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FARC, Firefights, and Burial Sites – Tierradentro, Colombia

The Tierradentro National Archaeological Park is home to what is believed to be the greatest number of cave tombs in Latin America. There are dozens of them, some dating back 1,400 years. It’s a highlight for many travelers to Colombia and the place is unlike any other archaeological site in the country. However, we were a little distracted by the firefights between Colombian soldiers and FARC rebels in the surrounding foothills when we were there…

San Andres de Pisimbala, Colombia Tierradentro Archaeological park

The foothills around the Tierradentro Archaeological Park in Southern Colombia are usually peaceful.

FARC guerrillas near Tierradentro

During the more than 18 months we spent traveling in Colombia we heard many personal stories about the FARC and the ongoing violence associated with the rebel group which has been operating in the country for decades. These stories brought the grim reality of living in a country that’s been essentially fighting a civil war with guerrillas into stark relief.

But nothing prepared us for our one and only firsthand encounter with the FARC as we arrived in San Andres de Pisimbala, the village in southern Colombia which is the gateway town to the nearby Tierradentro site.

Soldiers San Andres de Pisimbala Tierradento Colombia

NOT what you want to see when you rock into town: Colombian soldiers in the streets of San Andres de Pisimbala after FARC guerrillas booby-trapped the local school with land mines.

And when we say “first hand” we mean the town’s school, just one block from our guesthouse, was booby-trapped with land mines, Colombian soldiers were in the streets, and FARC rebels were in the hills. When those opposing groups began shooting at and shelling each other, we hid in the kitchen of our guesthouse (La Portada Hospedaje) numbly trying to process the tense, powerless reality of being caught in the crossfire. 

The two-day saga is chronicled in our Breakfast with the FARC story for New Worlder. 

Tierradentro Archaeological Park Colombia

Structures protecting entrances to the elaborately painted and carved underground tombs at the Tierradentro Archaeological Park.

Exploring Tierradentro (finally)

Once the FARC and the Colombian soldiers had moved on, things returned to normal remarkably quickly in sleepy San Andres de Pisimbala. The Tierradentro Archaeological Park (20,000 COP or about US$7 per person for a ticket that’s good for two days) also opened up again so we finally had a chance to explore what we’d come to see in the first place.

Tierradentro hypogeas cave tombs

The decorated interior of one of the man-made underground tombs at Tierradentro.

As we said, Tierradentro is unlike any other archaeological site in Colombia because it’s home to a very high concentration of elaborate cave tombs – more than 160 of them. The area has been excavated since the 1930s and experts say some of the tombs date back up to 1,400 years.

Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Geometric shapes in red or black pigment are the main motifs inside the tombs at Tierradentro.

The tombs exist inside man-made “caves” called hypogeas which were dug into the ground. These are accessed via hand cut steps that form steep, curved staircases that take you from ground level directly down into the dug out space – like entering a crude cellar.

Step entrance Tierradentro tombs

Hand-cut staircases like this descend steeply into each tomb.

Once inside, the spaces are impressively large. Big enough to stand up in and walk around. There is lighting inside, but bring a flashlight to be sure you can really see the tomb decorations.

UNESCO Tierradentro tombs Colombia

Tomb painting at Tierradentro.

Almost every interior surface is painted using red or black pigment to create geometric shapes, animals and human faces. Niches are also dug into the walls of the tombs along with carvings.

Tombs Tierradentro Colombia

Human figures and carved niches inside a tomb at Tierradentro.

There are also two small museums on the site, but it’s the tombs, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, that are the highlight. They’re spread out over a fairly large distance on sloping hillsides, so be prepared to do some walking. And, as we said, bring a flashlight. If you have a tripod, bring that too to assist with your shots inside the tombs.

In addition to the underground tombs, the El Tablón area of the site also has carved volcanic stone statues which you can hike to when FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers aren’t trying to kill each other in the hills, which we hope has stopped since both sides signed a peace treaty in 2017.

 

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Is this Colombia’s Next World Heritage Site? – Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Colombia offers a wide variety of landscapes full of unexpected beauty including the Tatacoa Desert, a place that could be Colombia’s next UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Desierto de Tatacoa Colombia

The Tatacao Desert in Colombia may not be a real desert, but it’s still beautiful.

