Manizales: Planning Your Trip

Bogotá, Republic of Colombia, August 3, 2015. -- Girls are feeding pigeons in front f Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá in Plaza de Bolivar.
Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

Located in Western Colombia near the western end of the Andes mountains, the city of Manizales is known for its young and vibrant atmosphere, a result of it being home to several universities (in fact, roughly a quarter of its population is made up of students). The area’s mountainous volcanic landscape is an ever-present factor as well, with the steep terrain of Los Nevados National Natural Park just a short distance away and its glacier-capped volcano, Nevado de Ruiz, visible from most places in the city.

As capital city of the Caldas department, it’s also known for being at the heart of the region’s coffee production. For visitors, there’s a lot more to Manizales than just a hot drink. Here’s a look at everything you should see, do, eat, and know about for your next trip to this beautiful part of Colombia’s legendary coffee triangle.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Plan your trip for December to March if you can. Because the city is 2,160 meters (7,090 feet) above sea level, the weather is warm and rainy for much of the year, with wet and dry seasons alternating every three months and October being the wettest month of the year.
  • Language: Spanish is the official language spoken in Colombia, though people in major cities and touristy areas often speak English, too. Learning a few Spanish phrases would certainly be helpful here, just in case.
  • Currency: Colombian pesos are the official currency. Plan to use pesos, as U.S. dollars are not accepted here like they are in other South American countries. As for credit cards, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are widely accepted at restaurants, shops, and in hotels.
  • Getting Around: The city recently developed two cable car lines, while a third is also in the works. Because of the steep slopes of the valley surrounding it, there are several older cable cars in the area as well, with an estimated 70 miles of cable car routes used for transporting coffee and other freight as well as people around the city.
  • Travel Tip: The Manizales Fair happens in January, celebrating the new year with parades, concerts, arts and crafts, bullfighting tournaments (not for everyone, but it’s a cultural tradition), and an international coffee pageant.

Things to Do

There’s something for everyone in Manizales, whether you’re into soaking in refreshing hot springs (there are several popular spots like Tierra Viva and El Otoño thanks to the nearby Nevado del Ruiz volcano), catching a soccer match, or checking out the city’s hip nightlife scene. Outdoorsy types will love Reserva Ecologica Rio Blanco, a popular cloud forest that’s known for its birdwatching opportunities (another cloud forest worth checking out is El Recinto del Pensamiento Park). Those interested in learning about all things coffee can sign up for tours of nearby coffee farms, like Hacienda Venecia. For incredible views of the city, take a ride on one of the many cable cars or head up to Chipre for the ultimate sunset viewing alongside the locals.

  • One of the top sites in town is Cathedral de Manizales, with its central spire stretching up over 110 meters (371 feet) into the air, making it the tallest Cathedral in the country and the third tallest in Latin America. The neo-Gothic Cathedral, which also sports 9,150 square feet of stained glass windows, is located in Plaza Bolivár, a popular spot in its own right. Climb the tower for amazing views of the city.
  • Once Caldas, the main football (soccer) club of Manizales, regularly draws crowds of more than 40,000 people to Estadio Palogrande. On a match day, the whole city buzzes with excitement, making it a really fun time to be there. If you have time, go and see a match for about $5.
  • Located about 3.5 hours from Manizales, Los Nevados National Natural Park makes a great day trip, with activities like fishing, hiking, and mountain biking all offering a fun change of pace from life in the city center. It’s also home to beautiful waterfalls, impressive volcanic landscapes, and plenty of wildlife.

What to Eat and Drink

Most traditional meals in Manizales derive from the region’s coffee culture, incorporate local fruit, and typically end with a sweet dessert. Regional favorites include asorrete (a type of meatloaf made with bacon), lengua en salsa (beef tongue seasoned with thyme and cilantro), and arepas (corn cakes that are usually filled with cheese). For dessert, don’t miss macana (a tasty custard dish) or buñuelos (fried dough balls).

As far as drinks, try a mistela (made with brandy and chamomile) or a refreshing aguapanelita (tea with sugar cane). Of course, the city is in the heart of Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, so that’s definitely one beverage you should try while you’re in town.

Where to Stay

Manizales offers a wide range of accommodations including hotels, traditional bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, and hostels. If you’re planning to do a lot of sightseeing, staying in the historic city center (or near Plaza de Toros) puts you within walking distance of many major sites and attractions. Zona Rosa, located on the east side of the city, is known for its lively shopping, nightlife, and restaurant scenes, as well as for its high-end hotels. It’s also known as being one of the safest parts of the city to stay in since it’s part of a more upscale community. If you’re going to be traveling in and out of Manizales by air, it may be more efficient to stay in a hotel close to the airport, which is about a 20-minute drive from the city center. For a closer look at the coffee-filled countryside outside Manizales, consider staying in the hills of Eje Cafetero (the Coffee Triangle) about an hour away.

Getting There

There is no way to fly directly into Manizales if you’re coming from an international destination. As a result, most travelers, especially those coming in from the U.S., will fly into the capital city of Bogotá, Cartagena, or Medellín, then take a domestic flight the rest of the way to reach Manizales. The city is served by La Nubia Airport, which receives regular flights via Avianca and Easyfly from Bogotá, while additional Easyfly routes connect it with Cartagena and Medellín.

Connections in and out of Manizales by road are also quite good, with two coach companies, Coomotor and Expreso Bolivariano offering bus service from various cities across the country. Once you arrive in Manizales, the city has a vast transportation network of bus routes available for very reasonable fares. For those traveling into the outlying districts, there are several smaller buses and jeeps available, which are necessary and able to traverse rougher mountain roads.

Money Saving Tips

  • You can save a lot of money in Manizales (and other parts of Columbia) by sticking to Colombian street food, which often costs between $1 and $5 for a delicious and filling meal (think empanadas, ceviche, and other fried items).
  • Keep an eye out for free or pay-what-you-want walking tours, which let you book a spot, then ask you to tip the guide based on how you feel the experience was. 
  • Do as the locals do, and stick to public transportation (if you must, taxi rides across town will likely be around $5), dine at local restaurants instead of splurging at international hotspots (which will cost more), and choose beer over fancy and expensive cocktails, which can really add up during a big night out on the town.
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