Manizales, Colombia - Things To Do and Expat Safety in This Beautiful City

Manizales, Colombia - Things To Do and Expat Safety in This Beautiful City
Manizales, Colombia|Jason Holland

Manizales, Colombia - Things To Do and Expat Safety in This Beautiful City

Fancy coffee shops are one of the first things that come to mind when you think about the city of Manizales. It embodies that mental picture of elegance and culture. Poised on the top of the Andes mountains, the city is one of the three capitals that make up Colombia’s Coffee Axis (Eje Cafetero).

Manizales is nestled in the heart of coffee country and surrounded by forested mountains. This beautiful mountain city has a population of just over 450,000 people.

Manizales sits at an elevation of 7,000 feet. Its annual temperature stays near a cool 63 F. The daily average high temperature ranges from 69 F to 72 F and can dip down to the chilly mid-50s F range at night.

While there is little need for air conditioning, some people may have small heaters or electric blankets in their homes to stay comfortable while they sleep. The fresh mountain breeze and almost daily rainfall keeps the air clean and minimizes pollution.

Overview of Manizales

©Jason Holland
©Jason Holland

Founded in 1849, Manizales lies in the shadow of Nevado del Ruiz, the second most active volcano in Colombia. It is located in Los Nevados National Natural Park, one of Colombia’s most visited natural attractions. On clear days, you can also see Nevado de Santa Isabel in the neighboring department of Tolima.

In January, Manizales celebrates its annual feria (fair)—one of the best in Colombia. The event highlights include a famous artisan expo, bullfights, multiple music concerts every night in different locations, and the International Coffee Queen Pageant. Throughout the week-long event, locals and visitors also enjoy parades, street dances, musical events, art exhibitions, and fireworks.

At the end of August, Manizales celebrates its annual international theater festival, which attracts dozens of theater troupes from Latin America, North America, and Europe. The city held its first theater festival almost 40 years ago and today, the event attracts culture lovers from all over Colombia. The city also hosts jazz, film, and visual arts festivals that are gaining popularity each year.

Retire in Manizales

©Wendy DeChambeau
©Wendy DeChambeau

Manizales is more off-the-beaten-path than some of the other more well-known cities such as Medellín, Cartagena, or Bogotá. That also means fewer expats to socialize with and to be a support network. This is a city where knowledge of basic, but formal Spanish is really handy.

Manizales is often compared to San Francisco, California, or Portland, Oregon due to the feel of its terrain, weather, and regular cultural events. This is a great place for people who like to read, listen to or share poetry, study history and culture, study Latin music, or even learn to dance Argentine tango and related rhythms like milonga, vals, paso doble, bolero, and Colombian traditional folk dances like the cumbre or pasilla.

Manizales is a modern city with all the conveniences you might need for comfortable daily life. Cable Plaza is one of Manizales’ most popular dining, nightlife, and entertainment zones. You can easily spot it because of the 177-foot tall cable tower which was part of the original “teleferico,” or cable car system which extended from Manizales to Mariquita, Tolima. This particular tower was brought in from Tolima.

The trendy Milan, or Zona G (gastronomy) neighborhood, has a nice variety of restaurants from casual burger spots to white-tablecloth dinner venues. There’s even a nice sushi restaurant called “Sakura.”

Manizales has several large malls, including Centro Comercial Fundadores, Centro Comercial Sancancio (in Palermo), and Mall Plaza or “Fallabella,” the city’s newest shopping outlet. The shops inside have everything you need to keep up with the latest fashions, decorate your home, grab a snack in the food court, and ensure you have the latest electronics.

Manizales is an active city. You’ll find dozens of gyms and fitness centers, along with hiking and bicycle groups, and soccer schools. The private Club de Manizales has facilities for golf, tennis, and soccer, along with a restaurant and special events for members.

Access to high-quality, inexpensive healthcare is always on the minds of retirees. In addition to dozens of small clinics, Manizales is home to the Hospital of Caldas, one of the top 49 hospitals in all of Latin America. It has a 24-hour emergency room, with two trauma suites, and is equipped to handle everything from basic primary care services to neurosurgery.

