Manizales – a city in the heart of  Colombia’s ‘coffee region’

After my time in the steamy heat of Cartagena I jumped on a night bus and I headed south to Medellin.

I had a couple of reasons for calling back into Medellin.  I had to collect my replacement bank card which I had previously  lost and which had been couriered over from the UK and I wanted to revisit my friends in and around the city.

gateway to the book festival

I spent a happy couple of weeks in the region living with my friends in my favourite mountain town of Amagá.  Whilst I was there the government implemented a scheme to neuter some of the street dogs and cats and my ever generous friends and hosts opened their home for a few days to care for some of the animals after their operations as well as opening their home to me.  We went along to the largest book fair in Colombia one day in the Botanical Gardens and I went along to an extremely fast and complicated fitness dance class one evening.

But sadly,  my visa was coming to the end of its time and I eventually had to continue my journey south.  The penalties for overstaying your visa are a hefty fine so I needed to get out of the country.

contemplating leaving Amaga

Setting off again I took another long bus journey over the cool coffee clad mountains to Manizales.  This was a strange little city, but quaintly endearing.  Large cumbersome mountains rear up between the city districts which have conveniently been joined up by a state of the art public transport cable car system.

The grand cathedral in Manizales

The central main road of the city runs along the top of a mountain ridge and steep streets drop down on either side of it.  There is the usual large cathedral with some very strange street art outside and in all of the town squares men can be found in little clusters playing chess or illicit games of poker.

chess and poker games

I met another traveller from the UK at my hostel and together we set off  on a bus to the Recinto del Pensamiento –  the Ecologocial Parque.  We wanted to see everything that the place had to offer and so we were obliged to sign up to a guided tour.  It turned out to be Andy and I…..and twenty or so kids and their teachers on a school trip.

learning about the medicinal qualities of plants

The whole park was really interesting but for a lot of the time me and Andy were fielding questions from the inquisitve children much to the annoyance of the teachers and the guide, although we loved the chance to practise our Spanish with everybody.  In the park we were given a talk on the medicinal properties of plants and shrubs, we saw the bonsai and Japanese garden, the humming birds and the butterfly house.

some humming birds have incredibly long tails

We posed for photos with the children who were not at all shy and wanted to know all about our travels and what we thought of Colombia.  Andy was a huge hit with the boys who supported the same football team and the girls simply couldn’t believe that I was travelling alone.

posing with some fantastic school children

After a while the school children went their own way and Andy and I were joined by  a Swede who was wandering around and looking a little bit lost as he tried to find his/our guide.  The three of us then spent more than a fascinating hour walking in the forest and being shown and told all about the many varieties of orchids.

this flower is the size of my little finger nail

I never thought that we would be so excited to find and learn about some of the tiniest flowers that I have ever seen, as our knowledable and enthusiastic guide Margarita led us around.

a cascade of orchid blooms

After the tour ended we shared our picnic lunch with our new found Swedish friend now named Juan and then, with no further plans, the three of us decided to get a cab and visit the hot springs.  After we had been dropped off and the cab disappeared back down the lane we realised that the springs were closed for refurbishment, but not wanting to waste our afternoon we bought some beers and sat in the sun  And then we bought more beers.  And some more beers.  And then in a very tiddly state we organised a cab back to our hostel in town where we joined forces with the lovliest German couple ever and we all shopped, cooked and ate a meal together.  And I don’t remember very much more about that evening!

the rather unusual sculpture outside the cathedral in Manizales

SadlyI was now up against the clock as my visa was ticking.  I was taking this to the wire but there was so much more that I wanted to see and do in Colombia.  I really wanted to get south and visit the San Augustin area with its myriad of mini Easter Island-like statues but in the end I opted to return to Popayan – the town where I had initially fallen in love with Colombia (click here to read about my previous visit)

beautiful buildings in Popayan

This time around I stayed with a journalist friend who has built and runs a local website (AlbumPopayan.com).  It was a little chaotic as his cat had just given birth to kittens and his dog to a puppy and all were clamouring for food and attention.  Drinking water was hauled up from the well in the garden by bucket (although there was running water in the house) and luckily I missed the bus falling down into the garden from the lane above by a couple of days.

a local chiva bus in Popayan

Staying with a local meant that I visited the places that I maybe would not normally have ventured on my own.  We went to a large local market as well as to the modern shopping mall.  We sat and watched street buskers and as Milton doubles up as a tailor as well as a journalist, I got some of my clothes altered

just a couple of weeks old

Colombia is a trillion times safer than it was until just recently but there are still some no-go areas and the road from Popayan to the border with Ecuador is one of them. Despite my preferences for night buses for longer journeys I listened to local advice and travelled to the border in the daytime.  I am glad that I did choose to do this as I later learnt that one of the convoy of buses that night had in fact been pulled over and the passengers robbed at gunpoint.  The staff in the bus station will inform you that the night buses are safe and that they have police outriders as they roll in convoy along the six hour mountain roads to the border but that is not quite true.  They set out with the police but then the convoy stretches out, the police and soldiers leave and then the robbers can pick off the buses.

Popayan has a myriad of buidlings like this

Visit Popayan – it has the most beautiful buildings – but just make sure that you travel to and from the south and the border during the daylight

I moved on from Popayan to Ecuador accompanied by a host of parasites from the well water and some marvellous memories of a magical country.

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