As we tend to do before every departure, we woke at a ridiculously early hour, put on our traveling clothes, and did our final packing. We were sad to be leaving as Cali was much more than we had first expected. It was beautiful, tranquil, clean, filled with amazing artwork and architecture, beautiful gardens and parks, and just a fun place to visit overall. We had become very comfortable in our room in Dominika and Damian’s beautiful and comfortable apartment and we were disappointed that we did not have enough time to see all that Cali had to offer.
Promptly, at 8am, we reluctantly dragged our giant suitcases to the front door and said goodbye to Damian. He helped carry our bags out to the front of the house and waited with us while we ordered our Uber. Very soon an adorable little, brand-new Chevy Spark pulled up the hill to take us to the bus terminal. Our driver, Narda, was sweet and seemed to be very interested in our journey. We told her where we had already visited and, being from Ibague, she was very excited that we enjoyed her hometown. She was equally excited about where we were headed. Everything was “deliciosa”. After a beautiful drive through central Cali, Narda managed to get us right to the front door of the bus terminal in Cali. We grabbed our bags and headed inside to buy our tickets to Popayán.
Our host in Popayán, Luisa Fernanda, recommended two different companies that we could take direct, Transportes Tax Belalcazar or Velotax. As a note, some of the safest places in Colombia to take money out of an ATM are in shopping malls and bus terminals. There is often plenty of security so pickpockets and thieves are not tolerated and dealt with swiftly. We took this opportunity to take out some cash as we were running low and then headed upstairs to purchase our tickets to Popayán. When we entered the ticket area in the Cali terminal, we made a beeline for Velotax as it was the closest. We asked for the next bus to Popayán and they told us there was a van leaving in 10 minutes and it would cost us 30,000 COP per person (appox. $10 USD pp). We took a moment and hesitated as a direct van would be super quick (2.5 hours vs. 3-4 hours) but it would mean no bathroom breaks at all. After about 30 seconds of debating, we decided to give it a go. We purchased our tickets, ran to the WC (bathroom), as this would be our only chance, and literally ran at full speed to catch our waiting van. The driver somehow managed to fit our oversized bags into the tiny rear store area of the Mercedes van and we squished into the first row of seats, Sally in the middle and Joe on the right side. The driver felt sorry for us and let us store our backpacks between the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat making the ride significantly more comfortable. We were on our way.
The road to Popayán was much different than the other trips we had made. The landscape was much more tropical, less mountainous, and traveling in a van rather than a bus offered us a much clearer view of our surroundings. The trip was indeed very fast, a little crazy at times, and overall, a pretty nice way to travel. About two and a half hours after leaving Cali, we saw our first signs for Popayán. We had finally reached our destination but we still had a way to go as the bus terminal was located in the center of town and Popayán is a city that, although it is not very large, sprawls across a large area. After about a half hour of driving through the northern area of town, we finally reached the bus terminal where we quickly found a taxi and directed him towards our Airbnb in the historic center.
POPAYÁN, THE WHITE CITY
The first thing that struck us was that Popayán was indeed very white, well at least the historical area was. Every building in the center had a fresh coat of whitewash. The majority of roads were quite bumpy, as they were mostly made up of old cobblestone. It looked so clean compared to other cities we had visited. The quaint and bustling streets were narrow and lined with immaculate historic colonial homes. There were people and cars everywhere yet it did not seem to be overwhelming or dirty. It appeared that the town was well cared for and its people were kind and welcoming.
Our Airbnb was at the very end of a dead-end street just on the edge of the historic center. It was a lovely two-story, blue and white house that was in very nice condition. We got out of the taxi, unloaded our bags and introduced ourselves to Luisa Fernanda who was awaiting our arrival. Much to our delight, a fantastic, fluffy, furry poodle mix named Polly also came to greet us. We were very excited to have finally reached our destination and we were very happy to be staying in a home with such an adorable pooch.
Luisa Fernanda showed us to our room, which was quite spacious and was connected to one of the largest and unusual bathrooms we had ever seen. The toilet, like many we had seen in Colombia, did not have a toilet seat. However, unlike the others we had encountered, this one was designed to not have a toilet seat, requiring the user to sit directly on the bowl. The shower was also very oddly shaped, with four sides at strange angles forming a large lopsided diamond. Although the shower was very large, it was not equipped with hot water. In fact, the water was ice cold, something that was very difficult for us to get used to. We ended up having to turn the water on, quickly get ourselves wet, shut the water off, lather up with soap, then turn the water back on and rinse off the soap as quickly as possible. The ice cold water made it so that our showers were extremely fast, usually five minutes or less. Other than the cold shower, the bathroom was great, featuring a lot of extra space for changing and storing our clothes.
Besides the bathroom, our room had a door that led out to a very nice second floor balcony, affording us a nice view of our small street as well as the often beautiful night sky of Popayán. The balcony was a nice place to hang out and enjoy the fresh air and view the peaceful, pleasant surroundings.
Our new home was very comfortable, with the exception of not having hot water, and Luisa Fernanda was extremely kind and helpful. After showing us to our room she provided us with a map and gave us many recommendations for things to see in Popayán. She even gave us the name and location of a good vegetarian restaurant in town. We do not know how she knew that we vegetarians, or if she even had known at all. At any rate, we welcomed the suggestion and decided that we would give the place a try. In the United States we try to eat a strictly vegetarian diet, but while traveling in South America that can be quite difficult so we have resorted to eating meat only when there are no other convenient options.
