17 March 2014
Popayan – A breathe of fresh air
Warm sideways rain splashed my face as I raced down the mountain. My cheeks were still red and fresh from the sulphur pools. Green fields flashed past to my left. On the other side of the road, the landscape sunk hundreds of meters into a valley with a pebbly river and ant-sized cows. And the only being I'd encountered for half an hour was a wild horse who seemed to enjoy watching me take a toilet break.
I had previously visited the tropical salsa beat of Cali, the swarming metropolis of Bogota and the modern, Miami-like Medellin. I'd spent weeks on the Caribbean Coast, sweating and dancing to the rhythm of Vallenato music on immaculate white beaches and warm turquoise ocean water.
And then there was Popayan.
The city lies a few hours south of Cali by bus and is seldom considered an essential destination for travellers. It is known as the Ciudad Blanca (White City) because of the beautiful white colonial buildings in the historic centre. In Colombia, Cartagena seems to steal most of the plaudits for colonial architecture. But I think Popayan rivals it for sheer quaintness. And its climate is far more tolerable!
You wont come across too many Gringos as you traipse around the charming cobblestone streets. There are only two or three hostels from which to choose in the entire city.
I was there for a few days with a couple of friends after visiting Cali. We managed to find some great bars at night. The first had a vintage vibe; the tables and chairs were made from car tyres and books. The music varied from room to room but was mostly rock or reggae. The following evening we found a salsa bar called Bar Iguana and we danced with locals. The city has a very large student population, which is evident just from walking around.
I found the people amazing because they are so unassuming and relaxed. I remain close with some of the locals I met during the trip and visited them several times thereafter.
One of Popayan's highlights is the glorious countryside surrounding it. There are mountains, rivers, waterfalls and sulphur pools. We took a package trip with a company based in the city center. They drove us up to the top of a nearby mountain where the sulphur pools are based. Once there, the driver left us with a bike each and went on his merry way. We spent a couple of hours chatting to people in the warm sulphur pools. There are a bunch of pools of varying sizes and temperatures. The water is bright green and there is a smell of...sulphur. We chatted to local families in the pools who gave us weird stuff to rub on our faces.
It was a really unique experience. Once we dried off, we got on our bikes and gravity did the rest for us. The route down the mountain took about two hours and the road leads directly into the streets and blocks of the old city. During the trip down the mountain, we experienced all manner of weather conditions and variations of scenery. We stopped halfway down at a small collection of huts for a traditional Colombian meal. I dipped my lump of cheese in sugary coffee and gobbled up some chicken and rice.
A little nearer the town, we stumbled across an intriguing brothel. Although my friends and I were certainly not looking for this type of activity, we entered and had a chat with the women who worked there. We wanted to get pictures but they said they would charge for photos. We then sat with the owner for a drink before getting back on the bikes again for one last push.
About the author:
Andrew is a freelance journalist who lives in Medellin. He holds an NCTJ qualification and worked as an online reporter for The Sun and several other publications before moving abroad. His passions are travel, football and languages - he speaks French and Spanish. He is constantly astounded at how much Colombia - and Medellin in particular - have to offer.