Colombia: Manizales

Burning out on Medellín's cramped conditions had turned into the snap decision to motor on to Manizales. This didn't mean that I knew things would necessarily get better, though, especially since I'd have to combat the Feria de Manizales (a big - nay, huge - fair). Still, Suizo Miguel (Swiss Mike) had been loosely recruited by me to join forces in finding a place in the crush. That MIGHT help.

Put simply, two people meant bargaining power - that could prove necessary. We had heard that there wasn't a bed in sight in Manizales, unless one wanted to pay $100/night for it. Uh, THAT wouldn't be either of us; instead we each entertained visions of sleeping on the streets huddled around a backpack if need be. No, not really - we'd find something surely, even if it meant knocking on doors and asking if there was a room to let. You can do that, you know.

That'd be getting ahead: first we had to get swindled into what I would quickly term the bus de mierda (shitbus), a promisingly cheap fare in a vehicle promising departure almost as soon as we got to the station in Medellín's Poblado district. Just getting THERE had been a kilometer or two of unsuspectedly lengthy walking from the Metro station. When we arrived at the station not too seriously worn, though, we could be fairly forgiven for being sweaty for the wear.

Now onboard our chariot onward, it didn't take long for us to become disenchanted with our new surroundings. These came complete with a non-shutting passenger door, broken seats, and a crammed aisle. Meanwhile we'd need to take turns keeping half an eye on our baggage, too, located separately from our non-adjacent seats. I for the first time wondered if I was back in Bolivia... and that was before the extended bit of sweating in the stifled bus began, soon steadily swerving nonstop for five hours as well. Oh joy.

Soon suffering within gave to contentment without, however - we were treated to a pretty passage through the North Andes. Yes, it was the mountain chain that just gave, Gave, GAVE it up when it came to views. Simultaneous with that (when not otherwise wiping the steaming windshield off my brow), I rued too these magnificently steep lands: so many were given over to cattle grazing. Where had nature gone?, I kept asking myself.

Tract after tract of unimaginably-inclined hillside was cleared, leaving only minimal vegetation beyond grass and weed. These had been generationally terraced in half-meter contours by hooves, all to keep beef moving uninterrupted to tables. I tried to conceptualize what these hills and mountains had been like back when, or what such terrain they could form again. Even with what little was left it wasn't hard to picture how amazing it must've been.

Closer to Manizales, I was treated to a new Andean sight for me, a number of surprising (and surprisingly large) stands of massive bamboo. This was the native guadua plant, a surprise in itself (I thought bamboo endemic to Asia). Luscious, leafy stand after stand hugged the rivers the bus traced, effectively announcing the presence of coffee plantations, too. We had officially entered Colombia's famous Coffee Axis.

The Axis was the land lying in the vicinity of the three cities of Manizales, Armenia, and Pereira. These modest-sized cities were themselves contained by the bigger axis of the three largest Colombian cities: Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali. The best coffee in the world supposedly was grown within this inner trio, though - and I was game to check it out.

My first impressions of clean, attractive, and incredibly hilly Manizales were all positive - and they'd stay that way. Lofting away right from the bus station was yet another MetroCable like in Medellín, but here the system was in its earlier stages: the Manizales MetroCable line was currently limited to a (handy-yet-small) terminal-centro run, with only one intermediate stop.

With such hilly terrain it would be a natural to expand this system greatly, I thought. Unquestionably Medellín had shown that these gondolas were a viable system beyond ski resorts. This would be especially true here, since the roads were otherwise particularly inefficient. Indeed, I would soon find that all roads in Manizales swirled so dramatically that it was nigh on impossible to really know where I was.

First things first, of course: we lucked into a final dorm bed - and a sofa for me in the commons area, both at a sister hostel to the better-known Mountain House hostel. Hostal Manizales provided immediate proof that it was a good thing we had taken an early morning bus just for this opportunity. Whew! Fortunately a bed would open up for me, too, the next day.

I settled in quickly, glad to have this most basic of necessities taken care of: the feria was on! No time to lose. Beyond festival hijinx, I'd be hoping to check out some nature, too. For the tourist, these two things were the standout items to check out in Manizales. Little did I know I'd still be around three weeks later, though: THAT would be the town's most impressive sign to me, even if I didn't know that immediately.

The first night turned out to be a telling one, when Miguel and I took to wandering about the feria. Taking the bus into the centro, it was only minutes before a beautiful woman with her preciosa (little daughter) took the time to promote all the wonders of the event. She eventually included her phone number, too, if we needed anything or got lost. (THAT helpfulness was not a rare thing in Colombia, by any means, but practically unimaginable back in the Industrialized West).

Our temporary host exhorted us to immediately go to the furthest stage out - at Chipre, on the heights - to understand the scope of the thing. Muchachos - begin there! From Chipre she recommended making our way back toward the other stages. It'd turn out that she sold this excellent, strategic call correctly, one that would serve well in the nights to come.

Her insistence would unfortunately also make me forget that I had wanted to see the legendary Toto Momposina on the main stage, but so it went. Her beauty had a way of inducing myopia, a consistently male affliction in such cases. Fortunately, I soon found that the music quality and variety in this massive and citywide revolving circus would be plenty enjoyably absent even the great Momposina. The groups went in different musical (latin) direction from one moment and stage to the next. With always more choices on the horizon, one couldn't complain.

The feria turned out to be bigger and much better than anticipated - that's what I'm trying to say. It completely took over the town, was very professionally done, and even found itself shown on TV around the nation. At the very least this meant fantastic people-watching, in all their varied stripes of mode and comportment. Street food - YES, street food! Nary a foreign face seemed present.

Three main stages dominated the attentions of the central area (the only part of town resembling a grid, abbreviated as it was), each providing good music of every latin variety - and free. Probably if only because of the latter there were huge and friendly crowds, plus street food galore. Beyond these concentrated central offerings, I soon heard of nearby locales hosting even more events. These included cycle races, bull fights, soccer matches, a festival of artisans, and more. Best of all, walking with a beer (or aguardiente) in hand was expected (and convenient): Colombians didn't let pesky details of legalities get in the way of a good party.

Another common festival option was to clamber onto a garish chiva (literally, goat) bus - in its slightest of removes, one could both dance your ass off AND drink. As a group inside socialized, the vehicle would simultaneously lumber from bar to bar, or club to club, in a set pattern - just as convenient as walking beer in hand! Moreover, even a drunk could probably still figure out the necessary details of a bus that had moved on while temporarily descended to the mayhem of the street.