As a university city, residents benefit from the latest research and technology from private care providers at competitive rates. Manizales is also a destination for spa, natural health, and medical tourism services and facilities.

La Nubia airport is tiny and only offers domestic flights to Bogotá and Medellín. Due to consistent increment weather patterns which include fog, rain, and winds, it only operates during daylight hours from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. If you’re concerned about making an important connection, consider flying in or out of the Matecaña International Airport in nearby Pereira.

Getting around Manizales is not complicated once you learn how to use the bus or taxi system. Due to a mountainous topography, the roads are a bit tricky to navigate. Most traffic follows the mostly flat “carreras,” and neighborhood access is via “calles” which will often be going up or down the mountain vertical to the carreras. The Avenida Santander is the most important avenue with a north-south orientation along the spine of the mountain.

To increase mobility over rugged, steep, and sometimes difficult terrain, the Cable Aereo was inaugurated on October 30, 2009. It is 1.3 miles long and connects downtown Manizales with the regional bus station Terminal Nuevo. Each gondola holds up to 10 passengers and the whole system can carry 2,100 people per hour. The gondola was so successful that in 2013 an additional line was added to connect nearby Villamaria to the downtown.

The cost of living in Manizales is 70% less than either Boston or Chicago. You can tailor your lifestyle to your budget. Choose to dine out every evening or cook at home with inexpensive local produce and meats. Whether you shop in upscale malls or visit the local tiendas (small stores), foreign residents can live comfortably on a $1,500 to $2,000 per month budget.

Things to Do in Manizales

©Jason Holland
©Jason Holland

Argentine Tango

Manizales is one of the most famous cities in Colombia for tango. As of 2021, it is also home to an Argentine World Champion dance couple, who were reserve champions in 2020, in a virtual world championship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Calle del Tango (Tango street) is a conglomeration of five or six different bars and clubs which specialize mainly in Argentinian rhythms.

Be sure to visit on weekends to see the local talent perform, learn the basic steps, and immerse yourself in a unique dance culture and nightlife. Even if you aren’t much of a tango dancer, most of the bars play a mix of tango, milonga, valse, rancherito, bolero, pasodoble, merengue, cumbia, and salsa.

Cathedral of Manizales

The historic district of Manizales centers around Plaza Bolivár and Manizales Cathedral, also known as the Coredor Polaco. This 371-foot high, neo-Gothic wonder is the tallest cathedral in Colombia and the third tallest in all of Latin America. One of the special features of the Cathedral are the 9,150 square feet of stained glass windows that surround the building, making it one of the most famous cathedrals in the world. In 1950, as part of the celebration of the city's first centenary, the Cathedral was elevated to the dignity of Basilica.

Tip: When you visit, check out the cathedral tour to learn more as you walk to the very top tower with a 360-degree view of Manizales.

Thermal Springs

A day relaxing in the natural hot springs is good for the body and soul. The healing waters of Termales el Otoño come from 6,600 feet underground. By the time the water reaches the surface it can be between 120 F to 150 F. During the journey from within the earth, the thermal water acquires a myriad of different trace minerals that give it its healing properties. Some of the health benefits include: stimulation of the immune system, promoting good digestion, and accelerating metabolism. Bathing in the water is believed to flush toxins out of the body. It can even help improve the skin tone and condition.

Tip: Termales del Otoño offers day passes. Check their Facebook page or website for current prices.

Go to a Soccer Game

Manizales’s local soccer team, Once Caldas, plays in the Palogrande Stadium in the eastern part of the city, a short walk from Cable Plaza. Watch the local squad face off against opponents from other cities of Colombia. Be sure to join the crowd when it counts to 11 after the home team scores a goal. For the uninitiated, “once” is 11 in Spanish.

Visit the Once Caldas museum and gift shop before the game if you want to pick up some gear before the first whistle blows. The cheap seats in the northern zone of the stadium go for under $5.

Tip: Unless you want to be in a group of rowdy soccer fans, opt for the slightly more expensive seats in one of the better sections.

