Cañón del Combeima provides a good reason to visit Ibagué

The city of Ibagué isn’t known as a major tourist destination and most foreign visitors don’t consider travelling there. To be honest, the city itself isn’t that appealing. There are big shopping centres and some really good restaturants, but most of Ibagué resembles a nondescript small town. The most interesting thing about the capital of Tolima is the fact that there is a square named after Lidice, a village that was destroyed during World War II in Czechoslovakia, with a sculpture commemorating the massacre. I had a chance to meet its author, José Augusto Rivera Castro, who now plans to donate a large version of the sculpture to the Vatican City.

Even if you aren’t a history nerd, there are other good reasons for visiting Ibagué. Its warm weather is really pleasant and there are many green spaces. You can find two impressive places just a short taxi ride from the city centre: Jardín Botánico San Jorge is a great spot for hiking in a beautiful area, and if you like flowers, you shouldn’t miss Orquídeas del Tolima. Ibagué is also used as a starting point for climbing Nevado del Tolima, which is one of the most challenging adventures in Colombia. There is no need to go as far as the volcano, though. The access road via Cañón del Combeima will take you to other amazing sights.

Cañón del Combeima

If you are on a budget, you can simply take bus number 48 to its final stop in Juntas, which is approximately 20 kilometres away from the centre of Ibagué. Most of the road is fine, but there are some bumpy parts as well. You will see numerous restaurants along the way, and that’s where Ibaguereños like spending their weekends.

There isn’t that much to see in Juntas, so when you get off the bus, you can just continue walking down the road. When you cross a bridge, you will see a path to Termalitos through Quebrada Las Perlas. That used to be a popular camping spot, but the whole area is protected, and many activities, including swimming in hot springs, have been banned. It’s still a very nice location for hiking and you are allowed to walk there. Just remember to respect the rules because the river Combeima is Ibagué’s main water source and it needs to be kept pollution-free.

La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you stay on the main road, you will soon reach Mirador Los Sauces, which is worth checking out since it offers very nice views of the canyon. The best sights are found further north, though. You can try to hitch a ride because there are always visitors at the viewpoint, but even if you have to walk the 4-kilometre distance, you won’t regret it. Amazingly, there is a gondola lift ready to take you to La Rivera.

Yes, someone really had the brilliant idea of building facilities for tourists on the other side of the canyon! The cable car looks a bit scary from the outside, but the 5-minute ride is actually quite comfortable. La Rivera is located in a brillant spot and you can even see Nevado del Tolima when the sky is clear. There are various activites that you can do there; I particularly liked the greenhouses with carnivorous plants. La Rivera was accessible to the public when I went there, but it seems that you need to make a reservation now, so make sure to get in touch with them before your trip. Don’t forget to pack a jacket because it can get rainy and chilly in the mountains.

A carnivorous plant, La Rivera, Cañón del Combeima

If you have some spare time, consider adding Ibagué to your travel itinerary. A bus ride from Bogotá usually takes 4 hours, unless you get stuck in a traffic jam in the capital during peak hours. Lesser-known cities may not be among the most popular places to visit in Colombia, but they can offer nice opportunities for interesting trips. Cañón del Combeima is a great example of that because it’s a pretty impressive destination that is definitely worth exploring.

Everybody wants to live in Medellín

Many people say that Medellín is the best city in Colombia. The usual arguments are that its weather is perfect all year round, the locals are friendly, and they have the only metro system in the country. I completely agree with that. I would also add opportunities for nice trips in Antioquia and a very strong entrepreneurial spirit in the whole region. The truth is that I genuinely love the place. There’s just one problem with all of that. There are loads of other people who feel the same way!

Medellín has been receiving praise in mainstream media and on blogs for years. As a consequence, the capital of Antioquia receives a steady stream of starry-eyed English teachers who want to live in the city of their dreams. I know that very well because I was one of them. This influx has been interrupted by the pandemic, but I am pretty sure that is just a temporary blip.

Medellín: a view from Pueblito Paisa

What usually isn’t said is that the high number of foreigners living in Medellín has an inevitable effect on the job market. Simply said, you are easily replaceable. As a consequence, many employers will offer you a crap deal that involves working split shifts from Monday to Saturday for a very low salary. If you don’t like it, they will find someone else. Another effect of Medellín’s positive reputation is its rising cost of living. If you are an inexperienced teacher, you may end up working long hours and make only enough money to pay for a room in a shared flat. To be honest, I’d prefer to aim a bit higher than that.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to get a good job in Medellín. If you have found one, hold on to it and enjoy the experience! I would just like to suggest an idea that may actually make your time in Colombia more pleasant: Consider looking for a job in another city.

Colombia is a big country and there are numerous options in terms of locations. The most obvious ones are the other two big cities: Bogotá and Cali. I have a love-hate relationship with Bogotá. On one hand, there are tons of things to do. On the other hand, it gets really cold at night and the traffic is terrible. If you get a job that involves teaching off-site, you’ll waste a lot of time travelling around the city, and that could quickly make you feel miserable. Cali sounds like an interesting place, but I’ve never been there, so I can’t really comment on that.

What I want to suggest is looking at smaller cities. For example, if you love Medellin’s climate, you should check out Pereira and Armenia. Both of them are located at the same altitude as Medellín, which guarantees spring-like weather all year round. Pereira and Armenia are developing cities in the coffee region with some really nice areas. There are shopping centres where you’ll find everything you need. Both cities are close to Salento, a major tourist destination.

If you prefer a warmer place, you could try to look for a job in Ibagué and Bucaramanga. You can wear shorts day and night in those cities because of their climate. That said, I can’t imagine living on the coast due to the heat. Places like Cartagena and Santa Marta are great for vacations, but I’d find it difficult to stay there permanently. If you don’t mind very hot weather, you could consider those as well.

Manizales: a view from Los Yarumos

Probably the most livable city in Colombia is Manizales. The capital of Caldas is really developed and you can have a great time there. Just prepare yourself for cold nights and two rainy seasons; and rain in Manizales means torrential downpour. If you for some reason prefer a place even colder than Bogotá, go to Tunja (the capital of Boyacá) where you need a proper jacket to stay warm.

The point I am trying to make is that Colombia is more than just one city, and it’s worth checking out other options. Do you research, starting with capital cities of each department. They may not be as glamorous as Medellín, but there are nice and safe areas in each of them. A huge advantage of living in Colombia is that wherever you are, you are always close to some spectacular places, so moving to another region represents a good opportunity to explore them.

Going off the beaten path can be beneficial in terms of your job prospects. As one of few foreign teachers living in the city, you can negotiate better working conditions. Couple that with a lower cost of living and your odds of enjoying the whole experience will inevitably improve. You can have a really good time instead of just surviving in a big city. Many websites paint Colombia as a paradise for English teachers. Well, they don’t tell you about the people who leave the country disappointed. Working crazy hours, commuting, and living in a place where you can’t relax eventually takes its toll on everyone.

Yes, moving to a smaller city means leaving your comfort zone. If your Spanish is limited, it will have to improve fast. There is no option of staying in your bubble composed of foreigners or English-speaking locals like you can do in El Poblado. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Working away from big cities will broaden your horizons and provide you with a more authentic Colombian experience.

I would like to happy to hear from other teachers who work in lesser-known locations. How did you get there? What do you like about the place? Let me know in the comments section.