You paid a fee for the use of the chiva (always one of those antiquated and very colorful buses with a large presence in Colombia's past, still ubiquitous at present in the countryside), then hopped on and off as you saw fit. Usually one saw fit to get off to buy more booze, when the bus was stopped up in dense traffic - which could be most of the time. This allowed for a random game known to all Colombians: crashing chivas and jumping in on other peoples' parties. No booze was sold onboard, so this hop-on-hop-off style of party travel was fully expected.

When the hostel organized a chiva for us tourists to try out on one night, unsurprisingly we soon had one filled up. Many of us by then well-understood the allure; no lure was necessary to get us onboard this garish symbol of Colombia. Nevertheless, attempts to party from the chiva's rooftop, or the large dangling rear bumper, would be foiled near the end of the ride. 'Boisterous' could be fairly applied liberally to the entire thing. Merry. Oh, glee.

Numerous expected attractions littered the fair, too, things like trampolines, massive swings, a mechanical bull, a ferris wheel and the ubiquitous swinging boat. These all drew large crowds for gawking at the victims brave enough to stand them... while I took to gawking at the crowd, many of whom were drinking, excited, and loud. I'm sure the rides were a thrill, too.

Beyond the rides were hordes of games of chance, such as ring tossing onto bottles of ron (rum) and aguardiente, or throwing and shooting at them. As expected, it was nigh on impossible to actually ACCOMPLISH any of this, not making it a surprise that most contestants were loaded enough in the first place to try. All of this involved betting, of course, so it really didn't matter if it was a lottery - or a guinea pig choosing between overturned (and numbered) bowls to scamper away and hide from the crowd's eyes. One way or another, the Feria would separate people from their money, and happily so.

The Feria's theme was unabashedly cowboyesque, a Latin rodeo, para quitarse el sombrero (to throw off your hat) as they said. Thus, beyond the expected realm of the bullfights, ponchos and country hats galore were present: this was Paisa country! Very proudly so, too - the sombreros and shawls would stick around long after the Feria found its last booze bottle dropping to the ground. In this region, indeed, one said one was Paisa even before Colombian.

Being IN Colombia, though, a feria also (by NECESSITY) entailed appreciating the beauty of Colombian women in full flower (i.e. skimpy clothes). Translated, this meant one thing: beauty pageant. Now here was something I could endeavor to explore with attentive interest. And, when I found these heroines were to be aurally accompanied by screeching (recorded) trumpets, completing a glorious mix in that inimitable Latin style - what was there not to like? Feria, Feria!

Indeed, on one occasion I was told of beauty queens appearing not far from where I hung my hat at night. Oh, really...? Why... not? I soon joined the masses headed to Cable Plaza mall a couple blocks away, accompanied by two like-curious Aussies for a look. I'd never checked out the beauty pageant world before, and here Colombia was conveniently known as one of the primary pageant-mad countries of the world (along with neighbor Venezuela).

If only for the sake of science, of course, I mused that one must enter the eye of the storm: we'd merely be playing our expected part in joining the squished mob. Yes, soon assembled a horde in anticipation of... well, what exactly? The suspense nevertheless grew. Sure, we had a bit of trouble getting in, pretty girls and free both being appealing words apparently to more than our trio of determined scientists, but that could be managed by patience and subtle pushing. Soon we learned that patience was indeed the key word: we took our positions to wait. And wait. Annnnnnd... wait.

Finally the dancing music let up, and the spotlights had something to focus on. One by one, girls representing most of the countries in the Americas (and Spain) made their way out to their adoring masses... us? Each was announced with a flourish, then required to answer one question as they approached the emcee with the mike. Such testing inquisitions took the form of "How do you like the Feria?!?" Or Manizales?!? Or Colombia?!? Deep, probing stuff. Shockingly, each replied in the same way: I lovvvvve Colombia. How great to be in Manizales! What a Feria! I felt illuminated, whole. Such perfection!

Well, so they all replied except one - the U.S. representative, our own red, white, and blue horror. Soon I wanted to hide my head, not to mention the 10x15 foot flag tucked in my pocket that I had been fully prepared to wave. A-mare-ih-cuh!'s very own barbie was the only one not speaking Spanish, soon compounded by becoming flustered by the pesky questions in a furrin tongue.

Her contorted face quickly proved sufficient, too, to further make a bad show of herself in the process. Following a considerable pause, where our homegrown beauty looked both flummoxed and upset, Miss Café U.S.A. finally resorted to asking the emcee to repeat himself in English a couple of times. Into the microphone, no less: what the heck did these non-english-but-spanish-speaking people want to know? Such barbarians - everyone speaking Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country, and participants only from Spanish-speaking countries. Heathens!

Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if Miss Café Canada and Miss Café Brazil hadn't managed the program rather well with their fluent-sounding replies. Hmmm. Sensing a growing faux pas, our heroine was finally helped out by the emcee. He mouthed three sentences in Spanish to repeat word for word: Amo Colombia! Que barbaro estar en Manizales! Que feria!!! (Guess the translation). I doffed my Uncle Sam tophat in shame, slinking back just enough to hide... and check out the next contestant.

Well, it HAD been a show, that was true. Some clothes from one of the mall's businesses had been modeled, followed by the girls parading around some kids sporting kidswear from the same store. Initially each contestant had filled out a matador(a) outfit exceptionally well, too, thematically rejoicing the feria's bullfights. But really... yawn. For my considerable efforts, I resolved that I'd not be making a return to the land of beauty pageants anytime soon. Like within the span of my lifetime.

There was still more pageant-less feria to enjoy, of course, and no end of walking the streets to find less-contrived beauties to ogle. For example, on one night we left the feria's public streets when a group of us went out to Fondas - an expansive, festival-fenced dirt lot. We each paid the required chunk of pesos to enter this simulated old-school feria, a collection of many tent taverns. What now?

Simple - drink and make merry! This wouldn't be hard to accomplish, with each tent sporting their own band and housing a scene spilling into the center. This both explained the central dirt area AND proved its necessity as an escape - a good thing, since the interiors of the tents were maintained at an ear-splitting level.

Soon us merry-makers took to drinking shots of aguardiente to get into the swing of things, each swallow often followed by squirts of water down the same hatch. This worked amazingly well for me, as did the presence of the cutie nearest me. SHE was apparently named Vanessa, a cousin of Tatiana, who was going with Julian, who had organized the outing, who knew Cristina, who... probably just fed me another shot of aguardiente.

