Colombia: Popayán

Now on the road with fellow travelers, three-plus hours to Popayán on hellish buses seemed less of a thing. Such is commiseration. We had the guessing game of when we'd arrive at least, plus we'd get to see just how far the driver could go in breaking the seating law (where butts theoretically equalled seats.) More than anything else, though, we were sweaty, tired, and foul when we finally pulled into the terminal.

Fortunately we'd immediately be walking into (possibly) the best hostel in Colombia. Already mentally done with dorm beds for this trip, I'd switch to my own room before the first night was out - when the possibility arose. This would further prove wise the next evening, when the entire hostel filled up. I would have been dorming it with seven others - yuck, bullet dodged.

Meanwhile, outside of Popayán's main claim to fame - its extensive colonial architecture - was the nearby indigenous market in Silvia. This was heavily prescribed on Popayán's to-do list, and sounded like a good idea for a day trip. Apparently our trio needed more bus rides. Whatever - only just in town, come morning Matt and Kate would join me on the venture: what was the what of Silvia? Popayán proper would just have to wait.

By bus it took 1-1/2 hours to get to Silvia, up and down steep hills, a bit more than we had bargained for after the sticky Cali-Popayán special. Maybe this wasn't the best idea... but the market was held only on Tuesdays. Damn. The bus driver had said it'd be only forty minutes, anyway... even as we all knew that to be a lie before we stepped on board. Our mistake there would only lie in thinking it'd only be on the order of an hour. Oh well.

Like on the approach to Popayán, our bus soon filled continually until the aisle was stuffed, the air stilling as a consequence. Hmmm, I thought. This was like being back in Bolivia, Perú, or... Ecuador! Ah... ha! Indeed, the look of the people in this region seemed again more like Ecuador; it stood to reason that the practice of ignoring the law of seat-to-person - which had been upheld so well to date in Colombia - would fall apart here nearer the border. Indeed, Popayán would play itself out over the next several days as that very mix of Colombia and Ecuador that displayed both sides at all times.

As mentioned, we hit town on purpose for the Tuesday-only market day. How odd, though - not Saturday? Anyway, the market was unquestionably lively, if not particularly interesting based on the wares presented. Loads of locals traipsed up and down the streets concluding business, or catching up with friends likely otherwise not often seen. The bars and restaurants did their best business of the week, in all likelihood.

For us furrinners, meanwhile, we took pleasure for a spell in wandering the stands of mostly fruit, veggies, housing goods, and textiles. With the latter being typical offerings only, it was the fruit and vegetables which caught our eyes whenever a particularly new or interesting one stood out. Who knew that there could be so many types of potatoes?

The most promoted aspect of the market to the general tourist, however, lay in the local dress. Silvia's indigenous people, of which there were many on market day, dressed very traditionally in skirts (men) or shawls (women) of blue, complete with a magenta-colored fringe and bowler hats. To me, the male's non-checked-but-kilt-inspired skirt was certainly odd enough, sure. But soon we were to discover that this attire also included clean hiking boots, with neon-colored laces. THAT was different.

Feeling like I was in Ecuador again, meanwhile, I knew better than to wave my camera about to catch this. Instead I'd opt for surrepticious hip shots or skip out on photos altogether, warning my companions of the same. An Israeli that had joined us ignored this advice - at times all of us were treated to nasty glares and hisses as a consequence. The worst was when he stood in the middle of the street with his camera on high, shooting away repeatedly - a perfect opportunity for me to duck far away from sight. I... never... knew... these baseball hats were so interesting!

The chiva buses of old were in great number in this outpost town, too, heavily burdened with the goods intended for - or from - market. No party buses, these, but workhorses instead. They must all have been in the twilights of their colorful - and particularly picturesque - careers. More importantly, they made for great photos that just happened to have locals hanging all over them, while providing further physical proof of the art stylings that appealed locally.