Landscapes and logistics in the Tatacoa Desert

Spanish conquistadors called this 128 square mile (330 square km) area “The Valley of Sorrows,” which seems unnecessarily harsh. The Tatacoa Desert isn’t really a desert at all but a dry tropical forest just a few miles from Colombia’s mighty Magdalena River. The area actually gets measurable rainfall. In fact, water is what sculpted many of the area’s most beautiful landscapes and gullies.

Erosion patterns Tatacoa desert Colombia

Erosion left behind from an era when the Tatacoa Desert was lush and filled with water.

Experts say the area is full of fossils too, left over from an era when this land was lush and filled with life. The area also delivers world-class stargazing and is home to an observatory that you can visit. In 2012 the Tatacoa Desert was submitted for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s currently on the “tentative” list.

Tatacoa desert landscape

Apart from geographic beauty, the Tatacoa Desert in Colombia is known for fossils and some great star gazing.

You will be as surprised as we were that there is no entry booth, entry fee, or visible sign of any type of management of the land. We just drove in and began exploring the area via the decent dirt road that runs through it.

driving Tatacoa desert Colombia

On the road through the Tatacoa Desert. This sign is the most official thing about this place which has no formal entrance and no entry fee.

We drove past a few basic eateries and camping areas, and locals are allowed to live in the desert so you’ll see their herds of goats eking out a living in the arid landscape like only goats can. Mostly we saw cactus, dramatic gullies, quite a few falcon-like birds (which turned out to be American kestrels, we believe), and towers of eroded land that reminded us of hoodoos in the US southwest.

American Kestrel Tatacoa desert Colombia

We saw many of these birds which, we believe, are American kestrels.

Whatever you do, get an early start. In the morning we enjoyed cloud cover and moderate temperatures around 70 degrees (21 C) but the afternoon was sweltering.

Tatacoa desert colors

While the Tatacoa isn’t, technically, a desert it still gets wicked hot by the afternoon. Arrive early in the morning for the most comfortable conditions.

Where to sleep and eat at the Tatacoa Desert

Unless you intend to camp in the desert (which is totally possible and allegedly awesome), the closest accommodations are in Villavieja about 2.5 miles (4km) from the desert. We stayed at Hotel Oasis de la Tatacoa where doubles are 120,000 COP (about US$40). We later walked past Yararaka Boutique Hotel which looked like a great option for anyone able to splurge a little more.

Eating was a bleak proposition. Avoid a place called Monterrey unless you like flies and terrible service. We got passable fare at Sol, Sombre y Sabor.

Tatacoa desert Colombia

There really is no other landscape in Colombia quite like the Tatacoa Desert.

 

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The River You’ve Got to See to Believe – Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales is one of the most spectacular destinations in Colombia. Here’s everything you need to know about travel to the river you’ve got to see to believe. 

River of 5 colors - Caño Cristales, Colombia

The Caño Cristales river in Colombia naturally blooms in a rainbow of colors during certain months of the year.

What is Caño Cristales?

The word caño refers to a river that’s less than 60 miles (100 km) in length and Caño Cristales is, in fact, very short as far as rivers are concerned. However, it’s got a big secret. For half the year, Caño Cristales, which is sometimes called the “the Liquid Rainbow,” “the River of Five Colors” or even “the Most Beautiful River in the World,” bursts into a Technicolor display (see even more proof of those lofty nicknames in our Caño Cristales photo essay).

Macarenia clavigera aquatic plant - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Don’t call it algae! Close ups of the Macarenia clavigera aquatic plant which causes the remarkable colors in Colombia’s Caño Cristales.

You can thank an aquatic plant (it’s not algae) called Macarenia clavigera for this seasonal explosion of color. It’s found nowhere else on earth and at its annual peak it produces many shades of red (from pale pink to hot pink to blood red to maroon). Bright green colors happen in shady areas of the river and blue, yellow and orange are seen as well. 

Most beautiful River in the World - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Shades of red and green are the most common colors in Caño Cristales, but blue and yellow are seen as well.

Where is Caño Cristales?

