Popayan – What to do in Colombia’s White City?

After dancing the night away on the black-and-white dancefloor of Topa Tolondria in Cali, the next morning was supposed to be an early one for Ale and me. The plan was A. Waking up at 6 o’clock to prepare the bike and B. Ale leaving on the bike direction Popayan, with me following a bit later in a bus headed for the same city. But, as you’ve already read before on this blog, travel plans tend to change quite often. It also didn’t help that the mexican I was travelling with is a master in changing plans last minute, – Not that I have to talk, steadily continuing my journey in the opposite direction of where I originally planned to be – especially when it’s raining when he wakes up and doesn’t feel like getting out of the bed. – My jetlag resulted in me being widely awake by 5 am during the whole length of my trip…often followed by a grumpy Mexican waking up with me. Woops. I read it has something to do with not adapting well to the altitude. – Anyway, the whole decision of continuing to travel together was a very smooth one in the first place. Somehow, we both knew that Popayan and San Augustin where on our to-visit-list, so why not continue together while we’re heading in that direction anyway?

We ended up spending one more day and one more night in rainy Cali, switching our time between the bed, the kitchen, the supermarket and the terrace on the roof that we discovered at one point. I was still winning in ‘Shithead’, our cardgame competition, this to Ale’s big frustration since he taught me the game. Hehe. Slowly we made more plans for the next day, as in trying to wake up at 6 o’clock again – Surely wouldn’t happen, I already knew – and booking a hostel for the first night since Ale figured he would make it to Popayan in one day. I had my doubts, but was hopefull he would be right.

Termales de Coconuco – I think it’s clear what you’re not ought to do…such a pity
Green water, green hills and the delicious smell of sulphur…but very very relaxing

Next day came and Ale left the hostel at 10 o’clock, – right on time -, and I followed 2 hours later, saying goodbye to Erika and heading for the bus station. Bus stations are crowded, dark places where I started to feel at home and as everywhere in Colombia, I found a bus waiting for me and leaving within 5 minutes. Only downside was the driving time, what supposed to be 3 hours became a 5 hour drive along brick villages and without nice views along the road. On top of that, it started to poor outside, so I knew Ale wouldn’t be able to continue to ride, risking the fact that he, his bike and everything inside of his bags would be soaking wet within half an hour. Which made it highly unlikely that he would make it into Popayan by the end of the day…I kept my fingers crossed. Upon arriving in Popayan, the Rain Gods where still angry with me – and the rest of Popayan / Southern Colombia -, so I decided to take a taxi to the hostel we’d picked, which was a bit more secluded than I originally tought. A hostel in the middle of the woods doesn’t sound so appealing anymore when water is gushing out of the sky, your taxi drops you off at a side road in the middle of nowhere and you have to walk 15 minutes uphill to reach the place, which seemed to be deserted when you arrive. Awtch. My doubts grew bigger when I got escorted to my room, which wasn’t the one I’d reserved – When you give me the option of booking a double bed, please give me the double bed. ‘Friends of the owner staying in the only room with the double bed’ is not such a good reason not to give me my reserved room. But hey, I’m in Colombia and I didn’t even know if my cyclist was going to make it to Popayan that evening, so I took the room anyway. -, when I noticed there was only ice-cold water in the shower and when they told me there were no shops or restaurants at walking distance. A bit hangry and half freezing I got the message from Ale that he wouldn’t be able to make it that evening, so my mood obviously wasn’t the best. I decided to look for another hostel in the city to move to first thing in the morning, covered myself with a bunch of blankets and fell asleep.

