The ride from Cali to Popayán is stunning. Blessed with good weather, decent roads and lush green jungle that crawls up the mountainous terrain. Glittering reflections off corrugated roofs that dot the hills in the distance catch my eye. I see no roads climbing the hillsides, but along this road young men ride horses or tend to mules with loaded saddlebags. I imagine the mule and horse trails of the remote villages in the mountains.
Small homes of bamboo, fallen branches of other trees and thatched or corrugated metal roofs dot the roadsides. At a military checkpoint armed Colombian guards board busses and inspect luggage carriers. Keep tabs on guerilla and paramilitary movements I’ve been told. Ask police and military if roads are safe. So I enquire as to the safety of the road ahead. The young cadet with his shiny automatic weapon draped around his neck shows me his transistor radio, hanging from a branch on the side of the road, raises the volume to share the music and cautions me to move closer to the side as trucks and busses zoom by shaking me and the bike. The road is safe, he tells me. Except there is no shoulders on the road, as in most countries I’ve visited. Be careful pulling over.
As I move further away from Cali and closer to Popayán, the ramshackle houses clustered around poor communities along the road appear every 5 or 10 miles. Nearly everyone with an opinion about this road, the jungle that engulfs it and the poor communities that abound cautioned me with a strong directive. “Don’t stop.” I could always tell as I got closer to an indigenous community. The roadside lined with young children. Many sitting on their mothers’ laps. Most faces simple pasty, hollow. Deep black round eyes lock onto mine and then the feeble hand outstretched and cupped. I passed fifty or more. Some would sit or kneel on the side of the road hands pressed or clasped together in praying mode. Hoping. Wishing. Wanting. The echoes of my guardian angels ring in my head. Don’t stop.
Along with the darkness the rain falls as I roll into Popayán, a beautiful colonial town founded in 1537. Sitting higher in elevation than the hot, flat and rather boring big city of Cali, Popayán became a center of culture, commerce, religion and government in the 17th and 18th century largely because of it’s proximity between other major colonial centers of Cartagena north and Quito south. Money flowed into the city from sugar barons based in Cali who moved here in favor of the milder climate. This city is more my size, It’s easier to grasp. The large and clean Parque Caldas is decorated with lights celebrating Navidad. Flanked by one of the younger cathedrals in town which was rebuilt after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, just one of many cathedrals and monasteries built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
For me, two icons of Popayán are the two legendary old bridges that cross the river running through the center of town. A smaller stone bridge (Puente de la Custodia) rises at near 30 degrees, crests and returns to the other side at the same angle. It was built in 1713 so priests could cross the river to bring the sick from poor northern neighborhoods holy orders. A second bridge built in the late 1800’s, Puente del Humillidero, features stone construction and 13 arches and is still in use today.
While I found the hostel recommended to me, but it appeared boarded up and closed. Across the street the Hotel Herreria looked like an option, but it’s horribly hobbled together uneven parking lot of large and loose bedrock stones challenged me as the lot attendant had me jockeying around to a specific space even though there were hardly any cars parked there. Then it happened. For the first time since that unfortunate spill in Chiapas in September, I lost balance and dropped the bike. Not a big deal. Except that at the gas station in Cali (the one that accepted my credit card) the attendant pushed the gas cap closed, but it didn’t lock. I forgot to check. So as my bike went over and still with a fairly full tank gas spilled out, onto my Jesse bag and to the ground. I finally was able to park the bike but the loose stones and wacky incline of the parking lot challenged me and my kick-stand. Later the manager of the hotel let me park Doc in the laundry room under the hotel. But it was the smell of gas in my room that really got to me. Apparently my Jesse bag locking mechanism needs some adjusting as gas seeped into the bag tainting my first aid kit, computer case, a few guide books and some miscellany.
I spent a couple hours walking through the old colonial city reeling in the spirit of Christmas with the decorations and lights. And tasted the best bread I’ve had on my trip — pan de café. Bread with a hint of Colombian coffee flavor. Fresh and still hot from the oven, I wish I could stock up on this and enjoy it again and again. Cruising around taking photos, I attract the usual crowd. We are eager to learn about each other. And they all want their photos taken. Temporary but new friends abound everywhere I cruise in Colombia. And everyone takes interest that I’m enjoying myself and am safe.
The plan tomorrow was simple — make it to Ipiales at the Ecuadorian border, passing through more of the legendary terrain famed for guerilla activity where busses have been stopped and burned, or other robberies. Or more recdently I’m told that part of this road in the past has been controlled by guerillas. But recent information indicates it’s safe to travel. But be careful.