At long last I’m in Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, the Eje Cafetero, for a couple months of exploring. My base for the trip is the capital of the region, Pereira. I made it easy on myself for the first few days by holing up in a fancy hotel in what is the equivalent of NYC’s Central Park area, called here Circunvalar. It’s surprising to find such a discrepancy between text and reality in the information available on tourist sites and blogs about Pereira. They give the impression of some sleepy provincial city given over to business concerns, not tourism. Trust me, Pereira is as bustling as any metropolis can be. Businesses may not be open 24/7 like they often are in tourist hotspots, but when they are there’s plenty of traffic. If it were any busier the only word fit to describe it would be “frenetic.”
After a few days of the urban life I was dying to get out into the stunning countryside visible everywhere in Pereira. The fourth-floor al fresco restaurant of my hotel brought the surrounding mountains into clear view. One morning as I sat nursing my coffee while looking at the mountains a decision crystallized in my head in the twinkle of an eye: head for the hills. So with the help of a personal guide I’d hired to help me get a handle on the city and life in Colombia (all new to me) off we went to a little town only 5 miles from my hotel but an entire world away with regard to atmosphere. That’s one of the beauties of Pereira, in my opinion. You can find yourself surrounded by swirling traffic while dodging pedestrians on busy sidewalks and — if you manage to find the right bus — you can be in tranquil countryside within half an hour. Perfect!
Mind you, without the guide’s help I’d have got nowhere fast. We walked down streets I’d be hard pressed to identify on the Google map to a small bus lot off a nondescript side street. No amount of charity would induce one to call it a bus terminal, although functionally that’s what it is. It’s a gravel lot with some buses, a few food stalls and some benches. Hard wooden benches, in point of fact. When we got to the bus lot I retraced our steps in my mind and lost the trail long before arriving at my hotel. Without the guide I could never in a million years have found my way to the bus for La Florida. I wouldn’t even have known of its existence. It just goes to show that as a tourist only a small percentage of local resources are at your fingertips, no matter how good you are at doing research on the Internet. I know for a fact that you can search night and day and you’ll never find a clear and concise guide about getting a bus from Pereira to La Florida. My guide, however, wandered through the streets as though it were the easiest thing in the world. It takes the ginger out of you if you’re feeling smug about having figured things out beforehand. I’ve travelled enough by this point to know full well that I’m always going to find myself wearing the dunce cap when it comes to the local ins and outs of travel, so I kept my mouth shut and followed my guide’s directions all the while knowing I’d never reach his level of competence unless I lived in Pereira for years as he’s done. That’s just how it works.
If I’d asked at Reception in my fancy hotel about getting a bus to La Florida, the staff would have gone into a panic, I’m sure. The bus lot is in a part of town that doesn’t see tourists of a certain age wandering about unaccompanied. Had I asked the nice gentleman at the reception desk for directions to walk to the bus he’d have recoiled in horror and said something like, “Oh sir, you can’t go there by yourself!” That’s actually what the guide told me. In such matters I take local wisdom at face value. No need to ask for trouble, is there. So to my guide Andres a hearty round of applause for leading me through the Valley of the Shadow of Tourist Death, although to be honest it looked no worse than some of the neighborhoods I trudged through in the Philippines. We made it in one piece to the bus lot and soon enough found ourselves trundling along the road that follows the River Otun to La Florida.
Just for the sake of contrast, here are a few pics of downtown Pereira, a modern and attractive city. But it’s a city 100 per cent.