Overlooking the main square in Popayan, Colombia

By day, Popayan’s main square looks like many colonial towns in Latin America. There is a cafe, a bank or two, and a church on the perimeter of it. Inside the square, you’ll find people watching the day go by from a park bench, city maintenance workers keeping everything tidy, and vendors everywhere. You can buy salty, buttery grilled corn on the cob or some ice cream or a telephone call. You feel like you could be almost anywhere in Latin America here.

But after the sun goes down, jewel toned lights set the white buildings aglow in the main square. And in these dim, yet vivid colors of the night, the town’s character comes out in unexpected ways.

One night, as I am about to go to bed, I hear commotion in the square. I go to my window and I see shadows and revelations that were supposed to be hidden in the darkness:

The Fight

The first thing that draws me to my window is shouting. Young men who appear to be college age are yelling at each other. They seem to be drunk, and they are consumed with anger. They are making moves toward each other and their friends and girlfriends are desperately holding them back and trying to talk sense into them. They spit verbal bile at each other and break free from the grasps of their friends for a few precarious moments before they are restrained again.

As they venture deeper into their violent stalemate, I hear sirens in the distance. They’re getting closer and they are obviously headed to the square. One of the young men flees with his half of the crowd by the time the police arrive. The police talk to the remaining half of the group whose members angrily explain the situation and point in the direction the other people ran off in. The police look apathetic as they nod, and they leave as quickly as they arrive. There will be no resolution tonight.

Searching for Survival

Moments after the fight clears up, I see another person walking through the square. He is a tall Afro-Colombian man, almost as dark as the night. His attire is casual, but he is well-dressed. He looks nervous. He moves cautiously, glancing all around the square. I wonder if he is hiding from someone.

Then he bends down, and scoops up something from the ground, He puts it in his mouth and begins to chew. He does this throughout the whole square, alternating between eating bits of food off the ground and digging through the trash. When he sees someone coming, he tries to appear as though he is just walking through the square. My heart hurts to see this.

I can see his pride, his desire to live his life with dignity, his desire to have others think that he can provide for himself. So he had waited until it was dark before doing what he had to do to fill his stomach.

I’m not in the Four Seasons or anything; I am in a bare bones hostel room with a shared antique bathroom that’s seen much better days. Some would call this “roughing it” when it comes to travel. But as I sit there in my room with a view overlooking the town square where this man is secretly trying to survive, I am crushed by the magnitude of my privilege.

Dancing and Singing

As I get ready to go to bed a second time, a different group of college age-looking people come by the square and fill it with joy. One of them is playing guitar and they are all singing and dancing.

They seem like they could be part of a performance group, but given the location and the late hour of the night, I’m not sure if they are rehearsing or if they are just entertaining themselves. Either way, you can tell they are having so much fun. There is power and grace in the guitar strokes, their voices, and their dance moves. They seem to be summoning something greater than themselves; they look grounded in who they are, rooted in the beauty of their culture.


(This was recorded from a distance, turn up the volume to hear the guitar and singing.)

Tonight in the square, I have seen ugly Popayan, painful Popayan, and the most beautiful Popoyan. I have seen this picture perfect photogenic city in its rawest forms. There is no purity in the city’s whitewashed buildings that sparkle in the sun; rather, Popayan is at its purest when night settles in and no one is supposed to be watching.

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