Colonial Popayán

The colonial town of Popayán  fell conveniently between Tierradentro and Pasto on our itinerary and it was a great stop for a couple of nights. We didn't do too much, we wandered around, walking into a colonial church here and there, strolled around the main square and generally relaxed. This work from Botero, Colombia's preeminent painter, depicts the devastating earthquake of 1983.
We were there over the holidays (early January) and the bad news was many of  the restaurants and several of the house museums were closed. However, we were lucky enough to stumble upon the new Fiesta Des Reyes (or King's holiday) for Epiphany (January 3-6th, 2016) which included a  food festival celebrating the traditional foods of different regions in Colombia. In addition to the food stalls there was a  nearby stage set up in the central square with live music in the evenings. Luckily this was all one one block from our hotel!
We stayed at the very reasonably priced Hotel Plazuela (above and below) which I can recommend, we paid around $40 per night though I think it was a little less when they removed the hotel tax. It's a colonial building built around two internal courtyards. The rooms have been tastefully modernized and we found it a comfortable place to stay. 
The other obvious choice in town was the Dann Hotel Monasterio which had lukewarm reviews. However, it is a stunningly lovely colonial building with large cloisters, as you can see below.
Though  I didn't see the bedrooms I enjoyed my cup of tea as we relaxed there one afternoon. This is clearly the fanciest place in town, though it's still very reasonable by US standards. 
We made it to the museum of religious art which is housed in another beautiful colonial building. Popayán is still an important religious center in Colombia but during the colonial period it was   an important center for religious art.
I love the Orientalist aesthetic of the painting below, the message couldn't be louder or clearer! 
Another traditional historical structure the museum is also built around a quiet courtyard.
Despite Popayán being  declared the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2005, we weren't particularly impressed by the food, though to be fair many of the restaurants were closed for the holidays. The designation seems to have more to do with the  tradition of regional cooking, and the particular combination of Spanish colonial and indigenous foodways.

The central colonial core of the town is quite large and the historic buildings are painted white with nice wrought iron lamps on each street. There are a large number of colonial churches as you can see below.   
In the evenings we made our way to the central square to see the lights, listen to the music and to eat at the food stalls which had been put up for the fiesta. I have to say the Colombians take their Christmas lights VERY seriously! As we found everywhere in Colombia people were very friendly and curious to know where we were visiting from, and what we thought about Colombia. A friendly journalist tried to persuade us to come on his radio show but we begged off, due to our non-existent Spanish, I did the same with a tv presenter in Pasto! Sometimes it's advantages not to speak a language too well!
There was an extremely large police presence for the fiesta, here you can see them gathering on the steps of the cathedral. It was a reminder that as you go south into Cauca province you are in what was a FARC stronghold The most recent attacks in this area were on the military in 2014, right before the ceasefire and there were a number of deadly car bombs in Popayán in 2011. Clearly the area has been heavily militarized from both the left and the right, the conflict has been particularly destabilizing in the rural areas where hundreds of families  abandoned their already marginal farms. 
However, the ongoing peace process promises  the possibility that the FARC and other "guerrilla" or "paramilitary" groups will transform into a viable political (rather than military) forces and that a Truth Commission will examine  atrocities on all sides.  We were interested to pass this government office dedicated to Unidad para la Atencion y Reparacion Integral a las Victimas, known in english  as, The Unit for the Attention and Reparations of the Victims of Colombia. Their national website states, All for a New Country; Peace, Equality and Education. Clearly reconciliation, equality and peace are difficult to achieve but the process is underway in Colombia. The Victims and Land Restitution Law allows victims of the internal conflict to claim, as stated at the UN, "comprehensive reparation, which includes: satisfaction measures, rehabilitation, compensation, restitution, and guarantees of non-repetition."
Despite, or perhaps because of the violent history in Colombia we found people were incredibly welcoming and warm. Popayán is a university town and with a large student population it attracts an interesting crowd including quite a number of intellectuals.
One evening we bumped into a young Colombian architect who we'd met in Tierradentro (he was still recovering from the bus ride to Popayán which was apparently as bad as I imagined) and  he introduced us to  a number of his friends including a Colombian poet and publisher, and  Scottish teacher who has lived in Colombia for the last twenty years. We really enjoyed meeting them all, here are some of them with D. wearing the hats of the "Three Kings" especially for Epiphany! 
If only we'd had more time in  Popayán we would have taken them up on their offer to show us around, but we were heading to Pasto to catch the Negros y Blancos Carnaval.


Katherine said…
Wow! What an adventure! I have to aff this to my bucket list! I love those connections you make with locals while traveling. They make all the difference
Thanks for posting Katherine - the blog is designed to extend everyone bucket list!
I agree that meeting people is what really brings a place alive. In Colombia we found we met more people when we were staying at the smaller more modest places. The Four Seasons in Bogota is lovely but it's very luxurious and discreet, not really the place to meet lots of people!