Mexican exploring the Termales of Coconuco
The relief of stepping into 40°C

My first evening in Popayan wasn’t the happiest, but the next morning the Weather Gods brought me already in a better mood. The sun was shining brightly when I finally decided to leave my bed. To then notice I was locked up inside and couldn’t get out of my room anymore. Bummer. Luckily, they came to look for me anyway since the owner of the hostel wanted to speak to me about the room issues I’d had and, five minutes after throwing my key out of the window, they’d freed me from my little prison. The owner of the hostel was very friendly and understanding, he offered me that I would pay only for one person in a dorm, since I’d got the wrong room and my travel partner clearly didn’t arrive on time. Well said, well done and I finally started to relax again, with a big healthy breakfast in the sun, waiting for a message from a Mexican cyclist. Which came, way later than anticipated, when I was already packed to leave for the other hostel I’d booked the night before. In the old town. Also cheap. With supermarkets and civilisation close by. When Ale’s message came, he was at 3km from the city and we were bound to arrive at the hostel around the same time, since I had about 20 minutes walking ahead of me.

Now. It would have been a good idea to ask if the road was safe to walk on. Which I didn’t. I started walking with this 13-kilo-backpack on my back and all my other earthly belongings in a small backpack on my front, on a route with a lot of heavy traffic – big trucks speeding past – on a road where the only form of civilisation are the Love hotels on the sides – Love hotels in Latin America are a necessity. Lots of young people live with their parents as long as they’re not married, the only way to have a bit of ‘alone time’ with boy- / girlfriends is in a Love hotel. It’s quite common to see them, mostly a little bit outside of the city. – and slowly heading upon a hill, once past the Love hotels there was no house or building in sight. While I was walking further and further along this road, I started to think. It was actually quite perfect to rob an innocent looking, white girl in a red dress – definitely didn’t think about appropriate clothing – walking with all her belongings along the road, with no houses or witnesses in sight. Hmm. Thinking this made me walk faster. Seeing this gap in the bushes, with a pile of trash and a crazy looking guy throwing trash in the air sitting on top of it, made me walk even faster. Anyone who could manage a sprint, would reach me within seconds, since running with 13 kilo on my back is not something that I do quite often. What did comfort me a little bit, was the traffic passing by, the road was definitely not empty. After 20 not-so-comfortable minutes I reached the roads of the old town and was at two streets from my hostel. When arriving, I noticed I was still the first to arrive – no sight of Ale – and the receptionist started to explain the map of Popayan to me, where we were and what to do, but also: where not to go. As in: you could go everywhere, except for this one road up the hill, known to be a place where a lot of robberies take place. Yes, you can already guess, the road where I’d just walked a couple of minutes ago. – Which I didn’t mention ofcourse. You have stupidness and extreme stupidness, and somewhere in the middle am I, when I forget to ask about the route – After that realization and relief that nothing bad had happened – I even had some good views upon the city when walking -, I started to unpack my stuff in the room, waiting for the Mexican to arrive.

Which he did, 5 minutes later, exhausted, sweaty and very happy to have arrived. After installing the bike inside – Yup, you don’t want your major way of transportation and reason why you’re travelling be stolen by leaving it on the street – we went for a quick round through the city, looking for something to eat, before Ale wanted to go back to the hostel and take a nap. Hmmm. Now, it was around 4 pm already, so we weren’t up for much exploring anymore, but I was quite awake…after reading a bit, going around the hostel twice and reading all the info about what to do, I joined Ale in the bed and promptly fell asleep. Day number two in Popayan was spend walking, eating and sleeping…only to wake up together with Ale – Correction: to wake up and shake Ale awake that it’s already 11 pm and his nap took quite a while…I needed a bit of attention after two days alone, I guess – and fall asleep again for the rest of the night.

