Popayan is the second-best preserved colonial town in Colombia (Cartagena is first). It’s nicknamed “white city” – same as Arequipa in Peru but the two cities are nothing alike. Popayan is not a popular tourist destination and it’s a really small town. Janice described it as confusing. Lonely Planet described it as an enigma. We couldn’t quite figure this city out. All the locals seemed to be out and about and going places. It felt busy but life here seems slow. One of Colombia’s best universities is located in Popayan so that could explain the lifestyle here. All I know is that this town is really beautiful. It was completely rebuilt (over a 20 year period) after an earthquake in 1983 destroyed everything. The original Colonial white Spanish architecture styles were retained and they kept most of the historical part of the town exactly the same when the city was rebuilt. They have a lot of beautiful old churches.
We saw most of the colonial area in the half day we had there. Why only a half day? Well, up until our arrival, I thought we had a flight the next day in the afternoon. I looked all over my emails for the confirmation but instead found an email declining my original flight reservation. Apparently, because of a fraud alert from my credit card company, the charge didn’t go through and the transaction was cancelled, even though I had immediately confirmed this wasn’t fraudulent activity. (I actually met another traveler that this happened to and didn’t even think or consider it would happen to one of my bookings. Lesson learned – make sure your transactions go through after a fraud alert!) Now we had no way out of Popayan and had to figure out how to catch our flight from Bogota to Medellin the next evening. I immediately started looking for flights and found 3 seats to Bogota early the next morning. I booked it right away and luckily it was still very affordable!
We had to maximize the limited time we had in Popayan now. We actually had no idea what to do here though, except to eat since this city was UNESCO’s first city of gastronomy. So, we headed to the tourist information center. Along the way, we enjoyed the busy streets between the beautiful buildings and discovered the perfect affogato at Juan Valdez Coffee (Colombia’s version of Starbucks that was briefly in Times Square NYC once upon a time).
El Morro de Tulcan
The tourism center appeared to be run by police officers. They didn’t speak one word of English. They recommended going up to El Morro de Tulcan for views of Popayan, which is what we did. It’s a short 10-15 minute walk to the top and when you are up there, you quickly realize how small the colonial part of town is. We took it easy, relaxed a bit and enjoyed the amazing view.
Museo Guillermo Valencia
After the lookout, we randomly stumbled into a free museum: Museo Guillermo Valencia. We were literally just looking at the beautiful mansion from the outside and reading the sign on the wall when a security guard opened the gate and ushered us inside. Next thing we knew, we were in a Spanish speaking tour group of the mansion. The building is huge. Much like our hotel and the Juan Valdez/information center, there was a large courtyard in the heart of the mansion. It seems this concept was popular in traditional colonial-Spanish architecture. The tour guide spoke REALLY slowly in Spanish for us (I assume) so we could understand, but Marc had to translate a good chunk of it for us.
Apparently, the museum was once home to the Popayan-born poet Guillermo Valencia whose son ended becoming the President of Colombia. Most of the furniture inside is original. Many of Valencia’s collections are featured in the museum. When the family passed, they knocked down the kitchen and turned the area into a cemetary. Much of the family is buried there.
Asians in Popayan
After the tour, we decided to check out the two “unusual” bridges recommended by Lonely Planet. I am still not sure why these bridges are special – standing there, it was completely lost to me. While we sat around relaxing under the bridge, a few policemen came up to us and asked where we were from (a very common question we’d been asked everywhere). Marc responded in Spanish and started a conversation with them.
As mentioned above, Popayan is not a popular tourist destination. They don’t get a lot of foreigners here, much less Asian people. We were probably the first Asians these people ever met and definitely the only Spanish-speaking Asian-Americans they ever met. We stood out in Bogota, a big city. Imagine how much more we stood out here in this little town? Just walking along the streets, you hear people announce to each other “chinos!” “chinitos!” For those who have the courage to talk to us, they ask us where we are from and then they’re shocked when we tell them we are from Estados Unidos. Then they ask where our parents or grandparents are from and the only answer they’re really looking for is China or Japan. Marc was more uncomfortable with this than I was because his parents are both US born and he’s 3rd generation American. It was a bit frustrating that people just assumed we were all Chinese and our identity was constantly being challenged. Sometimes people asked to take a picture OF us, which we always declined. Sometimes they would just take candid pictures of us. We felt like we were free-roaming exotic animals.
So anyway, this was basically the conversation we were having with the policemen. Eventually, a few more joined because they were all curious about these “chinos” and had a bunch of questions for us. Take a wild guess how our conversation ended? Yup, can we get a picture OF you guys? We declined, as usual. They asked por que, as usual. And, as usual, we had no idea what to say to that. This time though, I decided I wanted a picture of this group of policemen that we had just spent a good 20 minutes talking to so we said Yes, as long as they were in it and we could get a picture too. Only a few of the policemen agreed to be in it. At first they only wanted a picture of just the girls but that was too weird.
The Popayan local’s fascination with us really shaped our impression of their town. We were not a fan of the constant attention.
We were all exhausted by mid-afternoon. The overnight bus to San Agustin and the bumpy ride to Popayan was starting to catch up to us. We decided to have an early dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by the policemen.
We started with one of Popayan’s local dishes – empanadas de pipian. These are fried, bite-sized, potato filled appetizers/snacks. It’s not at all like a traditional empanada that we Americans are familiar with. Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t really have anything else typical to Popayan. Marc did get the largest bandeja paisa (see picture).
Christmas in Colombia
By now, it was obvious how important Christmas was in all of Colombia. It’s soo important that they look forward to it all year and on December 1, they have a huge celebration because Christmas is coming soon! Every town is decked out in lights and everywhere we go, there are Christmas trees and the nativity scene. It’s no joke here. When we were in Argentina, I was getting concerned South American countries just weren’t very festive. Now that I am in Colombia, I’m not concerned at all. Glad I will be here on Christmas Day!
We decided to check out Popayan’s city center where they had a beautiful Christmas display. It was pretty crowded and again, we were getting a bunch of attention. Kids were “sneakily” taking pictures of us.
I don’t know how much more time I would have wanted to spend here. The architecture was cool. The food was hard to find. The people were too curious. Don’t get me wrong – people were still nice and friendly, we just didn’t like the attention.