Caño Cristales is located in an area of western Colombia called Los Llanos which accounts for about a quarter of Colombia’s total land mass. Here, llaneros (Colombian cowboys) roam some of the richest tropical grasslands in the world along with massive anacondas, birds of prey, large groups of capybara, and what The Nature Conservancy has estimated to be the largest number of critically endangered reptiles on earth.

La Macarena airport baggage handling mule - Caño Cristales, Colombia

Baggage handling at the airport in La Macarena, gateway to Caño Cristales.

The gateway to Caño Cristales is the dusty town of La Macarena which is reached via flights in small passenger planes from Bogotá or in historic DC-3 cargo planes or eight-seater puddle jumpers from Villavicencio.

Flight to Caño Cristales, Colombia missing seatbelt airplane

The plane we took from Villavcencia to La Macarena was missing a seat belt. The pilot apologized, but Karen flew without a functioning seat belt anyway.

Tour companies, including Eco Turismo Macarena  which is locally owned and the oldest tour company in the area, offer all-inclusive package tours which handle the flight, your accommodation, your meals, and your guide.

Modern conveniences are slowly coming to La Macarena and its 5,000 residents. The luggage vehicle at the airport is a cart pulled by a mule. Twenty four hour electricity arrived around 2012, the town recently got its first ATM (though it’s often out of cash, so bring plenty), and all streets may be paved “soon.” Tourism is speeding the pace of modernization by creating jobs for many locals and dozens of young locals have been trained as guides, including many young women.

Dance cultural center in La Macarena Colombia

Kids in La Macarena demonstrating a beloved local dance.

Inhabitants of the Llanos are proud to be Colombian but they’re also proud of their distinct regional customs, including a very fast-paced traditional dance that involves bright dresses with plenty of tulle in the skirt and a lot of foot stomping. Charmingly homespun yet polished traditional music and dance performances are put on for visitors at the cultural center in La Macarena which has a distinct Wild West feel.

There are around a dozen guesthouses and a smattering of restaurants in La Macarena. We stayed in Hotel Brisas Shalom which was basic, but was also clean and comfortable with a private bathroom, TV, and a fan. Our many meals at Punto Verde restaurant were all good.

Tour group visiting Caño Cristales, Colombia

Our group takes a break while hiking to and around Caño Cristales.

How can I visit Caño Cristales?

There are two guide associations in La Macarena and they are impressive examples of community tourism and how an organized approach can help assure that the locals benefit from tourism. Our guide was Erika Diaz who was born in La Macarena. When we met her she’d been guiding for about five years following training with the Cormacarena cooperative. Her knowledge, English, and personality were all great.

Erika Diaz who was born in La Macarena guide Caño Cristales, Colombia

Our guide Erika Diaz was born in La Macarena and received guide training and jobs through one of the local guide associations.

To reach these magical waterways, visitors and their guides (it’s mandatory to take a local guide and group size is limited) take motorized boats from La Macarena and travel on the Guayabero River followed by  a short jeep ride. Keep an eye out for macaws and howler monkeys. Three hiking trails give visitors access to the Caño Cristales river system.

Caño Cristales tourist boat Guayabero River

One of the boats that takes travelers on the Guayabero River to access Caño Cristales.

Be prepared for wet feet. We wore our Crocs with socks. The hiking is easy (boots really aren’t required) and when the Crocs got wet it didn’t matter. Swimming is not allowed in areas where the very fragile water plants are found, but there are some designated swimming areas, so wear your swimsuit. But skip sunscreen and insect repellent. Both items are not allowed because they harm the plants.

Rainbow River Caño Cristales, Colombia

The “Rainbow River” living up to its name and fame.

What about FARC?

We wanted to drive to La Macarena along one of the handful of rough roads through the grasslands, but we were warned against it because of FARC guerilla activity. Some trails to the river system are accessed by driving over portions of the so-called “guerilla highway,” a rough dirt road built by FARC, in some cases using the forced labor of FARC prisoners.

For years Caño Cristales was inaccessible due to guerilla activity, though some intrepid locals visited Caño Cristales on day trips anyway. The Colombian military (with a little help from their friends – we saw a few US military personnel in the region) eventually gained control over part of the region, including La Macarena. In 2005 the area opened to tourism.

