Manizales from on High

Manizales, a friendly city of steep streets and stairways, wins over visitors from the very start. Its red sunsets complement its old buildings, cathedral, and the Bolívar Cóndor monument. The love its residents have for heights will have you climbing higher than you could have imagined: almost to the clouds.

Text and Photos by: Julia Henríquez


We arrive in Manizales at daybreak and the sun’s first rays guide us through windy roads. Even this early in our trip we discover why the city’s geography is so famous. Finally, after many ups and downs, Carolina Rincón, owner and host of our hostel, welcomes us with open doors and a hot “tintico” (coffee). This is how we are greeted by the capital of the Department of Caldas. We stretch our legs and climb the first of many slopes. We arrive at Avenue 22, the only flat avenue, built along the backbone of the mountain range, and we cross the city.

Our first encounter is with a man sitting in a hanging chair… yes, after blinking, I see it’s not just my imagination. On the avenue stands a monument honoring the aerial tramway, which was built in 1912 by the English company, The Dorada Railway. At that time the largest engineering work in Colombia, this railway joined Mariquita with Manizales, making the difficult task of getting coffee beans from the capricious geography of these high mountains to the Magdalena River possible.

Every coin has two faces, and while I admire the imagination with which these people brought their product to market, I also learn that the tramway would shut down at closing time and if a farmer came traveling down with his sacks of coffee after close, he had to wait until the following day. It was not uncommon for a frozen body to fall in the middle of the night. In that era, the peasant coffee farmer was just another link in the chain, but soon the coffee economy, fundamental to the development of Colombia during the 20th century, would change his destiny for the better. A few steps ahead there is a wooden structure called la Torre del Cable (the Cable Tower), which in 1984, when this means of transportation was dismantled, was transferred from Hervero to Manizales so it could be conserved as a monument. 

Walking along Avenue 22, you can’t miss the large cliffs that fall along each side of the road, the “mountains” of homes and the lookouts, where you can enjoy a freshly squeezed orange juice while you observe, from below, the entire scene. You also won’t want to miss the Archeological Museum, the diverse architecture, and the small cafes and bars where you can spend a pleasant few hours.

The stunning view of the Catedral Basílica Metropolitana de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, standing over the Plaza de Bolívar, marks your arrival to the city’s center.  Large stained-glass windows rise inside this cathedral with phenomenal Gothic-style towers; it has an unlucky history of countless fires that have tried to destroy it. The cathedral is a tourist destination, thanks to its famous Corredor Polaco, which attracts Colombian residents and international visitors alike who want to climb to the highest point in the city.

When we get to the Cathedral’s door, we pay an entrance fee of 7,000 pesos (about four dollars) without really knowing what we will find. The guide shows us an elevator that rises behind the enormous stained-glass window that decorates the cathedral’s facade. As we climb, the guide talks to us about the fires and the many modifications the church has undergone throughout the years. Later, he points out a small door that opens to the outside and tells us that more than 400 steps await us. We once again stretch our legs and try to understand the love the Manizales residents have for heights. The walkway includes a dizzying exterior hallway through the roof of the Cathedral; there are some steep, narrow stairs and later other internal spiral stairways. At the end, there’s a balcony in the middle of the towers where we enjoy a 360-degree panoramic view with our knees trembling. This is a place to enjoy the wind and the scenery. When you look down, you should give yourself credit for the incredible feat of having climbed to such a high point.

Once again on firm ground we walk towards the Plaza de Bolívar and immediately find another characteristic element of the city: the Bolívar Cóndor. This bronze statue that weighs twenty-five tons and stands on its left foot is a metaphor for the heroic feats of the Liberator, and also for the tormented history of the artist Rodrigo Arenas Betancourt, its creator, who managed to overcome the traumatic experience of being abducted. 

There we are, so small next to this gigantic birdman trying to take flight, and we accept his invitation to reflect. His legs, wings, and blindness suggest how the Liberator and the bird that flies over the Andes merge to represent our freedom and our yearning to fly, while the present stops us. They say in Manizales that after his abduction, Arenas defaced his work already in progress, blinding the man and breaking the bird’s wings as a symbol of the justice that passes by, but doesn’t touch him, doesn’t touch us, in a clear protest of his situation and that of the entire country.

