Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The other white city

Saturday morning we were up-and-at-em early (well, early for us anyways) - saying goodbye to our new friends at the Rose Cottage hostel in Otavalo, as well as to our case of the "lazies". We were actually going to have to exert some effort for the next couple of days to get to our next destination of Popayan, Colombia.

Our border crossing into Colombia was a bit more convoluted then others we have done, but with the exact details of what to do in hand, we were able to do it seamlessly, even helping an absent-minded Danish girl with no Spanish find her way as well. We also had devious plans cooked up in case we had problems at the border - we had heard that some people were rejected from entering the country if they could not prove they were going to leave it. We, of course, don't know what we are doing two days from now, let alone a month or so down the road. We had thus decided to pretend we knew zero Spanish so that they hopefully couldn't be bothered with trying to communicate with us English speaking gringos. We also decided that I would do all the talking, knowing how Pete likes to chat it up with border people (for some weird reason).

All was for nought, and we waltzed across the border without issue into our seventh country. And what a welcome we've had! Within the first day we met three very friendly and helpful locals: an elderly man who wanted to practice his English with us whilst riding the bus, another bus patron who helped us with which buses to take next, and finally a taxi driver turned tour guide who took us out to Las Lajas Sanctuary - a beautiful Gothic basilica built by 1949 into a large gorge near the border city of Ipiales.

We stopped in Ipiales only to see the Sanctuary, and thus dumped our bags at the bus station and found our taxi driver/guide. We negotiated with Omar to take us out to the Sanctuary and wait to take us back to the station - rather then waiting in his car, he walked with us down to the church, filling us in with details along the way.

Of all the impressive churches that we have seen, this one tops them all. It is built straddling a deep gorge with a river running below it. There is a huge waterfall in front of it, and a long stone walkway down to it. The church was built on the site of an acknowledged appearance of the Virgin Mary, and is said to have some healing powers. Lining the walkway to the church were thousands of plaques, most of them thanking the Virgin for miracles performed. A very awe-inspiring site, and if we didn't have a bus to catch, we could have sat there for a couple of hours soaking it all in.

Hundreds of plaques lined the mountainside

Back to the bus station we went with Omar, and then back on the bus for a couple of hours to Pasto, which would serve as our rest stop for the night. On Sunday we had 6 more hours to go before getting to our current city, Popayan.

It was a bus ride like we've never had before. The scenery was as breathtaking as any we have seen and very similar to the lush green mountains we drove through in Ecuador. The elevation changed dramatically several times as we wound up and down the mountainside on the curvy road. Some of the curves got the better of a few people on our bus, and for the third time in our travels, Pete sat next to someone who vomited as a result (I'm beginning to think it's Pete, and not the roads!)

One very unique feature of this trip was the crazy amount of armed police and military that we saw on our way. Even in the most seemingly remote places, there would be a few fully decked out soliders on the side of the road, complete with large automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. It was a little unnerving at first, especially when we got stopped in one small town for an ID check - onto the bus came a soldier carrying an uzi while he took all the local's identification. For the gringo's on the bus (us only), he just asked a couple of questions (to which our we-don't-know-Spanish-strategy kicked in), and he left us be without even looking at our ID.

Pete commented that he was close to soiling himself when the uzi brushed his arm as the soldier walked past! I, on the other hand, found it all quite amusing, especially as I watched one of the soldiers who stood guard outside the bus - with his automatic weapon bouncing off his hip, he was swaying and singing along to the reggaeton music that was playing from a nearby store. Like, really! There are very few places in the world where you can find yourself in this kind of situation - I found it quite entertaining.

After that stop and another for lunch, we finally reached Popayan - the whitest of white cities!

It seems that most every country in Latin America has a city that tries to lay claim to the title of Ciudad Blanca (white city), and we have visited a couple of them (Sucre, Bolivia and Arequipa, Peru). None of these others, however, are even remotely comparable to the blankness of Popayan. Every building in the old city is completely stark white, with impeccably clean streets in which some are even colored such a pale grey that it adds to the distinct blankness. It is really beautiful, and even a little eerie at the same time.

We arrived in Popayan totally unknowing of the huge festival that was about to overtake the town, and totally without accommodations! We are usually quite diligent about booking ahead (in order to ensure that we never have to stay in hostel dorms), but we have kinda been flying by the seat of our pants since the Galapagos. Wouldn't you know it - the one time we come without plans is the one time we catch ourselves in an already packed city. We trudged around town with our heavy packs until we finally found a place to stay - quite a cute little hotel for the whopping price of $25 a night.

We were lucky to find accommodations, but also very lucky just to be here. Popayan is somewhat the cultural and religious mecca of Colombia (the church-to-people ratio is very high), and is home to the biggest Easter celebrations in the country known as Semana Santa (saint week). The festivities have been a tradition or over 450 years! Every day there are musical recitals, art exhibits and parades. The streets are closed and the town is abuzz with throngs of people. We excitedly found the tourist information office and grabbed all the paraphernalia we would need to plan out our few days.

And then, sickness struck. Poor Pete started to feel pretty low Monday, and it all culminated when he actually passed out in a restaurant where we sat to have lunch in the late afternoon. He scared me (and the restaurant staff) pretty thoroughly. After forcing him to drink some juice, we jumped in a cab and headed straight back to our hotel where we didn't leave for the rest of the day. He slept heavily, and by the late evening he started to feel much better. Yesterday he was back to 100%, thankfully! Time to get out of the room and explore!

So much to do, such little time. First up, Manos de Oro, the largest and most unique artisan fair we have seen on our travels. It was SO difficult to not blow all of our money on everything from purses to bracelets to Coca products. I am quite in awe of my own will-power I have developed.

Then, a piano recital! I have never been to one before, but in honor of the week's festivities, a piano player from the Czech Republic was here to entertain with Chopin and Schubert in front of a packed theater.

And finally, the procession late in the evening. Every day this week a parade will march through downtown Popayan, each time in honor of a different saint. It was a gloriously serene and exquisite spectacle, complete with marching bands, hundreds of people lining the streets with lit candles, and huge and heavy platforms adorned with religious symbols.

We enjoyed three hours of the procession, made even better by the fact that we chatted extensively with the two families sitting on either side of us. They taught us (among many things) how to spot counterfeit money, how to say popcorn (there are so many different ways to say it across the continent!), and about the different traditions they experience during Easter week.

Four days into Colombia and we are overwhelmed, but in such a good way. As exemplified by the two families at the procession, Colombians are SUCH an unbelievably friendly bunch! We have been stopped on the street by complete strangers just to say Bienvenidos more in this country then in all other countries combined. The staring at our white skin continues, of course, but at least they are most likely to do it with a smile or an hola.

We are excited to continue, and today we have just a short bus ride to the third largest city in the country. Cali is home to Salsa dancing, many beautiful parks, and apparently is a hotbed for "medical tourism" - plastic surgery. Should be an interesting visit!

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