Popayán is the capital of the Colombian department of Cauca, located in Southwestern Colombia, and it is one of Colombia's most underrated cities.
Popayán is known as Ciudad de Blanca (The White City) because of the abundance of beautiful white colonial buildings lining the cobbled streets across the city. It is home to beautifully unique churches, friendly locals, quirky bars and interesting markets. Popayán is also a reputable student town, where most attend the University of Cauca, so it has an energetic feel to it and it is insanely cheap.
Whilst the town is small and things to do can be limited, what most people don't realise is that Popayán is surrounded by the Puracé National Natural Park which offers mind blowing scenery, interesting wildlife and beautiful hiking opportunities. If Popayán isn't on your Colombian itinerary, it should be.
There is only one bus station in Popayán and it is about a 10-15 minute taxi ride out of town, although you could walk if you were feeling up to it.
A taxi to the centre of Popayán should cost you no more than COP $5,000 (€1.40 | $1.60 USD) and the drivers are really friendly. You can pick one up easily outside of the bus station, on the street, or you could ask your hostel to book one for you
The best bus companies to go with (depending on where you are going / coming from) are: Bolivariano, Coomotor and Fronteras.
These buses service many different places across Colombia, such as:
There is also an airport in Popayán which is close to the bus terminal and about a a 25 minute walk from the centre of Popayán. You can catch internal flights to Popayán's Guillermo Leon Valencia airport from many of the Colombia's cities but there is no direct flights from either Jose Maria Cordova Medellin International airport or Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellin. So if you are travelling from Medellin, you will have to connect at Bogota (El Dorado Airport). Alternatively, you can catch a bus with Bolivariano which will take around 11 hours.
Popayán's town centre is small enough to be explored on foot, however there are plenty of taxis driving around if you wanted to go further afield to adventure across the mountains or enjoy the hot springs - details below.
Free walking tour with Get up and Go:
Get up and Go is a non profit organisation that promotes tourism in the department of Cauca and particularly in areas that have been affected by previous armed conflict. Through an array of culturally immersive activities, their mission is to build peace in Colombia.
The free walking tour is a really lovely way to see and understand Popayán and because it is run by local students, the knowledge and insight you receive is second to none.
You will get to see the Popayán in all its glory, wonder the cobbled streets, check out the old colonial university buildings, venture over romantic bridges and finish the tour trying some of Popayán's most popular dishes.
- The tour leaves every day from the Tourism Office in the main square, Parque Caldas at 10am.
- Cost: Free but donations welcome at the end.
Visit the Museums:
The Museo Guillermo Valencia is a beautiful and well preserved building from the 18th century, jam packed with paintings, artwork and authentic furniture (Carrera 6, No 2-69).
Don’t forget to check out Museo de Historica Natural as well, a weird and wonderful museum with an extensive collection of stuffed birds, insects and butterflies (Carrera 2, No 1A-25).
- Cost: COP $5,000 (€1.40 | $1.60 USD) entry donation.
Climb up El Morro de Tulcan:
The El Morro de Tulcan is an easy thirty minute climb accessed from the edge of Popayán. This small hill offers beautiful views over the white washed buildings and cathedrals of Popayán. On a clear day you can see all the way through to the mountains of Puracé National Park that encircle the Popayán.
- Head there for 5pm and find yourself a spot to watch the sunset.
- Cost: Free.
Check out the Puente Del Humilladero:
This iconic arched bridge was built in Popayán in 1873 with a mix of cement which included ox blood! The legend goes that people believe that my including the blood of a strong ox, the bridge would stand strong for years to come. The bridge was built to help locals carry their heavy loads from the poorer neighborhoods to the main square. Whilst you are gazing at this iconic structure, don't miss the La Arcada De La Herreria gardens next to it. It is a nice place to stroll around and kick back for a while.
Holy Week Processions:
Popayán is most famous for its holy week processions during Semana Santa. These religious processions have been helped in Popayán since the 16th century! Locals carry wooden carvings depicting the story of Christ and the crucifixion along the streets of Popayán for two kilometers, while faithful crowds flock to watch and support.
On Tuesday through to Saturday of Easter week, everyone lines the streets of Popayán in the evenings with candles as the procession passes by. If you want to see this incredible spectacle, make sure you book your accommodation early!
For hikers and adventurers, the Puracé National Park in the department of Cauca is paradise on earth and one of Colombia's best kept secrets. This unique national park is dominated by the Paramo, one of the world's most important ecosystems and offers a beautiful mix of fauna, flora and culture. It is also home to the largest flying bird on the planet, the Condor and 13 separate volcanoes. The Puracé National Park is a 3 hour drive from the centre of Popayán. You can visit the national park on your own and meander around the hidden waterfalls and trickling streams, using the day how you like.
