Why You Should Visit Popayán – Colombia’s 480 Year Old Colonial ‘White City’

Most people have heard of Cartagena, the colourful Spanish colonial city on the Carribean coast. Regarded as Colombia’s number one tourist destination, the name Cartagena conjures up images of a romantic, sun-kissed city of cobblestone streets, brightly painted mansions and mango coloured churches. And yet, being crowned “the Most Beautiful Colonial City in Latin America” has its drawbacks. With the crowds come the tacky souvenir stores, pointless attractions, scammers, tricksters and “tourist tax” prices. Don’t even get us started on the cruise ship passenger herds, so seem to be cramming into the city in greater numbers every year! Despite all this, Cartagena remains a truly stunning place, completely worthy of its reputation. But while Cartagena hogs the limelight, many travellers remain in the dark about Colombia’s other World Heritage listed colonial city. Nestled in the lush Valle de Pubenza is a far more laidback colonial gem. Popayán is nicknamed la Ciudad Blanca (the White City) for the whitewashed buildings that give its historic centre a stately, distinctive appearance. Still largely undiscovered by foreign visitors, Popayan is an authentic, unsanitised, tourist trap-free colonial city. It’s also nowhere near the ocean, making it safe from the cruise ship invasion for all eternity.

COLOMBIA’S SECOND COLONIAL CITY

 

The Spanish founded Popayan in 1537, one year after Cartagena, establishing it as the capital of southern Colombia before Cali eventually took its place.
Popayan’s historic downtown is a collection of beautifully preserved colonial era buildings. Dozens of striking historic landmarks, some dating back to the 16th century, are clustered around a massive central plaza, the lovely, lively Parque de Caldas.

WHAT TO SEE IN POPAYÁN

As you wander the old streets of Popayan, look out for some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including;

Iglesia de San Francisco: a lavish 18th century cathedral and one of the finest examples of Baroque style architecture in Colombia. Ask to see the ossuary, which was cracked open by an earthquake in 1983, revealing six unidentified mummies

Iglesia Santo Domingo: built in the mid-1700s, this is the city’s most spiritually important church. It’s flooded with pilgrims during Popayan’s famous Holy Week celebrations, held between Good Tuesday and Easter Saturday

Natural History Museum: within the magnificent grounds of the University of Cauca, this excellent museum is dedicated to Colombia’s amazing biodiversity

Puente del Humilladero: – this 240m long, 11-arch stone bridge was built in 1873 to connect the city centre to the northern neighbourhoods

 

POPAYÁN – WORLD HERITAGE CITY OF… GASTRONOMY?

 
 

Earlier, we described Popayan as a World Heritage Listed city. Which is true.
But while Cartagena’s fine colonial buildings brought it UNESCO recognition, Popayan’s architecture, although undeniably pretty, isn’t quite World Heritage league a la Cartagena.

In fact, Popayan received its World Heritage honours for a something else entirely. In 2009, UNESCO’s Creative Cities initiative declared Popayan the first World City of Gastronomy in Latin America.

Popayan is known for its distinctive take on the national cuisine, drawing on pre-Colombian, Spanish, African and European influences. It utilises a vast array of native ingredients, some found only in the mountains, forests and coastal areas of southern Colombia.

Must-try dishes local dishes include:

Empanadas de Pipián: Snack-sized pasties, filled with a mixture of meat, potatoes, garlic, onion and achiote

Helado de Paila: A traditional ice cream of fruit juice and ice, hand-stirred and set in a copper pot

Breva Calada: Commonly enjoyed at Christmas, this dessert is made from figs soaked in panela (brown cane sugar), served on top of white cheese

Champus: This sweet, aromatically spiced dessert drink is a blend of pineapple, sour orange, lulo, cloves and cinnamon
Salpicon Payanes: This delicious fruit cocktail is a blend of the Colombian fruits lulo, papaya, guanabana and mora

WHERE TO EAT IN POPAYÁN

 
 

Hotel Camino Real: This hotel’s owners are key players in the Congreso Nacional Gastronómico. Set in an elegant Colonial mansion, the restaurant showcases skilful cooking across an innovative menu combining French and Colombian elements

La Coescha Parillada: With smartly dressed, bowtie-wearing waiters, this restaurant has a friendly, old-fashioned vibe and specialises in giant cuts of beef cooked on an open grill

La Fresa: It might not be more than a few plastic tables and chairs, but this cheap-eatery is famous for its scrumptious empanadas de Pipián