Now in the Chipre neighborhood, we relax a little and satisfy our sweet tooth with a delicious oblea (traditional Colombian sweet similar to a big, thin wafer) filled with cheese, caramel (dulce de leche), jam, strawberry sauce, and colorful sprinkles. Then we head out to the Torre al Cielo, an old water tank that has become a tourist attraction, allowing visitors to see Manizales one more time, from on high.

The 125-foot high tower offers several attractions as part of a theme park: a pendulum where you can balance on the precipice; the tower itself, which you can ascend via stairs or an elevator to enjoy the view from inside; and the Skywalk, an outside platform that wraps around the tank and lets you take a walk not recommended for people with heart trouble. We choose this option. We wait in line listening to the cries of those who are walking almost on air. The sunset astonishes us as we are in the right place at the right time. From the Tower we observe how the deep orange sun adorns the mountains and the city, while the clouds and wind create a perfect moment. But the sunset passes and when it’s our turn, we go out under the stars tied to a harness in a type of ecstasy that blends adrenaline with the peacefulness of the night. How often could you so quickly walk over the void, enjoying the night air and seeing people pass under your feet with nothing separating you from the abyss?

We opt to spend the next day doing something a little more green and quiet, so we go to the Recinto del Pensamiento, a park for relaxing and enjoying nature. Thirteen years ago this was a school for the children of the coffee pickers, but now the National Coffee Association (Asociación Nacional de Cafeteros) has donated its 470 acres as a reserve and urban green space for this coffee producing city.

We arrive in the morning with enough time to make the entire journey on foot, although there’s also the option to hop on a lift to the bird lookout. We begin the ascent, which is not too steep, through a cloud forest that takes us to the hummingbird area. There we take a rest and enjoy a delicious cup of “tinto” while dozens of different hummingbirds flap around us. When we continue the journey, we come across some caged deer. Alarmed, my protective instinct urges me to demand an explanation. But I resume my breathing when the guide explains that this place also serves as a refuge for wild animals rescued from unjust captivity, as they find their way back to the wild.

In the middle of the lush green that surrounds us, colors suddenly begin to emerge. We have just entered the orchid forest and the guide explains where the different species and varieties are from. However, before we realize it, the forest has disappeared. There are no longer gigantic trees and the moisture from the mist has vanished.

If there’s one thing the Recinto del Pensamiento has, it’s the magical ability to take you from one landscape to another so quickly that it takes your head and eyes a while to readjust. Now our environment seems small and we are like giants walking in the middle of trees that are a foot and a half high. The Senda de Oriente (Eastern Path), with its collection of bonsais, stretches below our feet as if we were in some sort of fairytale.

But that’s not all. The eighty cherry blossom trees, donated by the Japanese government, decorate the Zen Zone of the Recinto del Pensamiento. And it’s here, seated in the middle of a yin yang with scale representations of the snow, while the sound of water from a small mill takes us far away from life’s daily routines and complications, that we finally understand the meaning of the park’s name. We meditate while sitting on the sand and dedicate a few deep breaths to the importance of these green spaces.

The journey ends with an architectural work by Simón Vélez Jaramillo, the Pabellón de Madera (Wooden Pavilion). It is built in the shape of a shitake mushroom, which searches, as the Japanese legend goes, for a place of purity. The pavilion is made of guadua bamboo-cane, Colombia’s finest wood, giving a natural touch to the receptions and meetings held here. Leaving is like bursting a bubble: the noise from the factories of Juanchito, Manizales’ industrial zone, once again invades our minds. We can try to forget where we are, but reality always finds us. Just before the trip ends, we take the telecable, a mode of transportation that, although common in this city, is a tourist attraction for us. Manizales, which welcomed us with open doors, a smile, and a hot tintico, now bids us goodbye with a show of light on the houses nestled at the foot of the mountains as, for the last time, we see the city from on high.