Zig-Zag through the Zona Cafetera: Manizales to Cali


Manizales, Caldas, Colombia


Energized from some lovely connections in Manizales, I followed my gut and continued my sights South towards Cali, the salsa dance capital of South America. Of course it’s never about the goal. While Cali was only 200km away by highway, my route would wind through many small mountain trails and towns, stretching the distance to nearly 500.


Last view back up at the hills of Manizales from the edge of town.


 Similar to Medellin and unbeknownst to me until leaving town, there’s a gondola system which transports people from downtown to the suburb of Villamaria. So odd to see that little capsule of people floating above the city streets!


 Within 20 minutes of leaving my busy urban hostel in downtown Manizales, I was on a lone dirt road through dense bamboo forests, heading South on the old “highway” toward the town of Chinchiná.


Crossing various river drainages, passing endless coffee plantations, I’d often stop to salute the old wise “grandfather trees” as I’ve come to call them, their long beards dancing in the afternoon breeze.


Whereas the chosen vehicle for dangerously overloading local commuters in Guatemala was the chicken bus, Colombia is known for its old long-cab Jeeps. No bigger than a large SUV, I’ve seen as many as 15 people packed into the back of these things. Clown cars are always fun to see, until you ask yourself what happens in a crash…


 I rolled through Chinchiná and on through another small town of Santa Rosa, hoping to make it to La Florida by nightfall. The busy industrial vibe of Santa Rosa quickly transformed as the paved road out of town faded to dirt. Rotten wood and bamboo houses, draped with torn plastic sheets for rain protection, lined the roadside. I was suddenly overcome with a strong, inexplicable fear that I was not safe here. This feeling has been quite rare for me throughout Latin America as I generally have been surprised and comforted by the warmth in the vast majority of people. But it was strong. Perhaps it was the way in which a few groups of younger men stared at me and my bike. Perhaps it was because it was getting late. Perhaps it was being on the edge of a town with some wealth, but in the adjacent poor neighborhood. I tried not to give in to my stereotypes, but also listened to my gut. I rode on quickly without pause until the houses and shacks faded into the hillside behind me. Was I actually in danger there? I’ll never know. A strange feeling indeed.


 Colorful butterflies feeding on the ample supply of cow patties lining the road.


A number of kilometers down the lone dirt two track toward La Florida, the road ended at a swift river. I could see it pick up on the other side, the only dry way across being a very narrow, slippery bamboo footbridge, 15’ over the river. The bamboo was covered with wet mossy growth, and the handrails of yesteryear were in definite need of repair. With bike precariously on my shoulder, I slowly returned to my side of the bridge upon second near-fall into the river. Sigh. Off came the shoes. Into the freezing cold water. Not that bad really! Quite invigorating!



 Baby bananas!


I was ushered into the tiny mountain town of La Florida by a barrage of swarming gnats. Perhaps due to the high bovine population in and around town, I would have to pull over every 10-15 seconds to pull one out of my eyes. In town, I was tired from my first day back on the bike in a week. As usual, everyone was fantastic, warm and helpful. I was guided to the fenced in playing fields on the edge of town, that the local guard would let me camp there. Not only did he welcome me in without question, he suggested that I set up inside a covered area beyond the courts. Turned out to be the town’s Tejo court! (That weird pyrotechnic dart/bocce type game I’ve mentioned in past posts) Luckily no tournaments were planned that night.


The gorgeous rolling hills above La Florida. With those white trees lining the hillsides, it almost seemed like there was a dusting of snow off in the distance, despite the 70 degree weather.


Various ups and downs later, I arrived at the very touristy destination of Salento. This town was either lauded or loathed, depending on who was talking. Many Colombians suggested it as a beautiful colonial mountain town, but other international travelers were put off by how touristy it was. I fell firmly into the second category. Having considered staying here for a night or two by suggestion of friends, I was immediately clear that it wasn’t my place. This impression was confirmed by one of my first interactions in town:


So I’m walking out of that little restaurant, having inquired about lunch prices, and a man stops me to ask, “So are you a tourist?” — in English.