I loved these three little ladies chatting the afternoon away…in the rain
Yup, we enjoyed the Termales too…

RELAX IN THE TERMALES DE COCONUCO

In the morning, we decided what to do for the rest of the day and since Ale was still a bit tired of his two days on a bike, we opted to go to the Termales in Coconuco, which was a nice day trip from Popayan. To go to the Termales, you head to the main bus station, ask for Coconuco and the bus takes you straight to Coconuco and takes about an hour. Easy as can be. Once there, you’re dropped at the main road in the middle of the village, where you can grab a 4×4 up to the Termales, they’re all waiting at the same corner where the bus dropped you off. Which we only did after taking our lunch at one of the panaderia’s at the side of the road that happened to be selling chicken as well. So I ate some plain chicken and Ale had the luck to be travelling with this Belgian girl that doesn’t like normal potatoes, so he had chicken AND all the potatoes. The dog begging at our table got the bones. Everybody happy, no? – I think I like these places the most, random little shops or restaurants that aren’t too fancy, aren’t thinking too much about the design, a part of the normal village life in Colombia. – Bellies full and ready to relax in some stinky sulphur baths, we took the jeep up the hill to the Termales, where we arrived right on time for the rain, a little drizzle, to start. – After Cali, we still didn’t have much luck with the rain apparently – We couldn’t care less, since we were about to get wet anyway.

How relaxing Termales can be. I love taking long, hot baths – preferably when reading a book – and enjoy just staying in the water, feeling the smoothness of the water on my skin, which is perfect when visiting hot springs. These ones in Coconuco come with the smell of sulphur and there are several baths with different temperatures. And some cold showers to cool down again afterwards… maybe to wash a bit of the smell away. Of course, once inside the water you don’t realize it, only afterwards when sitting on a bus you’ll start to smell yourself. Pretty badly. Anyhow, we really enjoyed ourselves. Even though the Termales de Santa Rosa de Cabal where much prettier, spending time with Ale and his neverending chatter makes up for that.

Once back in Popayan, we visited the Exito – Colombian supermarket in Colombian colours – next to the station in order to buy some supplies for the evening’s diner. Packed with two bags each we headed for station again in the hope to hop quickly into a taxi and head to our hostel. – We could still smell ourselves and it was about time to take a shower – What we didn’t count on, was the drizzle of the afternoon growing into a heavy rain shower, leaving us no choice but to stand and wait next to the two thousand others that happend to arrive in the station and needed transportation home. Ale luckily is a bit flexible in finding transport – living in D.F. you have to, I guess – and negotiated an ‘illegal’ taxi to our hostel. ‘Illegal’ as in a normal guy trying to earn some money by transporting backpackers, or other visitors like us that don’t want to walk in the rain, in his own car. The guy delivered us nicely in front of the hostel’s door, we happy that we could leave the station that quick, ready to finally get rid of our smelly clothes. After a much needed shower together and a delicious home cooked meal – by Ale, with assistance and cleaning of this Belgian girl – we were ready to end the day and go to sleep.

Sunshine after the rain in the centre of Popayan
Meeting point of the Free Walking Tour
Lots of churches in the white city

TAKE A FREE WALKING TOUR

I’d spent two days in Popayan and I hadn’t even seen the city yet, about time to change that. The day started as usual since we visited Cali, with rain. Having to move to another hostel – They didn’t have a private room available and we were still travelling as a couple, so we booked another hostel two streets down – we started packing and ate the rest of our diner of the day before, as breakfast. People were looking a bit strange, when they saw us devour our plates of pasta, but it was too good not to eat it. We were on a budget anyway.

Then, all of a sudden, a miracle happened: the rain clouds started to go away and a sun appeared, shining down on the white streets of Popayan. Right in time for us to walk to the city square and join the Free Walking tour. Well. It took me some time to persuade Ale, since he’s not the guy that usually takes a tour everywhere he goes. On the opposite, most of his time is spent in nature or villages no tourist ever visited. Going with me on a tour in a city was a big step. Luckily, I could convince him and we had the Weather Gods in our favour, he had no choice but to join me. I’d read a ton of good things about this particular Walking Tour and I was glad we took it as well, since I got to know a bunch of historical information and end up drinking one of the best juices I’d ever tasted.

