Or the White City, its English nickname, is second only to Cartagena as Colombia’s most noteworthy colonial settlement. It turns out, the famous chalk white facades in the historical center originated as a deterrent to a prolific insect infestation which attacked the feet of the residents decades ago. The white chalk acted as a kind of pesticide and the exposed natural stone corners of some of the buildings were used as foot scratching posts for those unfortunate people who had been occupied by the little pests! No kidding, that’s what the historical walking tour guide told us.
At any rate, Popayan is a well-kept and pretty Spanish Colonial town of a few hundred thousand inhabitants at a comfortably pleasant 5,600 foot elevation. Located at the southern end of the Valle de Cauca it was the southern Colombia capital for hundreds of years until Cali took over. The 17th century mansions, churches and monasteries were built by wealthy Cali sugar hacienda families who were attracted to the mild climate.
Tourists from around the world come to witness the elaborate religious pageantry during Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebration. Eight men carry the enormously heavy platforms with elaborate religious depictions during the festivities and it is a great honor for those who are selected for the difficult task. We were told that an elderly and sick man who had carried the platforms for decades defied his doctor’s orders to give it up and died doing it during one Easter celebration. That’s how serious this ceremony is in Popayan. Tragically, in March 1983, just moments before the Maundy Thursday religious procession was about to begin, a violent earthquake erupted when the human capacity inside the cathedral was at its peak. The roof and dome in the cathedral collapsed killing hundreds. The cathedral and the town were rebuilt to exceed the pre-quake standards and little damage is noticeable today.
We attended a dance festival in a beautiful theater featuring dancers from Latin America including Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Panama. Presented by Grupo Artistico Nuestra Tierra (artistic group of our land), the dancing was fabulous but the sound man should have been fired since several of the presentations had earsplitting sound volume. Panama brought us out of our seats as did Ecuador and Chile. The women (and some men) especially enjoyed the nearly naked Chilean men (beaded jock strap only), body painted, super fit, and highly enthusiastic dancers!
As always, meeting and becoming acquainted with people during our travels are among the memorable highlights. While standing next to our vehicle with Indiana plates in Sylvia, we met Jaime who resides in Texas and Popayan. Over dinner in Popayan at his friend’s restaurant we enjoyed his company and tales about his USA career beginning in 1964 and his roots in Colombia. Thank you Jaime for your kindness and generosity.