Flight to Caño Cristales, Colombia missing seatbelt airplane

The Colombian government gained control of the La Macarena area from FARC rebels and the region was officially opened to tourism in 2005, but reminders of the guerrilla legacy can still be seen like these Colombian soldiers and this anti-FARC sign.

We did see many soldiers and a lot of military presence as well as some anti-FARC signs, but we never felt unsafe in any way. The peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in 2017 and the subsequent demilitarization of the rebel group is likely to reduce any FARC presence in the area even more.

Child with bullet casings La Macarena Caño Cristales, Colombia

A boy plays with bullet casings at a military post in La Macarena.

What’s the best time to I travel to Caño Cristales?

Plan your trip between June and December. That’s when water levels, water flow, and water temperature combine to create the perfect conditions for the Macarenia clavigera plants to flourish. At other times of the year water levels are too low or the flow is too fast and the plants become dormant and colorless.

Liquid rainbow Caño Cristales, Colombia

Caño Cristales showing its colors like no other river in the world.

 

Learn more in our story about Caño Cristales for BBC Travel.

And don’t miss our Caño Cristales photo essay which is full of even more photos from this one-of-a-kind river.

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City Travel Guide – Cali, Colombia

Cali, Colombia may not be on top of your Colombia travel to-do list, but beware: Our  City Guide to Cali, which is full of things to do (including salsa clubs for newbies), hotels (in all price points), plus restaurants, and bars, will change your mind.

dancing salsa club Cali Colombia

Cali, Colombia is a hot city in every sense of the word, especially on the dance floor at one of the city’s famous salsa clubs, like La Topa Tolondra.

20 reasons to put Cali on your Colombia travel to-do list

The self-proclaimed Salsa Capital of the World is hot in both senses of the word so be prepared for sexy and sultry. Santiago de Cali (almost always just called Cali) is also increasingly safe. According to Insight Crime, Cali recorded a 54 percent decline in gang-related youth homicides in 2016 and in February 2017 the city government announced it would strengthen gang member re-integration programs in the city to give at-risk youth an alternative to gangs.

Certainly troubles persist, but modern Cali offers travelers great food, cool neighborhoods, and a Caribbean vibe that flavors it all.

What do do in Cali, Colombia

Like many people, we have mixed feelings about zoos. Cruel prison for animals, or valuable tool for educating the public about the value and wonder of our natural world? Maybe both. It is fair to say that when the Zoologico de Cali opened in 1971 it was an unforgivably bleak place.

King Vulture Cali Zoo

We saw our first up-close King Vulture at the not-heinous Cali Zoo.

Over the years, the Cali Zoo has eliminated tiny, dirty cages and improved general quality of life for the animals. Now operated by the Cali Zoologico Foundation, the number of animals went from about 250 examples of pretty common species (doves, ducks, etc.) to a current population of a few thousand animals representing a wide range of species (Andean bears, anteaters, etc.) that live within a garden-like 25 acre facility. Research, education, and children’s programs are also part of zoo’s mission. We toured the entire zoo and the enclosures we saw were cages, yes, but very far from the worst we’ve seen.

Parque el Gato Tejada - El gatos del rio Cali - Gachuz

Gachuz by artist Angela Villegas is one of more than a dozen cat installations in Parque el Gato Tejada in Cali, Colombia.

Parque el Gato Tejada started out with one bronze cat sculpture on the banks of the Rio Cali which runs through the city. Soon there were 15 more, each created by a different artist. Green spaces and walkways along the river link the cats together and it’s a peaceful place for an art-filled stroll.

Zaperoco Salsa club

Even newbies are welcome at Zaperoco salsa club.

And what about salsa in Cali? A no-pressure place for newbies to experience salsa culture in Cali is the Zaperoco Salsa Bar which opened in 1991 in the Granada neighborhood. Every Thursday the bar waives its usual cover charge and features a different salsa band every week. This is a great opportunity to see live salsa bands, experience an intimate, authentic salsa club, and maybe even dance a bit. We went on a Thursday night and we felt welcomed into the festive, casual, sweaty atmosphere of this popular place by the all-Caleño crowd.