Is this a Hitchock movie, but with pidgeons?
The rain stopped right on time for our tour to begin…
Pretty colonial buildings

During the tour you visit mainly downtown, with its beautiful Colonial buildings, all painted white. We started at the main square at 10 o’clock, making our way around the square while listening to our guide, telling us about the history of the city, why it’s painted white and not in a thousand different colours like other Colombian cities and how the city got partially destroyed during the eartquake of 1983. Following the group into a gorgeous Colonial mansion, we discovered the importance of Semana Santa in Popayan and how a lot of time is dedicated to the processions in the city during the Holy Week. Ale felt a bit uncomfortable as the only latino in the group – Soy lo unico güero aqui! – and compensated that by hanging around my neck and not losing my hand for one second. Which I didn’t mind of course. And he didn’t regret taking the tour either in the end. The best part of the tour was when we got to the part that connects the old town with the north of the city, a bridge called ‘Puente del Humilladero’ in a nice and quiet square, filled with stalls selling books. – A place that sells books is always heaven for me. – Not the square or the books where the highlight, but a little bistro called ‘Mora Castillo’, known for its typically Caucan dishes. We sat down with the group and I enjoyed a drink called ‘Salpicon’, made with chopped ice, raspberries, pieces of Guanabana and some other fruits. Ale discovered his favorite drink of his whole trip over there – You see Mexa, sometimes doing things with other güeros is not such a bad thing – and ate some Tamales de Pipian, a local delicacy.

More pretty buildings
And a church. But you get the feel of Popayan, no?

After the tour we still had some things left to do: change hostel, wash our stinky clothes – yep, sulphur smell and sweat-from-biking-two-days – and Ale was in desperate need for some cash, so we had to find an ATM. The hostel change and the money issue was solved quite quickly, the laundry issue was a bit more difficult to solve…we couldn’t find any lavanderia in the city centre and our hostel didn’t have a dryer. Washing the clothes would be possible, but there was a big chance they wouldn’t be drying easily and we were planning to leave for San Augustin the next day.. So we spended the next hour walking around the beautiful city centre looking for a laundry shop and, when the clouds came back, at the Juan Valdez – Colombian Starbucks -, hiding for the rain. Again. Seeing our chance the get back to the hostel between the rain showers, we continued the afternoon eating chips and playing ‘Shithead’ – yep, still winning – on the bed. It was also the first time Ale played his guitar for me – he’s crazy enough to cycle with a guitar on his back, planning to reach Ushuaia this way – and even though he still needs to work on his singing, I really enjoyed the private concert. While our original plan was getting back on the road again and head to San Augustin the next day, Ale told me he wanted to stay one more day and we celebrated our one night extra in one of the restaurants near the hostel, once the rain had stopped. We passed something that looked like a Mexican restaurant combined with a pizzeria that didn’t look too expensive, so we enjoyed a not-so-Mexican pizza before heading to bed. Bed normally means watching some Netflix before falling asleep, with me sleeping and Ale watching Netflix. Only this time my eyes opened right in time to see the Mexican drop his tablet on his head, falling asleep himself while watching Netflix. The good girl that I am, I just started laughing immediately, before kissing the pain away. – Don’t worry, he dropped his tablet also on my head when watching. I know how it feels. – No Netflix for the rest of the night anymore.

Sleepy Mexican needed a cup of coffee to get out of the comfy hammock.
Guess who brought him that coffee then…

CLIMB EL MORRO DE TULCAN

As usual, I woke Ale up way too early, but after the past rainy days, I was very happy to see some sun and couldn’t wait to go outside. And we really needed to get our laundry done that same day. So we left after breakfast and spend the next two hours walking around the city, looking for a lavanderia with a dryer. Luckily, after asking a dozen of people, trying to find something on maps.me that looked like a place doing laundry, we eventually found one, about 200m from the bus station. Even more lucky, they would be able to wash and dry it by the next morning, so no more sulphur or sweat stench coming out of our bags when we would leave for the next stop.

