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Discovering Popayan | What to do in the white city

We arrived into popayan the weekend of the Colombian presidential elections.  The streets were unnaturally quiet with the anticipation that something monumental may happen.  The excitement started to build on Sunday as the polling stations started to fill.  There was a tense excitement as the day went on, then news started to filter through, that for the first time ever, the peoples choice and left wing candidate Gustavo Petro had won by a narrow margin. With his running mate and first ever black vice president Franca Marquez.

We could hear car horns and fireworks as the town erupted into what can only be described as a carnival atmosphere.  An endless stream of cars passed by our hostel with flags, horns and vuvuzelas sounding.  The three ladies who worked in the cafe of the hostel were dancing on the doorstep cheering as they passed.

Popayan has been affected badly by the pandemic, the lack of European tourists coming to the town had caused almost all of the infrastructure for tourism to shut down.  Tour operators closed, hostels shut their doors and restaurants without customers also had to closed.  The owner of our hostel lost everything and has had to start building up his tour agency and hostel from scratch.  On top of all that the main draw to the town, trekking up the volcano in Purace national Park, has been disrupted by mother nature as  the volcano starts to rumble and is currently shut to the public. 

So what did we do in Popayan is a very good question.  When confronted by a beautiful white city with absolutely no infrastructure for tourism what do you do.  Well below we will try and give you a taste of the city and hope for the sake of the people who make there livelihood from us tourists, we can inspire you to take the plunge and give Popayan a few days of your time.

Popayan, the white city

Where is Popayan and how did we get there?

After spending a few days in Salento we decided to head further south, getting ever closer to the Ecuadorian border.  The city of Popayan had been recommended to us by a couple of people as a good place to visit so we investigated our options on getting from Salento to Popayan.  The easiest route was by bus and we took a local bus from Salento to Armenia which we got at the bus terminal in Salento.  The buses to Armenia ran every 30 mins and cost 5500 COP per person with the journey taking about an hour.  
Once we landed in Armenia we headed for the Tax Belalcazar ticket booth in the bus station where we bought our next ticket for the Armenia to Popayan leg via Cali.  This ticket cost us 65000 COP each and we were lucky enough to be just in time for the 10.00am bus.  The bus was a small minivan type vehicle but it was comfortable enough and the whole journey was estimated to take around 6 hrs.  It actually took a little longer closer to 7 and a half but it was a comfortable journey with some lovely scenery of the volcanic region on the way.  
When we arrived in Popayan the traffic was horrendous and we probably sat for an hour on the bus no more then a few mins from the bus terminal.  The driver finally had enough of sitting in the traffic and got us as close as he could.  He let us off in an adjacent street and we walked the last few mins into the bus terminal.  We quickly found a taxi to take us to the hostel which was only a 15 min drive away.  A long day’s travel but got us where we needed to be with minimal hassle.
El Morro del Tulcan Popayan
El Morro del Tulcan Popayan

Where did we stay in Popayan

We stayed at El Caracol Hostel & Cafe which is right on the edge of the Centro area (The white bit).  This was Tony our host and his partner Kim’s new venture.  As we said above it’s been pretty hard for the tourism industry in Popayan and a hostel alone would not be able to withstand the pressure so the very popular vegetarian cafe helps to keep things ticking over while things pick up.  I recommend you take a look as its a lovely place to spend some time.

What did we do around Popayan

With it being the election weekend, with the state of the tourist infrastructure and the volcano being closed to the public, which was our main reason to visit the city, things to do were pretty difficult to find.  Luckily our host was minefield of useful information which saved us a lot of time and money as we nearly set off to the volcano on our own. Here’s what we managed to find to do.

Free walking tour of the city

There is an organisation in Popayan called Get up and Go Colombia and they are a youth led group who are working together to build a better Colombia.  In Popayan they organise tours and work with the local communities affected by armed conflict.  The walking tour we joined started at the Cathedral and lead us through the streets of Popayan.  Our guide told the story of gold and a lost crown which had been stolen many years ago and now resides in the MOMA in NYC.  The tour then took us up through the Parque Caldas to lots of interesting buildings with fantastic stories relating to the history of Popayan.  
One of the most interesting and pretty horrible stories is that when the town was first built they used a type of building material which was an excellent breeding ground for a specific type of bug.  This bug caused a horrible disease on the peoples feet and was a terrible plight.  Fortunately they found that if they painted the buildings with lime that killed the bugs and the people were no longer being infected hence the city becoming white and gaining its second name and reputation of being The White City. 
Puente del humilladero

Climb the El Morro de Tulcan 

Popayan has its very own pyramid right next to the historical centre of the city.   This spectacular mound was a burial site constructed by an indigenous pre-Columbian culture and is a national landmark today.   Currently the site is in a poor state as indigenous protesters recently brought down the statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar.  Its still worth the short climb if only for the view and on clear days its said you can get a spectacular sunset view. 

