Known as the "Ciudad Blanca," or the White City, for its impeccable white facades, Popayán, the capital city of the Cauca state, is considered one of the most beautiful and treasured colonial cities in Colombia, only after Cartagena.
Popayán was founded in the Andean cordillera (halfway between Bogotá and Quito), right at the foot of Volcán Puracé, in 1537 by Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spanish adventurer seeking the legend of "El Dorado."
The city was greatly damaged after the devastating earthquake of March 31, 1983, that left only one of the many churches standing. It took the city almost 20 years to fully recover from the disaster, restoring the town to its colonial look in the cathedral, monasteries, museums, colonial houses and streets.
The city is famous for its Semana Santa or Holy Week celebrations, which are the second largest in the world, after Seville, Spain. Every night during Semana Santa, the processions take place on the streets, where tens of thousands of people line the sidewalks to watch as the "pasos," or floats, pass by with religious motifs.
The pasos can weight up to 500 kilograms, and are carried by the traditional "cargueros," who put them on their shoulders and walk for 22 blocks, which cover all the temples in downtown Popayán.
Popayán has an average climate of 19 C (66 F), which makes it a perfect destination all-year around. The city offers many architectural gems, mostly churches, as well as landmarks, parks and museums. Here are the top 10 places to visit in Popayán:
- Iglesia de San Francisco. Rebuilt in 1775, after Popayán's first major earthquake in 1736, it has a gorgeous Spanish colonial architecture and is considered the richest and most beautiful church in the city. Inside is a fine high altar and a collection of seven unique side altars, as well as remarkable artworks and paintings from the famous escuela quiteña. Open daily.
- La Ermita is the city's oldest standing church, dating from 1546. This hermitage was restored between 1860 and 1870. It offers a beautiful altar which bears the image of an ancient Austrian two-headed eagle, and frescos that were discovered after the earthquake of 1983. The church is only open for mass.
- Belén is a church located on top of a small hill called Belén, overlooking Popayán. To arrive at this church, you have to walk over a road of stone steps. The stairway up the hill only takes 5-10 minutes and you can enjoy watching statues along the way. Next to the church is a big cross on the ground on the right side. The original church was completely replaced by a new structure after the earthquake of 1983.
- Downtonwn. Stroll through the pebble-stoned streets to enjoy a closer look at the two-story colonial houses with balconies on the second floor. Don't miss the Parque de Caldas, the city's central square, named after one of Popayán's most famous citizens: Francisco Jose de Caldas (1768-1816), and the Gobernación building, home of the governor and an architectural landmark.
- Puente del Humilladero, a long walking bridge built over brick arches above the Molino river. It was constructed in old Roman style, designed and built by an Italian priest and a German engineer whose mummified remains are on view in the Museo de Arte Religioso.
- Torre del Reloj, or the "Clock Tower," located on one side of the square, is a city landmark. The clock was designed by Caldas himself and was constructed in Croydon, England, before being shipped to Popayán.
- Cathedral. Only a a few feet away from the Torre del Reloj, the city's cathedral was badly damaged during the 1983 earthquake.
- Universidad del Cauca, founded in 1827, the University is one of the oldest in the country. It has a colonial architecture and is well known in Colombia for its Law School, Medical School, and its Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering programs.
- Museo de Arte Religioso, or Popayán’s Museum of Religious Art, is situated in an 18th century colonial building just two blocks away from the city's central square. It houses an outstanding collection of more than 500 religious artworks that date from the 16th to the 20th century, including paintings, furniture, jewelry, ornaments, silverware and more.
- Museo de Historia Natural or Museum of Natural History has an exhibit of more than 3,300 animal and fossil specimens, one of the largest collections in Western Colombia. Most of the specimens are native to the department of Cauca or Colombia's Pacific coastal region and many of them are in danger of extinction. This is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about Colombia's natural diversity.
Close to the city there are many attractions such as Parque Nacional Puracé, east of Popayán, and one of Colombia's most charming National Parks. The park includes the Puracé volcano, lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs; Silvia, a small town located Northeast of Popayán, is the home of the Guambianos, one of the most traditional indigenous communities in Colombia.
They hold a weekly market on Tuesdays, where they wear traditional clothing and sell hand-crafts, as well as fruit and vegetables; and San Agustín, an archaeological site that has monumental statues of varying sizes, which are the remains of an early civilization that is believed to have been conquered by the Incas.