Travel Southern Colombia: Cali, Popayan, Pasto

Cathedral in Cali

Southern Colombia, while on the Pan American Highway heading to Ecuador, is often overlooked, done in a transitional hurry – a night in Cali, a night in Popayan a night in Pasto –brutal trip really – then onto Ecuador. But there would be so much to see and do in this area.

Boardwalk in Cali
Boardwalk in Cali
Street in Cali

Cali 

Mostly what you read and hear about the city Cali goes something like this: Cali can be skipped nothing to really see, there’s too much crime, etc. But that’s a short sell. Cali it’s actually quite an interesting city, producing 20% of Colombia’s G.D.P.  Cali is the capital of Val de Cauca which is a rich agricultural area producing sugar, rice, cotton, coffee and cattle with the only port city on the Pacific, Buenaventura, reached by an easily accessible road.  There’s  plenty to see and do in Cali where inexpensive hotels and restaurants abound.

I stayed on Sixth Avenue – which is, according to the guide books,  the place to be.  It’s a short avenue full of clubs and restaurants and shops safe to walk even late at night. Sixth Avenue empties into Paseo Bolivar park. Walk over Puente Ortiz and you’re in the historic center. The historic center of Cali boasts a  river walk to stroll along Rio Cali and Puente Ortiz with plenty of statues and sights to see along the way: La Merced, Museo Archeological, the Gold Museum, Municipal theater and many more.

The San Antonio park area in the higher part of town has a bohemian identity  with boutique hotels, upscale restaurants, vegetarian fare, cafes, hostels and alternative offerings. Next time I will stay in this area. Cali has beautiful churches, parks, museums, markets, the best tropical zoo in the country, the largest and best stocked wine and liquor stores in Colombia and of course Cali’s nightlife.

Cali is a big city. South of the historic center is the central market and north and further outside of the center are sprawling neighborhoods.  I went to the Unicentro shopping center and it was a 40 minute cab ride from the center to get there.

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Cali is a city with hot and humid climate famous for its steamy salsa dancing and dance clubs/bars are all over.

The people of Cali, young and old, love dancing – you can see it’s in their blood. Music is playing faintly in the distance somewhere and they’re moving to it. All someone has to do is turn on a radio and they start dancing. In the plazas in the early evening they have free public dance exercise – crank up boom box and bust out exaggerated salsa moves. It’s so natural and they look so happy like they don’t even know they’re exercising.

Whereas in the rest of Colombia a foreigner mentioning wanting to learn to dance Salsa or Vallenato the thought makes them laugh – gringos can’t dance they’re too uptight. But in Cali you tell them you don’t dance and they get a sad face – what do you mean you don’t dance? – like you just told them you don’t enjoy eating and drinking.

(For more on Cali)

Popayan

Main square in Popayan at night
Plaza Mayor – Popayan
Popayan
Ancient bridge at Popayan
A street in the historic center of Popayan
A street in Popayan

Popayan – Called the white city – Ciudad Blanca – or as its promotion slogan goes: more than just a white city. A colonial Spanish city founded in 1537 is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. A quiet relaxed town, it’s an easy to get around with a fair amount of tourism. It’s a university town with about 8 different state and private universities and students everywhere with lots of hotels and restaurants. With an altitude of 5,770 feet it might get warm in the day but is always cool at night. It rains and thunders almost every afternoon.

On the main square, Plaza Mayor, is the  cathedral which was destroyed in a huge earthquake on a Sunday morning in June 1983 during Catholic mass killing hundreds of people. The entire town was in shambles but rebuilt. And today you can’t see a crack anywhere.

It’s fun to just stroll along the cobblestone streets of the historic center.  There’s plenty to see: Puente Humilladero a 240 meter long bridge made up of 11 arches, numerous churches like the Ermita church, and the lookout over Popayan on the Morro de Tulcan in the hills over the city to the east.

(see article on Popayan)

Thermal baths – Agua Hervida

A fountain for drinking Sulphur water or soda water as they call it
Bathing in the thermal pools
Termales Aqua Hervido

Around Popayan

Nearby Termales Aquas Hirviendas or ‘ Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters’ is a sacred site about an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can go for a soak. There are big hot spring pools. Boiling wells of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the pools. Each pool has a different temp. The ritual is 15 minutes in the hot pool, get out and stand under a waterfall of ice cold mountain spring water, scream – back in the hot pool – repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water they call aqua soda or soda water – very diuretic.