I was confused and perhaps a bit off put by his phraseology (I have a resistance to being called a tourist, even though by classic definitions I am indeed just that). “I guess so, I mean I’m not Colombian if that’s what you mean…”

He then shared that he and his wife had moved to Salento from the U.S. about 8 years prior. Swallowing my initial reactivity to his reductive classification of me, I kept the focus on him: “So how has that been, not only living out of the United States, but living in this very small mountain town in Colombia?”

“Well,” he said, “we don’t have Hilary and we don’t have Muslims.”






What would YOU say in this moment??

I could feel my face burning red. I could almost start to see that redness descend over my field of vision. “Some great friends and teachers of mine are Muslim,” I stated firmly, attempting to hold back my rage, “and why exactly do you think it’s okay to say something like that to someone you’ve only just met?”

His face turned white from its prior sunburnt red. He attempted some form of softening explanation, “Well, you just don’t know who to trust these days.”

I know. I know. I know I know I KNOW. Meeting bigotry with aggression and rage is not helpful, but I just couldn’t stop myself. In mild socratic form, I attempted to lead him through piercing questions to understand the inherent blind discrimination in his words, asking how many Muslims he’s had the personal experience of knowing, and a variety of other patronizing queries. Very quickly he tried to shift the subject to something neutral before bidding me a good day and walking on.

As my blood-tempurature faded back to normal, I sat in the park reflecting on this interaction. I was proud that I didn’t just smile and deflect the topic to something safer, but my rage had not left any room for compassionate communication.  What bothered me most was both his “othering” of an ethnic group and his attempts to use it as a way to connect with another American, as if I’d certainly be of like mind. I was later drawn to consider what ways  I continue to “other” people along this journey, and found an easy example: People begging for money.

Raised in a suburb of Boston and spending much of my childhood in the city, I’ve grown up with people asking me for money. I have never been comfortable with the interaction. Sometimes I’d give a few coins, but most of the time I’d ignore the person in order to escape my unease. It is rare that I’ve been asked for money along my small town routes in Latin America, but on the rare occasions that I enter a very touristy or urban location it will still happen. In fact it just did, a couple of times, in Manizales. Again, perhaps I offered a small contribution, perhaps ignored the person. No longer. Every person is just that: a person. To me, every one deserves, at the very least, acknowledgement, and even more a little bit of help no matter how they choose to apply it. I decided in that very moment that I would try to never ignore a person in need again, and always offer SOMETHING, no matter how little. I realized it’s more about integrity than anything else. I believe in human kindness and non-discrimination. Countless times that I’ve received random help from strangers have demonstrated how good this feels from the other perspective, and the least I can do is pay that debt forward.


 Rolling out of Salento, I couldn’t seem to ride fast enough. That man’s words echoed through my head with every pedal stroke, only broken by a small sign I saw on the little dirt road out of town, reading: Enduro Mountain Biking. Hm…..

I followed the rocky path up to what appeared to be a rustic mountain hostel. Immediately greeted by this man (whose name unfortunately escapes me). Owner and local guide, this guy is developing an amazing property combining permaculture, communal living, and love for mountain biking! He walked me around the property to share his various projects over a cup of tea. I somehow felt like a guest of honor, almost uncomfortably so, as he kept introducing me to every other guest and worker, repeating that I’d come “ALL the WAY from Alaska, on a BIKE!” It was sweet, I just don’t love a lot of attention focused on me. After an hour of talking, I was torn: it would be easy to stay here, perhaps even for a few days, and help him with his project. He didn’t directly offer me a work-study position, but somehow it felt completely possible. On the other, I’d only just left my last pausing place the previous morning, and was just getting my momentum back on the bike. Taking a moment to mull over the decision while he ran an errand, I decided to press on. Not sure why, but it felt right.


LOTS of coffee farms and tours through said coffee farms around here. Having toured a farm years ago, I decided to take the free, solo mountain bike tour of a farm.