After having told me plenty of times before that he would like to climb up the Morro, Ale and me decided that our last day would be the day that we would climb the hill overlooking whole Popayan. It seemed like a fun thing to do since we A. both like hikes B. both like nice views and C. didn’t know what else to do anymore, Popayan isn’t THAT big anyway. El Morro de Tulcan is actually a pyramid dating from the pre-Columbian period and at the same time an ancient burial place of the tribes living in the city all those centuries ago. The Spanish discovered it empty and now it’s known as a nice place to chill and have a look over the whole city. A lot of people come here to hang out, maybe have a first date or smoke a porro. It’s a good place to relax and enjoy and have a picknick. We, of course, didn’t think about a picknick, but I do remember we relaxed a bit by the statue – of a Spanish conquistador on a horse, of course. What else do you put on top of an ancient archeological burial place of the native inhabitants? – and enjoyed sitting in the sun for a change.

On top of the hill.
Nicest views of Popayan

After our two hour long walk and a little climb up and down the Morro de Tulcan, we were starving. Of course, what better than a menu del dia in a local restaurant? Since we ran out of other things to do after lunch, we ended up walking along the book stands at the Puente del Humilladero and visiting ‘Mora Castillo’ again, this time with a Lulada – refreshing drink made from Lulo fruit, it’s also delicious and Ale’s favorite – for Ale and another salpicon for me. After sipping Colombia’s best drinks, our food tour wasn’t over yet. Apparently, on Tuesdays the heladeria selling yoghurt ice had a two-for-one deal that day, so we both enjoyed a huge bucket of yoghurt ice burried beneath plenty of unhealthy toppings. Not being hungry at all anymore but still thinking about food, we went to the supermarket to buy provisions for the next day. Forward thinking, they call it.

I really need to start bringing a blowdryer in my backpack…just for the five seconds it takes to dry my fringe.
But he, I can still smile!

Only end the day in the hostel, ready to pack our bags a little bit in advance – as in not at all actually, like usual – and to go to bed together, ready for a new day of travelling by bus – me – or cycling through the mountains to the next point. – Ale

More about my adventures at the side of a Mexican cyclist and ready for ‘San Augustin – Funny faces in the National Park and how (not) to find the Cinco waterfall‘ in my next blogpost!

————————————————————————————————————————————

HOW MUCH DID I SPEND?

Since it’s nice to know how much dinero you would need for a couple of days in Popayan, I wrote down how much things cost while I was there. Both in Colombian pesos and euros.

Transport

Bus Cali – Popayan: one way – 15.000 COP / 4,25€

Taxi Popayan bus station – hostel Colina Arcoiris: 9.900 COP / 2,81€

Bus to and from Coconuco: 10.000 COP / 2,83€

Jeep to entrance Termales and back: 6000 COP / 1,70€

Accommodation

1 night in Colina Arcoiris, Popayan: private room – 30.000 COP per night / 8,49€ per night, got a discount because they gave me the wrong room and Ale didn’t show up (breakfast included)

2 nights in Hostel Caracol, Popayan: private room – 55.000 COP per night / 15,57€ per night for two people

2 nights in Artehostel, Popayan: private room – 50.000 COP per night / 14,18€ per night for two people (coffee included)

Activities

Entrance fee Termales Coconuco: 10.000 COP / 2,83€

Free Walking Tour tip: 5.000 COP / 1,42€

Food

Menu del Dia in several restaurants: lunch menu at several restaurants, with a drink, soup and main dish – 4.500 – 7.200 COP / 1,28€ – 2,04€

Pizza in the not-so-Mexican restaurant: 9.000 COP / 2,56€

Salpicon in Mora Castillo: 5.000 COP / 1,42€

Two for one Yoghurt Ice Bucket with too many unhealthy toppings: 5.000 COP / 1,42€ – so basically each 2.500 COP

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