Silvia – One of the best Markets in Colombia

Market at Silvia
Market at Silvia on Tuesdays
A chiva bus in Silvia

Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdays when the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and buy supplies like rice, beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back. They come in colorful chiva buses and congregate around the main square. They don’t like cameras, believing photos rob them of their soul. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.

(For more on Popayan)

The road up in the mountains to Pasto
Main square in Pasto
A church in Pasto

Pasto, the southernmost major city in Colombia sitting high in the Andes, is a six hour bus ride from Popayan. The road there goes though the most dramatic mountain landscape of Colombia. Pasto sits at an elevation of 8,291 feet above sea level, so unless you acclimated in Popayan or Quito, it’s normal to be out of breath here at first. Some visitors suffer acute altitude sickness with extreme headaches, swelling, aches and pains and nausea. The cure is to take drink of some of the many teas they offer like Chapil di Lulu to help ease the ill effect. Take it easy – no volcano climbing or power walking around town – and get acclimated. Bad news – avoid coffee and booze.

I stayed at a pleasant little hotel right in the city center – Hotel Casona Calle 20 no. 25-95 $14 a night all done in wood and a room with a beautiful view of the volcanoes in the distance.

Pasto is in the foothills at the base of the Volcano Galeras which can be seen from town. It is an active volcano and has erupted in 1934, 1989 and 2006. It is off-limits for hiking after some British geologists were killed there in 1992. I don’t get why people live at the base of the beast. Sure, the land is fertile and its living off the fat of the land until – that one day comes yet again.

There is plenty to do in Pasto. There are a lot of churches, museums and parks to visit. Plaza Bombona has a nice indoor artisans market.

But most people just breeze through Pasto on their way to Ecuador, another city the guide books dismiss. But the locals feel short changed. There is so much to see and do here – stay longer, they insist.

You can take a hike up to Lake La Cocha, the largest lake in South Colombia, which sits in the crater of an extinguished volcano just 25 km – a 1.5 hour bus ride from town. They do have beautiful churches here.

Also, you have to try the local specialty – guinea pig – fried or try it flattened and impaled on a spit and put on a rodent rotisserie till golden brown. Tastes like chicken? No, more like rabbit.

Pasto is also connected via paved road 250 kilometers to the coastal town of Tumaco.  Tumaco is poor and is also one of the  world’s rainiest areas.  There are beaches north of town where swimming is safe.  The area is one huge mangrove swamp and boatmen offer tours to a myriad of villages and settlements.   The beautiful island tourist resort of Boca Grande is just off shore. To get there one can take a boat from Tumaco for $6.

(See article on the road from Pasto to Macoa – the most dangerous road in Colombia – called ‘the trampoline of death’)

Getting There

From Bogota to Cali: take a bus to Cali.  It’s about a 12 bus trip which I broke down into two days. First day I took a bus to Ibague.  Then caught another bus over  winding road in high mountains, a tortuous slow go journey.  Stopped overnight in the city of Giradot.  Got an inexpensive hotel there and took a stroll around this steamy town where they have a small bustling city center with lots of shops, stalls selling food and clothing.  There are a lot of comida rapido (fast food) places there, casinos, people playing cards on the streets.  It’s a town with a hot climate and a nice little tropical vibe. Day two from Giradot its an easy six hour bus ride to Cali.

Cali to Popayan: an easy 2.5 hour trip.  The trip from Popayan to Pasto – $9 is 6 hours long via the Panamerican highway.  It snakes through a hot tropical dessert with cactus and scrub brush before lifting up again in to the high mountains revealing some of the most dramatic scenery in Colombia. The road hugs the valley ledge looking down a steep precipice. Not a trip for those who suffer heights.

Popayan to Pasto:  the road to Pasto is a six hour trip $9 via the Panamerican highway. From Popayan it goes through hot tropical desert with cactus and scrub brush, then lifts up again into the high mountains – into the clouds where it’s cold and damp.  The vegetation gets deep green again and the  terrain is some of the most dramatic in Colombia. The road hugs the valley slopes plunging down most of the trip, so not recommended if one suffers altitude sickness.


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Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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