The short and long of it was lots of dancing and flirting, flirting and dancing, and (with no further commentary) leaving the Fondas at 3a.m. THAT found us needing to walk home slowly when no taxis appeared. The par-ty's o-ver, I sang to myself deep in my spirits-addled head... The girls next would be ruing their heels for the ensuing hiking up and down central Manizales, but at 4:30a.m. or 5a.m. a very good night indeed had ended.

Soon the feria was quickly over, too, after something like nine nights. It had really been all dat, a party dressed up with all the trimmings. Even the Christmas lights were still up throughout it, just as numerous in Manizales as I had found elsewhere. Best of all, though, Manizales in a matter of days had drastically revived a flagging TripTrumpet. I could hang here for a spell, letting Mompox, Cartagena, and Medellín's restlessness drift far away.

My thoughts ahead to a month in Leticia (in the Amazon) would be further pushed back accordingly, now that my ship had righted in a port. I now saw myself in for a healthy 10+ days in the coffee axis at least... which wouldn't be enough as it turned out, either. Eventually this would become a five-six week detour in the land of café. I'd be obeying rule #1 of TripTrumpet travel: if you're happy, clap your hands... and stay where you are.

With the Feria passing into the past, my eyes returned to the maze better known as Manizales. This truly was an odd town, a geographic anomaly with its pockets of popluation tucked in numerous nooks and crannies clinging to a cluster of hills. There were pockets of green in between, I was happy to note, but they could considered for naught when trying to figure out how to reach any of them.

This was one town that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had never heard of to level and homogenize. Oh yeah, they didn't operate in Colombia... yet. In any event, beyond the core central district one never walked a straight line for more than a block or so. Other hilly cities such as Seattle and San Francisco just didn't compare. This reality immediately made for interesting sidetrips of confusion, now that it was post-feria and with me trying to find specific sites in town... or attempting to find a busstop to get out of it.

One such daytrip - a very successful one - was to a coffee finca (farm, plantation), including a detailed tour of coffee production in Spanish just for Miguel and me. This (by now) served as a temporary reprieve for my Swiss friend - he had become a growing liability in boredom, despite his well-meaning intent. To be fair, though, I'd always found the Swiss to be very nice... yawn... what was I talking about? Sorry!

Ah yes - at times like this (getting a tour), the numbers game of making things a go had increased Miguel's value once more. By my estimation, it even redeemed his company - I had been feeling guilty for increasingly wanting to shake him, anyway. True, I could have ended it by putting a bullet to my head, but he hadn't been making it easier since he was so damned nice. Such is the dark side and sordid business of solo touring, where one meets many new people... and has to tell or listen to many of the same stories repeatedly. Not pretty.

Literally back at the farm though, our tour was refreshingly UNlike what I had learned in Costa Rica some years prior. Back then I had also played translator on a ten-day affair, undertaken to help a friend establish contacts and contracts with suppliers in that other major coffee-exporting country. The one tour there had been more grandiose-seeming, with a sales-pitch quality to it. Fair enough, it was about business after all.

On THIS tour there would be a focus on the intensity and poverty of the labor. That would be further evidenced by the migrant life readily and immediately visible, yet related with an eye to its hard-drinking lifestyle in isolation. We saw how global warming was directly affecting the harvest, too, practically wiping out the previous year's crop. With every year seemingly a variation of El Niño these days, the general timing of the game had been changed confusingly.

Beyond such now-recurring anomalies of weather, it was the separation of the beans and the detailing of who got which grade of coffee that was stressed. The Colombian taste for coffee was already notably acknowledged as low-grade among local and tourist alike. This was the likely outcome all along when all the good stuff was exported far away. By the time the lecture - I mean tour - ended, it became hard to imagine that a cup of coffee could only cost $1-$4 back home. Our guide had made her point, and how.

Indeed, allowing for the most frothy latte, skimpiest drip, or the horror called Nescafé, migrant hands must've worked at a frantic pace to get the job done in any volume. They seemed to touch each individual bean far too much to sustain the prices paid per cup - without people living in the abject poverty I found present. I wondered if coffee at both an acceptable price for consumption and production could exist.

No place better evidenced this contrast of worlds than the semi-squalid migrants' cabin, located a long coffee bean's throw from the main hacienda. It was at the latter, though, where I would partake in one of my best meals in Colombia - furthering this comparison even more. It was sufficient in abundance without being super-sizedly so, and tastefully seasoned - a treat. It was likely a far cry from what was available in the pot just down the hill.

Still, I was on a tour (of sorts, mostly independent in this case) with all its trappings. Indeed, I found the hacienda such a pleasant place that I decided to nap away a portion of the afternoon on an upstair balcony divan. There I listened slumberingly to a cheery nothingness, only infrequently interrupted by birds. Hopefully the farm hands had moments like this, too, to enjoy nature's bounty.

Later I chose to extend the day by playing a suite of sugary trumpet, too: I had to take advantage of the great accoustics in the main dining room. This tonal salvo was mainly issued forth for the plantation owner, who rewarded me with numerous cups of coffee. Was this my version of fair trade coffee? If it was, I drank the profit completely away.

Fair enough, though, all wasn't completely perfect - I regretted not bringing a swimsuit to lounge in the pool with a view. As a tour went, this had been a good racket. I rued the moment when the hazy lazy long day had to finally end - I tried to catch the last bus at dusk. This would be a failure, sure, but it'd stay on theme as a pleasant one, ending with walking a half hour back to Chinchina. From there I caught the late bus back to Manizales.

A lot of ado in Manizales was made of the easy access to nearby national parks. For our hostel, impressively half-Colombian in its guest list, this was true as well. I had been sifting through the reports I was getting, about checking out the nearby famous park, Parque Los Nevados, but it was only after enough raves that I finally decided to go. One fine evening I abruptly made the reservation with an agency; at 6a.m. the following morning I was up and ready to go five minutes later. Soon I joined a shockingly prompt bus with about 20 Colombians: Parque Los Nevados, beware!

In minutes we wound through the curvy roads out of Manizales, up into the clouds... and the bloom quickly came off of our increasingly frigid rose. Oh, but why? Why indeed. Certainly our guide had initially struck me as a knowledgeable sort, dressing the part and talking the talk with earnestness. Cool shades, too.

Perhaps it was fitting then, when he strongly encouraged all of us to take off our jackets - and open the windows wide to acclimatize - all complied. We were all in this together, apparently, good little sheep. But... man, it's cold!... and... What nonsense! I looked about me as hands soon rubbed bare arms and teeth began to chatter. Soon I was one of this number, too. What the hey? I didn't sign up for this!

