Popayán and Silvia: Indigenous presence in South Colombia

South America’s northernmost country is famous for its multi ethnic society. Less known is the inhabitance of its Indigenous cultures. The Guambiano culture for example, inhabits the southern department Cauca. You can meet this culture in Popayán, the so-called Colombia’s white town because the main color of the houses is white, and in Silvia, where a big market is held every Tuesday.

Andean pre-Columbian heritage is widespread in this region.

Popayán is the capital of the department Cauca, a stunning mountainous region. This city is famous through Latin America for a white colonial city center.

An ordinary scene at Popayán’s main square.

Compared to other places in South Colombia, this city is really touristic. There are plenty of things to see and to do, but don’t go on Sunday. At this day of the week all shops, bars and even some museums are closed.

On the way to the mountain Cerro de las Tres Cruses, you will find interesting street art.

Despite Popayan’s capital status, nature is never far away. The city center itself is geographically limited due to its mountain Cerro de las Tres Cruses. On the slopes you will find different kinds of tropical and Andean birds.

My personal highlight in this area was the town Silvia, where the presence of Guambiano culture is enormous. Although the Guambiano don’t live in Silvia, they go each Tuesday to local market for shopping and selling their products. At the market you can find a huge amount of potato varieties, people in traditional clothes and very special sombreros. But, as Guambiano people don’t like tourists taking pictures, I respected their wish.

Chivas are driving to the neighboring villages and hamlets. On Tuesday they’re often packed with potatoes.
In Silvia a cold climate rules: the average attitude is 3000m and daily temperature is often 17 degrees.
The local river.

My visit to Silvia was for me an amazing experience, it felt like tasting a little bit from an Indigenous culture. However, it was somewhat shocking for me to see how other tourists (mostly Europeans and North Americans) where taking pictures from Guambiano people without asking permission. This was rather disturbing.

But Silvia was for me way more interesting than touristic Popayán. It seems that tourists are coming only on Tuesday for the market, so the rest of the week you can enjoy a really calm town with a lot of arts and crafts shops with Guambiano products. Next time, I won’t stay in Popayán, but in this mountain village instead.

Another point of interest was the widespread of cannabis in this region. A functionary at the Popayán bus station explained me that some local farmers are cultivating this weed mostly for medicinal purposes. It seems that their is even a Ruta del Té Marihuana. At the main square in Popayán, street vendors are offering cannabis tea. In buses going to Silvia you can meet fellow travelers using coca leafs against altitude sickness. As a good boy and teacher, I choose to stay away from this things. And as I don’t know if these things are legal in Colombia, I do not recommend this.

How to get there? Popayán’s airport is located at a walking distance from the city center, but airport workers highly advised me to take a taxi at night. There are four direct flights between Popayán and Bogotá per day. The bus station is almost next to the airport. Silvia is connected with Popayán by buses that run almost every hour during day time. There are different hotels in Silvia.

Important side node! At the time of visiting and writing, safety was a serious issue in the Cauca department. Popayán and Silvia are considered safe for touristic purposes. The Cauca has a lot to offer, but stay informed about the current situation. For example: the last three years a lot of union members and social leaders have been murdered in this province. Having said this, I’m still waiting for safety improvements in this region for discovering a lot of hidden gems. Because this region will have a lot to offer.

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