Cali to Popayán

Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, is known as the salsa capital of the country, if not the world. [Salsa the dance form, not the chip dip!] I didn’t get a feel for this famous party atmosphere since I wasn’t there over a weekend, but I did get enough sense of the place to form a positive opinion. It has excellent weather (perhaps even better than Medellín’s), although it can get hot and humid. Being closer to the coast there are noticably more black people here, giving the city a dynamic feeling. There are a lot of attractive plazas and parks. Overall the city is not as organized with the infrastructure as Medellín nor does it have the great views of that city, but it’s still quite pleasant. Cali is also known for “medical tourism”, i.e., a lot of people come here to get plastic surgery. Certainly a lot of the locals have had boob jobs and what-not. The city also has a dramatic history – besides the drug kingpins of the late eighties and early nineties, other dramatic events of taken place. To wit:

On August 7th, 1956 around 1 a.m., seven Colombian army trucks filled with 42 tons of dynamite exploded near the train station, destroying eight city blocks. A nearby army barracks was instantly destroyed, killing all 500 soldiers. Windows were shattered for miles. More than 1,000 people were killed and several thousand injured.

After Cali I came down to Popayán, a pretty colonial city founded in 1537. It’s known as the “white city”, since all the buildings are painted alike.. which by the way, makes it difficult to find your way around since there are no landmarks – everything looks the same. The central historic area of the city is so clean, whitewashed and quaint, it looks almost Disneyesque. It turns out that it was in fact recently (re-)built in the colonial style, since most of it was destroyed in the earthquake of 1983! But I was relieved to find there is a real city beyond the old town. I went for a run up to some hills overlooking the city that afforded nice views.

It’s like being back in some of those Central American colonial towns.. I’ve seen more gringos the last few days than in the previous two months. Due to all the tourism, they have an impressive tourist infrastructure for such a small town – maps, pamphlets, etc.. perhaps due to it’s fame as having the second-largest Easter celebration (Semana Santa) in the world. This is where my buddies in Barranquilla recommended I come for that week.. I’m only two months late!
One nice thing that comes along with tourists is the variety of restaurants to cater to them. Just when I was getting sick of eating the same Colombian basics for every meal, I arrive in a town with an Italian restaurant owned by a Swiss woman, a Chinese place, and several good cafes. Bliss.

One thing I don’t like about Colonial towns is the architecture. Wait, let me rephrase that. The architecture is gorgeous to ogle for an hour.. but after that, you realize it’s not very functional. The design in those days had all the buildings facing inward.. perhaps for security? The upshot being that most hotel rooms face inward, meaning no privacy or natural light.. what windows there are are small.. and it’s difficult to tell what a club/restaurant/shop is like from the street without actually going in and looking around. Sometimes you just want to do a walk-by, know what I mean?

There are an insane number of old churches for what was a very small town. What did they need all of these churches for? It’s not like each one is a different denomination, they’re all Catholic. Maybe they were like the Starbucks of their time – not wanting townspeople to have to be more than a few blocks from any given one.
There are many religious reenactments on television, fitting..
Fully 15 of Colombia’s presidents have come from Popayán. I wonder what that says about the town or about Colombian politics.

The hostel here is excellent. It’s run by a friendly Irish couple who founded HostelTrail, a network of Latin American hostels. It’s clean, modern, efficient, with free WiFi and nice computers, laundry, everything one could want.

The past few days I’ve seen posters around town for some kind of Andean dance competition. Naturally, I had to go!  The poster gave the start time as 8pm, which of course meant that it hadn’t begun by 10pm. But I had fun watching the place fill up and people dancing. Luckily I had my nifty musician’s earplugs with me, since the music was freakin’ loud!

I’m not even sure what I witnessed, but I’ll describe it as best I can.. for the couple of hours before the formal groups began, the place was like a club with people dancing to what sounded like a modern take on traditional music – pan pipes and tiples partnered with electric bass and drum kit, for example. I love fusions like that. Vocals, too – and it wasn’t Spanish.

The way people danced was fascinating.. unlike any other dance style I’ve seen, although it was vaguely reminiscent of Native (North) American dances I’ve seen. There was no partnering.. instead, they danced in a circle. When new people came out onto the dance floor, the circle would either open up to include them or a new circle would form. Their bodies also moved circularly.. lots of swinging of the arms and upper bodies. Generally, the men and women danced the same moves, although sometimes the men would hunch over while swinging to and fro.. very animalistic. The dances also involved a lot of feet stomping and jumping. It all sort-of looked like the Hokey-Pokey on speed.

Amazingly, each song seemed to have it’s own specific dance that accompanied it – imagine if there was a specific dance to accompany every song the DJ played at your favorite club. Most of the crowd knew the dances, but sometimes they would look to their neighbors to be reminded of the steps. Most of the people were pretty young too, and I thought they were fierce for not being embarrased by this type of dance that would easily embarass most teenagers. But rather than making fun, they were embracing their heritage. The whole scene felt very real, too – a far cry from the insecure posing that you find in most dance clubs. Some of the staff of the club (more of an indigenous meeting hall, really) wore traditional garb but everyone else was dressed modern / casually. I was the only tourist in the place, which made me feel cool.

Finally the competition began. There were six groups this evening, and they were all traditional couples dances. Totally different from the group dancing that had come before, these all seemed much more Spanish influenced. Their costumes, too, were Old World inspired, although each couple had a completely different style and costume from the one before. They handed out little crib sheets before the show telling you who the groups were and what style dance they were to perform. Apparently the dances originate from all over the Andes, not just in Colombia: caporales, tondero, tinku, and toba to name a few. Each couple performed two songs in a ritualistic and practised manner. I’m not sure how the judging was done or if there were prizes. There was a break for more group dancing after every other performance, so it dragged late into the night. I tried to leave before the end, but the bouncer kept feeding me shots of rum he had confiscated from some drunks. Anyway, it was a great night – an unexpected anthropological window into a world I hadn’t even been aware of.

The photos of the evening are not great quality because the lighting in there was terrible, hardly more than one bare bulb. A shame, since everything else was so great. They need to call me next time! [I’m a lighting designer by trade, for those of you new to the blog.]


Written by in: Colombia | Tags: , , ,


  • Say says:

    For some reason, this particular post creates such a longing to be where you are…

    Lots of love and hopes for all things wonderful,
    looking forward to the next chapter,

  • Marissa says:

    Hokey pokey on speed? hee hee.

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