Aplanchados Doña Chepa: This pastry shop is run by Doña Chepa, a veteran baker who’s been making her legendary aplanchados (shortbread-style flat pastries) for some 70 years

La Semilla Escondida: This French-owned bistro is a cosy spot for delicious sweet and savoury crepes

 

NIGHTLIFE IN POPAYÁN

 
 

On the surface, Popayan may look like an old, relatively unchanging place, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a city buzzing with youthful energy and a creative, independent spirit.
Home to the prestigious educational institutions including the University of Cauca, Popayan attracts thousands of students from across Colombia every year, ensuring a lively, authentically local after-dark scene most nights of the week.
Salsa fans should check out Bar Iguana and New York. For something a little more old-school, El Sotareno is an old-time locals’ favourite, playing classic tango, bolero and ranchera. For a more chilled-out bar experience, check if there’s live music playing at Wipala, a cafe, bar, gallery and performance space in one, or cosy up at Bendito, a labyrinthine student hang-out with a pop and rock soundtrack, craft beers and tea-infused cocktails.

 

DAY TRIPS FROM POPAYÁN

 
 

Popayan is a compact city and the major sites can be seen in a day. However, it’s worth extending your stay to explore the magnificent natural landscapes of the surrounding region.

Some of the best day trips from Popayan include:

Purace National Park: A vast, rugged park protecting a swathe of Andean paramo (high altitude alpine grassland), dotted with waterfalls and thermal springs and home to a small population of endangered Andean condors. Within the park is Volcan Purace, one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia. Tour companies from Popayan offer gruelling full-day trekking trips to the top of the volcano at 4,750m.

For motorcycle riders, the two highways that cut through Purace offer hours of fun dirt and gravel mountain roads through the prehistoric-looking paramo. Silvia Tuesday Market: Silvia is a tranquil little mountain town, 60km northeast of Popayan. Every Tuesday, Silvia comes alive thanks to the weekly market, when Guambiano villagers in colourful traditional dress come to town to trade local wares.

While this authentic trading post is mainly dedicated to fresh produce and wool, the Guambiano set up stalls selling handicrafts, bead necklaces and ponchos to the few tourists who visit. Remember, this is a real market and not a tourist attraction, so please respect the local people, who are generally shy of cameras.
We highly recommend a few days absorbing the charms and natural beauty of Popayan. Two and half hours from Cali down a fast, straight highway, it’s a worthy stop for those planning to ride southern Colombia and its roads less travelled.

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A Motorcyclist’s Travel Guide to the Zona Cafetera (Colombia’s Coffee Region)

The vast, fertile tract of countryside at the foothills of the Cordillera de los Andes is known as Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone). Also referred to as the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis), and the Coffee Triangle, the area is Colombia’s most important coffee growing region.
Covering the departments of Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda, this once remote backwater has earned a reputation for producing the finest coffee arabica beans in the world.
Mecca for worshippers of the coffee religion, the Eje Cafetero has plenty to offer the unconverted too – lush, mountain landscapes, tiny townships with cute Colonial architecture and some of Colombia’s most magnificent national parks.
For motorcyclists, the Eje Cafetero promises world-class road riding. Take on countless twisties on traffic-free backroads, explore rarely-visited rural villages and visit waterfalls and hot springs, all without leaving the comfort of the tarmac.

GETTING TO COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 

With your own set of wheels, getting almost anywhere within the Coffee Triangle is a breeze. Coffee exports have made the Eje Cafetero the most developed region in rural Colombia, and the vast majority of roads here are sealed – no off-road experience necessary!
The regional capital, Armenia is 280km from Bogota, and is an easy, straightforward 2 hours, or roughly 180km from Cali.
Manizales is the closest major city from Medellin. While it’s only 200km south, roadworks, landslides and heavy vehicle traffic mean the journey can sometimes be slow-going. 

WHEN TO VISIT AND WEATHER CONDITIONS

 

Mild temperatures and decent rainfall define the climate year-round, so there’s really no good or bad time to tour the Zona Cafetera.
A typical day will flip flop between warm sunshine and showery patches, plus the occasional heavy downpour. Early in the morning and after rain, beware of low-hanging mist obstructing visibility.
Yes, it does get a little wet here, but the scenery wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and the coffee not nearly as tasty otherwise.

