Popayán to Cali

April 1, 2018

One last morning in my home in Popayán. The place is hardly that memorable, more of a paean to mediocre domestic frippery, but at the same time I did have the privilege of a spacious residence close to the town centre, all to myself.
I should be preparing for the departure to Cali, but hours of writing and photo editing pass before the inevitable push to pack, make breakfast (using up the bulk of food in the fridge), and do last minute cleaning, pushing the time treacherously close to 1 pm, at which point the neighbor with whom I should have left the house keys will have left.
But the neighbor’s son is still home, and is gracious enough to call a cab, which is effectively futile. I pace back and forth, waiting, waiting, but no car arrives, the same scenario unfolding as when the home owner left for the airport a week ago. He calls an Uber – the Uber doesn’t arrive either. He calls the cab company again – utter futility. Finally, he arranges to take me to the bus station, leaving me in the hands of a gypsy from Valencia who has decided to make his temporary home along with some friends in the neighboring park.
And then the taxi arrives …
The crowds in the bus station are a wake-up call: the entire hall is so crowded it becomes difficult to navigate with baggage in any direction. Every ticket booth is met by a lineup snaking across the width of the hall. ‘Which companies provide service to Cali?’, I ask a security guard with a sinking feeling. This is not going to be good – at all!
He waves me in a general direction of a morass of people waiting in front of the wickets. But which specific ones? He rattles off a few names. Not wanting to spend hours waiting at the wrong counter, I ask another man, one of the few I see here in visibly good humour. He points me to two lineups: both of these companies are reliable. I join the lineup he is in, my heart sinking, coming to the conclusion that I will probably be spending the night in some bus station hotel.
But the lineup seems to be moving, and I ensure that I stay as close to those in front of me as possible, thinking about the generous amount of line cutting I witnessed yesterday. But that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem either. Slowly and inexorably, we move forward, the wicket inching forward, a movement I don’t seem to be witnessing with neighboring lineups. What luck!
I study the faces of those closer to the counter to see if any sign of disappointment is visible, which may imply having to line up somewhere else. But we continue, and closer to the counter, one of the employees occasionally shouting ‘Solo uno!’. I am too slow to respond, but in the end am suddenly at the wicket, the woman selling me a ticket for COP $14,000 to Cali, barely being able to exchange the ticket for money with the crush around me. ‘The bus is red, and leaving now!’ she commands me.
Just getting through the hall is another challenge, and there it is, one of the beaten-up mid-sized vehicles I have managed to avoid on many of my trips here. Waiting for the driver to heave my large pack into the rear luggage compartment also means that only one seat in the bus is left, and even that becomes a debacle to claim in the face of the ribald group to the back. I squeeze in with the heavy daypack on my lap, legs crushed from the get-go. But if the bus is actually going to Cali and doesn’t break down, a miracle will have occurred!
The bus departs, black smoke belching from the tail pipe as we ease out of the station into the makeshift suburbs of town, following the same route as to Silvia, more green encroaching on the road as we progress further north along the curvaceous road, the topography mildly hilly, but the road largely confined to the floor of a green valley that narrows as we progress further north.
How this trip should take 4 ½ hours, given that it is only some 120 km to Cali is beyond me, but we may also be facing an incredible amount of congestion on this first day following the close of the Semana Santa. And yet traffic flows smoothly, and particularly further on, where the valley we traverse widens and the road straightens, the bus picks up considerable speed. At some distance north of Popayán, the valley narrows and we begin weaving through the claustrophobic landscape, the hills closing in on us as the rain intensifies.
The beaming woman next to me clutches her drowsy daughter waking occasionally to cough, a small plastic bag ready for a possible emergency that the young girl never experiences. As much as the number of passengers must correspond to the number of available seats at the controlled point of departure, the groups of expectant locals waiting by the roadside in the population centres are not ignored. Being able to get a standing position on the bus to Cali is better than spending more hours waiting for some other already overcrowded vehicle to stop. But our bus gets fuller and fuller, my legs more and more cramped, and the kilometres seem to only crawl by.
We pass through the town of Piendamó that I recognize from the Cauca travel brochure, expansive and quite attractive, and had it been in Boyacá, I probably would have made a point of staying here, at least for some time. But alas, western Colombia will be getting a short shrift, given the little time that is left to explore the country.
Closer to Cali, the rains abate, the sun streaming past stunning cumulus tufts on the horizon and vast sugar cane fields, an emerging image of beauty following the drab rainy grey of the journey thus far. Our speed increases as we hurtle forward, the first inkling of Cali the initial stages of luxury condominium developments set in otherwise empty grasslands. And then they appear, the towering cinder block apartment towers, one after the other, 20 or more stories and broad in girth, white on brick, impeccably maintained, with equally fastidious landscaping, high density living on the periphery of the city for those with money.
The sea of identical residential towers does not abate until we progress to lower density climes of the city, but I don’t see a break in the consistently well-maintained urban landscape, the roads in good shape without the usual ubiquitous broken pavement and disintegrating asphalt, no garbage anywhere, continuous attractive landscaping along the major boulevards, and residential housing uniformly well-maintained and appealing.
The bus station is more like a modern airport than a bus station, but then very modern bus stations are hardy that unusual in Colombia, thinking of places like Bogotá or that perennial favorite of mine, Duitama. A coffee bar at the bus station with espresso-based coffees? How could I pass that up, particularly after hours of bone-jarring, deep-vein-thrombosis-inducing bus travel!
