What to See and Do in Popayan

Colombia's cool colonial town
What to See and Do in Popayan

This beautifully preserved historical settlement is a great place to relax, and enjoy the city's colonial architecture. Average temperatures in Popayan - at between 15°C and 20°C - are cooler than in Colombia’s main colonial city, Cartagena. As such, sightseeing and moving around the city are both significantly more comfortable here than in the coastal city. Located about 140km south of Cali, this charming little spot makes an excellent stop off point if you're traveling overland to Ecuador.

What to see and do in Popayan

A good point from which to gain an overall impression of the city is from Three Cross Hill, located on the west of the city. From here you will gain a panoramic view of Popayan, the surrounding mountains and valleys. Another elevated section is Morro del Tulcan, a small pyramid structure constructed between 500 and 1600 AD and one of the main archaeological sites in Popayan. In the 20th century a monument to Sebastián de Belalcázar, the Spanish conquistador, was added to the hilltop.

The historical center of Popayan, also known as the ‘white city’ is one of the most scenic and well conserved in Latin America. Many of the features (and certainly the character) of the colonial era buildings have been retained since their construction approximately four centuries ago. The place has a charming atmosphere and one of the greatest pleasures of Popayan is just to wander around its narrow streets.

One of the greatest pleasures of Popayan is just to wander around its narrow streets

Aside from that, there are various museums in the town including Panteón de los Próceres, containing the ashes of prominent families from the colonial era and detailing the history of this time; Popayan’s modern art museum, located in the former house of Colombian sculptor Edgar Negret Dueñas; the former house and museum of the Mosquera Arboleda family, one of the most powerful families in 19th Century Colombia; and the old law courts, built in the 18th century.

Dotted around the white city are also a number of important religious buildings. These include:


  1. Church of San Francisco – this baroque-style structure is the largest in Popayan and dates back to the colonial period.

  2. La Ermita – built in 1546, this is Popayan’s oldest church.

  3. Church of Santo Domingo – famous for its impressive selection of wood sculpted artworks.

  4. Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Cathedral.

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The city is famous for its Easter processions, which have been carried out every year since the 16th century

Indeed, religion plays an important part in the life of Popayan and the city is famous for its Easter processions, which have been carried out every year since the 16th century. These feature wooden representations of the passion of the Christ, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, all made by local art schools. The sculptures are carried on a route of about 2km travelling through the town in the evenings of Holy Week, passing by all the main churches. Today, the event is accompanied with music and art shows, both of with a religious flavor, but the whole event retains a solemn air, and is attended by the faithful rather than carnival goers.

Nearby Popayan is the Purace national park, a 83,000 hectare reserve located in the midst of the Andean mountains. Its central feature is Purace, an active volcano which gives the park its name. The various trekking routes round the park pass by lakes, waterfalls and thermal springs.

Getting to, from and around Popayan

Two flights a day arrive from Bogota to Popayan. A twice-weekly service also runs to the Guapi municipality. Several bus companies (including Velotax, Sotracauca, Trans Tambo, Express Bolivarian Coomotoristas) operate regular services from the nearby city of Cali to the north of Popayan. It is more difficult to get directly from the city to other destinations in the east of the country as the roads are generally in poor condition in this area. If wanting to travel to such areas, you may be better to first travel to Cali before catching an onward connection.

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