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Mini guide Popayán: the white city of Colombia

by Sabine
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The largest colonial center in all of Colombia, one of the oldest universities, the most beautiful natural history museum in the country, a special celebration of Easter, an impressive environment, lovely people, delicious teahouses and a extensive gastronomy: Popayán has it all. Four years after I first set foot on Colombian grounds, I finally visited Colombia’s white city. And yes: it was fantastic. Many travelers say there is nothing to do in Popayán except wander its white streets. Not true at all. Visit beautiful Popayán and discover southern Colombia!

La Ciudad Blanca

La Ciudad Blanca, or the White City, is famous for its beautiful white center. After Cartagena, Popayán is considered the most impressive colonial city in Colombia. In addition, Popayán is one of the best preserved colonial cities in America, a fact reflected in its architecture and religious traditions, as well as having one of the largest colonial historic centers in Colombia, with about 236 blocks. The capital of the department of Cauca was founded in 1537 by Sebastián de Belalcázar and, due to its location in Valle de Pubenza, became an important stop on the route from Cartagena to Quito along the Panamericana Highway. In 1983, a massive earthquake struck Popayán, causing many deaths and damage. Popayán has nearly 300,000 inhabitants and is a real student city.


8 x Sightseeing and doing in Popayán Colombia

Discover the splendor of Popayán in its grand colonial center.

1. Wander the white streets

Stroll through the white streets of Popayán and marvel at the beautiful colonial architecture. Rest on a bench in Parque Caldas to watch daily life or enjoy the sunshine. Or buy raspados (ice cream with fruit) on the street: success guaranteed!


2. Visit a museum in Popayán

Popayán has some fantastic museums, all of which are highly recommended as far as I am concerned.

Natural history museum (Museo de Historia Natural)

Wow, what an amazing collection of insects, birds, butterflies and more. This is really not to be missed when you are in Popayán. Housed in the University of Cauca, this natural history museum is known as one of the best in Colombia. I believe that right away. The museum has as many as 2,400 specimens of animals on display, 601 specimens of geological diversity and you will find 420 archaeological objects. So be sure to take one to two hours to see everything. Another nice thing is that you can see where the animals are found, so you immediately discover what actually lives in Colombia. | Location: Cra. 2 No. 4-48. Opening hours: Monday to Sunday between 9AM and 11AM and between 2PM and 4PM. Cost: children 2000 pesos; adults 3000 pesos. Website.


Casa Museo Mosquera

Housed in an 18th-century building, this interesting museum was once the home of General Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, four times president of Colombia between 1845 and 1867. The museum is beautiful and gives a glimpse into colonial history. There are 6 rooms with a collection of 711 objects to admire. In addition, you will find quite something special, namely the heart of Mosquera. You can’t see it so well in the photo, but if you stand in front of it, you certainly can. Not to be missed! | Location: Calle 3ª No. 5-14. Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday between 9AM and 12 AM and between 2PM and 6PM. Closed on Mondays. Cost: children 1,000 pesos; adults 2,000 pesos. Website.


Museo Guillermo Valencia

This eighteenth-century house was once home to a famous poet: Guillermo Valencia. Valencia was born in Popayán and also died here, in this house. After his death, the facility remained more or less as it was. You will find beautiful paintings and objects from the time the house was built. In addition, the museum tells the story of this famous poet. A guided tour (also in English) is mandatory, and no photographs may be taken inside the rooms. | Location: Cl. 3 No. 5-45 (almost next to Casa Museo Mosquera). Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday and holidays between 10AM and 12AM and between 2PM and 5PM. Cost: free of charge. Website.


3. Take a look around the university

Popayán is a real college town, which is not surprising. In fact, here you will find one of the oldest universities in Colombia: Universidad del Cauca. The university was founded in April 1827 by Francisco de Paula Santander, and when you walk in, the university breathes history. We were given a tour by a friend of Jimmy’s who works in the university and it is definitely worth a visit. So try to slip into one of the many locations (right next to the Claustro de Santa Domingo, for example).


4. Take a walk around the churches

Popayán is known for its many beautiful churches. The largest and most beautiful church is Iglesia de San Francisco. Iglesia La Ermita dates back to 1546, making it the oldest church in Popayán. At the central square Parque Caldas you will find the neoclassical cathedral. It was built between 1859 and 1906 on the site where the earthquake razed the old church to the ground. Don’t forget the church Claustro de Santa Domingo: so beautiful!


5. Stroll across the old bridge

Next to Museo Guillermo Valencia is the beautiful bridge Puente del Humilladero. In the nineteenth century, this 240-meter-long bridge was built to improve access from downtown to the poorer northern neighborhoods. From the bridge you have a nice view over a part of Popayán. From the museum you also have a very nice view of the long bridge.


6. Popayán in the evening

We were fortunate that during the first evening the sunset was easy to see. Although not from a vantage point, this also gave a beautiful effect in the streets of Popayán. After sunset, Popayán is even more atmospheric than during the day, with beautiful warm lights. Be sure to take an evening walk to enjoy this!