Random dirt tracks through high mountains that afternoon would randomly transition into paved roads for tiny distances, then fade back to rough, rutted dirt. Odd.

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 The rainy season of Colombia was in full effect in the zona cafetera (coffee growing zone), and I was again soaked and covered with mud. Luckily I rolled into the small town of Córdoba just around sunset, during an absolute deluge. At nearly 6000’ of elevation, it was a very cold wetness that pervaded my body to the core. I was directed to the Casa Abuelita just off the town square for cheap lodging. The brightly painted yellow and blue door swung open and this woman greeted me with a huge smile. She guided me through her beautiful, bright and quite ornate home, filled with huge murals depicting scenes of nature and a huge collection of antiques. Sitting me down at a table, she brought towels and hot coffee. Amazing. She immediately regaled me with intimate tales of her life in the United States with an abusive ex-husband, and how with time she developed the courage to free herself from him, returning to her home town to start fresh. Truly amazing how some people fearlessly open their hearts and histories to a total stranger. So inspiring. 


 The next day I dropped out of the central range of the Colombian Andes and into the Valle de Cauca, needing to cross the Cauca river in order to follow my route South to Cali. The lone dirt road terminated at the river’s edge, and there was no bridge across. Only a very weird boat-like platform contraption that seemed to be held in place via a cable stretching across the river. Genius: The platform would be angled by two cables and pulleys so that the river’s current would slowly propel it across the river!


 I chose to spend a couple of days exploring the Western range of the Andes, thus giving me a bit of time on all 3 ranges here in Colombia. The rainy, muddy dirt road quickly climbed high above the valley, transitioning into a fun, albeit bouncy rock road.


Then it got steeper, and muddier. Walking in sections, the space between these loose rocks was all clay-like dense mud. Trying to push the bike uphill ahead of me generally led to me sliding down more than it rolled up. Moments like these remind me to remind myself, “You chose this.”


A strong morning of climbing led me up to Lake Calima, a 5000’ high reservoir supplying fresh water to Cali and the Cauca valley. Evidently it’s one of the few places in Colombia with consistent wind for kite boarding, and given my newfound passion for the sport, I hoped to get my feet wet here. Unfortunately the wind was at an unusual low. Alas.


Banana plant flower.


 Riding up a long paved climb to the high mountain town of La Cumbre. Not sure about the baby head. Just a little spice for the road side I guess.


 A few twists and turns later, I dropped down out of the high mountains to visit the Cristo Rey (Christ King), an enormous statue posed on a cliff’s edge overlooking Cali.


After a number of quiet days in the mountains, I was a little nervous to be back in another city so soon. Especially a city so enormous as Cali. I’d been told that Cali was THE place to take some Salsa lessons, if anywhere, and hoped I could get my feet moving in a new movement after only spinning in circles for so long.

A roaring 2000’ paved descent was all that stood between me and finding out.


Where I Rode: 

Day 1: Manizales —> Chinchiná —> Santa Rosa de Cabal —> La Florida

Day 2: La Florida —> El Manzano —> Salento —> Calarcá —> Córdoba

Day 3: Córdoba —> Caicedonia —> Sevilla —> Bugalagrande —> Robledo —> Riofrio

Day 4: Riofrio —> Portugal de Piedras —> Darien —> Restrepo —> La Cumbre

Day 5: La Cumbre —> Bitaco —> El Saladito —> Felidia —> Montañitas —> Cristo Rey —> Cali

Ride Notes: 

1. A great side trip if you do ride to Salento is traveling up the Valle de Cocora to visit the wax palm trees.

2. There are some good camping spots between Santa Rosa and La Florida

3. For some extra challenge, you could stay high after Córdoba to continue up to Pijao and down to Buenavista before dropping to the Cauca valley. Conversely, you could take the long dirt road from Salento across the cordillera to Ibague and continue South via the Magdelena valley if you’re not interested in Cali or Popayan.

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