After seven years of making promises to visit the southern city of Popayan, Alba and I finally managed it in late October. Cauca’s capital city was definitely worth the visit.
Flying into Cali from Bogota we joked about spying on Mompós’ rivals when it comes to famous Semana Santa celebrations, but while this was all in jest, I took some serious points from Popayan and genuinely believe that this town can be identified as the personification of the Colombian two-tier society split firmly between the cities and the countryside.
The journey for us was straightforward enough, an early flight out of Bogota and into the Alfonso Bonilla airport before catching a transport from the bus terminal direct to Popayan. Perhaps my over eager enthusiasm to purchase tickets from a company belonging to Tino Asprilla was juvenile leading to a seemingly routine two hour bus journey extending to almost four hours. Don’t worry; I have since been scolded by my Santandereana wife.
As we rolled south, passing towns such as Santander de Quilichao the scenery became lusher and despite the difficult terrain the hardy campesinos have succeeded in cultivating the nutrient rich soils on these steep hillsides. In this pastoral setting it was hard to believe that in 2013 this road has been blocked on three occasions by Paros or blockades.
Our hosts Tony and Kim (Hosteltrail and Hostel Caracol) explained the contemporary political situation in the region to us as they lived it, and walked us about the city ensuring that we understood and appreciated Popayan. The trip was cathartic as we were able to talk shop and agree openly that this year really has not lived up to expectations regarding tourism in Colombia. It will be interesting to see what figures the Government unveils in this last quarter of 2013 in their game of smoke and mirrors to maintain a positive outlook.
Perhaps we thoroughly enjoyed Popayan because we were able to draw significant parallels between this city and our little town of Mompós. In contrast to Mompós, the ambiance here is one of a student town with a bubbling political sentiment but all conveniently parceled within the perfectly whitewashed opulence of a scenic colonial center. Popayan is a city with an infrastructure and restaurants and indeed is the capital of the Cauca department bringing with it the officious nature of politicians and public officials. In Mompós, sadly, we have precious little of the aforementioned.
It was evident that the reality in the colonial sector was far removed from the invasiones springing up on the outskirts of the city and the new “luxury” gated compounds being constructed in the countryside just minutes from Popayan. There is a clear conflict of interests in Cauca, as has been widely reported in 2013, and the low flying helicopters leaving the military base on reconnaissance sorties over the off-limits Munchique National Park are a telling reminder of the realities here.
We will be returning to Popayan in the future as our three day break was far too fleeting to properly appreciate the town and surrounding areas. I for one am keen to hop on a mountain bike and make the descent into Popayan from Coconuco, hike the Purace volcano and revisit the Tuesday Guambiano market in Silvia. Perhaps we will plan a southern road trip traveling out of Bogota via the Tatacoa Desert – San Agustin – Tierradentro – Popayan and then loop back to the capital via Manizales. But for now, this mini break to Popayan will remain firm in our memories and we strongly recommend including the capital of Cauca into any travel plans.