Enough!, I concluded only after some ten minutes of this idiocy: I'd been in plenty of mountains; no one acclimatizes for a day trip into cold. After enough minutes of freezing, I donned my lone jacket as the rest of my companions shivered on stoically. They jealously viewed with wonder my bold decision. Some even smiled, too, possibly reveling in the pain for the gain they believed would result. Fools!, I inwardly cried.

Confident of the folly of the affair, I soon tried informing some of my more-suffering neighbors of the realities of altitude acclimatization. It was not to be mixed up with chilling one's ass off, dontcha know? Really? They pondered: sure, the idea was appealing... but... but... but I'd find no takers to buck our now-glowering guide. For my actions I now only received the full of his contempt - only as I countered it with my own.

After an hour or two of the bus climbing we entered the park proper, soon rewarded with a meager breakfast as we soldiered on with the task of bearing cold. The grand, voluminous restaurant seemed to have not heard of the concept of heating, keeping up the day's theme. This too dashed a hope that had been growing comeasurate with the hunger in our stomachs. Its views were agreeable enough, true - but only for those who could see beyond frosting eyelids and the unsteady gaze that comes with jumping up and down.

The next few stops were all accompanied by more healthy servings of cold, now with a beating sun to ironically pound the message in. As if the open windows and moonscape didn't do a proper job, sunscreen now needed to be layered on. This proved an ineffective barrier, but an enhancer instead, to the chilling breeze. The still-open windows next further meant that the volcanic ash, which we began now rolling over, prodigiously entered the bus cabin. Great, now we were being rewarded for perseverance with something to choke on.

What nonsense, I fumed, my mood gone beyond sour with the discomfort level staying as high as our time was long on the bus. That was virtually all day, and at an expensive price for Colombia, too: 120000 pesos ($60)! Yes, the volcanoes were beautiful - the pictures would be marvelous, no doubt - but I'd seen this before, hadn't I? Weren't those times found in far more comfort and timeliness? Minus the relatively uninformative guide remarks? Yeesh.

By the time the guide took to alluding to the "mystic" qualities we were experiencing - a word I reserved for each to inveigh independently - my stomach finished its turning with a full revolution. Arggh. The bumpy ride didn't help, either - shocks, anyone? Maybe we could lay the guide out and sit on him?

When we finally pulled at elevation into the parking lot, to ascend the volcano on foot, I had given up on the Colombian sheep accompanying me. Most still had their smiles pasted on unconvincingly, an impressive feat probably helped nevertheless by the freezing aspects of cold. I took instead to accompanying some Aussies who I had brefriended minutes before, at a particularly picturesque moonscape stop. Sanity, please? Someone? Aussie, Aussie???

Finding new company immediately proved a wise choice: many of the Colombians, upon exiting the buses, quickly took to heaving themselves over, hands on their knees, or bracing themselves in odd exercises. A number merely gave up on the climb right away. Come on, guys, it ain't that bad! Easy for me to say in relative warmth, perhaps.

THIS was something I had never seen in the Pacific Northwest, fellow volcano country (albeit not as high as the Andes). I'd allow for altitude sickness being possible, sure, but the numbers were just way too high. This was particularly so given that the majority of the people in my group already lived in the mountains, in places like Bogotá and Medellín. The guide - and fear - had won.

I had a hill to climb in the meantime. The ascent was unquestionably steep - I'd concede that, readily - covering perhaps 900m straight up the gut of the thing. After that slog, though, came a tiny lean-to shack - erected near a marker stating the elevation as beyond 5000m. This was indeed a fairly good height, with excellent views particularly of the neighboring volcano cone.

Now came my great surprise - there was the possibility of a jog over to touch the snow nearby. There was a small field of it left, a receding remnant of the glacier that was disappearing. I had the necessary epiphany, now belatedly: this tour existed for Colombians to touch snow for the first time! I slapped my forehead in the obviousness of the observation.

With that realization I lost any interest I had in continuing, on snow or otherwise. Let them touch cake! Let them eat snow! I holed up with a similarly-enlightened Australian girl under the lean-to, soon smiling again in conversation while protected from the windy cold. We shocked the guides present, too, both refusing to take the ten-minute badge/pass which allowed one to walk over and stand on the white stuff. (The glaciers were steadily disappearing, creating a preservation mentality effected in this odd way). No thanks, we cheerfully replied.

Nah, leave more for the next guys, we reasoned. For my part I just wanted to get away from this folly. Yes, please take me away from this disappointment achieved en masse, experiencing a landscape not very different from Mt. St. Helens back in Washington State. That wasn't to be either, of course: back at the parking lot our group waited an hour for a couple who impossibly got lost. How did that happen on a single trail, with its lack of any deviation or tree coverage?

The fun would continue after our vaunted climb, too, as we drifted down to a last (now belated) stop of lunch at 4p.m. The hot springs afforded there, in a dirtyish pool, were as meagre as the lunch of a simple soup accompanied by a plate with lettuce, rice, and PART of a fried plaintain. The rest of the trip similarly read like a jail sentence as - now uncomfortably tired - I dozed off fitfully in the bus down to Manizales.

Finally returned after 12-1/2 hours, I was only left with the souvenir of a splitting headache and a sore neck for my efforts. My remaining consolation would now only lie in convincing others not to take the trip. More deviously, I suppose, I could just as easily have offered up a certain tour suggestion for any enemies I could scrape up.

Back at the hostel, and now with my headache reward taking over, I soon crashed hard and slept over the next day or two. I determined to now try a new tack, spending the days ahead in such constructive things as trumpeting, drawing, and flirting with the haughtily-cute Mariana who worked the front desk. A glutton for punishment, TripTrumpet.

With this newly tour-freed time I soon read the Chinese book Waiting (by Ha Jin, not bad), then caught the well-regarded Colombian movie Rosario Tijeras (whose lead filled out every letter of the word s-e-x-y). Similarly I sat through the miserably poor British flick Cashback. A week passed; soon I lost the last remnants of my friends from the days of the feria. Where's ev-r-body going?

Julian the Bogotano-American left, then Aussie Eden rolled out on his motorcycle for points southward. Swiss Miguel was long gone, and soon was fellow Seattle-ite Christian, who had gotten stuck in Manizales with bike repairs while cycle touring from the south of Chile to Seattle. I was jealous of his trip in concept only by this point, having come to the realization after my Canadian and Australian cycle tours that I was only good for about six weeks of solo touring. I stayed on, ever more resolved to work on the trumpet and learn some tunes.