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians La Topo Tolondra Cali

Salsa DJ Ara Kazarians handling the tunes at La Topo Tolondra salsa club in Cali.

Ara Kazarians, the owner of the Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn (more below), is a passionate salsa lover and a salsa DJ as well. He tipped us off to La Topa Tolondra, a packed, sweaty, gritty salsa club where Ara DJs sometimes. The place reminded us of our favorite dive bars and music joints from New Orleans, but with salsa music instead of jazz.

La Topa Talondra salsa Club Cali Colombia

We loved the mural outside La Topa Tolondra.

If you’re way more serious about salsa than we are, plan your visit to coincide with the annual Mundial de Salsa festival and competition which attracts the world’s best salsa dancers and musicians.

Restaurants in Cali, Colombia

We did not expect to find a lot of great eats in Cali. Then we spent a day with Cali-born chef Paula Silva (who now presides over her luscious Hippie in Bogotá) and she took us to school. Check out Paula’s top Cali eats in our story for TheLatinKitchen.com, including the city’s famous sugar bomb the cholado (it’s got to be seen to be believed), Calathea artesenal ice cream, and El Bar de al Lado at Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, and Azul Restaurante.

Azul Restaurant -Cali, Colombia

Azul Restaurant in Cali, where the “surprise me” menu is the way to go.

Here are some other great eats in Cali:

La Sanduchería del Escudo Cali, Colombia

Pick your ‘wich at La Sanducheria del Escudo.

La Sanduchería del Escudo in the El Peñon neighborhood right next to Restaurante el Escudo del Quijote, offers a long list of sandwiches including burgers and a Vietnamese bhan mi. The fresh-cut fries are terrific and they also sell Bogota Beer Company craft beer.

Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

Platillos Voladores in Cali.

Platillos Voladores restaurant is located in a house where chef Vicky Acosta has created a casual environment with chic found-object decor and a lovely garden patio dining area that attracts a mixed crowd (hipsters and sophisticated older couples) who come for creative takes using Caribbean ingredients and yummy cocktails that pack a punch.

desert Platillos Voladores - Cali, Colombia

A dessert at Platillos Voladores, a classic in Cali.

Distilled sugarcane called aguardiente is basically the national drink of Colombia. Because of complicated laws about shipping alcohol around the country, each province has its own brands of aguardiente. In Cali, two big brands are Origen and Blanca. A good place to try some local aguardiente or a cold beer is the Public House bar in the San Antonio neighborhood, not far from the Granada neighborhood. Great music (heavy on the Rolling Stones), a simple but inviting indoor and outdoor space, and fair prices.

Even as a steady stream of hip newcomers open in the El Peñon neighborhood, one age-old institution remains. The Hotel Obelisco has a lobby restaurant that serves heaping plates of mini-empanadas along with famous lulo juice (a refreshing fruit that’s sort of a combo of orange and tomato). Other Empanadas Obelisco outlets have opened up around Cali, but the original is in the hotel in El Peñon. Sit on the patio if you can snag a table.

Pacifico Restaurante Cali

Flavors of the coast at Pacifico Restaurante in Cali.

The sleek Pacifico Restaurante you find in the Granada neighborhood today opened in 2002, but its roots go back to 1975 when the father of the current proprietor, Claudia, opened the first Pacifico on the coast in Buenaventura. When we had lunch at Pacifico the original chef was in the kitchen whipping up Caribbean seafood dishes like shrimp stew which really reminded us of Creole cooking from Louisiana. There are meat dishes on the menu, but seafood is where the kitchen really shines. And don’t miss the coconut flan, a signature dish that’s more coconut than flan and studded with raisins. It’s a family recipe that will never be taken off the menu.

Hotels in Cali, Colombia

We usually do not get too excited about chain hotels. Sure, international hotel chains like Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, etc. are perfect for business travelers who want to know exactly what their hotel will deliver so they can get their work done during a short working stay. But staying in an international chain in Cairo is going to look and feel a lot like that same chain hotel in Cleveland, so leisure travelers looking for a hotel that enriches their sense of place are normally better served by non-chain hotels.

