Cartagena is a port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Located right by the sea is the old walled town founded in the 16th century
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.
Where is Popayan and how did we get there?
Where did we stay in Popayan
What did we do around Popayan
Free walking tour of the city
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
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.
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.
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
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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