WHERE TO STAY

MANIZALES

 
 

The capital of Caldas Department, Manizales is one of the three main cities in the Coffee Region, alongside Pereira and Armenia. Overlooked by most tourists who head straight to the villages closest to the plantations, for a taste of ‘big city’ life in coffee country, Manizales is easily the most pleasant of the coffee capitals. Home to around 400,000 residents, Manizales nevertheless enjoys a relaxed and friendly small city vibe and has a handful of handsome Spanish-style Colonial buildings. A university town, Manizales lays claim to the best nightlife in the region.

SALENTO

 
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Firmly entrenched on the ‘Gringo Trail’, once sleepy Salento absorbs the majority of tourists visiting the Coffee Triangle, due, in part to its location, 30 minutes from one of the biggest drawcards in the region, the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.
Still, Salento has more than enough charm to hold its own. With looming mountains in the near-distance and coffee plantations stretching all the way to the edge of town, Salento’s streets are lined with white-walled colonial houses, their doors, window frames and balconies painted in whimsical combinations of rainbow-bright colour.
While tourists can sometimes seem to outnumber locals, Salento is hardly Disneyfied. The businesses are locally owned, the natives friendly and the vendors undemanding.
Meeting other travellers and arranging tours is no problem in Salento. Accommodation is plentiful, with many guesthouses able to accommodate gated parking for your moto.

 

FILANDIA

 
 

20km from Salento. Filandia has almost twice the (permanent) population of the aforesaid town yet feels far quieter, slower, and more like itself – unconcerned by the trappings of the backpacker economy. The cheerily painted facades of Filandia’s residences are vivid and varied as the most colourful Salento street. The tourist crowds of Salento can sometimes feel a world away, and visitors will find quickly find themselves easing into Filandia’s languorous pace of life.
Once you’ve done a coffee plantation tour or two, there’s not much to do in Filandia itself other than wander lazily from café to café, and exchange banter with the friendly locals, which is exactly what gives Filandia its irresistible charm.

 

SALAMINA

 
 

While Filandia has its fair share of fans, Salamina’s status as a ‘secret gem’ remains safe for now. An isolated pueblo of some 19,000 souls, Salamina is almost 4 hours from Salento and a 70km journey along a scenic secondary road south from Manizales. Salamina shares the same distinctive heritage architecture as other coffee towns – white walls and rainbow-hued timberwork. Its leafy plaza sits overlooked by an all-white church with a looming ivory tower.
Why go out of your way to see yet another Colonial coffee town?
Salamina may well be the single most beautiful village in the entire region, and is recognised as one of the 17 pueblo patrimonios (heritage towns) by Colombia’s official tourism department.
Secret Tip: 25km east of town, giant wax palms (the very same type that make the Valle de Cocora Salento’s most famous attraction) grow prolifically in an undulating valley near the village of San Felix. While it’s not quite as dramatic as Cocora, you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.

FINCA AND HACIENDA STAYS

 
 

Coffee fincas (farms) are blanketed across huge swathes of the Eje Cafetero, and for those who want to get a bit closer to the source of their morning espresso, many fincas provide lodging in hacienda style accommodation. Some haciendas are incredibly luxurious, befitting the tastes of the wealthiest of plantation owners, while others are more humble, homestay-like affairs. Some fincas offer free food and lodging in return for volunteer work.

 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 
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Conveniently located, extraordinarily scenic and packed with things to do (from leisurely coffee tastings to intense multi-day hiking excursions) the Zona Cafetera is a great addition to any two-wheeled touring itinerary. the mountain scenery is spectacularly lush and evergreen and no matter where you point your tires, the Andean roads deliver curves till the cows come home.
If you’re inexperienced or not a fan of riding off-road, the Zona Cafetera is perfect. You can easily plan a route sticking exclusively to sealed roads without missing any of the major sights and attractions.
A great introduction to motorcycle touring in Colombia, Motolombia run a 3 Day, all-tarmac Coffee Taster Ride from Cali, stopping in at Salento, Filandia Valle de Cocora, a working coffee finca, hot springs, waterfalls and more.

STILL READING? CHECK OUT THIS TOP SECRET BONUS ROAD WARRIOR’S COFFEE COUNTRY DAY TRIP

 
coffee-road-colombia

While nearly every road in coffee country is as curvaceous as it is scenic, we highly recommend putting a half day aside to take the road less travelled and experience one of the absolute best rides in the region. Between La Virginia (60km north of Salento) and Supía is a smooth and winding blast north along a quiet stretch of Highway 25.
Featured in our Top 10 Paved Roads of Colombia list, this 100km one way trip is tonnes of fun without being overly demanding, with lots of swooping curves and some truly stellar scenery.

 

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