Even in the outback of Silvia, however, it appeared that the chivas likely weren't long for the earth outside of drinking tours in the cities, though. Perhaps in that sense they would never die, the ultimate heavy-duty beast of burden and simple technology. This didn't mean we were ready to board ourselves onto one to head back to Popayán, though - we were more than happy to queue up for a modern van. Said vehicle took off not long after we purchased tickets, and for only the second time in Colombia I had a seat belt. We made it back in a little under an hour. How 'bout that?

Popayán also meant another thing for me: time for another DAS renewal. This would takes three visits to get the job done; I was put off for reasons I couldn't comprehend on the first two. Par for the course, naturally. In the end, this entailed that I renewed on the last day possible, and with slightly different requirements than in Manizales.

This time it was only one photo necessary, but with a blue background, and only one photocopy piecing together three separate pages of information. The price had in the meantime risen 4000 more pesos, too, making any and all aware that this renewal business was increasingly big business for the Colombian economy.

While that funny business was going on, all of us took the time to explore Popayán. Here was a town of some quarter million people that made repeated use of the word 'handsome' necessary. Also called the White City, its city center of perhaps 10x10 large blocks had no shortage of grand buildings. Indeed it was both very white and colonial as advertised, a legacy of its old and important heritage as the previously-most-important city of southern Colombia. That was before Cali salsa-ed its status away into the night, when port traffic on the Pacific increased and its short distance inland proved more convenient.

There was no shortage of churches and officious offices in Popayán, nor good food and drink as befits a city of modest size. The ages-old plaza itself was in the final stages of a makeover, its footpaths to soon enjoy a more august state, too. These all formed good reasons to stay five nights, even while not otherwise finding a plethora of amazing things to do.

Relaxing in the best hostel in Colombia to date (Hosteltrail) didn't hurt, either: not shabby, and well appreciated, that. Matt (primarily), Kate, and I took advantage of an "honest" kitchen and a nearby quality supermarket - that hadn't been recently (or at least handily) available in Cali or Salento.

Matt in particular was eager to cook a storm, he of former restaurant experience and never lacking in ideas or enthusiasm over what to cook next. Kate and I were thus willing beneficiaries to stir-fries, curries, and even a respectable Mexican night. With good coffee around and likewise appreciated, we had each other for ears and conversation in enough local cafes to even strip Kate of tea leaves on occasion in favor of the mighty coffee bean.

On one day we also made a foray by bike to some nearby hotsprings, something of an excuse to do something energetic in otherwise lazy Popayán. Fair enough, we didn't exactly do that proper justice - a vehicle carted our butts and bikes 30km out of town, where we'd begin our ride. We'd start with some hot springs bathing first, anyway.

THERE was a rub, though. Said hot springs - Aguas Hirviendas (Boiling Waters) - turned out to be far less of an experience than hoped. Dilapidated facilities and pools that weren't terribly hot, but rather sulphuric instead, were less than enchanting. We agreed among ourselves that at a basic level the place worked, but a superficial makeover would have done it wonders. As for the boiling waters, those only existed in the smallest of holding pools that would likely kill you should you happen to dip (or as likely fall) in.

Thus we got to cycling after none too great a spell in the springs. As promised, the ride was almost completely downhill. There was only one uphill of about twenty minutes, plus another couple of a few minutes each, to keep us honest. This was easy stuff, cutting along beautiful hillsides and gorges to ponder - or stopping for lunch or a short break. Mostly we followed the same river back to town... and mostly our asses hurt from the hard seats by the end of it. These were a WELL-used trio of mountain bikes, well into their middle ages. Ouch.

By the time we got back to bustling and polluted Popayán, we were ready for the experience to end. Which it did, of course. A good run overall, it had just come unexpectedly with an abbreviated start and a finish that would have been better avoided. So it went, and so we'd celebrate whichever way it had gone at a local Mexican restaurant - surprisingly good in its offerings of food and drink. Burp.

Based on cuckoo Coco(nuco), we decided to take the next day off from more 'adventure', anyway: San Agustin loomed for the morning. Would it be five hours of bus on bumpy roads, or would it be seven? We'd know soon enough. In any event, five days seemed sufficient for Popayán's charms to be revealed.

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