In good spirits, I mention to the taxi driver that I don’t understand why Colombians are not more appreciative of all the positive changes that have happened in the country. A very big mistake, as he embarks on an enraged rant that takes up the rest of the trip. The politicians are utterly corrupt in this country, and attempts to whitewash Colombian politics with peace accords is nothing more than rearranging the figureheads that run the country, managing a system that benefits the pockets of the few and leaves the rest in the dust.
Yes, Cali may look like a vibrant, cosmopolitan and affluent city, but most of its recent history it was in decline, and only recently have serious efforts been made to bring the city back to what it once was. The revolutionary groups are all the same, nothing more than fronts for the drug trade, whose profits are siphoned into the hands of the few. Over the decades the politicians running the country are virtually unchanged. Santos represents nothing new; he was hand-picked by Uribe! And so on …
Following a lengthy drive through the bright lights of nocturnal Cali, we enter the cloistered roads of San Antonio, with its low-slung adobe houses and sloping terracotta roofs. The streets are lively with visitors, including tourists and wealthier locals. But no one seems to answer the bell at the hotel that is allegedly the Magic Garden House that I had booked online. After some buzzing, I hear a voice, but drowned out by the barking of a day. Finally, one of the doors opens, and I am greeted by a young Swiss woman smiling blandly and an aggressively barking dog.
The rooms she points me to are artistically designed and cheerful, facing a narrow internal courtyard, the only room facing the outside world the substantially-sized suite below and at the back. The lack of privacy in this housing model is already an irritant, given that the place is not cheap, but the relentlessly barking dog that refuses to abate despite continued remonstrations of the Swiss woman bring me to the breaking point.
That dog spends its time in this courtyard, barking? And I have to listen to that dog bark potentially for the entire time I am here? I have long ago lost all patience for Colombians’ inability to train or contend with their dogs responsibly, but this is beyond the pale. ‘You claim to be running a boutique hotel while guests are forced to put up with this racket?’ I confront the owner with who has now arrived. She is very unhappy at my critique of her business, and a heated exchanged ensues. But I have no intention whatsoever of putting up with this nonsense, nor paying for it, and to their relatively shocked expressions, heave the packs back onto my back and am outside again, in the torpid Cali evening, the streets filled with revelers, the more questionable types relegated to the park above.
Now what to do! The weight I am carrying on my back, the dodgy types on the street, and total ignorance of what this neighborhood offers puts me in an awkward situation. To be fair, I could simply cheat by asking a cab driver, as they are eminently useful, but instead, enter the Tostaky restaurant and lodging, whose owner would be happy to entertain me with a room, but they are too plain and have no windows. She is fine with that, recommending the Hostal del Sur as an option. Being too upset to pay much attention, I only vaguely follow her directions to the establishment, and in the process visit a number of other hotels, probably not a liability, given that in the process I become familiar with pretty much all of San Antonio and its lodging options.
What do I conclude? The neighborhood is expensive, much more expensive than I am used to. Is it good value? Perhaps, but the relatively claustrophobic colonial-style establishments mostly offer rooms that at the best face internal courtyards. Most hostales are gated, meaning you have to pass through the ever-vigilant reception or owner. Some owners are nice, but there is also a degree of presumptuousness I detect that would be unthinkable in the rest of Colombia.
Despite the universally high prices, there are deals to be found, including the hostel-like place next to the Hostal del Sur with the very friendly reception (although the rooms are basically dormitories for one) and the place with the spacious, multi-room suite that the owner would give me for COP $100,000, although I hardly need that much space, the rooms are somewhat small, and there is little natural light. I am told the Spanish colonial nature of the houses makes the design such that there are no outside-facing windows, but the rationale is somewhat ridiculous. The issue is simply that the houses have not been designed in that fashion, and hardly typical even of the rest of Colombia. Certainly, many buildings may have been designed in that manner, but would hardly warrant the prices being commanded.
I decide to return to the Hostal del Sur for the front room facing the street. I can’t really open the main windows, as they directly face the street, but there are windows above that remain open, and that let natural light enter. The room is comfortable enough of the surface, with a large bed, hand-crafted wooden furniture, a tiled floor, a high ceiling, with only a ventilator and no AC. There is barely enough room to put a table, which also means clambering over the furniture, and the small table I am given isn’t big enough to hold the desk lamp.
In fact, there isn’t really enough counter space, nor is there anywhere to properly hang clothing. All that for COP $88,000. I need to get something to eat, but the most important priority is to find some alternative accommodation, higher in quality and lower in price, in San Antonio or elsewhere. What a deplorable situation. At least the owner of the Magic Garden House had the decency to cancel the reservation, so I am not stuck dealing with a charge for that place.
Back on the street, and now the search for a place to eat. San Antonio may be a hub in Cali for going out in the evening, but inasmuch as the colonial style setting on the hilltop may be romantic, it is also largely beholden to trendy, overpriced establishments that are not that good, at least from perusing the fairly predictable menus. There are a few genuinely interesting restaurants with beautiful interiors, but much of what is here is largely generic and uninteresting. The area also attracts a fair number of dodgy characters, not that it feels unsafe. A positive closure of the evening is offered by the San Antonio Pizza house just above the Magic Garden House, and the pizza is actually quite good.