Eje Cafetero – Manizales

The “eje cafetero”, or coffee region of Colombia is a popular stop for Colombians and international travelers alike to visit and tour coffee plantations. Just south of Medellin, it includes the larger cities of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia, and their surrounding areas. My first stop – Manizales.

A university town, Manizales is a bustling small city, built in the hills at 2,100m, with the advantage of incredible views of the surrounding valleys and mountains (and the challenge of having extremely steep roads). It’s close enough to the snow capped mountains Santa Isabel and Nevado El Ruiz, that they offer treks and trips in 4×4 to see the unique Páramo* zone there, la laguna negra and the volcano Ruiz’s crater, or a glacier on Nevado Santa Isabel. In the eruption (and resulting tragedy of Armero) in November 1985, Manizales saw some ash fall from the sky.

A city nearing half a million people, Manizales has a good bus system, a teleférico, and enough traffic that they have put in place “pico y placa” where you can only drive on certain roads certain days and times, according to your license plate number. (This is a program in place in many cities- I’ve seen it in Lima and Bogotá.)

Rudolf car likes cyclovia too.

Speaking of the roads, Manizales also implements ciclovía on Sundays, like Medellin and Bogotá (and possibly other cities in Colombia). Ciclovía is the beautiful phenomenon where certain main roads are closed for cars to allow cyclists, walkers, runners, skaters, etc. a safe space to workout, walk with the family, or simply get from one place to another on bicycle more safely.

Two years in a row, Manizales was voted the best college town in Colombia because of student quality of life, ease of getting around, and qualified professors. I met a university student who was from Manizales and he was super proud of it being “the best university town in Colombia”. He described it as having all the culture of a big city but being easier to get around, having great weather (usually around the 70s), and amazing views and outdoor activities.

He pointed out the mirador to me and said it was an awesome place to watch the sunset. But it happened to be cloudy and foggy at that moment. Just wait, it will clear up, he said. So we chatted for about 30 minutes and sure enough, blue sky and sun started peeking through the white cloudy sky.

As the clouds started to clear, the view of the valley below opened up, and I watched clouds passing through at eye level.

Nearby, there are a ton of family-friendly outdoors activities, including a public forest, thermal hot springs, overlook points, a national park with a hiking paths, playgrounds, and an interactive ecological science center (which I loved)!

The ecological center had a ton of high tech interactive activities, including an infrared camera to teach basic thermodynamics and a NOAA Science on a Sphere (my first time seeing one!)

I always like to see people’s strategies for teaching science to the general public, and this was no exception. In this case, these guides did a pretty good job of bringing certain issues close to home for people. For example, after showing the fires around the world, especially in the Amazon, (relatively close to here), the guide asked what the audience had done to help prevent the fires. He then surprised everyone asking who stopped eating beef. He followed explaining that most fires in the Amazon start when farmer burns the land to clear it to make pasture land for cattle, and that fire later gets out of control.

It is December and Colombian municipalities love their Christmas lights, from what I’ve seen. Manizales was no exception, with Christmas lights all along the sidewalk to the overlook point in Chipre (Avenida 12 de Octubre).

I admit that I only got a brief peek into Manizales since I wasn’t there for long. It surprised me in so many ways in that short time, I can only imagine what more this city has hidden in its rising and falling streets, what gems and arts sprout from the creative university thinkers, not to mention the influence of the surrounding landscapes, from green valley to snow-capped mountains.

Famous Footnote:

*What is a Páramo, you ask… https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/P%C3%A1ramo

Medellín’s Pride and Joy

The Metro is the pride and joy of Paisas* in Medellín. I admit that I was surprised to hear our tour guide say that and more surprised that the Metro was actually a stop in the walking tour! But he explained (through a very well-told and emotional story) that it is one of the city’s key symbols of a transforming and progressing city.

Like many mass transit projects, it took decades to complete, having to overcome political and financial hurdles, among all the other problems Medellín was suffering at the time. So when it did come to fruition, it became celebrated and is still a respected place that is clean and well-kept – and people behave themselves inside the Metro system.

(I was impressed with the public service message I heard on the train saying that women and girls ride comfortably and safely on the metro, free from comments or any type of harassment. Many metro systems in the world could use those messages, including DC!)

The train efficiently gets you from one part of the city to another, and there are plenty of buses where the train doesn’t go. And my favorite part of the metro system…

The teleférico! The elevated (ski-lift-type) cable car! Yep, similar to La Paz, (but different). In La Paz, the entire transport system was a teleférico. In Medellin, the main system is made up of trains (many elevated), and then a few final parts of the system include transfers from the train to a teleférico, which takes you up to parts of the city built on the sides of a mountain.

To get to Parque Arvi, a public nature reserve, we took the train, transferred to one of the teleférico branches of the train, and then took another teleférico that would take us on a 30 minute ride to the park.

It was an incredible public transport experience, as the cable car carried us up a mountain, over the top of a densely populated community on the side of the mountain.

Then it continued as the community became less densely populated and later transformed into forest.

We sailed over the top of the forest in the pod, enjoying the view of the wilderness from above, and I was impressed by this low-impact way to transverse a natural area.

About 30 minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Parque Arvi, a public natural reserve with hiking trails, a river, and picnic and camping areas.

While the park was a great way to escape the city scene and immerse ourselves in nature, I have to say that the mass transit experience was the highlight of the day!

