Travel: Latin America - Way out of the ordinary

From the moment you enter the Colombian city of Popayan, you are in for a surprise. By Lucy Gillmore
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The Independent Culture
Sporting blood-red lipstick, the police officer stepped archly into the homicidal traffic and blew her whistle. In starched khaki pencil skirt, fitted jacket and matching Stetson, her hair a slick 1940s roll, the icy control of the Colombian femme fatale seemed more Hollywood film star than state employee. I wanted to applaud or ask for her autograph but Clare, my travelling companion, held me back.

Staggering shell-shocked through the cobbled streets of Popayan, this was not exactly what I had expected to find here. The white-coloured city was originally founded by Sebastian de Belalcazar in 1536, during the Spanish colonisation of Colombia. It soon developed into an important regional centre and wealthy sugar plantation owners chose to live here rather than in the steamier environs of Cali, Colombia's second largest city, 100 miles to the north west.

There are many other handsome colonial towns dotted around Latin America, but the altitude gives Popayan an eerie edge. Like much of Colombia, the city stands (and sometimes shivers) a mile and more above sea level, where the clarity of the air adds a shimmer to the day's proceedings.

Not that too much proceeds. The real dynamism of Colombia resides elsewhere, fuelled by the industry of the cities of Cali, Medellin and Bogota. That these places have rough edges is well known, but Popayan is a smoother prospect. The town has retained its colonial character with a neat grid pattern of streets lined with pale rococo buildings. And the devastation of the 1983 earthquake is almost unnoticeable thanks to years of painstaking restoration. But my expectations of an old colonial city with shaded squares, quaint street cafes and sleepy ambience had been shattered on my first morning when I threw open the shutters of the Hotel Casa Grande. Instead of a solo bird song, I was greeted by a full-blown orchestra of blasting horns, screeching brakes and angry exhausts.

Arriving by bus from Cali the night before, Popayan had appeared peaceful in the moonlight. Wandering through the empty streets looking for somewhere to eat, the whitewashed buildings had taken on an eerie hue. Clare and I had finally spotted Pizzeria don Sebastian in one of the colonial houses. The dark wooden benches, stone-flagged floors and statues from San Agustin boded well. The fact that it was completely empty did not. We nibbled at pizza and waited for companiable customers who never arrived.

However, next morning the streets were swarming with people, their pavements littered with stalls selling greasy, unidentifiable food. Zigzagging through the heaving streets, I looked in vain for exclusive boutiques, delicatessens and artesanias but the shops in Popayan sell only tat.

At first glance, Popayan resembles an old city in Andalucia, but behind the pearly white facade, it is pure South America. There are no lazy boulevards, nowhere to sit and watch the world go by.

Tourists must instead get their kicks from visiting the churches that dominate every street corner. You buy a candle or two from the old women huddled on the church steps and light them in the ornate, incense-filled sanctuaries of San Agustin and San Francisco.

Our second day in Popayan was a Sunday, and we climbed the hill to the chapel of Belen for mass, dragging our way past the Stations of the Cross in a slow-moving crocodile. The church itself was packed to bursting and people were spilling out into the morning sun. From the church, the view of the city spreads out below, postcard perfect, a scale model belying the frenzy and the fumes.

Despite the town's cool nights, Popayan's afternoon heat can be intense, so we trotted back down to the cool, dark labyrinth of the Natural History Museum. Tucked away in the back streets, the museum contains room after room of stuffed condors, eagles, wolves, parrots, jaguars and deer, and is particularly famed for its collection of insects and butterflies.

The next day, it was definitely time to leave the white walls of Popayan behind. We set off for the archaeological sites of San Agustin. Set in the green Valley of the Statues, a seven-hour trek from Popayan, this is one of the most important archaeological locations in Colombia. Hundreds of rough-hewn figures of men, animals and Gods have been discovered here, dating as far back as 3300BC.

Little is known about the people that created the statues, except that they had disappeared by the time the Spaniards arrived - possibly they were wiped out by the Incas from the north. The stones were discovered by a Spanish monk, Fray Juan de Santa Gertrudis, who stumbled upon them in the middle of the 18th century.

Today, San Augustin is a grey, damp version of the American West. Men lean moodily against wooden pillars or swagger down empty streets, dogs at heel. We found a local saloon and, blowing on mugs of scalding coffee, looked through leaflets of the guided tours available. The stones are scattered across a number of different sites and it is possible to explore the area by jeep or to hire horses for the day.

A commotion at the doors made us swing round as a man burst into the bar on horseback, rode up to the bartender and ordered a beer. We opted for the jeep and sat squashed into the back of a Landrover, lurching from one green soggy field to the next through constant drizzle. All the statues are fenced off undercover because of the dangers of erosion. They have lasted for almost 5,000 years, but the rain is finally wearing them down. I knew how they felt.

We finally disembarked at the Archaeological Park, where you can wander around the museum and the park itself. Paved pathways and lawns trace their way past the ancient statues, each protectively donning "hats". I had imagined Stonehenge, mysterious and ethereal, but it felt closer to a wet Sunday in Cumbria.

If Popayan was an Andalucian enigma, a strange hybrid of colonial culture and indigenous traditions, then San Agustin was equally unfathomable. "Kensington Palace Gardens transplanted to North Wales" Clare surmised. "Populated by extras from Bonanza and the High Chaparral," I concluded.

Fact File

Getting to Colombia

Avianca (0990 767747) flies three times a week from Heathrow to Bogota, The fare is only pounds 299.30 return for any Colombian destination, including Popayan and Santa Marta. There are also bargains on other airlines; call a specialist such as South American Experience (0171-976 5511) or Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108).

Travelling around

You can reach Popayan by air from several Colombian cities, but it has one of the country's more dangerous airports. A safer bet may be to fly to Cali and travel by bus or shared taxi.

The Fruit Palace, by Charles Nicholl, is published by Vintage, price pounds 7.99. To reach El Dorado, begin in Bogota with a bus ride to the town of Zipaquira. Find other buses, or hitch-hike, to Lake Guatavita; but note that hitching may not be entirely safe. Most other places in the book, such as Santa Marta, are most easily visited by air.

Travel advice

The Foreign Office says "Violence and kidnapping are serious problems in urban Colombia. In rural areas there is a risk of being caught up in guerrilla or paramilitary attacks... Visitors should consult the British Embassy, Bogot (00 57 1 317 6690) before finalising their travel plans."