Holing up wasn't entirely by coincidence, though: the town ahead for me - Salento - didn't have a DAS office to renew my visa stamp. My visa was nearing its end, even if renewing it would fortunately prove only a hiccup of an officious experience. I'd have to come up with some photographs and 70,000CP ($35) for the month's extrension, no big deal.

I'd also give no less than 14 fingerprints, comprised of each of my fingers and combinations thereof. This was done while all the while I was made to feel like a schoolchild asking for a bathroom pass. At least they had a sink to wash off the sea of ink plastered over my digits. I was relieved when this brief interlude of officialdom ended, only having grudgingly complied with the official's technique of forcibly grabbing each finger as he rolled it over the form. So it went in the office of authority.

Still, the entire visa experience had been fraught with odd (yet ultimately easily surmountable) difficulties, too. For example, the money for the stamp could only be deposited in one bank, which would turn out to be only at a specific branch. There was one wasted trip, including rolled eyes from the teller when I finally correctly filled out the form to deposit 68,700CP. (This had actually changed to 70,100CP I would find later, but since I had it in print from the DAS office, it'd be tough luck for the government and a whopping $2 in my favor).

When I arrived at the DAS office, too, there was some confusion about which office I should enter. There was a massive line in front of the building that had a habit of not moving, but I soon (fortunately!) found that the office I needed to go to was relatively empty. There a frowning man took my details down in slow keystrokes, belatedly and non-chalantly accepting three passport-like pictures, two photocopies of my main passport page, and a final copy of the page with my initial Colombia visa stamp.

My unchosen inquisitor asked me about which languages I spoke, my profession (what is it today?, I asked myself), mother and father's first name, Mom's maiden name, reason for staying on in Colombia, etc. I had to play the game of servility with this odd and demanding man, evidently ready to find an excuse to make me come back later. At one point he forcefully told me where precisely to sit and which chair to use at a desk to fill out some form (after I had taken empty office chair that was more logically placed near me). Sigh.

I finally got stamp the stamp for all this, though, even surprisingly marked for a month after Jan 17 (as in my passport). This favorable date came opposed to the February 14th date expected, which would have been 30 days after January 15th (the stamp was for 30 more days theoretically). Fine with me, and certainly a speedy enough affair in the grand scheme of things - I need only look at the line formed outside the building. I had heard tales of others in different cities, of a day completely spent in the grace and under the auspices of DAS. Good fortune smiled on me.

Hey, at least I wasn't stabbed or something. Indeed, two more Americans were robbed outside my hostel like in Bogotá. Arriving back late at night, this latest duo was ambushed by four locals with knives. Two came running from below the hostel and two from above, catching the Americans just outside of hostel. Various valuables were waved bye-bye, but at least no stabbing took place.

With this latest false feint and parry, I became determined to not walk with only one other American at night. With two I might venture, yes, or accompanying a pretty French girl perhaps, but I wouldn't be taken in by the Two-American-Guys-Walking-At-Night voodoo. I was too s-m-r-t for that. Gotcha.

Meanwhile it wasn't like my new "down time" really had halted any local touring - only changed the gradient had changed. This was the land of hot springs after all, a favored retreat of mine. I wasn't going to let the pitiful example included in my Parque Los Nevados tour spoil the possibility of better venues.

I soon would reward myself with three such places, the first being Tierra Viva. An Englishman named Barney was suitably interested to join me for a day out, even if he'd prove to have been satisfied with a mere couple of hours of such steaming. I'd dig in for a more relaxed affair, however, lounging happily at T.V.'s two very nice - although paved - pools. This was a very clean facility, with a pleasant hillside to look at and only a handful of families to disturb with my near nakedness. ExPENsive food there didn't prove to be a deterrent, either - I had packed some chocolate and nuts to adequately disobey the "no brought-in food" dictate.

Back in town meanwhile, the arrival of Cesar and David from Medellín (David was actually from El Retiro, the first place in the New World to liberate slaves) would eventually provide company to check out a second collection of hot waters. My new friends, professional musicians both - guitarists - were finishing their graduate performance programs. They'd immediately change the hostel's flow for several days.

On the first night of hanging out with them, I met their local friends Cesar and Paula. These two soon led us to a hip hole-in-the-wall bar, just off the main drag yet admirably unnoticeable. The only customers there, soon guitars got pulled out and led to some singing (including the signature warbling of your correspondent), then dancing. We rocked out with our socks out as a bass soon next materialized and a couple of us started clapping Cuba's son rhythm. Scary, inspired - who knew?

At 3a.m. a foul note was reached as we made our way home, however. Paula had probably had one too many when she took to reenacting a scene out of too many movies. THAT consisted of a decision to climb beyond a retention fence off of a bridge's staircase, leading to a bulwarked, meter-wide bridge. THAT crossed high over a perpendicular street (and certain death) below. Hey!

Paula quickly took to playing the game of taking a few steps out, then rushing back to the fence. She properly played the mad nutjob that usually had the habit of dying per Hollywood's vision, scintillating stuff. Cesar tried his best soon enough, holding on to her a number of times when she neared the fence, rewarding this scripted play for attention. Sigh - I was sickened (and nervous) with the entire affair, eventually abruptly leaving to let the BS sort itself out without my help. I needed the rest of the night in bed, to put some aguardiente to rest. More... water.

The next day Paula was still alive, of course, and I had a little more sleep than my fellow musicians. Nevertheless we decided on touring the cathedral of Manizales next - it sure looked big. It apparently was, the fifth highest in the world (after Ulm, Cologne, Notre Dame in Paris, and one in Brazil). "How about that?!?" I thought.

Soon we had paid our 7000CP ($3.5) and were climbing from without and within practically to the top. I was kinda surprised how far we could go, to be honest. Indeed, this only recently had been far more dangerous - two years ago there hadn't been the life-saving railings or cages to grab onto. Those could halt or break a fall toward certain death. I thanked whomever as I ascended stair after stair.

The views achieved were soon amazing, looking onto the city below and then out to its extents. Higher up this went beyond, to the countryside in all directions - probably a view of over an hour distant by car. Or fifteen minutes by the typical crazy bus, I mused.

We also had the fun of flirting hopelessly with our mildly-piqued tourguide Natalia. Quickly we made a habit of making her repeat herself right after each explanation. She could only cast sighing looks toward our pathetic beings in response. Still, she later became convinced to join us for an evening of music and food. Not a bad day at church.

