We were really looking forward to visiting this part of Colombia because we had heard so many wonderful stories from various travellers – we found that the cities were not overwhelming, the weather perfect, and the scenery stunning. And for me, loving coffee, I was excited to be here. Now I needed to get Andrea converted! For the past 2 weeks we’d both been in a “travelling funk” and fighting more often – we were hoping some fresh air and new scenery would snap us out of it. We had been staying in places for only 2-3 days before moving on – it’s not enough time to relax and regroup, but there were so many small towns to visit and they also didn’t warrant staying for a week. We arrived in Manizales on the overnight bus from Bogota at 4:45 in the morning and we couldn’t check-in to the hostel until 7am. Luckily, a coffee shop was open in the terminal and the WiFi was excellent. Manizales is a pretty modern city with a cable car system as one of the main modes of transportation – we loved it!
At 7am we packed up from the terminal, took the cable car and a taxi, plus a ten minute walk to the Secret Garden hostel. The place from the outside looked like it was totally going to remove our travelling funk. However, on further investigation, our room was tiny, the shared bathroom was disgraceful and there were no locks on the doors! We were there for 3 nights and nothing was cleaned during our stay. There were a few positive points about the place – the owners were fantastic and she made excellent meals for breakfast and dinner which we shared with two other lovely couples staying at the hostel. The sheets were some of the best on our travels which made for blissful sleeping! Once there, we were inquiring about all the hikes and climbing Volcan Ruiz in Los Nevados National Park – we soon found out the park road was closed for maintenance and Ruiz was off limits due to volcanic activity so we were not going to be able to explore – huge downer that we didn’t need!!
We had already made arrangements to spend a couple of nights at Hacienda Venecia, a popular place to stay at with great guided coffee tours, and with access to Volcan Ruiz off-limits we had to find other things to occupy our time here. I tried unsuccessfully finding out about the Chiva de leche, a small milk truck that skirts around Los Nevados whilst collecting milk from the many farms, offering great views on a clear day – the city’s hostels want people to sign up for the their $80 day trips to the glacier on another inactive volcano so feel no obligation to reply to emails!
Andrea and I instead spent a day wandering along local flower filled trails and climbing to the top of the tallest cathedral spire in Colombia, and the third highest in South America at 113 meters. This was done as an hour long guided trip and was actually pretty hairy for Andrea, especially when I sat on the edge of the fenced in viewing platform high up in the steeple.
Since making our reservation we noticed this place advertised everywhere, in all the hostels we visited and in our Lonely Planet guides. It turned out to be an upmarket destination on a backpackers budget, at least the hostel side of it was – the hotel was substantially more expensive. We had a small swimming pool, free, freshly brewed coffee at all times, and good communal breakfast, lunches and dinners. The four hour coffee tour was pretty good too! Being located three kilometers down a dirt road meant for a good workout, with a tough uphill run followed by a fast return home – we do miss being able to workout everywhere we go.
The hacienda has been family owned for generations and is one of the region’s biggest coffee farms offering guided tours. For $15 we were plied with coffee and wandered through the plantations, visited what was once the hacienda, and learned the entire process from picking through to exportation. The coffee aromas still couldn’t persuade Andrea to swing in that direction!
Salento & Los Nevados Trek
The gateway to the Cocora valley, Salento was on our map because everyone had told us how impressive the giant wax palms were and we knew it was possible to enter Los Nevados National Natural Park from the southern side. This small, quiet town with its colorful Calle Real comes alive on weekends when the square’s restaurants construct outside decking to accommodate the influx of tourists – we were glad to be leaving on a three day hike to Nevado del Quindio with Paramo Trek.
La Serrana, a fifteen minute walk from town was our home for two nights, with the first night in their separate house, complete with fireplace and fully equipped kitchen, and the second spent in the hostel. This place was really nice, clean and quiet with awesome views of the surrounding hillsides. Prior to our hike we decided to go against previous experience and suffer through a three hour horse riding excursion to a local waterfall, something I don’t think Andrea will ever do again! We’re not sure how the horses managed to make it down some of the super steep rocky sections without falling, where eventually Andrea’s mule did take a stumble on one of the many river crossings – she was not impressed!
Paramo Trek was the only respectable company to offer multi-day hikes to the volcanoes of Los Nevados, and with many first rate Tripadvisor reviews of their guides we signed up for a three day hike to Nevado del Quindio at 4.700 meters, a dormant volcano in the Cordillera Central of the Andes. After a brief Willys jeep ride to the start of the Cocora valley we were introduced to Manuel, our extremely knowledgeable and passionate guide – we’ve had some great guides on the expeditions we’ve been on but this guy was the best and immediately our travel funk was gone! Yay!
Day one took us along muddy trails, into high jungle, eventually taking us through different layers of Paramo until we arrived seven hours later at our rustic accommodation at 3.700 meters in altitude. The views of nearby glaciated Nevado del Tolima were spectacular from here, a few hundred meters higher than where we were heading and almost double the price due to the mountaineering equipment required! We were assigned our bunks and got wrapped up before the sun dropped behind the hills, and with it the temperature.
Doña Maria, our host, prepared a much needed dinner and we hit the sack soon after – tomorrow was going to be another long day with Manuel, our guide, expecting around eight hours of hiking, although only 1000 meters of ascent. This was to be a new high for Andrea. As we ascend through the different paramo ecosystems the plant life would get lower and lower, eventually dwindling out altogether as we hit loose scree on the ridge leading to the summit.
Morning came around far too quickly and we were soon breathing hard, trying to wind our way through plants and bog, before hitting the steep sections – this is the part I love, grinding away with one foot in front of the other at my own rhythm. The weather held out for us and we enjoyed lunch at 4.700 meters, although our hopes of seeing Ruiz and the other Los Nevados volcanoes was not to be!
Our final day, with another six to seven nonstop hours to get back to the start of the Cocora valley, and our awaiting jeep to Salento. The first hour was a retrace of the previous days route, followed by mostly downhill of completely new trail – this route was really beautiful but seemed to go down for a lot longer than it took to get up. I knew Andrea was whining like crazy inside! Fortunately we lucked out with another beautiful day and as a finale had great views of the tallest palms in the world, the wax palm, native to this high altitude valley and reaching heights of between fifty and sixty meters.
It was a pleasure to have Manuel as our guide and we’re hoping that his new Paramo outdoor clothing business goes as well as his guiding services for Paramo Trek. Overall a tough three days of fairly high altitude hiking, culminating with a four hour bus ride to our next destination, Cali – we’re so glad we got straight on a bus over taking a shower!
January 25th – February 3rd 2014