiz, but mudslides had made the pass impassable and we had to turn back. Instead, we decided to go to one of the hot springs in Manizales to soak up some sulfur. Although I had always pictured a hot spring to be a small pond in the middle of nowhere with hot, bubbly water swirling around in it, I was surprised to see that it turned out to be more like large, warm swimming pool.

After a few hours of lounging in the hot spring sipping a beer and looking out at the clouds hanging over the distant mountains, I was as relaxed as anyone could be.

At the coffee farm near Manizales.
The Coffee Farm

One of the highlights of the week came when we visited a coffee farm just outside Manizales. Again, we took jeeps through beautiful countryside en route to a rural destination. Touring the coffee farm felt a lot like wine tasting, as we got to sample some of the best coffee I have ever tasted while learning a lot about the coffee-growing process.

Colombia is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world and it was fascinating to see how they grow it first-hand. We walked through the coffee fields and inspected the large machines that process the beans after they have been picked. I was so fascinated by what I learned that it has inspired me to write a post about Colombian Coffee, so keep an eye out for that in the near future.

Los Yarumos, Torre al Cielo and Catedral de Manizales

Los Yarumos is a large ecological park in Manizales where you can do a lot of different outdoor activities. They have a zip line, ropes course and a series of hiking trails to keep you busy all day. Due to time constraints, I was only able to do the zip line, which they call canopy. The zip line was fun, albeit short, but nonetheless worth the $4 USD it cost to do it.

Riding the zip line in Los Yarumos.
After zip lining, we went to Torre al Cielo, a large UFO-shaped tower on the highest hill in Manizales. The tower overlooks a stunning vista of the surrounding mountains and is famous for being the best seat to one of the prettiest sunsets in the country. We went to the tower’s third floor lounge and had drinks as we looked out at God’s impressive handiwork. Although you can also go to the top of the tower and pay to be strapped into a safety harness to literally hang out on the top terrace, I opted to save the $10,000 pesos to put towards my margarita fund.

On our last day in Manizales, we visited the Catedral de Manizales, one of the tallest cathedrals in the world. The impressive neo-gothic architecture makes the cathedral one of Colombia’s treasures and I was able to tour the inside and climb to the top of the one of the cathedral’s highest spires to take in a panoramic view of the city.

Catedral de Manizales.
Back to Bogotá

After a fun-filled week, the time finally came to say goodbye to our friends and head back to the big city. Although I was reluctant to leave such a beautiful place, my duties back in Bogotá beckoned for my return. Seeing a new part of Colombia has whetted my appetite for more and I can’t wait for the day I will get to see more of this truly enchanting place. 


  1. Hmph, your Semana Santa sounds a lot better than mine! Can't wait to check out that region :)

  2. Wow! Sounds like a great trip. I really enjoyed Manizales as well, but I have yet to get to Salento...I plan to head there in June though, so thanks for the info!

  3. Thanks guys! Yeah, Manizales and Salento are places you can't afford to miss. Wish I was living there!