Dinner fell to me to execute, being the only one who took particular pride and interest in cooking. I arranged a number of pickled appetizers, then set to creating a bastardized chili accompanied by rice, a tomato salad, french bread and - finally - a good heaping of San Cristal aguardiente. Music didn't take long to enter the mix, with cutting and chopping quickly done and cooking left to its own ends. On guitar, trumpet, and voice we ran through traditional latin numbers, then switched to the universality of bossa nova and the ever-fantastic tune Chan Chan. We were greatly enjoying the kitchen's rewarding accoustics, also ending up in cooking for twelve as a long night ensued, one even longer on fun.

Plans were next made to check out the area's principal hot springs, those of Santa Rosa. Promised as all-natural, they would be a slight time chore to reach, however. An hour-plus of bus only got us to Santa Rosa; that need be followed by another half-hour jeep taxi for the last 9km to reach the hot springs.

Our time in Santa Rosa town itself proved a bit of a clusterfuck in logistics, with each one of the five of us having different plans for our stomach. I was the only one who had thought of food ahead of time, so it wasn't by coincidence that I was the most perturbed to spin wheels in town with the hot springs so tantalizingly close by. It likewise wasn't a coincidence that I was perhaps the biggest hot springs enthusiast in so thinking ahead.

Finally we reached takeoff velocity from Santa Rosa, only to enjoy a rickety jeep's fumes for those final forty minutes up to the springs. Our driver - Arturo - was an amiable paisa, complete with poncho slung alternately over one or both of his shoulders. He promised to retrieve us later. Good man!

With Santa Rosa's hot springs being a well-known attraction, it shouldn't have been as surprising as it was to enter with a horde of Colombian tourists. We could only take comfort in being the only monos (gringos) around, soon taking in the beautiful setting of a steep hill towering over several pools and a running brook. Most dramatic was a stunning waterfall, something worth seeing on its own for its almost-impossible-to-be-natural splaying over the rocks. Wow.

Down below, the four pools were each very clean and well-designed, however disappointingly paved. I wondered when I would see a large hot springs in Latin America that didn't sport concrete. Santa Rosa's still deserved credit for being a quality place for all this, though - especially given the great number of visitors.

Once again, like at Tierra Viva and the volcano tour, I faced the realization that hot springs in Colombia were primarily a family affair, too. Confound it - most of the cuties were truly too young to look at beyond jailbait! There went one always merit-worthy side program, anyway - girlwatching.

Thus it fell to one bonafide cutie to make up for all of her younger sisters, although one indeed with the most amazing derriere to all of our eyes. One need speak frankly about such things. Honestly told, those orbs of flesh consumed an embarrassingly large quantity of each or our attention spans, and I bore the blame. Yes, I was guilty of serving notice to the others - only as a humanitarian gesture, a public service, mind you - of that particularly bewitching vision that lay in store for my friends. That is, if would-should they - by happenstance - wander over to the next pool from their current location.

These suggestive, enchanting twin hills demanded attention, it need be said: barely a stitch of clothing separated two kingdoms in harmonious opposition. Not much was left for the imagination, true, yet imaginations weren't required to take over for the effort in the first place. Each of us sat in our own personal awe, repeatedly returning to the hypnotic lure so daringly offered to one and all.

The object of our attention, meanwhile, was accompanied by three men. One of these - most likely her boyfriend - made a habit of giving us dirty looks (who - us?); she'd remain safely unapproachable. This only left her butt, then - and THAT continued making for some very approving conversation. The male of the species just rolls that way, s'all I'm saying.

Perhaps this is one way of saying that there isn't too much to otherwise do at a hotspring. There isn't; there wasn't. Still, I did find time to leave sight of that tanned topographic twosome for a more earthen counterpart. I spread my towel on the ground to read for a spell, then took to walking under the cool-not-cold falls as a treat. When I returned, however, and the object of our affection had already left the springs, it was time to go.

Arturo awaited us below with his trusty jeep, and we next made our way back to town standing up in its bed - anything to escape the rising fumes from the vehicle, which were otherwise stifling. We only detoured for a chorizo (sausage) stop - Santa Rosa was renowned for having the best in the country - and then it was a dark hour of busing back to Manizales in a rickety thing with seats shot to hell.

Here it need be mentioned that my seat was so bad that, when I leaned it back, it almost plunged into the boobs of the girl behind me not by choice. This was verifiable, considering her father was sitting next to me. HE wanted nothing more than to enjoy my company in pleasureable conversation. Whew! No foul - I knew better than to look up at what loomed with welcome from above, anyway.

Soon Cesar and David had moved on like the feria bunch before them. As usual, new faces entered the mix even as the overall numbers in the hostel kept dwindling. The feria faded completely to black; the peak season of January wore on toward oblivion.

A Scotsman, Graeme (pr. Graham), proved one of the longer-term holdouts. He stayed on perhaps more in confusion than anything else, wondering about what to actually do with having all the time in the world. Willed a healthy pension, I'd bet even now that he's probably looking for a purpose somewhere in South America. Still, his Fat Bastard was dead on - good on the Scotsman.

Others came and went, too, like some human rights lawyers from Canada and Australia. They passed through looking for a local way to place their services, likewise with a Peruvian-Aussie couple who ran a hostel in Lima. Glenn was an American from New Jersey, a freshly former Peace Corp-er now looking for work and any excuse to stay in Colombia. A veteran of the Santa Rosa butt appraisal as well, we came to similarly approving appraisals of Colombian women beyond mere skin... at least marginally.

Beyond these were a usual drinking brigade of Brits and Aussies, an Israeli lawyer undergoing a life change, and an Ethiopia-cum-American with a booming voice. This upbeat man was often found ebulliently proclaiming "I am so glad to have met you! You are such wonderful fellows!" throughout the day, often waking fellow guests who probably had different thoughts.

Although he sold himself as a shrewd third-worlder, at 68 he was looking for a coffee plantation and a new part-time lease on life in Colombia ASAP. His plan of looking at 100 houses and shrewdly bargaining thus went by the wayside - soon he was sold on a nearby finca on only the third try. Time was of the essence, he said, and who could deny such a wonderful fellow?

The hostel staff of owner Christina, Juan, Mariana, and Gloria all were soon quite used to my face. By the sheer volume of time in my stay I became a part-time member of the family, even if I mostly entertained the prospect of becoming Mariana's kissing cousin. Hey, that was like totally legal back when! She eventually had other thoughts, however.

Another group settled in for the latter part of my Manizales stay: the French Brigade had me slaughtering French for five days, consisting of Remi (Quebecois from Montréal), Karine (Swiss from near Lausanne), two young men from Lyons, and an elderly Swiss woman who spoke only French and used me as a translator. These entrants led to conversations about missing hockey, cheese, and chocolate in equal measure; my french tongue quickly loosened up again.

