The heart of Popayán, Colombia, is a small colonial downtown dating back over 500 years. Everything is painted white. Traffic signals are unheard of. A church is visible from any given point and the streets are bustling with indigenous Guambiano vendors, who wear traditional low-cut witches boots, black and purple shawls, and Charlie Chaplin bowler caps. The town reaches capacity during Semana Santa (Holy Week, Latino Easter), which draws huge crowds for its Catholic processions, said to be second-best in the world after Spain.
The city is known for its empanaditas pipians. Filled with potatoes and mashed peanuts and dipped in a sauce of peanut and aji peppers, the small empanadas are accompanied by champus, chunky beverages that taste exactly like American apple pie. Street vendors sell chontaduros, orange palm fruits covered in honey and salt, with a texture similar to a yam.
The tradition of Semana Santa in Popayán goes back about 450 years and involves a three-hour procession of large pasos, hardwood platforms carrying life-size figurines depicting Biblical scenes. The pasos are carried by eight cargueros, or carriers – four in the front and four in the back.
“In reality the pasos are very heavy,” local Paulo says, “but when you are carrying you don’t feel any pain. You carry with the strength of your heart. You carry with your soul.”
Paulo’s grandfather started the tradition in his family line 70 years ago and carried for 55 years. This is Paulo’s eighteenth year as a carguero, a role which he takes proudly, humbly, and reverently.
The processions begin on a Tuesday with the children's parade. On Wednesday, after the procession ends, I have the opportunity to carry a heavier paso depicting two women at the feet of Jesus as he carried the cross. I carry the paso for about half a block and feel it in my shoulder for the next three days.
Next to me is a man of well over fifty, who carries for about eight blocks. The cargueros, who carry their pasos over thirty blocks and for several hours, are left with welts that resemble a softball surgically implanted on the collarbone.
On Friday evening, the military band echoes down the whitewashed corridors of Popayán from several blocks away. Young boy and girl scouts in blue Class A uniforms with arms linked clear the road, followed by street sweepers in dust masks and yellow jumpsuits. Then come the junior police, eight-year-olds looking stern in stiff uniforms. Behind them, children in red frilly robes ring hand bells, then glockenspiels, booming bass drums, women in heels with hand cymbals, percussion, brass. The music is mournful, militant, and Christmasy.
The first paso arrives adorned with candles that Paulo’s grandfather makes by hand every year, depicting a saint surrounded by fresh flowers. The cargueros pause with a faraway look in their eyes and prop their paso up on four poles made from the same palm that produces the starchy chontaduro fruit.
More pasos, then, followed by bands, pasos, politicians, pasos, a beaming Miss Colombia (a Popayán native) waving to the flashing cameras, pasos, and a mobile symphony playing a Simon and Garfunkel song which I later learn has been converted into a traditional hymnal.
The tail of the carnival is brought up by soldiers toting candles and rifles, and finally, a single street vendor shouting to the dissipating masses: “Mani! Mani! Mani!”