El Parque de la Mujer

With beautiful views of the rolling hills to the north and west of the city, Parque de la Mujer (Park of the Woman) has a flowing fountain decorated with a tapestry of Colombian names. A twilight outing to the park is a perfect start to a romantic evening.

Tip: Arrive at 5.30 p.m. to claim your spot to watch the sky light up with pink and blue during the famous Manizales sunset.

Located in the middle of the Avenida Santander, or Carrera 23, the well-maintained park has a coffee shop that serves snacks throughout the day. At night, eccentric flower-shaped figures light up the park while children practice dance routines, and adults do aerobics there on Thursdays.

For a casual happy hour, grab a beer from the grocery store across the street and join the crowd. It’s legal in Colombia to sip your beverage out in the open.

Recinto del Pensamiento

A couple of miles to the east of Manizales, Recinto del Pensamiento is a nature reserve with diverse flora and fauna. Your guided tour begins with an explanation of Andean plants and their medicinal properties.

Take the chairlift up through the jungle to the top of the reserve, where a butterfly house showcases more species than you can count. After a short walk, you’ll arrive at the hummingbird observatory. After accepting your cup of coffee, sit on the wooden porch and watch the birds as they cut through the sky and visit feeders situated around the porch.

Night out at the Cinema

Unlike cities like Los Angeles where movie tickets can cost up to $20, in Manizales you can see a newly released film for as little as $1.50.

If you’re looking for a genuinely Colombian experience, see one of the dubbed shows so you can get your Spanish practice for the day. If you’d rather see a film in its native language (usually English), attend the latest screenings at the Cable Plaza theater.

Go for a Drink

If you’re looking for a laidback yet classy place for an adult beverage, Solario in Milan neighborhood is the place for you. It has a bamboo roof overhead to protect customers from the rain. For seating, choose between conventional tables and chairs or multi-colored bean bags. The blue, pink, and yellow give Solario an energizing atmosphere.

If you’ve been craving a good cup of coffee, visit Juan Valdez, a popular coffee shop across the street from Cable Plaza. It has open-air seating where you can watch the day go by as you sip your way to happiness.

Ecoparque Los Yarumos

Walk some forest trails, test your courage on the climbing wall, or take a guided tour to learn about Colombia’s natural diversity. Ecoparque Los Yarumos has activities for the whole family, plus a gorgeous view of the Manizales skyline.

Participate in the museum tour for exhibits based around natural sciences. You’ll learn about the geology of Manizales, climate change’s effects on the environment, and the mysteries of outer space.

Learn Spanish

There’s no better way to immerse yourself in a culture than to learn the local language. There are some English speakers in Manizales, but not nearly as many as expat havens like Medellin or Bogota. By making the effort to learn Spanish, you’ll authentically connect to the heart of Colombia.

Universidad de Caldas and Universidad Catolica de Manizales both offer personalized Spanish classes for all levels. Individual lessons start around $450 for 40 hours of instruction. If you can find other students at your same level, consider taking group classes for a lower rate.

Is it Safe to Live in Manizales?

©Jason Holland
©Jason Holland

Manizales is regarded as one of the safest cities in Colombia. With lower crime rates than larger cities like Cali, Medellin, and Bogota, you can relax a little as you walk through the hilly streets.

Ask any Manizaleño and they’ll tell you the same thing. The only time you’ll really have to worry about safety is right after a soccer match. Many locals counsel against going out until the crowds dissipate and buses carrying the away team and their fans have left the city.

The safest places to live in Manizales are the Cable Plaza, Palermo, Laureles, La Rambla, Alta Suiza, and Milan neighborhoods, all of which are in the southeast part of the city. Some expats like Chipre, but it has some security issues at night.

To ensure you don’t run into problems, avoid walking alone at night. Try to take a bus, taxi, or use the InDriver application. Buses are preferable to walking in areas like Chipre, Plaza del Toros, Parque de las Aguas, el Centro, or La Enea. Taxis are everywhere and very cheap.