For all of its otherwise notable qualities, Manizales proved no different in one particular detail, noteworthy perhaps only to me. Where did one find a newspaper in this country? Here, in the place where Garcia Marquez got his start as a newspaperman, such broadsheets had been proving incredibly difficult to obtain. Of the paltry few, moreover, only the right wing El Tiempo had enough content to prove worthy on some standing basis of perusal. But even this national daily proved a chimera only too often: in the few places that would carry it, I'd invariably find all editions long gone by noon. Arghh!

My intent since Bogotá had been to read the Saturday or Sunday edition each week - the only two days with anything approaching bulk in content. Soon, though, I was reduced to just grabbing one whenever I happened to notice it, necessitated by the probability of finding another one, like ever. Eventually I would further adopt the habit of being on the ball come Sunday morning in all towns sizeable enough to carry it. The concept of a strongly literary culture based on Garcia Marquez's origins took a body blow of a hit.

Another noteworthy tourist draw for Manizales was its number of ecoparks, notably the natural settings they were found in. With that in mind I set out one fine day to Recinto, proclaimed the best of the close-in adventure spots. A short bus ride out of town and... I found myself exchanging a few words with the guard at a very closed gate. Closed Mondays.

Fortunately, that'd be no big deal - I'd return cityside to check out the botanical garden in town, a fine compensation, no? There, too, I found a rather imposing - and closed - gate. Egads! Here the sign said it was open Mondays, however - what were the gods construing for me on this day?

Determined to salvage salvation for the day, I set about hunting humans among the few derelict buildings in front of the lush jungle waiting beyond the gates. An open window, above a glassed-in vacant room, fronted me from the road. This looked curious: I suddenly detected motion. "HOLA!" I yelled. A face peeked out. "Podria entrar...?" I queried.

A woman looked down at me, confused, then told me there were no guides. But I didn't want one, anyway, I told her back. Hmmm, she evidently ruminated. After a prolonged quizzical look, I heard a buzz - a small door beside the main gate opened, and my Shangri-La was finally gained.

Or was it? Lush plantlife indeed beckoned within, but it wasn't like someone couldn't have hit some of it with a weedwhacker, either. I was the only soul in the place, it appeared, perhaps the first in a long while. I walked down some paths, quickly finding anything made by man to be crumbling.

That which nature wrought surged forth unrestrained, however. There were numerous large trees, bird-of-paradise-like flowers, and thousands of broad leaves. This was beautiful, like stumbling on some form of lost city. How often did someone get beyond the gate unbidden into Kubla Khan's Pleasure Dome, I wondered?

Eventually I would find myself not completely alone. A security guard wandered from far over in the compound, approaching me with a friendly demeanor. The most typical bantor ensued: Why was I in Colombia? First time? How long? Since when? These four questions in succession I had already deemed the textbook approach for Colombians with foreigners. By the 1000th time now it had worn thin, but I still hadn't the discourtesy to give him the brush off.

Who else did he ever get to talk to on duty? Fortunately he had to go after some half-hour trailing me about, off to close a gate. Preferring to do discovering on my own generally, I was now left to my own devices even for all of his pleading to show me around the circuit.

According to the guard, the Garden had actually been a victim of its own original success, drawing crowds... and thieves alike. When the problems had gotten out of hand from the latter, the whole she-bang was placed into a semi-closed limbo; the oasis began to disappear into dereliction right in the middle of a city bustling about it. Slowly it was physically falling apart, too, although apparently some of the university staff came in and cared for some of it on an ad hoc basis.

For example, I would find the greater (and more) natural part of it to have almost uniformly swept paths. All waited in silence, now after some dozen years of otherwise benign neglect... for me. So I told myself, always one to look for some logic where none need be found. I next slowly made my way through all of the paths over an hour or two, finally letting the gate shut behind me for the next brave soul to enter... in a year or two.

Meanwhile I still was curious about the Recinto - sort of, anyway. The next day I retook my pilgrimage to the outskirts of town. Open this time, I lost my momentum, unfortunately, when I was informed that I'd have to explore the area with a guide. "Por qué?" (Why?) I asked - "Bosque (forest)" I was informed. Seriously? Was I really going to get lost in a forest with a clearly marked path and a chairlift? My drive flagged, not to recover.

I'd had enough of "guides" since Parque Los Nevados for the time being. At least I fortunately could go in as far as the café - a Juan Valdez, no less. It turned out that the Recinto was owned by the coffee producers of the of Caldas Department, and no coincidence that: Juan Valdez was their brand. Whatever - I took advantage of a pleasant setting to sketch a bit, enjoying the backdrop of a hillside I'd not be exploring on foot. The next day, when a German girl at the hostel went there and DID use a guide, I debriefed her on the experience. A nice walk, she said, confirming my suspicions. "No big deal."

I would similarly soon find Ecoparque Los Yarumos non-plussing, but first I'd have to go there. After almost 20 days in Manizales, and only a short distance away from the hostel, Los Yarumos was too convenient to ignore forever. Fate would thus inevitably take over to put me there and satisfy my curiosity.

Yarumos promoted its "eco-"ness more than anything else on the surface, and from its brochure I gathered it was more a place to try out a few activities. Of these, some ziplines proved the greatest attraction for me. Like the paragliding in San Gil, here was a way to try an activity on the cheap. So, after a seven-minute taxi ride from the hostel, and at all of 3000 pesos, I found myself at the gate.

The place looked pretty empty - true enough, the Feria was now in the history book and it was midweek to boot - I immediately knew there wouldn't be any waiting around. I determined to take advantage of being able to do whatever was interesting, and efficiently at that. Thusly, the ticket lady easily talked me into a package of ziplines with tibetano (wire/rope bridges), a tobaggan ride, a chance to ascend the torre del cielo in town (outside the park in Chipre), and any amount of walking I wanted on the trails. All this could be had for 20000 pesos ($10). Sure: sold. I'd also be able to check out the small museum consisting of numerous pegged insects (quite good) and stuffed animals (which needed some re-stuffing) first... before heading off (per appointment) to meet my activity guide.

Actually, there'd be two of them - mainly for the ziplining. For each zipline, one guide would wait at the far end of the zipline while the other hooked me up for the rapid descent. Beyond myself, there would be two Colombians from Tolimo to join me and make a group.

This rather portly pair was intent on videotaping virtually every moment of the experience, too. Although that would prove slightly annoying at times, they would be an amiable duo. Plus, if only for this slowness, I would learn the Colombian phrase "Puya el burro!" - which I took to (politely) mean "Get a move on!"

