Have you ever heard about the white city of Colombia? Popayan is called the white city of Colombia, because of its pretty white buildings. It is said to be one of the best preserved colonial cities in America. However, opinions and feelings about Popayan are mixed. But even if you use Popayan only as a starting point for the Puracé national park and the local market in Silvia, it is a nice city where you can spend some great time. In this travel guide you will find the best things to do in Popayan, including tips for tours, restaurants, hotels and the best way to visit the Ciudad Blanca in Colombia.
- More about Popayan
- What to do and see in Popayan Colombia
- Visit Parque Caldas
- Walk to the viewpoint Morro de Tulcán – best things to do in Popayan
- Get inspired by modern art – cultural things to do in Popayan
- Discover the churches of Popayan
- Walk across the Puente del Humilladero
- Go for souvenir shopping
- Look for beautiful buildings
- Immerse yourself in the history of the city – Visit the museums
- Things to do in Popayan and surroundings in Colombia
- Restaurants in Popayán
- Hotels in Popayán
- How to reach Popayan in Colombia
- Best tours and things to do in Popayan
- More about Colombia
Popayan is the capital of the Caucas Department, located in southern Colombia. If you travel overland from Ecuador, or San Agustín in Colombia, to Cali and the coffee region, you will definitely pass it. I visited Popayan several times and really started to appreciate being there. Discover my tips for things to do in the white city in my Popayan Colombia travel guide.
More about Popayan
Popayán was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish Sebastián de Belalcázar, at the foot of the Morro del Tulcán. A hill that the indigenous people used to worship their gods. Due to the discovery of gold and silver at the end of the 17th century and the favorable location along the trade route between Peru, Ecuador and the Caribbean coast, the city quickly became attractive to wealthy families and monastic orders. They had countless palaces and churches built there. Something that can still be seen in the street scene today.
Popayan was hit by earthquakes several times, with the 1983 earthquake causing extreme damage. The city and monuments were rebuilt with the help of international agencies. And there is still a lot of attention for maintenance and restoration. Even students are occasionally called in to paint the buildings. Popayan is an important student city with numerous universities. In addition, the city attracts countless visitors every year, because of the special procession at Easter and the city’s patron saint, Santo Ecce Homo.
What to do and see in Popayan Colombia
Of course you can stroll through the white city of Colombia and take beautiful pictures. But there is more to do and see in Popayan. Discover my tips for the best things to do in Popayan and the surrounding area.
Visit Parque Caldas
Parque Caldas is the central square and meeting place for the local population. Families, students, street vendors and musicians gather here daily. Around the square you will find the large cathedral with the Torre de Reloj (the bell tower), the town hall and a number of government buildings. All painted in white. It is a nice square to take a seat on one of the benches and observe the local life.
Walk to the viewpoint Morro de Tulcán – best things to do in Popayan
From the Morro de Tulcán you have a great view of Popayan. Here you also realize that Popayan is quite a big city. You can walk up the hill from the Parque Caldas within 15 minutes. Along the way you will meet many families having a picnic and people working out. At the foot of the mountain, you will find a small market and theater where there is often live music on the weekends.
It is interesting to know that el Morro del Tulcán was the place where the Spaniards were confronted with the indigenous people here in the region. It would have been a sacred pyramid where the local people worshiped their gods. The Spaniards therefore founded their new city right here: Popayán. A statue of the founder can be seen at the top of the hill and in some places you can walk past murals of indigenous people.
Tip: It is recommended to always check the latest safety situation before your walk up the mountain. Especially in the evening, because of robberies that sometimes take place.
Get inspired by modern art – cultural things to do in Popayan
Are you interested in art? Then one of the things to do in Popayan is to visit MIAMP and Casa Museo Negret. Édgar Negret was a Colombian artist, known for his architectural art and use of materials such as iron, steel and aluminum. His art can be found in different cities around Colombia. In his former home in Popayán you will find some of his important works and a few rooms of modern art from his private collection, including an original Picasso. It is not an highlight but for sure interesting to have a look.
Curious to discover more art from Colombia? In my following article you will find an overview of important artists from Colombia.
Discover the churches of Popayan
Popayan is known for its many churches. The most notable are La Ermita and Iglesia de Belén, as they are built one above the other on the mountain. In the evening they are also beautifully lit. La Ermita was built in 1546 and is therefore the oldest church in Popayán. Iglesia de Belén is extra special because of the annual processions that take place here to venerate the statue of Christ Santo Ecce Home. Both churches were completely destroyed by the earthquake in the 20th century and then rebuilt.
Other beautiful churches include the San Francisco church, because of its architecture, the Iglesia de Carmen, the former Carmelite convent and Iglesia de Santo Domingo.
Walk across the Puente del Humilladero
A bridge that is characteristic of Popayan is the 240 meter long Puente del Humilladero, the former gateway to the center of the city. It is nice to take a walk along the Río Molino, a tributary of the Río Cauca. On a nice day, many people gather here under the bridge and there is often live music on weekends.
Go for souvenir shopping
Looking for some nice souvenirs? In the street below the bridge there are a few small shops, where handmade souvenirs from the indigenous people are sold.
Look for beautiful buildings
There are a few interesting buildings, including the Pantéon de los Próceres and the Teatro Guillermo Valencia at Carrera 7. Both were built in neoclassical style and are worth taking a picture of. The theater regularly hosts concerts by Colombian artists.
