JOEY – “With spontaneous, solo travel comes unique experiences”

“You call me if you need anything, and I mean ANYTHING. I don’t care if it’s 3 a.m and you just want a damn McDonald’s drive-thru, you take my number and DO. NOT. HESITATE. I am proud of my city, I am honoured you are here, but it can be a dangerous world out there my boy, so anything you need, ANYTHING, you call me.”
- Fernando, random middle-aged man who helped me find the right bus stop to get to some thermal baths in the middle of the afternoon.

The whole travelling alone thing has its positives and negatives but one big plus is that if I feel like getting on a random bus to a random place on a random day, I can just do it.

Something about Manizales had piqued my interest. Maybe it was its appealingly niche status as “The 3rd City of the Colombian Coffee Region” or maybe it was the fact that it sounds like it should be the name of a superstar Colombian midfielder from the 80’s, but anyway off I went, JUST BECAUSE I COULD.

Manizales does have two main draws: the biggest cathedral in Colombia (and the 3rd biggest in the whole continent, bronze medal!) and a bunch of huge thermal baths on the outskirts of the city. I had one full day and could easily do both, so in the morning I ventured into the city centre. What I didn’t know at the time, but would soon discover, was that Manizales also had the two friendliest people in Colombia.

The cathedral was pretty big, and I was about to be quite impressed when I suddenly remembered that I’m from England where we have some really, really big cathedrals, which actually made this one look more like the local Baptist church next to the estate at the top of my road (which does its job, don’t get me wrong, but isn’t a pinnacle of impressive size). Perspective, eh?

As in many Colombian towns, there was also a big statue of Simon Bolivar the independence liberator, but contrary to most statues of him and indeed any reliable accounts of his appearance, this one depicted him as a giant bird.

Then it was the afternoon and time to head to the thermal baths, because who doesn’t love a hot bath, right? The only issue was that I figured it couldn’t be too hard to get from one big tourist site (‘big’ cathedral and Bolivar-bird) to the other (thermal baths) so decided to go on a hunt for the bus stop. 45 minutes later I had made no progress other than to work up a sweat and get fairly exasperated. Then I met Fernando.

Now, on a different type of website this story could go a whole different way, but sadly for you ladies in the audience it simply goes like this: Fernando was standing outside the small hotel for which he was a clerk when I approached with my question about the bus to the baths. Low and Behold, Fernando was finishing his shift in just five minutes and offered to take me to the bus stop!

After a few minutes of walking I enquired as to where his car was, he dropped the bombshell that in fact he didn’t have a car but was walking me to the stop… a full 30 minutes away. Now that conversation was flowing, he proceeded to tell me about his family, his career, his hopes, his dreams, and even had time for a quick brag about the high standard of women in Manizales. He also noted that he lived in entirely the opposite direction, and when I questioned the need for him to walk me all the way rather than just tell me the route, his eloquent monologue from the start of this article was performed.

We finally reached the stop and the bus arrived. Fernando instructed the driver where I was to be let off, then opened the door next to the driver and practically placed me into the seat. He closed the door, gave me a salute, and off I went, never to see or speak to him again but filled with gratitude and the makings of this tale.

The baths were fine, you know what you’re getting with hot water and some slightly overdone brickwork. I stayed until about 7pm and embarked upon my mission to find a bus back into town. Then I met Jorgé.

Jorgé was a bus driver, 40 years old, pale and a little podgy with a thinning mop of brown hair, a sunny disposition and a lopsided smile. He was a simple guy with a simple purpose: to get people from A to B. But Jorgé had another aspiration: he had always wanted to be a tour guide!

Unfortunately, Manizales gets very few tourists. But when a slightly disoriented English guy got on his bus at the first stop and asked in slightly broken Spanish to be told when it was the right place to get off, Jorgé couldn’t believe his luck. A tourist! In Manizales! Finally! Indeed, it was too good an opportunity to miss. And thus commenced Jorgé and Joey’s road trip!

After insisting I sit in the driver’s cabin with him, over the next few hours Jorgé treated me to a full tour of everything Manizales had to offer. Sure, he could only speak Spanish, and sure, he was meant to be driving a set route for all the other bemused passengers on the bus, but being able to show the city to a tourist was not an opportunity that came along every day. He also utilised this opportunity to show me pictures of his wife, kids, brothers, sisters and parents. On his phone. Whilst driving the bus down a dual carriageway at 60 mph.

When the final passenger left the bus and his shift was over, he decided we should go for pancakes, insofar as he stopped at a pancake place and threw the pancake lady some free bus tickets in exchange for her passing some pancakes through the window for us to eat.

We then stopped off at his house, where I met his teenage daughter. She seemed far less perplexed than she ought to have been given that her dad had just made an impromptu new best friend from the UK on his evening shift, and with a sigh told me “he’s always doing things like this”.

Finally it was time for the journey to end, Jorgé dropped me by my hostel. He stopped short of telling me to call him at 3am if I needed anything, but we bid each other a fond farewell and off he went, off I went, and the next morning I left Manizales highly satisfied by my unexpected experiences there.

Manizales is off the general tourist trail for a reason, but with spontaneous travel comes unique experiences and I won’t be forgetting these in a hurry. The pancakes were bloody delicious as well.


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