Sombrereos Movich Hotel Cali

Traditional Colombian hats give the lobby of the Movich Hotel Cali a national flare.

In Colombia there is a local micro-chain called Movich Hotels with hotels in Bogota, Cali, Cartagena, Pereira and Medellin. We stayed the Movich Casa del Alferez Hotel Cali where we were pleasantly surprised by the balance of city business hotel services (everything you’d expect) and actual personality and cultural style (like a lobby wall decorated with traditional Colombian hats and inventive use of the same weaving technique to create rugs as well). The Movich Hotel Cali was familiar without being cookie cutter.

Movich Hotel Cali, Colombia

The Movich Hotel Cali.

On the other end of the spectrum is the La Pinta Boogaloo hostal, part of the La Pinta group of hostels and apartments all over Colombia, offers a range of rooms, a big pool in a big garden, and plenty of lounging areas.

Now Hotel, Cali Colombia

A room at the Now Hotel, the hippest boutique hotel in Cali.

We stayed at the playfully hip NOW Hotel in the San Antonio neighborhood, close to many bars and restaurants. The NOW could hold its own in San Francisco or Buenos Aires, as you can see in our story about the NOW Hotel for AHotelLife.com.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn - Cali, Colombia

We got over our fear of theme hotels and loved out stay at the mid-range Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn.

Hotel Salsa Peñon Inn in the cool El Peñon neighborhood, was created by salsa-loving Ara Kazarians. We are usually suspicious of themed hotels, but this one is a charmer with vintage salsa posters and album covers everywhere you look. Plus, the location is fantastic and the mid-range prices are good.

So-called love motels are common in Latin America, providing an affordable escape for couples (even married couples) that may have no privacy at home. Yes, some are sleezy dives located next to strip clubs. But some are upscale. Take, for example the Geisha Love Motels around Cali. They offer great design, an amusingly random Japanese theme, and rooms (some of which “will accommodate 3”) that come with sex chairs, and medical assistance. How thoughtful.

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Market Day – Silvia, Colombia

Tuesday is market day in the small town of Silvia which is about two hours from Popayán in southern Colombia. If you’re looking for cheap souvenirs, look elsewhere. If you’re interested in seeing why markets remain a vital way of life for so many people in Colombia, check it out.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Women heading to the Tuesday market in Silvia, Colombia. You can see the two distinct types of hats that Guambiano women wear.

Exploring the traditional market in Silvia, Colombia

Every week, sleepy Silvia fills up with Guambiano indigenous people who come to “town” from their nearby villages to sell what they’ve grown or made and buy what they need in the very traditional market. Some tour companies bring travelers to Silvia to see the weekly market, but we only saw one or two other travelers during our exploration of the market.

Colorful Potatoes Sylvia Colombia market

Potatoes and tubers for sale included those hot pink stunners which are naturally that color.

What we did see was plenty of fruit and vegetables (including long, thin, impossibly hot pink tubers), meat, cheap clothes, hardware, medicinal plants, and all kinds of other everyday needs.

fortune parakeets Sylvia Colombia market

For a few pesos these birds will pick your fortune out of a drawer.

Perhaps not an every day need, but interesting nonetheless, were the parakeets that, for a fee, will choose a fortune for you. Also intriguing: the proliferation of glow-in-the-dark shoelaces on offer. We were looking for something much more mundane: a sheath for our machete. However, they are all too short, perhaps sized for the local population.

Guambiano indigenous Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional skirts are still commonly worn by Guambiano men in Colombia.

As usual, the shoppers were the most interesting part of the market in Silvia. Around the world it’s increasingly unusual to see men in traditional dress. Many have moved to jeans and t-shirts even in places where women and girls still wear traditional clothing. But in Silvia we saw many Guambiano men in traditional bright blue, heavy, sarong-like wrap-around skirts.

Woman Sylvia Colombia market

Traditional dress for Guambiano women in Colombia is pretty uniform: dark skirt, woven bag, hat, blue shawl. Many women personalize their look with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Guambiano women wear flowing black skirts with thin bands of color. Many men and women also wore tiny, rigid, wool bowlers perched on their heads. Some women opted for pancake flat, woven reed hats that looked like flattened tortilla warmers. Most women also wore work boots, often with glow-in-the-dark shoelaces.

