Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Colombia – Popayán, A ghost town

Okay, we arrived on a Sunday night, and once again as South America seems to prove, there’s barely a soul in sight. It’s a ghost town dressed in white. The stark whiteness makes it seem even more lonely but this whiteness is also what makes the city famous. It’s known for the white washed colonial buildings.

It is dark and we’ve been on buses all day. Our supply of sandwiches and pastries has run empty and our bellies are growling. We quickly check in at "", the closest Guesthouse to the terminal and head straight out to find a nice meal. We read that Popayán is famous for its culinary dishes so off we go.

It's quiet even on weekday nights.
Park Life hostel is on the left side
of the photo next to the cathedral.
Now comes the challenging part. We figure that the central part of the city will have a good choice of restaurants despite the Sunday curfew. Nope. There is barely a door open. We find only three actually and nothing suits us. Grilled meat or arepas (fast food hominy pancakes). We head to the main plaza to scout out some local street vendors. Not one...not even dry food sellers (biscuits and chips).

Previously we thought that Cuenca was THE ghost town, but Popayán now wins the award: Latin America's loneliest city center! Eventually, we return to one open restaurant and join the other two guests for dinner. We both order burgers which aren’t even 100% beef. So far Popayán fails to impress.

Honk, beep, beep, vroom, squeal... It's 6am and Patrick is sitting up straight in his bed. Where is all this noise coming from? This peacefully quiet town had turned into a traffic nightmare with the switch of a button. The noise in our room was even loud enough to wake Julane up!!!

The town has finally woken up
This guesthouse should change its name to "Honkytown", the private rooms sit right at a busy intersection where testosterone- overdosed, impatient drivers rev their gas pedals and horns in competition to create a concert of the worst kind. We have to get out of here! So instead of sleeping in, we go guesthouse-hunting again, heading straight to "Park Life" which was initially our second choice as it's a bit further from the terminal. But it turned out to be a great choice!

One fact that we soon discover will haunt us in Colombia is the prices. Colombia is quite expensive compared to all the other countries that we’ve visited so far. We soon discover that we need to increase our budget 50%. The transport alone seems to have doubled (as petrol is 3 times more than in Ecuador) yet the buses are much more primitive. We are longing for Ecuador again. Even beer and wine is much more and we are quite familiar with nice Argentinean and Chilean grape juice by now!

Room with a view: from our
front window at Park Life hostel.
Thanks to Ecuador, we added a bit of weight with all the great food so perhaps it’s time to tighten the belt again. Most of the guesthouses now include kitchens and we also notice that they are mainly dorms now, even couples are staying in dorms. Well our budget won’t drop down that far: we still like our double room. Here at Park Life Hostal, it costs 40,000 pesos ($22) but gives us a huge window onto the pedestrian restricted central plaza.

We can even see llamas
We have noticed travelers are finding lots of ways to lower the budget in Colombia, so Julane embraces the theme and heads out to buy groceries the next day since we have a lovely kitchen in the Hostal. Park Life is newly opened by Luiza and Borja (both from Europe) who have traveled the globe extensively. We love the vibe, setting, and also the mellow music in the living area. Sometimes we even get to hear the choir music in the cathedral that the hostal shares a wall with...this reminds Julane of her trip on the pilgrimage to Santiago (El Camino) where many of the "refugio" (pilgrim's refuge) were in ancient Spanish Cathedrals.

Yet another picture of a church,
probably the 735th on our blog?
Now that we found a place that is comfortable and doesn’t have a 6am honking concert, we can venture out to explore the town. The streets that were so empty that even ghost would be scared to roam them at night, are so busy that it takes some zigzagging skills to navigate the sidewalks without bumping into a street seller or another pedestrian. We walk around for a couple hours and indulge on a great Almuerzo, which is tasty and actually a quite good value. This helps to ease our cost inflation shock a bit.

We both feel exhausted from all the extensive road travels that we did in the past few weeks and head back to our hostel early. Tomorrow we have another 5 hours on the bus to Tierradentro – more on that trip in a later blog.

Our second stay in Popayán is for 2 nights and one day, and we wander around town again to explore the small streets and shops. Whitewashed buildings line the narrow streets that fortunately only allow one-way traffic. A bit to our surprise the one-way rule is actually observed, even motorbikes don’t try to ride “upstream”. Thanks to that, we actually can walk on the sidewalks without risk of being side-swiped. Taking about risk: Popayán seems to be quite safe, it used to be an area where FARC had a stronghold up until a few years ago and foreigners were advised not to travel to this part of Colombia.

Safety in numbers: Don't visit
the Belen hill alone 
We felt especially safe since there were hundreds of military and police officers protecting the streets. To our disappointment, we found out that they were not there to protect us, but instead a senior official from Bogota was visiting. It seems to be election time in Colombia now.

Call it luck, call it destiny: we learned two weeks after our visit to Popayán that a woman who crossed over to Colombia with us was robbed at knife point at the scenic overlook where we sat to watch the sunset 2 days before we were there. But she went there at mid day when less people are there. As we were walking down the same trail she was later accosted, Julane also thought that it felt eerie there. Traveling as a couple is already a slight deterrent for muggers.

Chicken bus, Colombian style? 
One of the attractions near Popayán are the hot springs in a town with the funny name Coconuca – does it really mean “coconut neck”?

The 45 minute collectivo van ride there ascends through a stunningly lush green subtropical valley. Unfortunately, the subtropical humidity turned into an ice cold downpour as soon as we arrive in Coconuca.
The "parade" of available bus options.
Nope, these don't transport veggies,
they are for human beings.

This is it for Patrick, there is no way that he will get on the back of a motorbike taxi for the 10 minute ride to the hot springs. He decides to head back to Popayán with the next collectivo. Julane is not too happy but isn’t in the mood to go alone to the thermal baths.

Instead of soaking our bones in hot water, we spend 1½ hours sightseeing through the windows of a minibus. At least the landscape is still nice and now we get to see it from the opposite direction.
 We also enjoy taking pictures at one of the bus terminals; we haven’t seen buses in such bad repair for a while now. Even in Bolivia they were in better shape.
Mutually beneficial relationship:  the bus keeps the shack from collapsing,
and the bus keeps the tools to fix other heaps of junk.
In the animal kindom, they would call this "Symbiosis."

We have now reached the saturation
point of seeing white washed old towns
The highlight of our stay in Popayán was certainly meeting Luiza and Borja at their Park Life Hostal. The town is nice but lacks the character of other towns that we’ve been to. The architecture is quite nice but doesn't compare to our now huge list of old towns that we've visited on this trip. Old town overdose perhaps...