Famous footnote:

Paisa refers to a person from a cultural region in Colombia around and including Medellin.

La Paz – The City Without Peace

La Paz. Don’t be fooled by its name. As two Paceños told me, contrary to its name, La Paz is the city without peace- there is always a protest somewhere about something, so there are always police in the Street. Sure enough, the day I arrived, when I turned onto the street with my hostel, two blocks of the road were blocked off, full of tents blocking the street. Miners had camped out in the street to hold a demonstration, (and they were still there when I left a few days later). But at the same time, besides it being full of people like any big city, it wasn’t NOT a peaceful place, that’s to say it didn’t feel dangerous or violent; on the contrary it felt fairly welcoming and relatively safe, for a large city.

La Paz. The capital of Boliva. Nope. Another misconception. Sucre is the capital of Bolivia and home to the judicial power of Bolivia, while La Paz is the government seat, home to the executive and legislative power, but is NOT the capital, as the (biased?) tour guide from Sucre emphasized to us. Meanwhile, many will say that La Paz is highest capital city in the world, at 3,600 meters (11,800 ft) above sea level, saying that La Paz is the “second capital” or “the de facto capital” of Bolivia since it is home to the executive and legislative powers. You decide.

La Paz. Where you go to get a good butt. Every street is either a steep climb or a steep descent. Most sidewalks are actually stairs, or they have steps every few meters. You really have to pay attention to where you’re walking just walking down the sidewalk.

In just 5 minutes walking down the street I saw two blind men passing with their guide sticks and I thought, wow, what an extra challenge to be blind AND live in La Paz.

La Paz. Good people. Like any big city, no one pays you any attention while you’re just walking along (unless they are vendors trying to sell you something), but every time I did have the opportunity to talk to someone everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly. (Don’t get me wrong, there is crime and there are parts of the city that are more dangerous than others, so like any big city I had to be aware of my surroundings, but also like any big city, I got the vibe that most people are just busy trying to do life and happy to help someone out if they can.)

La Paz. The streets of La Paz (some cobblestone streets but mostly paved) are filled with traffic – cars, taxis, and mostly mass transit minivans, and a ton of foot traffic too. But the traffic would be a lot worse if it weren’t for the teleferico… why dig a tunnel to have a subway when you can do mass transit by air?

La Paz. Space is at a premium, and every little bit space is used. From the ground I noticed this, but from the air, it was truly obvious. “From the air?” you ask.

If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. The “teleferico” is a recently-installed form of public mass transit using ski-lift style cable car pods. It was like a scene out of a futuristic movie, as the pods smoothly sailed across the air, crossing the city like floating pods. It was so cool to watch them from the ground advancing towards the station and then docking smoothly like a space ship into the platform.

And then to ride in the pods above the city! I did a kind of loop around the city, taking the white, orange, red, silver, and then purple line.

I haven’t been this awestruck in a while. (And I have taken the teleferico across the green hills in Chachapoyas to see the Kuelap ruins!) I was overwhelmed by the sheer density and expansiveness of the city. I was amazed that I was looking down at the city from above. I was envious that some people ride in this every day to commute to work! I was trying to take it all in…and then the setting sun casting it glow on the snow-capped and colorful mountains in the distance.

I was so awestruck, I admit I was giddy. The enginerd in me was fascinated with the brilliant transportation solution, the curious explorer in me was enthralled at being able to explore the city from above, the geek in me felt like I was a star in a futuristic sci fi movie.

In that hour in the teleferico, I fell in love with La Paz. (I have never met a city without trees (or with so few trees) that I loved, but La Paz might be opening my mind.) I felt like I was part of the future. In La Paz, the sort-of capital of Bolivia.

 

Bonus Content: Food in Bolivia

Chatting with a Paceña friend I made in the hostel, I learned about a few of the typical foods unique to La Paz and Bolivia. Gracias Valeria!

-“Api” is a blue corn drink (like chicha morada for you Peruvians), but it’s often served warm and thick and with a pastry (pastel o buñuelo which is like a sopapillo – fried dough with honey)

-“Plato paceño” is usually comprised of fried cheese, potatoes, corn, habas, and often a slice of beef, and it’s often served with “chairo” soup.

-“Chairo” is a soup that usually has “chuño” (a black native potato), turnip, habas, carrot, peeled corn, barley, finely chopped potatoes, and the secret ingredient yerba buena

Chairo

-“Fricasé” in Bolivia is a yellow stew of aji (chile), native potato (chuño), Andean corn (mote), with chicken or pork

-“Sopa de maní” is peanut soup, which is a soup with a peanut-based broth and potatoes and vegetables

Sopa de maní

-“P’esque” is a thick quinoa with milk, sometimes topped cheese or with tomato and onion on top.

In addition to the traditional foods, I had the honor of eating at an exquisite vegan restaurant, Ali Pacha, with an incredibly sweet and amazing friend of a friend. (Thank you, Gabriela!)

There they used local foods and did vegan twists on typical foods too. It was great!

And they had the fanciest bathroom I’ve ever seen.

 

Famous Footnotes

*”Paceños” are people from La Paz

**There are a lot of really cool things to do in La Paz besides the teleferico and eating, I just didn’t get a chance to check them all out. Stay tuned for a list of cool things to do in La Paz that I hope to do if I ever (when I) return!