Immerse yourself in the history of the city – Visit the museums
Personally, I always like to delve into historical figures of a country. I is a great way to learn more about a city and culture.
Guillermo Leon Valencia Museum
In Popayán you can visit the Museo de Guillermo Leon Valencia, a writer, poet and politician who was president of Colombia from 1962 to 1966. He was born in Popayán and lived for many years in the 18th century city palace of Popayán. The collection includes paintings and 18th century objects and there is a nice view of the Puente del Humallidero. Admission is free, so it is worth having a look.
Casa Museo Mosquera
Another museum that you can visit is of the one of General Tómas Cipriano de Mosquera, who was president of Colombia four times between 1845 and 1867. It is a beautiful building from the 18th century with a lot of information about his life and the role he played in Colombia . There are more than 700 objects, but the most special is the urn with the heart of Mosquera in it.
Museum of Historia Natural
The natural history museum, located in the University of Cauca, has a large collection of stuffed animals, minerals, stones and archaeological objects. I have never been there myself, as I am not very fond of stuffed animals and birds. But according to many it is a beautiful museum and one of the things to do in Popayan where you learn a lot about nature and the country. One day I will definitely have a look.
Things to do in Popayan and surroundings in Colombia
Local market Silvia
Are you around Popayan on a Tuesday? Then you really want to visit the market of Silvia, one of the best things to do in Popayan Colombia. Every week locals, including the Guambiano indigenous people from the surrounding villages, gather here to sell their fruit, vegetables, meat and other goods. It is so colorful and wonderful to walk around. Moreover, you will find beautiful traditional jewelry at the market, something I always look for myself. The church is also worth a visit.
Puracé national park
Puracé is a national park, southeast of the city of Popayan, consisting of 86,000 hectares. It is dominated by the 4600 meters high and active Puracé volcano, which is visible on clear days. It is a breathtaking area that reminds many people of Iceland. In this park you can go for walks, float in hot springs, view waterfalls and when you are lucky even see condors. Make sure to bring solid hiking shoes (it can be slippery) and be prepared for different climatic conditions. The weather changes quickly.
It is best to visit Puracé national park with a day tour from Popayan. If you travel by bus from San Agustín to Popayan, you will cross part of the national park. However, this is not the most spectacular part.
Interested in visiting Puracé national park? It is important to book your tour in advance, as the park regularly works with a maximum amount of visitors. You will find prices and availability here.
The underground temples of Tierradentro
Tierradentro is a 3-hour drive from Popayan. Here you can visit underground tombs. The tombs date from 600 and 900 AD and are said to belong to priests and important chiefs. The location on a mountain slope and painted decorations make it one of the best things to do in and around Popayan Colombia, if you are interested in archaeology.
These tombs consist of several rooms and are located 3 to 6 meters underground. Entire spaces and pillars are painted with patterns and decorated with images. So beautiful.
More things to do in Popayan and surroundings in Colombia
Other fun things to do in Popayan area in Colombia include the hot springs of Coconuco, located 45 minutes from town. You can also book a bike tour and cycle to the hot springs.
Easter in Popayan
An annual highlight in Popayan is La Semana Santa. People from all over the country travel to the white city to celebrate Easter. Numerous processions and parties take place: On Good Friday even at night. If you go to Popayan around this time, book your hotel well in advance.
Restaurants in Popayán
- My favorite place for all kinds of tea and cakes, in a nice courtyard, is La Casa de Té.
- At Carmina you will eat delicious Italian and Mediterranean dishes.
- For the local cuisine, go to Mora Castilla or La Fresa. You will find simple but good dishes.
- At Canoa y Mar restaurant, you enjoy the Pacific kitchen and the decoration is also very nice.
- A good place for lunch is Caracol cafe.
- Other lovely cafes for good coffee are Togaima Café and La Tienda Regional del Mazico.
Hotels in Popayán
It is nice to stay in the colonial center of Popayan so you have all sights and things to do nearby. There are several mid-range hotels and a few boutique hotels. This is an overview of hotels in Popayán.
How to reach Popayan in Colombia
You can fly from Bogota directly to Popayan with Avianca. But you often reach Popayan during a trip of Colombia by land. From Cali, located north of Popayan, it is about a 3-hour drive with a transfer.
It is also easy to continue your journey in Colombia from Ecuador by land via the city of Pasto. The road from San Agustín to Popayan is quite an adventure. It is only 135 kilometers, but because the road runs through the national park Puracé and is in very bad condition, it takes a very long time (6 to 7 hours). The route across the Páramo, a plain consisting of moss, peat, grass and shrubs, which lies between the tree line and snow line, is very beautiful. You will also encounter one of my favorite plants here, the frailejones. San Agustín is one of the archaeological highlights of Colombia. From here you can continue your journey to the fascinating Tatacoa desert.
Best tours and things to do in Popayan
More about Colombia
Intererested in reading more about Colombia? This is an article with the most beautiful places to visit in Colombia, including the best time to visit. Or check out the Colombia blog page with city guides and things to do in Medellín, Bogotá and Santa Marta. Tips for lovely towns such as Salento, Mompox and Villa de Leyva. But also the Tatacoa desert and Valle de Cocora. Interested in archaeology? Read more about the mysterious San Agustín statues.