Popayán – La Ciudad Blanca

I normally try not to subscribe to clichés, and the stereotype that Germans are always on time and superorganized is certainly one that does not apply to me. That said, as the “bus” I’m in makes another stop and I still wonder whether I’m really going in the right direction, I desperately long for European public transportation.

What irks me most, is that there are no visible bus stops because apparently locals just know where they can get on. How that system works with intra-country traveling (how does someone from Bogotá know where the bus stops are in Cali?) I can only guess, but I suspect people just ask around. In Germany you have signs, schedules, fixed prices and public announcements. Everything is organized so that only a minimum amount of communication is required. In Colombia, loud Salsa music is blasting from the speakers and when you pay for your ticket, the prices are widely variable, depending on whether you look like a foreigner and know the average price for the distance.

Even though I’m not very comfortable, I enjoy the morning ride through the Valle del Cauca to Popayán. The landscape is beautiful and the wind on my skin feels like freedom. I’m glad I finally got out of the house and have some of my independence back. Not because I wasn’t received with hospitality, but because I’m the kind of person who needs some alone time every once in a while.

When I get out of the bus after a three-hour ride, I decide not to take a taxi to the city center. Lonely Planet says it’s close enough to walk, and what Lonely Planet says is obviously law. It is a fairly long distance when you just start walking in a direction that looks good and you have my sense of direction. I wander about with my phone, wondering just how reliable Maps is in Colombia. Not very, it turns out. I don’t feel perfectly safe and ask for directions, nodding helplessly when someone tries to give them to me.

I am both relieved and disappointed when I finally do arrive in the center. I have to admit I expected more. Then I randomly stumble across a plaza with a beautiful cheery-colored church. I ask the woman next to me what it is called (Iglesia de San Franciso) and spend the next ten minutes conversing about why I’m in Colombia and that I should be careful. After two weeks in Colombia, I’m getting the feeling Colombia’s population is more worried about my safety than I am. Who can blame them? In Germany peace is a given, in Colombia peace is still something election campaigns promise because it’s not actually a reality yet.

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After a few minutes of rest, I do what I came here for: I get some pasta. After more than a week of rice two or three times a day, I am ready for a change. The rest of my time I spend on the plaza by the Iglesio de San Francisco, reading a Richelle Mead book in Spanish, because surely while I’m “studying” I don’t have to feel guilty for not seeing more sights. I just don’t feel like running around or going to a museum and for some reason I don’t feel perfectly comfortable here. I don’t know exactly why it is that I feel less safe here, but in situations like these it never hurts to listen to intuition.

I stay until some guy who’s been creeping for a while now sits down next to me, says something in slurry Spanish and points to a plastic bag with his shoes inside. “Que?” I ask, and he keeps talking and offers me a broken pair of scissors. I finally give in and say “no entiendo”. He asks where I’m from and when I say Alemania shows me what looks like a tiny, faded swastika on his ankle. “Germany, no?” he says grinning. “No.” I reply and get up, hurrying to the safety of the restaurant.

This time, I find the bus terminal a lot faster and there are actually different organizations that offer tickets to Cali. I buy one for 2000 pesos less than before and get into a much more comfortable bus that takes me back. People get off every few minutes in Cali when they’re close to their homes. I wonder about doing the same, but I have no idea where and Maps isn’t being helpful. “Oh, we went right by there! Why didn’t you say anything?” the bus driver asks me in Spanish when we’re at the final stop. “No sé,” I say, but I do sé: In Germany, there are signs that say don’t talk to the bus driver when he’s driving. I guess I’m a little German after all. I end up taking a taxi and the twenty minute ride is more expensive than the three hour ride from Popayán was.

All in all, I’m glad I went, but I didn’t do enough sightseeing to tell whether it’s worth it. If you’re in a hurry, I’d say don’t bother, but if you have a couple of days in Cali, I would consider going. The ride through the Valle was the best part for me, but if you look for it, there’s some really nice colonial architecture in Popayán, so if you’re into that it’s worth a trip.>

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