Touring the ‘White City’

The colonial streets of Popayan.
The colonial streets of Popayan.

Flying into Cali from Bogotá 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 Popayán 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 Bogotá and into the Alfonso Bonilla airport before catching a transport from the bus terminal direct to Popayán. 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.

As we rolled south, passing towns such as Santander de Quilichao, the scenery became lusher, and despite the difficult terrain, the hardy campesinos have suc- ceeded 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 strikes and blockades.

Perhaps we thoroughly enjoyed Popayán 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. Popayán 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 com- pounds being constructed in the country- side just minutes from Popayán. There is a clear conflict of interests in Cauca, as has been widely reported in the media, 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 in central Cauca.

In Colombia’s White City there are no shortage of hotels, and you can spend a day sitting on manicured lawns and enjoying the frothy fruit juices of lulo and maracuya, known north of the depart- mental capital as shampús. Along the main streets of the colonial district, the visitor to this Catholic enclave in the New World will have no difficulties in finding typical snacks and cafes serving fresh-baked breads and dark coffees roasted on nearby farms.

Coffee time in Popayán runs most of the day, and Juan Valdez near the main square, the Parque Caldas, does brisk business. If you are not familiar with the works of sculptor Edgar Negret, then a visit to his house in the centro is in order. Known as the Casa Museo Edgar Negret (Clle 5 No.10 – 23), some of his abstract iron masterpieces are displayed throughout this 18th century home. Negret passed away in Bogotá in 2012, and one his largest pieces lies at the heart of San Victorino square in our capital.

Just a block away of the artist’s childhood home, past stalls selling sweaters and patterned leggings, you arrive at the doors of one of Popayán’s most beautiful churches: the Iglesia de San Francisco. The church barely survived the devastating earthquake of 1983, which in 18 seconds razed the city to the ground. Inside the Iglesia San Francisco are exhibited mummies which were discovered beneath the church foundations.

Popayán is the gateway to the Puracé volcano, popular with hikers and the town of Coconuco with its hot springs. If you decide to explore the surrounding countryside, treat yourself to a couple of days and don’t miss out on the Tuesday Guambiano market in Silvia. The staff at Hosteltrail (Clle 11 No.4-16) in the centre of town are more than accommodating, and will arrange ground transportation. If you are looking for a clean, budget conscious hotel in Popayan, then the Hotel Caracol may fit the tab. With rates per night (shared bath) at $48,000, it’s popular place for travelers doing the southern route, which includes the Tatacoa Desert, San Agustin and Tierradentro. The tra- ditional and above $200,000 per night, Hotel Dann Monasterio attends a different clientele, mainly chartered bus tours and conventions.

But for now, my mini break to Popayán will remain firm in our memories and we strongly recommend including the capital of Cauca into any travel plans.



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