At the base of the pyramid you’ll find the Pueblito Patojo. This is a small model of the town of Popayan.  The story of how this miniature village came about is that the townspeople used to go to this site to use a public swimming pool.  A few local people died mainly from not knowing how to swim and the people of the town felt the area was cursed so they stopped going there.  An idea was born to create a small Popayan to entice the people back to the area.  The pool is now empty and has been transformed into an outdoor performance space.

Puente del humilladero

Built in 1873 and designed by an Italian friar and a German engineer.  The bridge is called the Bridge of humiliation.  I believe the name has something to do with slavery and the smaller bridge next to it, although I’m not quite sure of the story.  The mummified remains of the designers can be found in the museum of religious art in the city.
One of many churches

The Churches of Popayan

Needless to say Popayan is a very religious city.  When the Spanish came they brought Catholicism and it seemed to be, in Popayan at least, the more churches there were the better.   From the main Cathedral alone, if you look right and left you can see 5 of the 11 churches in Popayan.   You will probably see some of these on the walking tour but we took some time to visit most of the churches in the Centro Historico area on our own so we could have a good peek inside.  The main cathedral The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption was badly damaged in the last major earthquake and the dome completely collapsed killing around 100 people inside the church that had fled there for safety.   It’s since been rebuilt and you can see this from Parque Caldas. 

Try the local delicacies

We were keen and always are to try the local foods of whichever region we’re in.  For Popayan they have a particular empanada dish called Empanaditas de Pipian which are small empanadas filled with a peanut and yellow potato mixture and served with a peanut and chilli sauce.  We also tried the carantanta con hogao which is crispy fried sheets of maize, broken up and served with a tomato and onion relish.  Chris tried the Tamales de Pipian  which were filled with the peanut and yellow potato mixture but also pork.  

The drink we were encouraged to try was Salpicon Payanes which was an iced juice mixture of Lulo (a sharp tomato like fruit), blackberries and chunks of soursop all mixed together into a granita type drink.  Before you drink it you have to squeeze a segment of orange over it first.  It was a refreshing delight.  You can try all these delicacies at MoraCastilla.  The restaurant is on the second floor at the end of the street adjacent to the Ponte.

Local delicacies

Visit Silvia’s indigenous market

Silvia is a small market town high in the hills about an hour from Popayan.  Every Tuesday the local Misak people come into town to sell and buy their goods at the market.  Quite a few of them still wear their traditional and very distinctive costumes. The market itself is held in and around a fantastic old market hall, you can spend a good hour here wandering around taking in the atmosphere.  The Misak people themselves are very friendly and will chat if you engage with them.

To get to Silvia you get the bus form the transport terminal in Popayan the ticket costs 10000 COP each and the journey takes just over an hour depending on the traffic and road conditions at the time. To get back buy your ticket at the office at the opposite side of the plaza from where the bus dropped you off.  We recommend you go early, we got the 7 o’clock bus.  The market is at it’s best early in the morning and gets slow by noon.

Silva's Market

Our View

Popayan is a beautiful city to stroll around, it’s a busy and buzzing metropolis trying to get back on it’s feet after the pandemic.  It’s a wonderfull place to spend a few days, if your in the area or why not drop in on your way through.  Hopefully the volcano will of settled down again by the time you get here and you can make the breathless climb to the top which unfortunately we were unable to do.  This does of course give us a great reason to come back one day. 

Booking resources for your trip to Popayan


You can compare cheap flights on the Expedia platform or here on the Aviasales website.  Both will give you a good idea of how much its going to cost you to get to your chosen destination.


We have always tended to use having said that if your on a tight budget another good site to try as a comparison is Hostelworld, If your looking to compare different sites you can do that on Hotellook, we tend to look on here first to make sure we are getting the best deal.

Tours & Tickets

You can book your visits as you go at the entrance to your chosen attraction or site.  Or you could use the following links to book in advance or just to find out what your choices are in the area. GetYourGuide and Tiqets are our go to choices you could try Viator to see how they compare.

For a full list check out our resources page. Don’t forget always shop around to find the best deal for you. What works for us should be good for you but it’s always reassuring to check.

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