7. Hike to a viewpoint

There are two points in Popayán that you can walk to for a view of the city. We unfortunately missed this, but if you have the time: definitely do it! Search the map for Capilla de Belén or El Morro de Tulcán. The latter is on a hill where you will find the statue of the founder of Popayán. We were advised not to walk this anymore in the evening because of a higher chance of being robbed.


8. Having fun in the arcade

At the new shopping center Centro Comercial Terra Plaza, in the north of the city, you can go to the cinema, store and grab a bite to eat. But you will also find an arcade where we had a lot of fun the first night. Never before in my life have I been to an arcade and it was really fun. Perfect for when you want something different or to escape the rain.


Food and drink: visit a teahouse

Popayán was declared a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2005 because of traditional cooking methods and the variety of food.

So you can eat well here. For restaurants, check out the Lonely Planet Colombia. What struck us were the coffee and tea houses in the center. Now, of course, coffee shops are very common in Colombia, but tea houses I have never seen here before. This one comes highly recommended:

  • Casa del Té Popayán. Location: Cra. 2 No. 3-78.
  • TÉLOS baristas del té. Location: Cl. 3 No. 8-39 (permanently closed unfortunately!)

These tea houses have wide choices of unusual tea combinations. Calling themselves tea baristas, they also prepare the tea in a pretty special way. It was delicious and cozy. If you like tea this is highly recommended!


The surroundings of Popayán

If you go to Popayán, be sure not to skip the surrounding area. Cauca is exquisitely beautiful and has all sorts of things to offer, and it’s a shame if you miss it. Just an extra day, for amazing experiences.

The Indian village of Silvia

Silvia is the most popular day trip from Popayán. In fact, on Tuesdays you will find a market to which indigenous people from the area come. In costume and all, you can witness this. Very special and not to be missed. Here you will find all the information about visiting Silvia.

Walk through beautiful páramo

If you are in Colombia, you must at least once visit páramo . After all, you don’t find this unique ecosystem everywhere, and now is your chance. Also from Popayán you can admire páramo and walk along fields of frailejones. We did this on a day trip with the owner of our hotel, off the beaten path near the village of Gabriel Lopez. Here you can read and see all about this beautiful hike.


A little further on is Tierradentro, the second most important archaeological destination in Colombia. Since you need a few days for this, we didn’t go there, but Tierradentro is definitely on my list. So hopefully we will go back someday to admire this place. Here and heremore information.

Puracé National Park

Another wonderful day trip is the one to Puracé National Park. Unfortunately, we did not manage to visit during this trip, but it too is on the list for when I return. In Puracé, on a day trip, you can take one of the many hikes to the volcano, enjoy páramo and see the famous condor. Ask at your hotel about the possibilities. Here find more information.


Hotels in Popayán

In the center of Popayán you will find several hotels from where you can walk directly into the white streets. We stayed north of the city in Los Guaduales Ecoparque. A beautiful hotel with a large estate where avocados grow, among other things. You will also find parrots, sheep, dogs, chickens, many birds and beautiful flora. We took a walk across the park from our room: wonderful to do in the morning. The owner is extremely nice and helpful. He is very committed to nature and took us to beautiful páramo (see “the surroundings of Popayán”). From the hotel you can easily take a bus to Popayán and Silvia is even faster to reach from here. It was a wonderful stay at this hotel and definitely recommended!


Practical information

How to get to Popayán?

Popayán is easily reached by bus from Cali, Ecuador or San Agustín. You can also fly to Popayán. Avianca brings you from Bogotá to the white city of Cauca in just under an hour. In a rather small propeller plane. You can also fly to Cali, as there is more choice of airlines and times, and from there 2 to 3 hours by bus to Popayán. Now you’re thinking: how cumbersome. My husband also took this route during the first time Popayán and it worked fine.

Climate in Popayán

Popayán has a perfect climate: not too hot and not too cold. The city is located at an altitude of 1,760 meters, giving temperatures between 15 and 25 degrees, with peaks to 28 degrees. During the year of El Niño, Popayán even reached 36 degrees, but so this is very exceptional. In all of Colombia, by the way, it rains regularly.

How many days do you need?

To see all the sights and enjoy everything this city has to offer without rushing, you will need 1.5 to 2 days. Popayán, however, is the perfect base for exploring Cauca. So if you want to see a lot of the area, be sure to stay about 5 days.

Continue your journey in Colombia

Depending on which side you come from (Ecuador, northern or eastern Colombia) you continue your route to Colombia’s archaeological highlight: San Agustín. To travel on to the Tatacoa Desert. If you are coming from just there, travel north through Cali to arrive at the famous coffee area. Need inspiration for travel itineraries in Colombia? Click here!

Celebrate Easter in Popayán

Popayán is very important religiously in Colombia, so during Semana Santa the city floods with people who want to celebrate Easter. The celebration of Easter in Popayán began in the year 1556 and still takes place today. Pretty special. Are you during Semana Santa (check the dates here) in Popayán? Then prepare for big crowds, higher prices and full hotels (so book in advance).


Popayán: a white gem in southern Colombia.

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