I thought Manizales was going to be a smallish town up in the Andes. Wrong. It felt HUGE (keep in mind, my sense of population size is skewed these days) and sprawling! The town is based on top of a ridge line, with the rest of the city sprawling down other ridges and into valleys. It is actually quite amazing that they built where they did – definitely steeper and hillier than San Francisco!

We stayed at Mountain House Hostel, at the South end of town near Cable Plaza. The hostel was nice, fairly large, and mostly inhabited by non-English speakers. We arrived around 4 pm on Friday, got settled in, and then went out to get dinner – which ended up being from the grocery store at Cable Plaza. Cable Plaza is a mall, which happens to have a movie theater which plays (as most do here) most movies in English! We decided to live it up and go see “The King’s Speech” – very cute!

Saturday morning we had a 7:15 am pickup by a bus full of (again, non-English speaking) tourists to go to Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados – a huge national park full of snowy volcanoes. Our trip went to Nevado del Ruiz, which is the highest (5,325 meters, 17,572.5 feet) and Northernmost volcano in the chain. Everyone seemed quite worried about the altitude, so various precautions were taken (including a million stops on the way up for 4,800 meters to acclimate).

We stopped for tea, we stopped for breakfast, we stopped for gift shops, we stopped to look at plants, we stopped at the ranger station for an introductory talk, we stopped along the side of the road with nothing in particular to look at – the list goes on. Eventually we made it up to 4,800 meters, 15,840 feet! Definitely an altitude record for both of us (bit kind of a cheater since we really didn’t have to work for it)!

The terrain was really different than that of the rest of Colombia that we’ve seen. Rather than being lush and green, it was pretty much barren and gray. I’m used to Colorado mountains which, even up at 13,000 or 14,000 feet still have some limited vegetation.

Once we were up that high we saw almost no vegetation – although quite a few birds (including condors!). Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day and we couldn’t see much of the volcano. It was very cold, mildly uncomfortable, and not as exciting for us as it was for the Colombians around us who had never before seen snow. It was definitely cool to see what we did, and we were very proud of our Spanish skills – we can understand pretty much everything people say in Spanish, we just can’t necessarily respond with proper grammar!

On our way down from the volcano we stopped for lunch (including another wonderful soup and more aguapanela), then went to some hot springs! What a nice way to end a cold day on the mountain! These were funny little blue pools, but the water was amazing and the view would be hard to beat.

On Sunday we went, with our same guide from the day before (Favio), to the Rio Blanco Nature Reserve. This reserve is a protected area which is home to numerous endangered species (including a bear!) and hundreds (362 species, to be exact) of birds. Apparently Colombia is known for it’s bird watching – something neither Stephanie nor I know much about. We hiked through the forest, which is very lush, up to a house surrounded by hummingbirds. LOTS of hummingbirds. We rested there, while eating arepas con queso and aguapanela, observed the hummingbirds, and then called it a day and went back to our hostel.

We felt pretty lazy, so we wandered out into the city and up to the center of town with the Plaza, cathedral, etc. The town is really quite nice, it’s a university town with a lot of activity, and even our 30 minute stroll to the center of town (through a part which isn’t exactly a “popular” tourist area) was entertaining. We stopped at a bakery (and drooled outside of many more) to try even more local deliciousness! I’ve been doing a wonderful job of eating plenty of chocolate (and even got a surprise Valentine’s chocolate delivery in Bogota from the best boyfriend ever!), but the bakeries here don’t do chocolate like the US – brownies are essentially nonexistent. I’m love bready chocolate (i.e. brownies, chocolate cookies, etc.) but here most things are just sweet, sugary, cheesy, or fruity. I’ve been going for sweet, sugary, and cheesy (sometimes all in one!).

The center of town was bustling with activity (it was a Sunday afternoon) with families and vendors enjoying the lovely afternoon. There wasn’t a whole ton to see in the center, so we took a cab up to Chipre, the highest neighborhood in town which has a beautiful view of the valley and plenty of ice cream stands to keep up happy. Colombians definitely embrace the attitude of “Sunday Funday” – everyone was out with family and friends, eating ice cream, drinking, playing games, and just generally enjoying their time! It makes me want to make Sunday more of a funday when I get back to the states… it really is a great day to go do things! Plenty of young couples were strolling along, or stopping to look at the view and sunset. We ended up buying ice cream and fruit, watching the sunset, and then calling it a day and heading back to go to sleep.

We’ve been resting a LOT lately, or reading – I traded a book in for “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and have now finished it in just 4 days. It was definitely a quick and entertaining read, although slightly depressing seeing as it is about a ridiculously happy couple who have to spend too much time apart – it’s a bit too easy to relate to at the moment! Luckily I’ve downloaded other books onto my “Kindle for PC,” even though I should be reading my book in Spanish – “Aurelio has a Growing Problem.” It is definitely a different feeling, being here and not being as busy or active as I have been in the other countries, but I suppose it is good to rest and get ready for Ecuador and Peru – both of which I anticipate being packed full of activity due to my lack of time there!

Monday morning we were whisked off to Tamesis, a Andean Pueblo in the Cordillera Occidental, the Westernmost mountain range in Colombia. This is by far my favorite place, besides Cartagena (there is no comparison really, they’re two totally different experiences), in Colombia – but you’ll have to wait to hear about it later! Now we’re in Cartagena for our last few days – we both fly out on Monday to our respective destinations: Boulder for Stephanie and Quito (Ecuador) for me!

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