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Pereira

Introduction: Pereira is the capital of the department of Risaralda. It's located in Colombia's famed Coffee Zone (typically called the Zona Cafetera or Eje Cafetero in Spanish). It's a city of about 600,000 and is very close to Manizales, to the north, and Armenia, Cartago, and Salento to the south. It's not known as a tourism hotspot, but it is the center of the coffee business in Colombia. Pereira is in a good spot because it's right in the middle of Colombia's major cities.

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Orientation and Location: A great advantage in Pereira, and in the Coffee Zone in general, is its centrality. It's just 5 hours to Medellin, 4 to Cali, and 7 to Bogota. It's easy to fit in a stop in Pereira on any route between Colombia's three largest cities: Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. The city is sandwiched in between an offshoot of the Western Cordillera of the Andes mountains, and boasts the impressive Cesar Gaviria bridge (or "viaducto" in Spanish), which facilitates transportation and commerce between Pereira and Manizales.

Just to the north of Pereira, on the other side of the Otun River, is this busy metropolitan area of Dosquebradas, Pereira's sister city. The name literally means two brooks, and it's famed for its zona rosa, where many pereiranos go to enjoy the bars, discotecas, and nightlife. With about 200,000 people, Dosquebradas is the second largest city of Risaralda.

How to Get There: As with most transportation in Colombia, your choices are arriving by plane or bus.

Pereira's Matecana Airport is an excellent option, with LAN, Avianca, and new low-cost airline Viva Colombia offering regular flights. Prices are generally quite affordable. If you book ahead of time you can often find a one way Bogota/Pereira flight for $60.000 to $100.000. The best feature of Matecana Airport, however, is its proximity to downtown Pereira. It's just 5 kilometers west of downtown, and a taxi should be about 15 minutes and cost around $10.000.

Pereira's bus terminal is located in the southeastern corner of the city. From here you can easily catch buses north to Medellin and Manizales, south to Armenia and Cali, or east to Ibague and Bogota. A bus to Bogota should cost around $40.000, while a bus to Medellin should cost around $30.000. Prices for buses tend to be a little higher than normal in the Eje Cafetero, because the tolls (or "peajes" in Spanish) are expensive in this part of the country.

Within Pereira, the Megabus bus network offers efficient and reasonably priced transportation, and reaches almost any spot in the city. Or, hop in a taxi and get anywhere for just $6.000 to $8.000.

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What to See: The main attractions of the city are found in the center: the Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de Lago, and Plaza de Victoria. In the Plaza de Bolivar you'll find perhaps the most famed attraction in Pereira, a sculpture of a naked Simon Bolivar riding his horse Nevado. The Plaza de Lago is famed for the "chorros", colored shoots of water that burst forth from a fountain, lighting up the sky every day at seven. Here you'll often find locals enjoying a tinto (black coffee) after work.

Yet, the majority of tourist activities take place outside of the city limits. The Termales de Santa Rosa are some of the best hot springs around, while the National Park of the Nevado de Ruiz and nearby Lake Otun will delight hiking enthusiasts. Marsella is a town about 30km outside of Pereira where you can get a real authentic coffee town feel.

There are two zona rosas (or entertainment zones) in Pereira. One is located on the eastern side of the city, and is called La Circunvular. This is where you'll likely want to stay. It is a windy road that works its way up a gentle hill. Here you'll find shopping malls, nice restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, as well as several hotel and hostel options.

The other zona rosa is located along the river, near the border with Dosquebradas, and is called Guayaval. Pereira, like its neighbors Medellin and Manizales, is know for its nightlife and entertainment.

Downtown you might want to swing by the El Diario skyscraper, the tallest building in Pereira, and take a look at the interesting sculpture in front of it. It's also worth it to take a peek inside "La Catedral de Pereira", which features its interesting wooden ceiling frame.

It is also a breathtaking experience to walk across the Viaducto Cesar Gaviria, named after Pereira's native son, who was president of Colombia from 1990 to 1994. It's 440 meters long and crosses the Rio Otun at a height of 55 meters. It's one of Colombia's most impressive feats of engineering, and well worth the stroll.

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Ambience: The bottom line is that Pereira is not a very touristy destination. However, this may contribute to its charm. As Colombia's 10th biggest city, and very centrally located, it's a great spot if you want to check out an authentic Colombia destination away from the backpacker trail. It's reasonably safe, along with the rest of the Coffee Zone, and in the coming years, look for the tourism industry to make steady progress here.

Pereira is also a great base for checking out a wide variety of ecotourism sites nearby, like the Termales in Santa Rosa de Cabal, Parque Ucumari, and the Santuario Otun Quimbaya.

If you head to Pereira, go on a weekend, stay in a hotel or hostel on the Circunvular, and mingle with the locals at the many nightlife spots embedded along the long, windy street. Then, spend the next day taking a look at the downtown area and the Viaducto Cesar Gaviria. During the week you can head out and take advantage of the many natural attractions the region has to offer.

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