Days in Popayan …


In every country we have visited on this trip, we usually choose a destination where we plan to take additional days off to enjoy the surroundings, relax and recuperate. Popayan was our chosen destination in Colombia, a mountain town at the southern end of the Cauca Valley.

We had been putting in some serious days cycling from Cartagena over the last three weeks on the road to Popayan which had presented us with some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery of the trip to date.

Intense days cycling also made us realise that our fitness had stepped up a gear since Panama. We feel that we could now handle anything on the bike and feel stronger and fitter than we have ever done. We were however, both ready for a well deserved break and some pampering. We had a short cycle to Popayan on Saturday morning from Piendamo. We were not alone on our journey and encountered at least 20 other road bikers enjoying their weekend jaunt on the short 24km ride to Popayan. We chatted to some cyclists en route and were asked the standard questions which we are now fluent in Spanish at answering!

A donde va? / De donde vienen? / En cuanto tiempo? / Que piensen de Colombia?

Usually when they hear of our plans, they cycle off in disbelief muttering ‘Dios mio’ under their breadth and carry on! Most of the time we enjoy chatting to motorcyclists and cyclists while riding but some are completely oblivious to choosing the right moment to do this. One guy who pulled up to us as we cycled into Popayan asked us the standard tick box questions (as above) and then proceeded to try and sell us a holy medal!! Sometimes it is challenging to say the least to try and hold a conversation when trying to negotiate Colombian traffic, speed bumps, pollution and a man selling medals while cycling!

And so we arrived into Popayan, looking forward to our break. Tourism has not really taken off here and so is not yet over run with tourists. It is a small and very beautiful colonial city also known as the ‘Ciudad Blanca’ due to the prominence of white washed houses. We stayed in a hostel run by a Scottish couple. We have surprisingly met very few English and Irish people on our travels to date so is always nice to hear familiar accents again.

I am currently reading ‘My Invented Country’ by Isbael Allende and the following line in the book jumped out at me the other day…

‘ … According to my grandfather, discomfort is good for the health. He recommended cold showers, food difficult to chew, lumpy mattresses, third class seats on trains and clunky shoes’.

With the exception of the ‘third class seats on trains and the clunky shoes’, I could relate to a lot of this. It made me reflect on our world on and off the bikes and the routine we have developed in these two very different worlds (the on and off the bike world) as well as the small things in life that we have now come to appreciate and consider as treats which were commonplace in our ‘former lives’. We are often in remote,off the beaten track places where no tourists venture to when we are cycling whereas our days off find us back on the gringo trail with all the facilities and comforts to which we had been accustomed to.

The on and off the saddle routine differs in the following way:

On the saddle: Food
When we are on the road, we have three daily appointments. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eating and cycling are the only ‘to do’ on our daily to do list. We eat to fuel our bodies and our relationship with food becomes functional.

Our daily diet:
Breakfast: granola and powdered milk
Lunch: Rice
Dinner: Staple of rice, beans and chicken
Martin is proving to be more adventurous than me when it comes to trying new food. I still can’t bring myself to eat ‘mondongo’ (entrails of a cow’s stomach) or chicken feet! Actually, he limits himself at that too.

Off the saddle: Food
Breakfast: Cornflakes and fresh milk
Lunch: Treats + wine / beer
Dinner: Treats + wine / beer
Numerous trips to the bakery
Supermarkets are always a highlight when we are on our ‘off’ days.

On the saddle : Sleep and Accommodation
Hard bed with lumpy mattress and pillows has become the norm
Small room and occasionally accompanied by ‘furry friends’
Cold showers

Off the saddle: Sleep and Accommodation
Soft bed and pillow
Big room, enough room for us and bikes
Warm showers

On the saddle : Entertainment
Colombian soaps on TV
Each other

Off the saddle : Entertainment
Anything but Colombian soaps on TV
Each other
Cinema from time to time  

On the saddle : Daily routine
Days are spent laboring up never-ending hills or enjoying the ride of the downhill while nights involve sleeping in strange places.

Off the saddle : Daily routine
Relaxing, sending emails, catching up on world news and some sightseeing.

And so to the highlights of our days in Popayan …

Trip to the cinema
A trip to the cinema to see Robin Hood which left us both feeling nostalgic for our former lives back in England.

Evening in ‘La Solterano’ old man’s pub
‘La Solterano’ is a 40 year old classic old man’s pub run by an old couple from a neighbouring mountain town where they played classic Colombian music on scratched old vinyls, a bar complete with little snugs. Apparently the locals of our age are too embarrassed to go there but it was our type of place.

Thermal Springs of Aguas Tibias
Outside of Popayan up in the mountains near the village of Coconuco we decided to head to the natural thermal spring of Aguas Tibias, set in a magnificent natural setting surrounded by waterfalls and rolling hills. We spent an hour in a mineral mud pool to get our tired muscles ready for the climb to the border with Ecuador and it was just what we needed.

On Monday, we took a trip to the Andean village of Silvia, outside Popayan. Martin had a shave and a hair cut in Silvia for the grand total of $5,000 (equivalent £1.50) bargain by anyone’s standards. I chatted to the locals.

The main highlight of Silvia is the market. The Guambianos, considered to be one of the most indigenous groups of Colombia, meet here every Tuesday to trade produce and sell everything from food and wool to machinery. They speak their own language, dress in traditional clothes which they weave themselves and still use rudimentary farming techniques. It was fascinating to watch them and was definitely a great opportunity for people watching in the main marketplace and the village square. We were the only ‘gringos’ in sight and we certainly stood out.

The constant flow of new experiences and challenges on this trip is invigorating.  The cultural contrasts make you more open to ambiguity, more willing to realise that there are different ways of interpreting the world and gives you time to appreciate simple things in life.

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