HEALTHY, DELICIOUS AND CHEAP
On our first full day in Popayán, we decided to get lunch at the vegetarian restaurant, Maná, which Luisa Fernanda had recommended to us. Due to its popularity the restaurant has two different locations in Popayán, not far from one another. We opted for the one that was located at Calle 7, #9-56, slightly closer to where we were staying. We were delighted to find a wide selection of vegetarian items for the choosing. They had a couple white boards listing all of the options. The way the restaurant works is that you choose seven different items from the wide variety listed on the board, write them down along with your table number on a small sheet of paper and present the paper to a member of the wait staff. A few minutes later they bring you multiple plates of food containing all of the items that you selected. When you are finished you go up to the counter to pay. Our first time at Maná we were not sure how much they were going to charge us but we were amazed to find out how cheap the meal actually was. José went up to pay for our meals and they told him they cost 10,000 Colombian pesos, or roughly $3.50 in USD. What was very surprising is that that was the cost for BOTH meals, not just one, each meal costing only 5,000 COP. So, for less than two US dollars each, we had wonderfully tasting and very filling vegetarian meals. Naturally, after finding out how deliciously economic their food was, we went to Maná for lunch on each of the three days we spent in Popayán.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN POPAYÁN
When we had first arrived, Luisa Fernanda had given us a tourist map of Popayán, showing the city’s main sites. The map broke the places of interest down into three sections, in this order: Iglesias (churches), Museos (museums) and Sitios de Interés (sites of interest). The small city was home to ten churches, several museums and a few other attractions, including the hilltop view of Popayán at Cerro el Morro and the miniaturized replica of the city at Rincón Payanes.
LAS IGLESIAS DE POPAYÁN
We visited several of the ten churches in Popayán. Some of them were rather plain, while others were extravagant with large, ornate, gold-plated altars and shrines. While each church was quite beautiful in its own right, none of them particularly stood out as being more impressive than some of the other churches we had seen so far in Colombia. Here are a few photographic examples of Popayán’s iglesias:
Popayán is also famous for its long-standing Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions:
Here are photos showing of the Catedral Basílica of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción with its clock tower, located in the main plaza of the historic center of Popayán, as well as the inscription demarcating the clock tower:
Here are a couple other interesting buildings and the main plaza that we encountered in the historic center of Popayán:
There is not much street art in Popayán, but there is some:
LOS MUSEOS DE POPAYÁN
During our stay in Popayán we visited two of the city’s several museums, the Museo Nacional Guillermo Valencia and the Museo de Historia Natural.
The Museo Nacional Guillermo Valencia was housed in the colonial mansion of Guillermo Valencia Castillo, who was a Colombian poet and translator as well as the father of Colombian president Guillermo León Valencia (in office from 1962-66). He was very active in Colombian politics and even ran for president twice. Therefore, the house was decorated with many artifacts of Colombia’s cultural and political history. This museum was free to visit and a guided tour was required. Our tour guide spoke English and gave us a very quick run-through of the mansion. His explanations were very brief and incomplete, failing to address many of our questions. The guide preferred to talk about the United States and give us the opinions he formed about our country from his brief visit to Texas. The house was beautiful and very interesting, although we were left with many doubts and unanswered questions about the relics contained within its walls.
The other museum that we visited was Popayan’s natural history museum, the Museo de Historia Nacional, a museum that is administrated by the Universidad del Cauca. The museum costs just 3,000 Colombian pesos for entry, approximately $1 USD. Although there were no English-speaking guides, two students of natural history offered to answer for us any questions that we had about the exhibits in Spanish. We first wandered through a very large collection of rocks, minerals and fossils that were found in the region. Then we proceeded on to several very large exhibits of insects, butterflies, spiders, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. The many collections at the Museo de Historia Nacional were quite impressive. They were accompanied by a wealth of explanatory information, with some even including English translations. Overall, it was a very comprehensive and interesting museum at a great price.
THE VIEW FROM THE HILL
Another place that we visited in Popayán was the Cerro el Morro, or Morro Hill. This hill, also known as El Morro del Tulcán, is actually an ancient indigenous pyramid in the center of Popayán. Legend has it that when the Spanish found the pyramid they removed a large portion of its upper layers in search of gold and priceless artifacts. Nowadays it is a large grassy hill, crowned with a monument to the conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar, featuring his likeness mounted upon his horse. Often visited by locals and tourists alike, the Cerro offers a spectacular view of old colonial Popayán and the rest of the stunning city. It took us about ten minutes to hike up the somewhat steep winding path to the top of the hill. Once at the top, we took advantage of the wonderful panoramic views and snapped many photographs of the gorgeous scenery.
Just to the south, at the foot of the Cerro el Morro, lies Rincón Payanes, a miniature replica of historic Popayán. In this little version of Popayán you can find a small reproduction of the church La Ermita de Jesús Nazareno, which is the oldest temple in the city. The mini city also featured a few small artisan shops and stores selling snacks and refreshments. Also located there were a couple of restaurants that were closed during our visit. In addition, Rincón Payanes has several interesting dedications and inscriptions carved into the sides of the small buildings, including one that claims to be the tomb of Don Quijote, the fictional creation of Miguel de Cervantes and one of the most well known characters in Spanish literature.
POPPING OUT OF POPAYÁN
We greatly enjoyed the three full days we spent in Popayán, as it was a much more relaxing place than many of the other Colombian cities we had visited. The food was cheap and tasty and the city itself was beautiful and peaceful. While we were sad to leave behind Popayán, and Polly, we were eager for our next adventure. On the morning of our departure, Luisa Fernanda phoned a taxi to the house to bring us to the bus terminal. The taxi arrived and had Luisa verify the last two digits of her phone number that she had used to call the taxi, a common safety practice in Colombia. We loaded our luggage into the cab, said our farewells to Luisa and Polly, and then we were on our way to the terminal. Once we had arrived at the bus station we began looking for tickets to our next destination, Ipiales, Colombia.