We used Popayàn as our base for visiting San Agustín, leaving our big bags in our hostel and heading off with our little rucksacks. Like Santa Marta it felt like a place that could so easily be a jumping off point, that you lass through without spending much time there.
I really liked Popayàn, the “white city” full of whitewashed buildings and more churches than you can count. We spent a bit of time here before we went to San Agustín, walking around the grids of the single story buildings, stopping for a £1 set lunch in a local cafe with wipe clean tablecloths and plastic chairs, climbing the small hill at the end of town to get a birds eye view of the city. We felt relaxed and safe here, going out at night into the quiet streets and having beers in El Sotareño, a tiny little bar where we sit in dimly lit booths and listen to Latino music on the record player. The old man behind the bar is tiny and and sweet, marking drinks orders down on a piece of paper stapled to a wooden board and running after my down the road when I leave my jumper behind.
When we return to Popayàn after four days away, it’s nice to know where we are going and to walk down familiar streets. There is blossom in the trees in the plaza that wasn’t there when we left and the friendly hostel owner remembers us and chats about our trip. We head off one day to Coconuco, a village about 30k from town, to visit some outdoor thermal springs. We’re driven up in a truck and chat to another traveller, Amit, who is in the front seat. The springs are called Agua Hirviendo, and are a series of pools of different temperatures, fed by the nearby volcano. The smell of sulphur is strong and one of the pools very green; when we get in it is really hot, delicious after the cold shock of water from the natural waterfall alongside the pools. My rings instantly turn black and I’m cross with myself for not even thinking this could happen – thankfully they run clean straight after which was a big relief! There are lots of Colombian families enjoying the hot water and we are the only travellers; we get chatting to Alexander, a policeman from Popayàn who talks about how this part of his country has changed and is safer.
Later after we have dried off (and still smelling a bit of sulphur) we hop on our bikes and cycle back towards Popayàn. It’s mostly downhill freewheeling which is lovely, through almost alpine landscape: little villages, past waterfalls, along mountain roads lined by trees.
Back in town and hungry, we treat ourselves to snacks from a street vendor: an empanada and (my new favourite) a tamales de pipian, potato and peanuts steamed in a banana leaf. It’s a great last stop in Colombia before we head to our next country: Ecuador!