Sylvia Colombia market day

Socializing in the central square is a big part of market day in Silvia, Colombia.

Older Guambiano women, whose hands were perpetually busy spinning wool, also had unusual short haircuts that gave them poufy bobs. Many women also seemed to be in a contest to see who could wear the most white beaded necklaces.

Men Colombia market day

Many Guambiano men in Silvia, Colombia still wear traditional clothing including blue skirts, bowler hats, and scarves.

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One Night Stands – Popayán, Colombia

We had more one night stands in Popayán than in any other city or town in Colombia. That’s because when you’re traveling to or from the Ecuador border (which we did five times), Popayán is perfectly positioned as a break journey for the night. People rave about the city’s Colonial architecture and the cuisine, so here’s what you need to know about the travel basics in Popayán.

Iglesia San Francisco church - Popoyan, Colombia

Popayán’s San Francisco church.

What to do in Popayán

Some guidebooks gush about the Colonial architecture in Popayán which is primarily white washed, giving the town the horribly overused nickname “The White City.” Some even compare the architecture in Popayán, which dates back to 1537, to that in Cartagena, which is patently ridiculous. We could rattle off a half-dozen Colombian towns that offer more impressive Colonial architecture, but you be the judge.

The white city - Popoyan Colombia street scene

They don’t call Popayán “The White City” for nothing.

There are a number of museums in town, including the Museo Nacional Guillermo Valencia (free, closed Mondays) which is an 18th century building full of memorabilia about this Popayán-born poet. Visit the Casa Museo Guillermo León Valencia (free, closed Mondays) to learn about the life of the poet’s father who was President of Colombia.

The Casa Museo Negret museum of modern art was being refurbished when we were last in Popayán, but it looked promising. And there’s also a religious art museum and a number of churches in town.

Popoyan historic bridges Puente de la Custodia or Puente chiquita 1731

Puente de la Custodia, just one of the charming little bridges in Popayán.

If bridges are your thing you’ll love Popayán which has a few architecturally unique and historically important examples. Visiting them creates a pleasant walking tour.

The nearby Puracé Volcano is the only active volcano in Colombia that you can summit. Doable as a long day trip from Popayán, the volcano is 35 miles (55km) from Popayán and the hike up takes a few hours.

If you like festivals, plan to visit Popayán during Easter when the town puts on a massive Semana Santa celebration. There are annual food festivals as well during which you can sample the local delicacies which always eluded us.

Iglesia Santo Domingo church Popoyan Colombia

Iglesia Santo Domingo in Popayán, Colombia.

Eating in Popayán

In 2005 Popayán was named a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO but we usually struggled to find much to eat, especially when we arrived late in the evening as we were hoofing it to or from the border. On our first late-night arrival in Popayán almost everything was closed except carts on the square selling anemic and suspiciously tepid “burgers.”

street food truck Popoyan Colombia

Yes, that food truck says “Pignick.”

Sadly, we came across the “Pignick” cart selling lechona after we’d already eaten at El Churrasco which is located a few blocks off the square. Popayán is not cheap by Colombian standards, but at least the portions of meat and salad at El Churrasco (around COP 16,000 or about US$6) were big and tasty. Tip: order the junior half portion if you’re not starving.

On a subsequent visit we ate at Restaurante Italiano y Pizzeria which has better-than-average pizzas (29,000 COP or about US$10) and a set lunch menu for 7,500 COP (about US$2.60). We really wanted to try the traditional pipian empanadas (stuffed with a peanut-based filling) which are famous at a place called La Fresa, but it was never open when we were in town.

Popoyan street scene colonial architecture white city

Some of the Colonial architecture in Popayán, Colombia dates back to 1537.

Sleeping in Popayan

We always stayed at Hotel Colonial (70,000 COP, or about US$24, for a private double room with bathroom, WiFi, breakfast and parking in a nearby secure lot). As we’ve already noted, Popayán is pricey and this hotel is the best value we found with a safe and roomy parking area. There are some recommended hostels in town, but they don’t have parking.

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