For all the hype, the ziplines weren't all that, as it turned out. Much like parasailing and paragliding, a fear of heights would be the only thing particularly challenged in undertaking the experience. Having successfully overcome that fear for some time already, I just enjoyed the rides for what they were instead. All four of them, anyway - the fifth (mentioned in the brochure) had been destroyed by an avalanche. It was still viewable on the lower pair of the VERY steep trail taken to access the first zipline, a visible testament to "OOPS!" Meanwhile, there'd be no preoccupation in taking photos while ziplining, either: one could hang upside down like a monkey in flight if so desired. We did.

The tibetano activity, which immediately followed, consisted of two different experiences. The first was a good-sized walk on a wire over a ravine, the return route from the last zipline. Safety wasn't an issue with a rope and carabiner attached above, but getting my two new friends to move was. Puya el burrrrrrro!

Yes, this was where I learned my new burro-inspired phrase, one which they were happy to give me even if they didn't actually get a move on. Given the amount of video they soon took of me - dedicated to Kurt Cobain since I was from Seattle - I figured to be a famous man in Tolimo in a short period of time. Some compensation... without a peso to show for it!

The second tibetano proved much more challenging, a better overall experience. I quickly became a horse passing slower mules, taking advantage of my two friends taking in some scenery: I got to the obstacle bridge first. The record for this tibetano's full traversal, I learned, was something like 5 minutes. Impressive, but I'd need some 8-10 minutes to do it myself - of which I was sufficiently satisfied.

For this tibetano I walked on wires, logs, triangular hoops, and netting in random succession. Like its counterpart, all the while I'd use support wires above to make my way handily. This was tiring stuff in deed, however: the last activity, it turned out to be well-placed in the grand order of things. It was the only one requiring some amount of strength and dexterity. My arms were fatigued by the end of it. Indeed, to make the point less than subtle, one of my companions took a tumble. He had to be rescued midway, as he swung helplessly above the ground. He didn't even try to climb back up.

The tobaggan was the remaining event - could it be called that. For this I left my friends behind, now wiped out after the last tibetano. It took some hunting, but I soon found it - or what was left of it, seemingly. The three slide chutes were still there, yes, but constructed off to a side of everything else they obviously were a forgotten afterthought. Where were the blankets?, I wondered

Soon I decided on trying out one of the three narrow lanes on my pants, with no other cloths for the offing in the time being. That didn't go too well, barely at all in fact, but I made it to the bottom with some effort... where I found three rags. These I determined to be the blanket substitutes. Alrighty....

One was a cotton t-shirt, the other a wool/synthetic sweater remnant, and the third was a piece of indeterminate cloth one might find in a cheap curtain or kitchen rag. Were these left behind by previously frustrated guests, or were they the real deal? I'd never know, but it was in that order that I'd try them. A fortuitous ordering, it would turn out: each allowed for more speed, if only the last providing what could be called a ride.

Activities done, all that was now left in the park was to rewalk the trail system to its full extent, now near sunset. It couldn't be more than a kilometer in length, but I'd take the easier part first. Then I'd come back to access the view above followed by a descent of the VERY VERY steep section I had previously used to access the ziplines.

Nothing doing, it turned out - the lonely hike consisted only of a certain amount of bird noises intermingled with a few spottings. One bird was quite impressive, probably the same one I had seen in Santa Marta at Bolivar's hangout La Quinta, but it once again proved too shy to photograph. Its shades of blue and green were brilliantly muted and alluring, a circular feather jutting out from its tail still proving an elusive curiosity to capture on the digital medium passing for film.

At the top of the trail also lay one section of fence with a trail leading off beyond it. Maybe I'd get some kind of view, I hazarded a guess. And so it was, but not before running into six versions of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) Colombian-style, trotting up the trail a ways.

Decked in dress greens with numerous bright yellow tassles, they asked me to open a gate further on. That would obviate one of them having to dismount to do the job. Fair enough. To this I happily obliged, before hiking on further for my view of the city. Yes, it was all that, with the city splayed impressively below. The sun even cooperated, proferring brilliant oranges behind dramatic clouds.

For these few hours of activity I didn't bemoan the 10 bucks I spent altogether on Los Yarumos. The zipline and tibetan bridge activities were no longer mysteries to me, even if they didn't prove thrilling. Plus I still could go up the Torre el Cielo in Manizales' Chipre neighborhood - as long as I kept my wristband on...

...which I did that very evening. Advised to check out the view at nighttime, I went some hours after my Yarumos activities and walking the forty minutes back to the hostel from the park. Alas, nighttime was NOT the right time for me when I finally ascended the tower. Lights twinkled in every direction, true, but I couldn't make out anything of even vague interest. This was the case despite the provided telescopes, too. A day view would have been fantastic and better, but at least I had already had the majority of that when I went up the cathedral. Oh well.

Only one thing remained tourism-wise for me in Manizales by this time: I needed to complete my survey of the nearby hot springs. By this time I was knee deep in with the French-speaking group, so it was with Remi that I set out to El Otoño. A very pleasant surprise, this one turned out to be my (and Remi's) favorite. It had three pools, one cascading to the next in decreasing temperatures - that conveniently worked.

The pools formed the principal attraction in the publicly accesible area of the resort to which Otoño belonged. Two pipes each fed them from above, pleasant places to stand underneath and take a blast while avoiding any drops getting to the eyes for a burn (sulphur water). Otherwise it was a sterile-clean facility, set with hills and mountains to all sides forming quite a backdrop to the perch. Far from shabby.

Having chosen a day with only a few fellow customers, there was plenty of space to lounge about, too, not to mention multiple pipes to take the heat hit from without competition. Meanwhile the day increasingly turned to rain: would this rain on our parade's reign? Indeed, this darkening of the sky soon became an all-out pouring for a few hours. Well, hello!

No matter, though: this was my first honest rain in Colombia, yet experienced from the perfect comfort of warm pools. This made for a surreal moment, as such things go. Indeed, the rain provided a perfect mix of cool to offset the heat, serving only to add to an already pleasant time. There were no complaints from Remi or me, more than merely satisfied when after several hours we left on foot under clearing skies.

On foot we next proceeded for a kilometer or so, to a roadside stand serving up plates of chorizo, chicharron, patacon en arepa, and agua de panela. How absolutely perfect - I'd sleep like a baby come nighttime. Now with my Manizales palate completely satiated, I'd soon be off for new digs south... in Salento.

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