Popayan – (pronounced Popa-jan) is the capital of the department of Cauca. It is called ‘the white city’ or Ciudad Blanca due to the color of the colonial buildings and churches in its historical center.
It’s a very relaxed, attractive city with a great climate in southern Colombia. But few foreign tourists visit Popayan. When they do it’s usually just for a one-night layover on their way to Ecuador or the Colombian archaeological site of San Agustin.
This small city merits more attention than it gets. And while it may look quiet, provincial and unmemorable it’s actually charmingly refreshing. As its promotion slogan goes, ‘Popayan – more than just a white city’.
This colonial city was founded by the Spanish in 1537. While there are no records of its pre-Hispanic history, it is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. During the colonial period, Popayan was an important town due to its logistical location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Here there were significant mines, manned for the most part with slaves from Africa, extracting gold and silver,
Located in southwestern Colombia, between the western and central Andean mountain ranges, Popayan has a population of 258,650. It sits at an altitude of 5,775 feet (1760 meters) above sea level, and has an average temperature of 64 degrees F. (18 °C).
Due to its altitude, the city has a very nice climate year around – warm during the day and cool at night, with a short rain shower late in the afternoon. The early settlers established sugar estates down in the hot, humid Cauca valley but went back up into the mountain town of Popayan to live and raise their families.
It’s a quiet, relaxed town that’s easy to explore. A well-known university town, Popayan is home to 8 different state and private universities. Students are everywhere in the center and the city feels like a college town.
There are many small, family run hotels in the center, but few restaurants. Visitors complain the center is dead, lacking a vibrancy and essential services – especially in the evenings and on Sundays when it is often hard to find anything open. But like many modern cities, the historic center houses mostly government and business offices and university buildings.
Popayan has a sizable residential area just beyond the city’s center teaming with shopping centers and restaurants. A short taxi ride up Carrrera 9 imparts a more modern Popayan with plenty of dining and shopping options.
The town of Popayan has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years after major earthquakes. The last one was on a Sunday morning of March 31, 1983. Mass was being held in the Cathedral Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion on the town’s main square of Plaza Mayor. The earthquake only lasted 18 seconds but it destroyed the cathedral killing many people – a total of 267 died in the city’s earthquake. The entire town was in shambles and much of the city’s original splendor was destroyed.
Reconstruction took more than 10 years. The cathedral was rebuilt. While the city still has some ruins and empty lots, it’s hard to see any signs of the quake today. As a result of this event, the first earthquake-seismic-design-code was established in Colombia.
Popayan’s historic downtown is rich with colonial architecture which has been preserved for more than four centuries. The cobblestone streets were almost all paved over in 1937 but current projects seek to recover the old city’s original look
It’s fun to stroll along the streets of the historic center soaking up the city’s architectural charms.
Plenty to see and do
Puente Humilladero is a beautiful bridge 785 feet (240 meters) long made up of 11 arches. The bridge crosses a fault line between the city center and the Bolivar neighborhood connecting the central and northern zones of the city. Built in 1873, the designs were prepared by the Italian friar and a German engineer. Its well-planned design and strong construction have allowed the bridge to remain intact through many earthquakes. A park by the bridge is a gathering point for students.
There are numerous churches and museums to visit in the center: the church of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, La Ermita and La Basilica with its famous Torre de Reloj, or the watchtower, which was built in the 1600s. There are many museums worth visiting like the museum of religious art and the museum of natural history.
The Morro de Tucan, or Cerro de Morro, is large hill overlooking the city. Where an ancient pre-Columbian pyramid structure once existed, today it is home to the large statue of the founder of the city. The hill offers a great lookout of the city below. It’s a short climb to the top, but the stunning panoramas and sunset views make it a must-visit spot in downtown Popayan.
But some of the best things to see and do here lie just outside of the city. After a day or two visit of the city, Popayan can then serve as a handy base to see the many interesting sites nearby.
Thermal baths – Aguas Hirviendas at Coconuco
About 15 miles (25 km.) from Popayan, on the road to San Agustin, is Coconuco a beautiful spot surrounded by green hills and waterfalls. In the mountains over the town, the magical site of Termales Aquas Hirviendas (Thermal Baths of Boiling Waters) is found. Coconuco is only an hour bus ride outside Popayan. For $3 you can soak in the thermal pools. Boiling pools of sulfur water are mixed with cold mountain spring water and channeled into the surrounding pools. Each pool has a different temp.
The spa ritual is: 15 minutes in the hot pool, get our, stand under a waterfall of ice-cold, mountain spring water, scream, jump back in a hot pool and repeat. There are a lot of locals here on the weekends but hardly anyone visits during the week. The locals bring boom boxes and sip Bacardi rum with Poker beer chasers pool side. There is also a volcanic spring fountain where you can drink sulfur water, they call aqua soda or soda water, which is very diuretic.
The Market of Silvia
Another big draw is the indigenous market in the village of Silvia on Tuesdays when the Guambiano tribe come to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia and Caciques. There are only 12,000 people remaining in the tribe. They speak their own language and dress in their colorful, traditional garb. At the market they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables and fruit and then buy supplies like rice beans, potatoes and farm equipment to take back to their villages.
They come and go in picturesque, exhaust spewing chiva buses and congregate around the main square of Silvia. They don’t like cameras believing photos rob them of their soul. But if you buy something from them, they will indulge you and pose for a shot. From the main square in Silvia walk uphill to the church for a great view of the village below.
Parque Natural De Purace (Purace National Park)
Purace park is 534 square miles (860 square km) of volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural springs, waterfalls, lagoons and grasslands. A volcanic zone in the Andes, it is S.E. of Popayan, on the road to San Agustin. It’s high-tundra (paramo) terrain. Purace, in the indigenous Quechan language, appropriately means ‘fire mountain.
The park contains many springs like the Termales de San Juan which are immersed in virgin, Andean beauty. There are 200 types of orchids that grow here, 30 lakes and waterfalls like the Los Guachanos Cave Park Bondon waterfalls. Major Colombian rivers like the Magdalena and Cauca originate here. It is also home to a vast array of wildlife like the spectacled bear, otters, sloths, pumas, deer, eagles and Andean condors.
With the help of an indigenous guide and a day to spare, one can hike to the crater summit of the active Purace volcano 15,000 feet (4,646 meters). It’s a four-hour, 7 km. climb to the top and takes around 3-hours to descend. Technically, it’s not a particularly hard climb but the altitude makes it harder than it should be.
Semana Santa (Holy Week of Easter)
Since the 16th century, Popayan has been famous for its religious processions during the holy week proceeding Easter. The processions depict the passion and death of Jesus Christ. There are festivities all week long but the processions take place between Good Friday and Holy Saturday before Easter. Thousands of people from all around Colombia come to take part in the event.
There is an airport in Popayan and one can fly in from any major Colombian airport. Or come by bus from the cities of Cali to the north or Pasto to the south – both relatively short trips.
A southern Colombian itinerary would require at least 10-12 days: 3-4 days taking in the sights in and around Popayan; 3 days to cross the paramo of Park Purace and to visit the archeological sites of San Agustin (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan); 2-3 days to venture north to visit to tombs of Tierradento (a 6-hour bus trip). After Tierradentro, there’s a road from heading back to Popayan (a 4- hour bus trip). One could also visit Cali from Popayan (a 3-hour bus trip) or Pasto (a 6-hour bus trip from Popayan).
For more on see: travel in Southern Colombia