Pensilvania, Caldas: Encounter with history and hospitality

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A colorful Chiva in Pensilvania, Caldas. Photo: Richard Emblin

I wanted to walk the streets of Bolivia, stand before the vibrant doors of La Rioja and explore the Basilica of Manzanares. After numerous stops on a road trip to Pensilvania, passing towns with very international names, our destination was literally, at the end of the paved road. Hemmed-in by a majestic landscape, Pensilvania has to be one of the most charming towns in the department of Caldas.

The journey from Bogotá to this less frequented corner of Colombia, which doesn’t attract the same influx of tourists as other areas of the coffee-growing region, safeguards the town’s authenticity. Steeped in history as the final refuge for muleteers journeying between the Magdalena River valley and the highlands of Antioquia, Pensilvania maintains a connection to the past, while connected to the present challenges of post-conflict eco-tourism. The iconic red-painted wooden bridge spanning the Río Pensilvania stands as a testament to its pioneering legacy, evoking memories of the age-old Mennonite bridges in Ontario, or those immortalized in a film about Madison County.

Nestled amidst pine and evergreen forests, where rolling hills cascade into canyons, Pensilvania’s growing attraction is bird watching. As the first light breaks through the darkness, I meet with Daniel Moreno, a biologist from the Universidad de Caldas, at the central square by 5:30 am. Being a novice in the art of “pajareando,” Moreno lends me an extra pair of binoculars. I rely on his guidance to navigate this avian adventure, my eyes learning where to focus and search. Having documented more than 570 bird species in Pensilvania alone, his birding portfolio now covers nearly a quarter of the country’s known species.

Our early morning expedition includes a steaming bowl of aguapanela, and golden-fried dough balls at a spot known as Puerto Buñelo. Although absent from most maps, this horse and dairy farm has earned legendary status due to the farmers – campesinos – who make buñelos for the passing chivas. As we weave through the rugged landscape in a 4×4, birds dart amongst the trees, and the brisk morning breeze offers a sweeping panorama of the Magdalena valley below.

Views of the Magdalena River valley from Pensilvania, Caldas. Photo: Richard Emblin

After spotting over 30 of our avian friends, including an elusive Beryl-spangled Tanager, a vibrantly plumed Green Jay and Sparkling Violetear hummingbird, Moreno adds them to his birding platforms before returning to Pensilvania’s lively main square. Here, we savor a cup of coffee along Calle Real, taking in the scene of the vividly adorned chivas, the wooden rural buses that shuttle in and out of town. Their kaleidoscopic designs, coupled with equally colorful passengers, etches a lasting memory of Pensilvania’s vibrancy.

Yet, amidst the architectural heritage and the town’s orderly charm, there’s an element that surpasses it all – the hospitality of the locals. Indeed, if I were asked to create a promotional slogan for Pensilvania, it would read: “Welcome to the friendliest town in Colombia.”

As you plan your visit to this enchanting corner of Colombia, here are some tips and recommendations. Enjoy a tropical juice inside the new boutique hotel El Eden perched above the Pensilvania River. Explore the stores that showcase handicrafts such as ponchos and Aguadeño hats. Indulge in the offerings of traditional coffee shops that overlook a plaza adorned with flowering acacia trees and a picturesque church. Pensilvania, a hidden gem deserving of greater attention on the tourism map, awaits with open arms and a heartwarming spirit.

Getting there: There are two direct buses per-day from Bogotá’s Terminal de Transporte. The trip takes 9 hours.

By car: Leave Bogotá along Calle 80 to El Rosal, La Vega, Villeta, Guadas and Honda. Once in Honda, head along the road to Manizales via Fresno, and once in Petaqueres, take the road to Manzanares – Pensilvania. The trip in a car takes, on average, 7-hours.

Locals in the main square of Pensilvania, Caldas. Photo: Richard Emblin