We arrived in Popayán at eight in the evening but our cab driver was unable to get us close to our hostel due to road closures. Assuming this would be because of roadworks we were amazed to discover that the entire town centre was closed off and the streets were packed with spectators who were waiting for a procession.
Me and M and now our new friend Pablo tried making our way through the crowds with me bashing small children on my head with my rucksac and M taking out toes and ankles with her humungous wheely case.
The roads were lines with police and soldiers but one eventually took pity on us and hoisting M’s case onto his shoulder opened the barricades and hustled us down the centre of the road.
Feeling like penguins in a zoo as EVERYBODY watched us and still puzzled, we walked down through the middle of the roads which were edged with silent crowds four deep until our policeman eventually got us to our hostel which was just a quadra from the main plaza and on the procession route. After checking in, we were thrilled to discover that our dorm had a balcony overlooking the street, so we went out and stood there and we waited to see what on earth was going to happen.
Out of the dark (by now it was nine thirty pm) a drove of drummers appeared and with enough noise to raise the dead they thudded and hammered their way very slowly past us. They were followed by a brass band and squadrons of soldiers, police, and then little groups from each of the major churches in the area who were all carrying massive religious icons which had been decorated with flowers and gigantic candles. They would walk a few steps and then pause to allow the bearers to rest on long wooden poles balancing the whole thing in a very wobbly way on the ground – these things were massive – and then they would set off again. The crowds by now had lit their candles and were patiently and quietly watching. The whole thing took over two hours to pass us by, but actually it took more like five hours for them to complete the whole route of the town, snaking around and up and down the streets. The following day I saw posters which instructed any observers to observe and participate in total silence in order to preserve the spiritual and religious meaning of the occasion. The silence, apart from the drums or the bands was initially eerie, broken only by the sound of marching footsteps and the occasional organ music (organists were rather bizarrely wheeled along on little carts playing church music to accompany some of the icons).
When we finally got out exploring the town the next day we were all really pleased to discover that we had rocked up during the Semana Santa celebrations. It turned out that Popayan is renowned throughout Colombia for having the best processions which mark the death of Jesus. Like Bethlehem at his birth, there were few rooms left at the inns and those that were available were overpriced but despite this we ended up opting to stay for three nights.
With Pablo we walked down to the old stone bridge and then we climbed high up to the park which overlooked the town. Here I stopped to chat to a group of scouts who were, as always, immaculately turned out in their uniforms, despite having walked over the past week from the city of Cali on a pilgrimage. We all took photos together and then we continued up to the top of the hill where there was a huge statue and lots of people milling around.
On our hike up I had given away a tub of green mangos with salt to a group of three little girls who had been sitting on the grass, and later, whilst we were sitting in the sun and admiring the view, they came over to talk to us. We then spent half an hour chatting to the eight, nine and ten year old and we even had an impromptu geography lesson when Pablo (Picasso) drew a picture of the world and we showed them where we had all come from. Pablo was from Chile, I was from the UK and M from Poland, and whilst the girls knew where Chile was, they didn’t know about the UK or Poland. They were adorable and so interested and interesting, and as usual, it struck me how we expect people to know all about Europe or the United States, when in fact, their more important and relevant world consists of Latin America.
Semana Santa week marks a major holiday in Popayan with all of the churches stuffed full of cages of icons and hordes of people flowing in and out to view them. Armies of priests were directing proceedings as every day the icons were re-decorated with a new flowery colour theme and all of the public buildings and university buildings were open with free exhibits and squadrons of volunteers manned doorways and stalls, keen to give tourists guided tours of their respective spaces.
The processions would kick off in the late afternoon with the children who carried tiny versions of the icons and then the grown up versions would begin at about eight-ish every night. People would wait patiently whilst the procession curled its way around the town, often walking alongside with their candles. The children especially must have been exhausted by the end of the week because it seemed that the entire town plus all the tourists stayed up until midnight each night. Music and dancing were supposedly banned during this time but we did find a little salsa club which turned the music up and got swinging once the tail end of the parade had passed its doors.
Popayan is a very pretty town and not the first that I have been to in South America which is called the ‘White City’ but unlike those other towns this one really does deserve that reputation. The buildings are a sparkling white and at night under the floodlights appear to be made of icing sugar. The town reminded me of a film set made for a children’s programme with its cobbled streets, little balconies and ice white churches and at every corner I expected to see some TV presenters dressed up in bright clothes or dancing teddy bears.
We had to change hostels after two nights and find another, and we did end up sharing a room in both places with the most weird American guy that I have met yet, but to give him his due he was out there travelling solo. Dorms can be strange spaces and these had extra beds crammed in to accommodate the hordes, but even so, in my mind, your own bed is sacrosanct and you do not perch on the end of somebody else’s unless invited to do so first.
At the beginning of the week a bomb had exploded by the roadside on the way into Popayan and as many of the government and high ranking officials were attending the celebrations, the place was swarming with heavily armed soldiers and police, toting big automatic machine guns. I am a firm believer that guns should be removed from communities and police forces should not be visibly armed such as in the UK but it is very strange how quickly you get accustomed to seeing so many weapons on the streets. And they are not neatly holstered either but held ready for firing in many instances. And coming from the UK where knives are also not tolerated or allowed it is odd to see so many people walking along swinging machetes – although now that I have been using one on more than one occasion I have to agree that a machete is possibly the best tool ever invented.
In many countries, Semana Santa and Easter is a bigger deal than Christmas and I was very pleased that we spent it in one of the best towns and experienced the atmosphere and saw the processions. After three nights in Popayan we were to continue to head north and to Cali where me and M would go our own ways for a couple of weeks. I had arranged to stay with a family here and M was off to stay with friends of friends.