Popayan: A Guide to Colombia's White City

Here is our travel guide on best things to do in Popayan, Colombia.
 

Popayan is a pleasant place where it is possible to break your journey before crossing borders to Ecuador. Here is our guide to Popayan, Colombia's White City. You can read about the best things to do, tips on where to stay, and safety advice.


Popayan is a colonial-era city often nicknamed La Ciudad Blanca alias the White City and thanks to the whitewashed houses and pretty historical center which is easy to explore on foot, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Colombia.

When you are in the area, either visiting San Agustin or heading to Ecuador, Popayan is definitely worth visiting. The city has a rich and vibrant history as it was once an important transportation hub between Colombia's most prominent cities such as Bogota and Cartagena, but it also connected (and still connects) Colombia and Ecuador.

Popayan doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to safety (although we felt absolutely safe in the center and between center and bus terminal) and is often overlooked by vacationers who have limited time on their Colombia itinerary and usually visit more popular and well-accessible travel destinations around the country, but it means only one thing.

The city is not crowded and you will mostly meet here either Colombians or backpackers traveling down south to Ecuador.

Popayan is must-visit place off the gringo trail in Colombia.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF POPAYAN

In the 16th century during Spanish colonization, Sebastian de Belalcazar was traveling to south Colombia to search for a fabled El Dorado treasure and founded the city of Popayan on 13 of January 1537.

Popayan quickly became a seat of Spanish power in the country and kept its prominent status throughout the centuries, thanks to its strategical position located on the way between Cartagena, Bogota and Ecuador. The result was imminent. Many important Spanish families built pompous mansions, houses, and churches around the city, and the city development took a huge leap.

The city was a witness to several earthquakes in the past, the last one happened in the 1980s, and did a lot of damage on the buildings, and even though the city has been rebuilt since then, when looking closely you still can see that some buildings haven't been repaired yet.

Popayan is a traditional city with long and interesting history.

Best Things to Do in Popayan

Popayan is one of the oldest and best-preserved cities in South America, and the colonial architecture is the main reason to visit the place. Most of the top attractions are within the city center, and you won't have any problems finding them.

Puente del Humilladero | A true architectonic gem built-in 1873 is on the way out from the city center. This 240 meters long walking bridge stretches over the Molino river and is a must-see while exploring the White City. There is a park beneath the bridge, and this peaceful area attracts both locals an tourists who hang there in the late afternoon.

You can find a Purace Parque Natural near Popayan where you can climb an active volcano.

Parque Caldas | A great place to have a rest with a lot of benches and plenty of shade from the tall trees, so grab a snack from a stall nearby and watch life go by. Popayan is exactly the city where the time flies slowly, so embrace the atmosphere. On the square's sides, you will find two major city attractions, a clock tower, and the main cathedral.

Torre del Reloj | Constructed between 1673 and 1682, Clock Tower is a simple square whitewashed building on the main plaza. If you take a closer look, you might find that there is something odd about the clock. We won't spoil you the surprise, go to the square and check out the clock by yourself - there is quite an interesting story behind the tower's construction too.

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The Clock Tower is located on the main square in Popayan.

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption | The main cathedral is majestic and together with the Clock Tower, it's a must-see thing in Popayan. The white facade is quite peaceful and has been rebuilt after the strong earthquake in 1983 as it was badly damaged.

Semana Santa | Religion still plays an important part in everyday life of people living in Colombia, and Popayan hosts a traditional event around Easter called Semana Santa when thousands of people flood the streets every year to celebrate the Holy Week. The tradition has been held since the 16th century till today, and it's part of the UNESCO heritage list. Unfortunately, we visited the city in September and didn't get a chance to see these world-renown celebrations, but it must be quite a sight. We experienced Easter celebrations the next year in Antigua, Guatemala and it was one of the highlights of our trip around Central America.

Parque Natural de Purace | If you ever get tired of the bustling city, visiting the park might be an interesting idea where to go next. High in the Andes mountains, you can see a variety of flora, fauna, spot condors, or climb an active volcano at 4700 meters above sea level. It is not possible to climb the volcano on own, so you need to hire a local guide at the entrance or visit it with an organized tour from Popayan.

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Popayan is famous for its traditional Easter celebrations.

Safety

In general, Popayan is a safe city, use your common sense, and you should be fine. We didn't have any problems when walking around the city center, from the bus terminal, or to our hotel.

We stayed about 5 minutes walk from the main square in a nice clean hotel, and the only inconvenience we have encountered was when a strayed dog started harassing one of the locals.

However, you are still in Colombia, and there are areas around the city where you shouldn't go. Luckily they are mostly on the city outskirts away from the tourist attractions.

We've written a detailed post on How to Stay Safe When Traveling in South America, so check it out and stay safe!

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Popayan is nicknamed a White City for a reason.

How to Get to Popayan

The closest cities from Popayan are Cali and Pasto, and they are both easily reachable by bus. You can also find a small airport in Popayan, but there are only a few flights a day and tickets are expensive.

We arrived in Popayan from San Agustin UNESCO archeological park only 135 kilometers away. Despite the small distance between those two cities, it took us around 6 hours to get there, as the road is unsealed and it is winding through the Purace National Park. This route is quite spectacular but time-consuming, and if you are prone to motion sickness, we advise you to take a pill. The stretch between San Agustin and Popayan was also the only place in Colombia where we were searched by police as this region is infamously known for drug trafficking.

From Popayan, you can head south to the borders with Ecuador. That’s exactly what we did.

We left the city at 11 AM and traveled for about 8 hours to Ipiales, a small and dirty border town near Ecuador. There we stayed overnight and crossed the borders from Colombia to Ecuador.

You can visit Popayan and the next day cross borders to Ecuador.

When to Visit Popayan

The city lies at an altitude about 1700 meters above sea level, and the average temperature is between 18-19 degrees of Celsius throughout the year, so you can put Popayan on your itinerary anytime you decide on visiting Colombia.


Where to Stay in Popayan

Popayan has a pretty historical center, and it would be a shame not to stay nearby, especially if you have only one night planned in the city as we had. We were able to find a hotel last-minute, but make sure you book your room well ahead when traveling to Popayan during Easter.

We've handpicked three best hotels for every type of traveler.

Budget | Araracuara Hostel - A friendly and colorful hostel is a great option for all travelers on a budget looking for a clean and modern place to stay.

Mid-range | Hotel La Plazuela - The great thing about Popayan is that rates of hotel rooms are pretty cheap, so you can enjoy for example this hotel located in a colonial mansion for a very reasonable price.

Luxury | Hotel Dann Monasterio - Right in the heart of Popayan is the best hotel you can possibly find in Popayan. It is situated in the old convent, rooms are well-appointed, and guests can enjoy views of the courtyard and outdoor swimming pool.

Alternatively, search for your accommodation via Hostelworld.


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