But if you are looking for something a little more upbeat, I suggest climbing Volcan Puracé. You can climb this impressive volcano on your own, but I highly recommend going with a local tour guide due to the high altitude and difficult terrain. Volcan Puracé sits at over 4,650m above sea level and it is one of the most active volcanoes in the area. Climbing it isn’t technical and you can easily reach the summit in 5 hours, but because of the weather and altitude towards the top of Volcan Puracé, the last 1.5 hours are tough. Is it worth it? HELL YES.
Getting to the Puracé National Park and climbing Volcan Puracé:
To get to the Puracé National Park where you will meet your local tour guide, we recommend that you take the 4.30am bus from Popayán's bus station. I would advise booking a taxi to take you there at that time in the morning because it will be dark and some of the streets can be dangerous at that time. You can organise and pre-book a taxi through your accommodation.
** You can get a later bus if you are hiking on your own. Buses are not that regular early in the morning but there are departures with Sotracauca at 5am and 10.30am and with Translaplatena at 6.30am and 9.30am. I recommend going as early as possible. Tell the driver to drop you off at Termales de San Juan.
If you take the 4.30am bus, you will sit on the bus from 4.30am - 7.30am so you have a chance to catch up on your sleep before you meet your tour guide.
Once you meet your local tour guide and anyone else who may be joining your group, you will start climbing. The route is pretty straight forward and there are some signs along the way, however parts of the climb are really tough so you will need some level of fitness and with the altitude, the last bit needs to be done very slowly.
The whole experience of climbing Volcan Puracé is incredible. Every corner you take unveils a completely different and unique landscape, from green pastures and trickling streams, to expansive deserted open plains, cloud forests and snow capped mountains.
Whilst visibility can be hit and miss at the crater, it is still worth it, knowing that you have reached the top. The climb down is exactly the way you came but a little shorter, if you are doing a guided tour, as you can catch a bus without going all the way back down to your starting point. You will stop somewhere on the way back for a nice hearty local lunch before heading back to Popayán where you will be dropped off at your hostel.
- Cost: In total I spent COP $100,000 (€29 | $30 USD). This was for everything - our local guide, food, buses and the Puracé National Park entrance fee.
- I booked through ArteHostel (discussed below).
Go Travel and Talk Top Tips for climbing Volcan Puracé:
- Take lots of layers with you (hats, scarf, gloves, socks, leg warmers and waterproofs) as it is freezing at the top and often rains and sometimes snows.
- I also advise taking lots of sugary snacks, you’ll need them for the climb and lots of water!
- To combat the altitude, chew on coca leaves or if you have a flask, mix some lemongrass tea with cocoa leaves. It’s so warming and a nice addition when doing the climb.
About 25km from Popayán you can visit the Aguas Hirviendo thermal springs. The thermal springs are located just outside of Coconuco, a village surrounded by cascading waterfalls and lush green valleys. You can catch a bus to Coconuco and then take a moto taxi the rest of the way.
Whilst the pools and location are worth a visit if you have the time, I would say head further up the valley to Aguas Tibias for a more rustic feel but don't expect sparkling clean water. Run by a local indigenous family, the pools are warm rather than hot (unlike the Aguas Hirviendo hot springs) and come with a waterslide and mud bath!
Please don't expect anything too luxurious but the thermal pools do offer a nice respite if you have hiking Volcan Puracé the day before.
Cost: COP $60,000 (€17 | $20 USD).
You can book this through Popayán Tours.
I stayed at ArteHostel as it was recommended to me.
Located close to Caldas park and El Morro del Tulcan, the location is quiet and peaceful. Reception is manned 24 hours, it has Wi-Fi and a good kitchen / chill out area with an outdoor courtyard. You can also book a number of tours through them and the staff are so kind and very helpful.
When I was there, the hostel was fairly quite, so if you are looking for something a little busier, check out other options on Hostel World or Booking.com.
Cost: For a six bed mixed dormitory: COP $25,000 (€7 | $8 USD).
As the town caters for the student population, there are many cheap cafes and small eateries.
- Arepas all the way! (bread filled with the option of meat, vegetables and cheese); you will find these being sold on every corner from little street vendors.
- Grab yourself an almuerzo (which is Spanish for lunch special) from COP $4,000 (€1 | $1) consisting of beef, rice and beans at the many cafes around the town. I don't eat meat, so instead I opted for the vegetarian option which cost me €0.50!! If you are really hungry, order a bandeja paisa - rice, beans, fried egg, steak, pork rind, avocado and plantain!! It is a huge dish, but one you should try at least once while in Colombia.
- Find authentic local meals at the Mercado Bolívar, where you can pull up a plastic chair and try lots of different plates all at once. The tamales are incredible!
Vegetarian / Vegan:
- Pretty much every food place in town will have vegetarian options, less so for vegans. Check out Pita which is an inspired mix of Lebanese, Mediterranean and Arabic - delicious falafel, hummus and homemade pita with a variety of toppings.
- Also, check out Mora Castilla - make sure you try their juices!