Monday, July 28, 2014

Popayan, Colombia

Popayan, the white city. A city of pilgrims during Semana Santa (Holy Week) and one of the most famous celebrations in Colombia. I planned to stay for three days and meet up with my friends Mosan and Georgie (from the UK). I knew I had to make some plans for the holiday week but I hadn't. I like to travel by the seat of my pants and it irritates me to have to set plans. I committed to deciding where I would spend the week before I left Popayan. I walked from the bus station across the footbridge and up and over to the old town. I saw the bright green bikes of Hostal Carocal before I saw the sign. This was my new home.
When I arrived at Hostal Caracol, I was asked if I wanted to stay through Semana Santa. I explained I had not decided and he explained they had discounts if I stayed longer (private room for $150 if I stayed for2 weeks). I told him I would let him know tomorrow. It was time to do some online research. I settled into my room and went to walk around town. As I walked, I noticed the city was getting ready for the onslaught of tourists. Truckloads of motorcycles were delivered for the police and military.   
As I walked around the town, I noticed that everyone was preparing for Semana Santa. The outsides of most the buildings were being painted white.
I found the local Exito (supermarket) and bought bread and cheese for a picnic lunch and some veggies and pasta for dinner. Of course, I bought a bottle of wine for dinner. I turned a corner and there were my friends Georgie and Mosan. Yes, us westerners stand out! We all walked to the town square and enjoyed a picnic lunch as we watched the people and Pepe, the local llama that gives rides to children. Everyone seemed to think we were odd as we sat making cheese and avocado sandwiches. We quickly became a sight for the locals.
We relaxed and watched life in the square. People were talking with friends. Musicians were singing. Children were playing. Men were getting their shoes shined. I realized how different it is from home. I love the social interaction of the parks and talking with the locals. These men serenaded us and allowed me to practice my Spanish. 
We all decided to head back to our hostels for a few hours and to meet back for dinner. I walked back towards the hostel and found this beautiful piece of artwork. It stood out in the stark white buildings of Popayan. I missed the bright colors of the rest of Latin America. I went in to explore and found this was one of the art schools of Popayan.   
When I returned to the hostel, I relaxed and started doing some research. Where to go next? Do I just stay here and then to Bogota? As I was looking up information there was a knock on my door. I was told I had friends here to visit me. It must be Mosan and Georgie! I was excited to find them sitting in the cafe waiting for me. It was dinner time and we decided to try an empanada stand they had heard about.  As we talked, we made plans to meetup the next day for some exploring. 
We tried to go to the museums and they were all closed in preparations for Semana Santa. We decided to explore the art college and were invited to listen to the orchestra practicing for a concert for the Semana Santa. The students and professor were excited to perform for us. This was something Georgie and Mosan frequently did on their travels. They explained the universities often allow tourists to sit in on practices and save money. I thought it was a great budget travel suggestion! 

After our day trip to Silvia, I talked to the owner of the hostel. Most of the hotels and flights in other parts of the country were booked. He offered me a great deal for staying until Good Friday. I decided that I would stay and then he recommended I fly to Bogota. It was the same price as a long bus ride and only a couple hours. Done! I finally made a decision. I told Georgie and Mosan goodbye at dinner and decided to relax and enjoy Popayans festivities. 

Popayan is known as the religious center of Colombia and is home to more churches per capita than any other city/town in the country.  The tradition of processions has been going on for 400 years and each is full of vivid religious imagery. Throughout the week are different processions with effigy bearers taking four images to the center of the town.  On the first night of Semana Santa (Saturday night before Palm Sunday), I heard drums and walked to the street entrance to see what was happening. I looked out in the street and saw men, women and children lining up the sides of the streets with candles. 
 It was a beautiful procession. Marching bands came down the street followed by a religious float with Jesus.
As the float progressed down the street, the people walked along the sidewalks progressing with procession. Woman were dressed in traditional clothing. It was quiet except for the marching bands. Nobody talked.
It was a beautiful and serene sight. As they marched away, I was told this would continue each night with the culmination of the largest parade on Good Friday. 

The next morning, Palm Sunday, was a large parade. I walked to the town square to watch the mass that was being conducted in front of the cathedral. People were selling beautiful palms. These were not the simple palms I remembered from my childhood. The palms were beautifully braided and shaped into hearts. Children and adults were walking with beautiful palms and preparing for the procession.

The procession took a couple of hours and I was lucky I had met a Colombian man that wanted to practice his English with me. He stood next to me explaining the parade and telling me about the history of the Semana Santa celebration in Popayan. I was most surprised that the majority of the bands were military/police bands.  
The next procession was not scheduled until Tuesday night, my last night in town. I spent my days relaxing and talking with other travelers. We were all similar in that we were tired and just relaxing this week of the holiday. On Tuesday, I packed my bags and took a nap so I could make it until 11:00 PM or midnight when the procession would pass through our neighborhood. I waited until I heard the beat of the drums and then walked a couple blocks to the parade.
Once again, it started with the beat of the drums and the military marching band. The religious pilgrims silently stood on the sidewalks with candles. Each of the floats were proceeded by a woman in traditional Spanish clothing and carried by men in robes.

The procession stops several times to allow the men carrying the religious statues to stop and rest. Then, they heave it back onto their shoulders and continue walking around the city past the main churches.

The parade culminated with the military policy and veterans injured in the call of duty.
It was a beautiful religious procession. It ended around 1:00 AM and I walked back to the hostel and crawled into bed for 4 hours of sleep before a taxi arrived to take me to the airport. I left as the sun was rising. Goodbye Popayan. My next stop will be Bogota.  

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