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.
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)