Manizales… a new take on the San Francisco of South America

Built on two sides of a steep ridge, Manizales is one of the major urban centers of the Eje Cafetero. Similar in many ways to its big brother Medellin, it’s people are warm, extremely helpful, and rightfully proud of their city.

It has however, it’s own set of distinct characteristics that set it apart. Manizales, a budding metropolis, still conserves many of the traits is a small town. People are open, welcoming, and dying to show you the best their city has to offer. That, at least, is what I experienced.

I rode up from Armenia stopping by in Salento.


Down in the valley runs a river that feeds the nearby trout farms.

That’s where I treated myself to a delicious double cilantro trout accompanied by a canelazo, a traditional cinnamon and fruit hot beverage – oftentimes spiked with liquor – to warm the bones.


The ride down a narrow and twisty road into the valley, following the stream, was through thick fog, so I was more than ready for the Canelazo.

After lunch, I punched into my phone the hostel where I would be staying in Manizales and Waze took care of the rest. A few hours later, after riding in contestant drizzle, I arrived into something very unexpected. The city is constructed on, what would seem, the side of a cliff. The streets are on extreme incline, some surpassing 45 degrees. I noticed this as this was the first time I actually felt the ABS in the brakes as I squeezed the lever and pushed on the peddle and I came to a complete stop through a bit of break-sputter. I’m sure other riders can relate, but that was new to me – an odd sensation for sure. But even on wet asphalt and some of the steepest streets I’ve ever seen, I did not skid once – so two hurrahs for ABS.

Lassio Hostal would be my home for the next few days. I lucked out as not only did they have room for me in a very posh and upscale room compared to what I had been used to in other hostels, but also a full garage to store the bike and my gear!!

Hardwood floors, down comforter with duvet, and included breakfast of fresh fruit plate and eggs to order. I think the international hostel standard of lumpy bed, lukewarm coffee, hard roll, margarine and diluted fruit jam has not arrived in Manizales yet… lets keep it that way. The staff were also terrific, pointing out the points of interest as well as being genuinely interested in my travels. I think I must have been the first motorcyclist to stop by.

My good friend Jorge from Bogota, you may recall his Casa Finca in Honda on my way into Bogota… well, he has a call center in Manizales and had suggested I get a hold of Hanns, his operations manager, when I arrived, and so I did.

We met that evening in an Irish pub on the main drag, Avenida Santander. This street IS the happening place in Manizales. All the “places to see and be seen” are there, and once the night falls, the Paisas come out to play. By the time we made it out of the pub around 11ish, the place was hopping with packed restaurants, bars, and clubs with music coming from everywhere. Also, the cruising started, in both cars and on bikes, from little 80cc scooters to larger 650 racing bikes.

After my great breakfast the next morning, it was time to try to go up to see the Nevado del Ruiz, one of the few volcanos in Colombia that has snow year round. I had second thoughts about heading up as the rain had not let up since the day before, but the staff at the hostel insisted that the weather pattern up at that altitude could be completely different.

Well, I started my way up there, going through some spectacular spiraling roadway as I headed out of the city and then I started to climb, and climb, and climb. I could feel my ears pop every few minutes. I had been told that the ride up there could be close to an hour and a half to two hours, so I figured the whole trip would be close to five to six hours depending of photo opps. Well, then I started to hit the road construction. All the rain had caused of few washouts and in some spots the road was closed 45 minutes each way…

I hit one of those… grrrrr

So, I only ended up having to wait about 30 minutes, but I made darn sure I made my way up to the front of the line, was not about to be hanging back with all the trucks. About 30 minutes later I hit the turnoff to the little road that takes you up to the National Park of the Nevado del Ruiz. This was a little one lane paved road that twisted up the mountain. Mind you all this time it still rained, the fog got thicker, and every second on that little road the temperature dropped.

I pulled off to the side at one of the natural lagoons that have formed up there, this one is called, Laguna Negra, and I pulled out my cold weather clothes, thicker gloves, long sleeve shirt, fleece jacket, neck gaiter (pescuezo),

and closed off all the vents in jacket and pants. Ok, back on the bike and lets climb some more. I rode up for another 25 minutes and finally, after I could no longer take the cold and I was going no faster than 25km/hr because my visibility was about 3 mts I decided to hang it up and head back. Alas, the Nevado was not to be.

Fortunately, on the way back my timing was great and I hit the 45 minute wait just as they were opening up traffic heading down to Manizales.

That afternoon I went to the movies and had one of the famous Todo Terreno hamburgers from El Corral, figuring that this would likely be my last of these awesome burgers before leaving Colombia.

The next day I played tourist with Hanns, starting with a tour of the Call Center. These were world-class installations with hundred of operators running accounts in at least three countries in Latinamerica. I can see Jorge has been busy these last few years – IMPRESSIVE!

We then headed out on the bikes to see the sites of Manizales. It was an amazing day, starting with going up to the overlook to where you could see the entire city.


We then drove around to a few other sites on the hilltop including having a classic snack composed of yogurt, fruit, caramel, and dulce de leche – not exactly light, but very refreshing and delicious.

Meet Hanns everyone…


We also hit Founders Park, a historical site dedicated to the founders of the city with some great sculpture.

I even got interviews by some students doing a project for the tourism institute of Manizales.

Next, we went downtown….

to the tower of the Polish architectural-style cathedral in Manizales main square.


This is the only one of its kind in South America. This Gothic style church really does make you feel like you are stepping out of Colombia and into Cracow.

It even had it’s ominous-looking bird perched on of the the towers.

This is the same type of bird that I almost crashed into when heading to Guatape. They are called Gallinazo and eat all kinds of dead vermin.

From there we walked a few blocks through some of the historical district of the city

up to one of the public transport wonders – their own modern cable car system – perfect of this geography.

I don’t think I’d been in a cable car in at least 10 years… a very cool experience.

Then it was time to head back to the hostel, pack up the bike and gear as we were headed to Hanns family’s weekend retreat in Santagueda. We met up in front of the call center and started weaving through town towards where we would pick up Hanns’ girlfriend Diana. I would only be staying the night, but they were looking forward to making a weekend of it.

Nightfall hit us, but the rest of the route was through some great twisty roads, all lit with street lighting. I had not seen anything like that before in Colombia. Later I learned that this was the new highway to Pereira, one of the other main cities of the Eje Cafetero.

We arrived in Santagueda, picked up some dinner, and headed to the apartment. It was located in the private condominium complete with two pools, soccer pitch, volleyball and tennis courts and all sorts of outdoor activities. That evening we talked a bit, showed them some pictures of my trip and told some tales, had some good food, listened to music and called it a night… it had been a long day.

The next morning I got up early, took a dip in the pool, packed up, said my thanks and my goodbyes and headed south to my next stop, Cali!!!

I want to give a very special thanks to Hanns. He really went out of his way to make my stay in Manizales pretty spectacular. He’s a very charming, kind, and warm-hearted fellow who really put his best foot forward to show a complete stranger who would later become his friend, the best Manizales has to offer. I for one, loved the city. I can certainly see why Jorge has total confidence in him. I will definitely be back!