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South America : Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia.

So much to see in so little time: The South American Cities of Popayan, Sucre and Ouro Preto.

by Matt Thomas

Travelling is about seeing amazing things and famous jaw dropping sights. That said, on longer trips one can’t do this everyday, so when a traveller stumbles upon small, culturally rich towns with much to explore within a small area, these are little godsends. Such places are easy to navigate, have all the best sights close together and can be navigated in a couple of days. They will perhaps have several excellent museums, a generally laid back and educated vibe and population, and the people may be slightly friendlier than their big city counterparts. Moreover all the sights will be within walking distance and you won’t have to shell out for tours. Aside from those mentioned above that I will discuss here, Gyeongju in South Korea and La Serena in Chile fall into this category. But for now let’s focus on Popayan in Southern Colombia, Sucre in central Bolivia and Ouro Preto which is situated approximately equidistant to the north in between Sao Paolo and Rio in Brazil.

Whitewashed Popayan is a bustling university town with a high student population that is matched only by the perpetual traffic, in the centre at least. It is easy to navigate with all the main sights and accommodation a short distance from the main square, which as usual with South Americal cities, is home to the city’s cathedral. With a population of only 200,000 the city is big enough that there are a good smattering of eating options, and quiet enough that the sights are not crowded. Everything is within walking disatnce of the main square. The pick of the numerous musuems and “Casas” is the rambling and seemingly neverending Museo Nacional de Guillherme Valencia, who was President from 1962-66. His house is allegedly almost has he left it and contains numerous political and historial paintings and documents, books and original furniture. An absolute must for History buffs I would venture. Other good ones were the Musuem of Religious Art, complete with guided tour and the Modern Art Museum. Aside from these there is the usual healthy collection of churches and Cathedrals; with the San Francisco Iglesia the pick. But more than that, just strolling and taking in the laid back atmosphere around the town is a pleasure. This was the friendliest town I visited in Colombia, the people were geuninely interested in you and happy to talk. Well worth a trip to Colombia’s deep south.

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Sucre is central Bolivia would draw definite comparison with Popayan. It is also whitewashed, laid back, home to a similar size of population and has a reputation as a financial and educational hub. Other factors such as a high number of excellent sights in a small area make it highly traveller friendly. There is a little bit more to see here than Popayan. A walk up to the viewpoint at the North of the town is well worth it; as is the by guided tour only Museo de la Recoleta. Another good sign of a traveller friendly town is that while ambling around semi aimlessly one stumbles upon interesting sights. This is the case in Sucre as I came across an excellent Contemporary Art and Anthropology Museum, only to be ushered out by 1230, even though they had only opened at 10 a.m and I was all but the only person there. But such is life.

Of the best of the rest, there was the closest I came to a cultural centre in Bolivia in the Museo de Ethnology. This consisted of a reasonably interesting mask display, another exhibit on Bolivian tribes, and a history of the LGBT movement in the county. All of these exhibits seemed to promise so much but deliver only partially. Again, like Popayan there is a good selection of bars, restaurants and cafés here. All in all a very acceptable way to spend a couple of chilled but informative travelling days.

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Charming Ouro Preto, set beautifully in the hill country between Sao Paolo and Rio is another traveller friendly, if somewhat more expensive option for a couple of days solid sightseeing. It is however a little less easy to navigate, the roads are little more windy and the best sights more spread out. That said it still has a well condensed selection of high quality sights. On the main square the jewel in the crown is the Museo de Inconfidencia, one of the few museums I found throughout South America with excellent sign posting in English. Behind the Museo de Inconfidencia there is an attractive viewpoint down the valley that lends itself well to relaxing with a book and watching the sunset. Again trundling round town is all that is required to find other numerous attractions, the picks being the architecturally unusal Casa de Contas and Pharmacia Historia Museum that, well, contained a lot of old and interesting drugs and medication.

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So while you are trekking Machu Picchu, taking in the Salt Plains of Bolivia, or exploring the beauty of Patagonia spare a day or two of these little gems that are perfect for a couple of days of R & R, trundling around and generally providing a more than worthwhile alternative to the more high profile sights and famous areas of natural beauty.