Spread-eagled chaotically over a number of rocky promontories under the shadow of the mountains, Manizales is not an obvious holiday destination. The city has suffered from a series of earthquakes since its foundation in the mid 19th century and was ravaged by fires in 1925 and 1926, leaving little of historic or architectural interest in the metropolitan centre. If this explains the relative scarcity of visitors, it is not to say Manizales, the capital of Caldas, the northernmost region of the Eje cafetero, has little to offer the traveller.
While the volcanic geography is responsible for a turbulent history, at least it provides a series of spectacular views from almost every spot in the city. To the east lies Nevado del Ruiz, the centrepiece of the Los Nevados national park, whose snow capped summit it is possible to see on a clear day. An active volcano, Ruiz is popular with amateur climbers, who can use Manizales as a stopping off point before taking a car to just below the snowline. South and west of the city, the green hills of Colombia’s coffee country roll away towards the jungles of the Chocó.
Undoubtedly the best place to take this all in is the top of Manizales’s bizarre cathedral. Claiming to be the fifth highest in the world (it is, in fact, the third highest in South America), the neo-gothic façade has been moulded out of concrete and the effects of earth tremors since its construction in the 1930s are apparent in the iron rivets holding the cracked walls together.
For those unable to stomach the dizzying climb to the top of the cathedral tower, Manizales also boasts its own metro cable. For less than the cost of a bus ticket, one can leisurely descend from the city centre down to Manizales’s barrios, which cling precariously on ravines.
There is another splendid vista on top of Chipre hill. There one can find the Monumento a los Colonizadores, an enormous bronze allegorical sculpture series by the local artist Luis Guillermo Vallejo. The monument depicts the struggle of the first colonisers of the region during the 19th century, immigrants from Antioquia fleeing the conflict between Conservatives and Liberals. The central protagonists – a plantation owner with his family and cigar chewing servant – step forward into the uninhabited unknown dragging a herd of their oxen behind them. Further back another caballero is unseated by his rearing horse, his arm outstretched towards a miniature replica of Manizales, symbolising a dream he will never realise.
Catch the sculptures in the right light and the story of conquest and coffee comes to life. The sheer bloody-mindedness of Caldas’s first European settlers in overcoming the geography, earthquakes and political conflict of the early days has filtered through to today’s population in the form of a fierce pride in the local culture, as recently formed as it is. This has been supplemented by the region’s important position in the global coffee market, whose trade took off at around the same time as the arrival of Antioqueños in Caldas.
A true coffee contender
South of Manizales is the town of Chinchiná, which claims (as many do), to be the ‘heart’ of Colombia’s coffee trade. Blessed with the same picturesque countryside which characterises the area, Chinchiná houses the Fundación Manuel Mejía, a vocational college for coffee cultivators. Founded in 1960 and named after the influential early 20th century president of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, the foundation offers subsidised educational courses to farmers from across Colombia. It also provides tours for visitors which are well worth the price, if only for the excellent ‘finished product’ that accompanies the promotional video at the end.
The National Coffee Federation was termed ‘a state within a state,’ until the First World War, when it had to be bailed out by the Colombian government after a global collapse in prices. But the unique nature of the Federation, particularly its concern to provide small cultivators in the coffee regions with social security arrangements and its fostering of solidarity among the workforce is still evident in the well appointed collective sports complex that borders Chinchiná’s main coffee factory, which refines the raw beans grown on the surrounding hills.
Some coffee farms possess the resources to process their own crop. Of these, the Hacienda Guayabal, located half an hours drive away from Chinchiná, offers single rooms and dormitories for visiting tourists and a chance to observe the coffee growing process up close. The farm is a haven for wildlife – while exploring the coffee fields you are almost certain to encounter a pair of blue and green Barranquero Coronados, a type of momot, or perhaps even a basking Green Snake. The Hacienda Guayabal is family run and provides hearty Colombian nosh at meal times, as well as, of course, its own branded coffee.
More than just beans
Another ecological highlight of an area rich in biodiversity is the Recinto del Pensamiento park attached to an unprepossessing conference centre and hotel just outside Manizales. The park contains several relaxing walks through its woods, or you can take (another) cable car over the forest canopy from which it is possible to observe a rather incongruous ostrich enclosure. By far its biggest selling point is the hummingbird sanctuary, which, in the three years since it was established has attracted a wide variety of species. Watching the birds at sunset hovering feet away at the feeding trays is a highly recommended experience.
Manizales has perhaps suffered unfairly in the past from the reputation of its ungainly architecture and because tourists have used the more established locations of Pereira and Armenia as bases from which to explore Colombia’s famous ‘coffee triangle.’ Aware of this competitive disadvantage, the local authorities have been investing in improving its tourist infrastructure and marketing a shiny new image of the Caldas region.
Undoubtedly, the local geography makes getting around difficult (the journey to Salamina, a picture postcard ‘colonizers’ town 50km northeast of Manizales takes a painfully slow and bone juddering four hours as a key bridge is currently out of action), yet it also provides the area with its key attraction.
The emerald greens and shimmering yellows of its precipitous landscape along with the ubiquitous flowers that border the coffee slopes provide a breathtaking backdrop to any journey. Caldas’s biodiversity and range of eco-attractions (many of which are situated conveniently close to Manizales) also mark it out as exceptional. Combined with its proximity to Bogotá and the range of decent hotels in Manizales and its environs, Caldas is an excellent option for a weekend away from the big city.