I try to avoid first impressions when I visit a new place, but I arrived in Pereira exhausted from a 2 days of speaking Spanish almost exclusively on topics I haven’t got the vocabulary for, and I wildly misjudged the city. I’d chosen to stay in Dosquebradas because as a secondary city in a single valley and safer than its big sister, it sounded a lot like Envigado. Instead, I found myself in what seemed an industrial area, with rough-looking people along the streets and the heartbeat of metal hammering on metal. The hostel, when I found it, was a shock after the luxurious country retreat I’d been at for the AFS training weekend, but unfortunately, I’d already paid for four nights.
In all fairness, I’d chosen to save money by choosing the ‘best value’ hostel in Dosquebradas, remembering my backpacking days fondly. This place had no cosy room full of sofas, no shaded rooftop tables, and apparently no other guests to hang out with. All I wanted for my first afternoon was to chill somewhere comfortable and read. The best this hostel had to offer was a hard table and chair set in the hot, dark corridor outside the rooms and that insistent hammering metal. An afternoon walk to the local shopping arcade didn’t improve my mood or my impression, and I retreated to my room for a few hours.
When hunger forced me out for an early dinner, leaving all my valuables behind (just in case), I was surprised to find a calm, residential neighbourhood in place of the industrial nightmare I encountered earlier. Young couples and lone women were out enjoying the evening and were typically friendly. I had a decent pizza at an apparently popular restaurant, and bought some fruit for breakfast at a small shop. In my exhaustion, I gave the shopkeeper six thousand pesos instead of six hundred, and he laughed, gently taking the one thousand note from my hand.
Compared to other parts of Colombia, Paisas (people from the region that includes Medellin and Pereira) are known to be friendly and kind. Everyone I’ve met in Medellin lives up to the reputation, but they’re also business focused and the kindest people are the ones I buy something from. Pereira put Medellin to shame. Not a single person who helped me followed up with an offer.
When I couldn’t find an information booth anywhere in the centre, I went into a hotel to ask the way to the Ukumari Biopark. The concierge walked me out to the street and explained in perfect English how to get to the bus stop, which bus to take, where to change and how to find the final bus.
When the guy in the ticket booth at the bus stop saw me looking confused as he stopped people from entering the bus station (the Megabus operates more like a train, with dedicated lanes, stations with ticket barriers and platforms set to the height of the bus interiors), he showed me the bus broken down just ahead, and told me to follow the people in front to the next station. Rather than telling me that I had to buy a card and put money on it before I could ride the bus, as would have happened in Medellin, the attendant at the next station put the money on someone else’s card and asked them to swipe me through.
At the interchange, one of the passengers thought I was lost and directed me to the correct bus. I told her I was actually tossing up whether to buy a card for myself to save bothering other passengers, and she thrust her card at me. “Take mine. I have another at home.” That still left her without a way of getting home, but she assured me she was fine and walked away.
Likewise, the staff at the park, who were having an easy day after the weekend crowds, were happy to talk and if they wanted anything from me, it was company.
Just to push home how kind the Pereiras are, when I left my hostel two days early, my host called me back to return most of the remaining two nights cost I’d paid up front.