Somewhere in Latin America – Salsa until Sunrise

Manuela de Mendonça is a 23 year old geographer, traveller, writer and runner currently backpacking through Latin America.

She is documenting her adventures across the continent and sharing her experiences of food, history, culture and nature with us. Expect to read about ancient temples, local restaurants and the best places in the world to go walking.

06 January 2019: Somewhere in Latin America: Salsa until Sunrise

The Christmas holiday season in Colombia is legendary. It’s a strong Catholic country and celebrations are worlds apart from British ones. Family is at the centre of every holiday and Colombians travel home to spend time with their extended family and generally consume a lot of food and drink.

I and some fellow expat travellers joined the tradition of having the main meal on Christmas Eve by cooking an extremely British roast dinner. Meanwhile, in the rest of Medellin the main event was only just starting – fireworks. In Spanish they are called “juegos pirotécnicos” which directly translates as pyrotechnic games. An apt name. As well as setting off rockets in every barrio (neighbourhood) in the city, a favourite pastime of Colombian youth is to light small packets of gunpowder and throw them down the street. Games indeed.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around I’d made my way to Popayán, the original colonial capital which also goes by the names ‘ciudad blanca’ and ‘ciudad bonita’, meaning the white city and the beautiful city respectively. To make my way there I had to join the exodus of families travelling across the country to visit other members of their extended family for the New Year. It took me three days to make a two hundred mile journey. At home an experience like that would have burst several blood vessels, but I forced myself to make it an opportunity to see a few more cities I hadn’t planned on visiting. It worked, I became a laid-back Colombian for 72 hours.

Popayán is a relatively small city, but it has a lot going for it. The architecture is beautiful, there’s a church on nearly every corner and the entire centre of the city is painted pure white, with splashes of colour where protesting students have painted new graffiti or thrown bright paint at the walls. UNESCO declared Popayán a city of gastronomy in 2005 and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a ‘menu del día’. For 5000 pesos (around £1.20) this is essentially a three course meal. You get salad, soup and a main dish, which is typically the biggest of the Colombian day. I also discovered that the Restaurante Pizzeria Italiano does some of the best pizzas I’ve tasted outside of Italy.

I had hoped to see some of the pre-Colombian archeological sites, but no buses were running on New Year’s Eve. In the days leading up to the end of the year I had noticed that life-sized effigies, complete with clothes and hair, had been springing up in the roads. Some were dressed as policemen, others in suits representing politicians – they are built to mock the figures of the previous year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve some are filled with fireworks, others with gunpowder and they are set alight. I ended up dancing salsa until sunrise.

January 1st was another public holiday and the streets were empty and silent. The only place open was a café attached to a hostel called Caracol which, along with another hostel and Popayan Tours, is run by a Scottish couple. This is the only place in Colombia where I have found a proper cup of tea, made with proper milk. After breakfast and a nap my salsa partners and I climbed to the top of a nearby mirador (vantage point) and watched the first sunset of the year.


Further Information:

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