Founded in 1849 by migrating paisas, MANIZALES developed in the late nineteenth century with the growth of the coffee industry. One legacy is the numerous Neoclassical buildings in the city centre, which has been declared a national monument. This high-mountain city (altitude 2150m) sits at the base of the snowcapped Nevado del Ruiz volcano, which, on a clear day you can sometimes see burping vapour from the bridge in front of the Teatro Los Fundadores. Manizales owes its hilly topography to the geologically volatile earth beneath it, and earthquakes occur with some frequency.
Much of the town’s charm lies in its large student population, who help create a festive atmosphere, with night-time entertainment centred mostly on Cable Plaza. The party comes to a head in the first weeks of January during the Fería de Manizales, when there are colourful parades, a beauty pageant in search of a new Coffee Queen and bloody bullfights staged in the Plaza de Toros (C 8 and Cra 27). Manizales also makes an excellent base for exploring the surrounding coffee farms and the Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados.
In the centre of the city, the main square is dominated by the vast Catedral de Manizales, made of reinforced concrete and featuring a virtigo-inducing, 106m-tall tower that you can ascend with a guide; tours start on the hour. In the centre of the plaza stands an obligatory statue of Simón Bolívar, but with a twist – Bolívar-Cóndor, the creation of Rodrigo Arenas Betancur, is half-man, half-condor.
Butterflies and birds are the main attraction at Recinto del Pensamiento, a nature park 11km from Manizales. As well as visiting the colourful butterfly enclosure, you can also wander through a medicinal herb garden, relax in the Japanese Zen garden, enjoy a stroll through the orchid forest and marvel at the gigantic guadua bamboo gazebo, used for conventions and wedding ceremonies. Guides are compulsory and included in the admission price.
Around 3km northeast of Manizales, the Reserva Ecológica Río Blanco is home to 362 bird species, 350 butterfly species and more than forty mammals. Tranquil orchid-lined uphill hikes through impressive cloudforest reveal dense jungle flora entwined in a battle for a place in the sun; if you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the reserve’s endangered spectacled bear. There is also a hummingbird farm.
In the northwest suburb of Chipre, on a high bluff at the end of Avenida 12 de Octubre, the 45m-tall Torre al Cielo is the town’s best lookout. On a clear day you can see seven departamentos and three mountain ranges. Buses run to Chipre from the Cable Plaza along Avenida Santander every minute or so.