Popayan was a pleasant surprise, due to its Spanish colonial beauty. In the Southern Colombian department of Cauca, Popayan is this region’s white-washed capital, and a distinguished university town. Arriving by bus into the outskirts of the older center, we had no idea what a visual treat we were in for. A short taxi ride later and we entered the “white city” with its many elaborate churches, cathedrals, shady plazas, pedestrian lanes, and historical museums. On our first evening, we discovered a perfect little Italian restaurant, with fresh pesto sauce and unctuously crisp and chewy pizza crust that twice fulfilled our pasta & pie longings. We also sampled more Colombian coffee and street food, including papas rellenas, which are balls of mashed potatoes filled with a variety of savory ingredients, like meat, eggs, and cheese, then deep-fried and served for breakfast with a spicy aji sauce.
Another morning, we left the curvy streets of Popayan for the hills of Coconuco, and the natural thermal pools at Aguas Tibias. As usual, these excursions can almost wipe out an entire day in transportation time, as we travel with a combination of local buses, taxi trucks, and our own walking feet, ignorant of any time schedules which might lessen the stretching minutes we spend waiting for rides. The actual hours passed while having lunch, then climbing in and out of pools of various temperatures, or letting the kids snake down roughly concreted water slides, over and over again, fly by quickly.
Our last notable diversion in Popayan was its Museum of Natural History, which mostly consisted of room after room of taxidermy exhibits. The sheer number of stuffed birds, snakes, and animated South American mammals kept our mouths open and the hair on our necks raised. There were also rooms of shell and coral specimens, fossils and semi-precious rocks, and an extensive and carefully pinned collection of butterflies, moths, and beetles.
Perhaps, the most popular “side-trip” from Popayan is a visit to San Agustin. This is a worthy destination of a chunk of time, and definitely not a day trip or even a one-nighter in my opinion. Firstly, the bus journey from Popayan to San Agustin has to be the worst road trip I have ever experienced. The 5 hour trip took off on the same scenic, primarily paved road we had taken to the thermal springs, via deep green mountains and multiple waterfalls. However, after less than one hour on asphalt, we were on a gravel dirt road, destined for an extremely long and bumpy journey filled with treacherous, large stones, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. It was raining, and we ended up being engulfed in foggy clouds. Our bus drivers visibility was severely limited, yet he barreled on through windy ess curves and narrow switchbacks. Meanwhile, Stella, of the pea size bladder, and her mother, who should have more bodily control, were in a sweat of worry as we suffered through our intense yearning to urinate. Trying to pace ourselves with deep breaths, and squeezing our legs tight, we jarringly bounced through several rough hours, before eventually getting a pee break. In fact, we were so close to losing it, that we had to beg the driver to stop, in order to leap off the bus and seek out the nearest bush. After asking twice, it still took another 15 minutes for him to find a safe enough shoulder to pull into, on our one lane road to hell. At least 10 other people took advantage of our shared “toilet” in the public outdoors, only to discover that a true bathroom stop awaited us about 10 minutes down the road!
Eventually, we were back on pavement, the sun was coming out, and we were entering the gorgeous, mountain-river valleys of San Agustin. To be continued…