There is something so striking about an indigenous population sporting a load of British-style bowler hats a la Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, but travel for a little while in South America and you are bound to run into it. My first time to see this was even stranger because it was in a tiny mountain village, Silva, in the western Colombia province of Cauca.
Centered between the cities of Cali (famed for dancing) and Popayan (famed for colonial architecture), Silvia is an unassuming village that requires a good, curvy detour off the main highway and offers a decent market of fresh vegetables and household wares. On Tuesdays, market days, the village fills with locals doing commerce as usual, but it also gets an influx of curious backpackers.
The market is not really the draw so much as the people frequenting it: The Guambiano (or Misak) people have lived in the area for centuries. And, in the least offensive way possible, they are just amazing to see.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The types of travelers who find themselves in this part of Colombia are generally looking for truly unique cultural exposure. This is that to a T.
- A distinctive people, salt-of-the-earth market, majestically mountainous setting, magnificent cathedral and cobbled streets to explore—it’s all in one little village.
- Great for the young and the old, shoppers and window-shoppers, the culturally and historically curious, religiously endowed, and fashionably funky.
The Guambiano People
Not unlike other indigenous groups I’ve seen in Central and South America, the Guambiano people are slight of stature, often barely reaching my shoulder in height (I’m only 5’9”). They have dark straight hair, bodies and faces sculpted by the landscape, and richly tanned skinned. They have tight, familial ties. They are shy, this particular group so much so that they don’t want to be photographed, and keep to themselves. The society is agricultural and specializes in the unsurprising crops of coffee, beans, potatoes, and cabbage.
However, they all wear skirts. At first, this fact seems a bit laughable, trivial maybe, but it is downright extraordinary to see. Each person dons a sort of cultural uniform, akin to what happens at a Catholic school, only…well, skirtier. Women wear black skirts with a bluish-purpley scarf as a top while men where the same bluish-purpley scarf as a skirt with a square poncho on top. Everyone’s got a bowler hat and similar leather boots. And, of course, no one bats an eyelid about this attire.
Such a thing seems silly, but seeing indigenous people who still sport traditional duds, especially ones so opposed to conventional, contemporary fashion, is oddly mesmerizing and very hard to resist photographing. So, my wife/photographer Emma worked hard to get pictures of the church, the village, and the church square that might include the odd human element. It’s a difficult line to toe as a tourist, one perhaps worth sheathing the camera for more often than not.
Silvia, the Village
The village itself is utterly rural, over an hour from Popayan, the nearest major city. On market day, the streets became a little congested with shuttle buses moving in and out amongst throngs of unconcerned pedestrians. The place is high altitude (nearly 9000 feet) and surrounded by even higher reaching mountains, which created a fantastic backdrop for shots of the humble buildings or grandiose cathedral overlooking an expansive public square.
Getting there is a beautifully treacherous ride on stomach-churning roads winding along the mountainsides. Once in Silvia, the markets are lively with a great variety of produce, especially Colombia’s diverse collection of potatoes, and practical gear, such as clothes and household items. There are also the ubiquitous live chickens and hunks of meat for market newbies to see. And, good snacking is everywhere.
For me, the market only required a quick once-through, with a few fruit and veggie purchases to support the local farmers. The rest of the time I was planted on a shady bench in the square, watching old men in skirts greet each other, laugh and eat ice creams. Women sat, working spools of thread and gabbing with one another. The place was alive, peculiarly old-fashioned and 100% authentic. What a remarkable spot for people watching.
- You’ll need to stay in Popayan to visit the Silvia market, on Tuesdays. It’s easy to walk to the bus station and a catch a shuttle for a couple of bucks (worth of Colombian Pesos).
- The pictures thing: Honestly, it’s one of those tough calls. It’s so enamoring that you hate to not snap a photo or two, but do be respectful and cautious. These people don’t like it and, honestly, who in their circumstance would.