While in our ‘base-camp’ in Cali, we thought we would be foolish to miss out on the opportunity to visit Popayán during Easter Week (Semana Santa) and witness Colombia’s biggest and best celebration of the most important week in the Catholic Calendar. The town is famous for having rich religious traditions and every year they organize huge processions in the town’s historic center that take place from Holy Tuesday to Holy Saturday of Semana Santa.
High Season Travel
We arrived to the Terminal in Cali at around 9am on ‘Holy Thursday’, slightly later than we anticipated and it was packed. People everywhere were leaving Cali for the long weekend with ridiculous amounts of bags, tents, suitcases and more. We met with our French friend, Maëva and headed towards the ticket counters. Because of the high volume of people traveling we waited for an hour and a half before we could get on a bus to Popayán. A sign of the huge crowds to come…
Finding accommodation was also trickier than usual as the first three places we inquired in were already full. We eventually spotted a sign for HostelTrail and were delighted they had room for us. It was the first time we’d stayed with the Latin American Hostel Network Chain and we loved it. The place was overflowing with information for travelers about things to do, both locally and nationally, attractions and more. The staff were all multi-lingual and very friendly too. While we paid a little more than we normally do for a room ($22,000 COP per person for triple room with private bathroom the first night and $18,000 COP per person for the same but with a shared bathroom the next night), it was expected due to being in a town during the biggest event of its year.
Popayán – The White City
The historic center of Popayán is all beautiful white colonial buildings. It rains almost every day in Popayán and the sky is almost always gray (just like in Ireland!).
The processions on Thursday and Friday didn’t start until 8pm that evening so during the day we spent our time walking around the streets, visiting the markets, museums, churches and sampling the local food. The tourist office in the center square has a lot of information on things to do and all the staff are super eager to help. To escape from the rain, we entered an amazing coffee shop, called Capriccio, lured in by the smell. It was so good; we ended up going there every day.
When the time came for the processions to start on Thursday, we were really lucky to get a good spot along the street before the police stopped letting people pass. The next day we chose to pay for seat in one of the specially-made stands, where we were given a front row seat with excellent views, all because the woman who sold us the tickets liked us.
I was really impressed by the processions. They were incredibly well organized, beautiful and really long. Hundreds and thousands of people crowded the street pavements to watch, while hundreds more marched alongside the procession, holding candles that twinkled all around the town. The procession takes place every day from Tuesday to Saturday of Easter Week, with the procession telling the tale of the Passion, Crucifixion, and Death of Jesus.
The stories are represented on huge wooden platforms, each depicting different scenes from the Gospel. Known as ‘Pasos’, they are carried through the town in a path shaped like a cross, by 8 men in traditional dress, known as ‘cargueros’. The cargueros carry the platforms a few meters at a time and then stop to let the audience view the current Paso and take a well needed rest. The dedication of the people of Popayán is really admirable as you can see the cargueros sweating and really struggling to carry the enormous Pasos. Everyone from school children, adults, the army, police force, military, air force, naval force, orchestras and choirs take place in the procession.
UNESCO has declared the Easter processions as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Patrimony of Humanity’. They have also declared Popayán the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in Latin America due to its traditional cooking that has been passed down through generations.
The Museum of Religious Art opens up its famed cave of jewels to the public only a few days a year during Easter Week so we were lucky to be able to view them. Because of the strong army presence, they have the resources to protect the invaluable collections of religious art and silverware.
The Other Side of Popayán
In 1983, there was a huge earthquake in Popayán, which destroyed many of the buildings including the churches and temples. A remarkable effort has been made to restore the town to its former beauty but you can still see some of the damage on the buildings if you look closer.
While walking around the idyllic streets, we came across an amazing Volkswagen Kombi, known to many as a hippie van! I love them; it’s always been my dream to travel in a hippie van! We waited a while but the owners didn’t show up while we were taking pictures. It may have inspired a few ideas though…
Apart from Popayán, there are loads of things to do in the surrounding areas. The small town of Silvia holds a food market every Tuesday in which indigenous Guambiano Indians come in traditional dress to sell local produce. The Volcano Puracé is 26km away and you can arrange treks with the local tourist office. There are also numerous waterfalls, climbing paths and sports activities all available through the helpful tourist office. Popayán is only 3 hours from Cali and tickets cost $15,000 COP (6 Euros) with the bus company S26 (Expreso Palmira) among others.
If you are near Popayán, or even in Colombia in the run up to Easter, I strongly recommend you try to make it to Popayán for a few days, particularly the Thursday and Friday. Even if you have no interest in Catholicism, it is a really spectacular event to witness and gives a interesting insight into the importance of religion for many Colombians and how strong the Catholic religion still is here.
For more travel photos from Popayán, check out our Flickr set here.