The white city. Popayan is definitely one of the most beautiful colonial cities of Colombia… in the city center. Venture slightly beyond and it becomes industrial and dodgy.
But hey, what a dream that historic heart of Popayan is. All the walls are immacutely painted in white. Small churches as you would imagine them in a Hollywood movie about Latin America. A central park with grand colonial buildings and beautiful flowers. It’s not as unique as (the central square of) Villa de Leyva, but it’s a treat nonetheless.
Popayan is well-connected and therefore quite popular amongst tourists. At least for those who venture this far south. As said, the city center is immaculate and a joy to walk around in. Do it for a leisurely day, including one or two museums.
A full day is more than enough though, unless you want to explore the region of Rio Cauca better. Because the surrounding nature is just baffling, with great hikes and several national parks. Though there are many more national parks in Colombia of course, and some even better than here.
Food and drinks
What is traveling without risks? The first night I ended up in La Cosecha, a huge grill place, and tried chunchullos as a starter. Initially I had no idea what it was, but it tasted awfully. ‘pork intestines’ is what the research later revealed. Don’t worry, the main dish (steak) was fine here.
Another local favorite is Restaurante Italiano. They offer run-of-the-mill pastas and pizzas. Compared to places I ate later on in Cali and Bogota, this was pretty disappointing. Other options for dinner are for example Carmina (also has a set lunch) and Mana (vegetarian).
For lunch or quick snacks Mora Castilla (1st floor) has Catalan snacks. Semilla Escondida (five minute walk from the bus terminal) has nice sweet crepes. I also tried the daily menu but wasn’t too impressed.
God truly walks into the room when they serve coffee in Popayan. Togoima (cafe ritual) is truly excellent, with many adventurous tastes (and great sandwiches). Same goes for Cafe la Colombiana, with friendly staff as well. Only Cafe Caucua is closer to the central square: service was unfriendly though, and food and drinks uninspired.
Activities / things to do
- El Morro de Tulcan viewpoint: only a 10-minute walk from the center, this green hill offers beautiful sweeping views over Popayan. When you get at the foot of the hill, stay on the right side of it, it’s the shortest and safest way. Beautiful for sunset as well
- Museo de Historia natural: Popayan is a university city, which bring lots of life to it. This part of the university though is more about the dead, about stuffed animals to be precise. Good collection
- Parque Caldas: the main square, with an immaculate park which is already almost a botanical garden in itself. Around Christmas it is transformed into a universe of lights. There are daily free tours by local students at 10am and 4pm (start in front of the tourist office), tips are appreciated
- Iglesia Belen: on the hill on the east side of the center, this is a beautiful small church. Walk Calle 4e until the end and turn right up the stairs. This is the safest and shortest way, and has sculptures representing the stations of the cross
- just walk around the city center for churches, coffee shops and more local flavour. As long as you stay inside the historical center, you are fine (though locals will advise you not to show valuables). When you venture beyond (towards the bus terminal), Popayan becomes a different city. Not necessarily unsafe, but you have to be on your guard all the time
- Tierradentro: not exactly close to Popayan and definitely not a daytrip, but Popayan is your easiest gateway to Tierradentro. A small bus will take you there in around four hours, and bring you to this magical remote place where the dead were buried in men-dug tombs in the ground. It is a Unesco World Heritage site and more undiscovered then San Agustin, which is also in that region (but still quite far away). San Agustin can also be reached from Popayan. If from San Agustin or Tierradentro you want to continue towards Neiva (and maybe Desierto Tatacoa), that is possible as well
Getting to Popayan and getting around
- the airport is literally in the middle of the city. It is next to the bus terminal, and it is a fifteen minute walk max to the center
- bus: a kilometer north of the heart of the white city, this one has long-distance buses to all the big destinations: Pasto/Ipiales to the south, Cali & Medellin northwards, Bogota to the northeast, and Neiva to the east. Also has services to Tierradentro (bus company Sotracauca)
- within the city: compact and easy to walk
- Weather: height-wise Popayan is in the same regions as Cali and Medellin. Expect pleasant weather in the 25 degrees during the day, slightly fresher in the evenings
- Safety: the center is completely fine, also at night. As long as there are people on the streets, you have nothing to worry about. Venture beyond and please be on guard, especially at night it’s wiser to stick to the white-walled center or take cabs