10 Things to See and Do in Popayán, Colombia

Popayan | © Chris Bell / Culture Trip
Chris Bell

The beautiful city of Popayán is one of Colombia’s most underrated and prettiest cities, located in the southern department of Cauca. It doesn’t see as many tourists as other Colombian cities, but this is changing as people wake up to Popayán’s wonderful combination of delightful colonial architecture, excellent gastronomy, and diverse day-trip options. So here are 10 great things to see and do in Popayán.

San Francisco Church

Popayán’s largest colonial church is also the most beautiful in the city and sits in front of a lovely little square in the heart of the old city. After an earthquake in 1983, the church’s ossuary was cracked open, revealing six mummified bodies! There are only two left and access is restricted, but you can ask at the entrance if any tours are happening that day.

Popayan’s most beautiful church

Purace National Park

The largest National Park in the region is an easy day-trip from Popayán, and the snow-capped volcano which gives the park its name can even sometimes be seen from the city itself on a very clear morning. Hardcore hikers can climb Purace Volcano, while those who simply fancy a hike can take a bus into the park and hike through it on the unpaved road, enjoying stunning views of hot springs, waterfalls, misty moorland, and even Andean Condors.

Puracé, Popayan

El Morro de Tulcán

This large hill overlooking the city is supposedly the remains of an ancient pre-Columbian pyramid structure, and today is home to the large statue of the founder of the city. It’s a short, breathless climb to the top, but the stunning panoramas and unrivalled sunset views make it a must-visit spot in downtown Popayán.

Puente del Humilladero

This 240m (787ft)-long brick bridge marks the former entrance to Popayán and was constructed in the middle of the 19th-century. It is today one of the city’s most important and iconic landmarks and lies a short walk from the main square at the heart of the old city. Alongside the large bridge is a smaller one – Puente de la Custodia – which was constructed back in 1713.

The bridge in Popayan

Market day in Silvia

About an hour from Popayán is the pretty little mountain town of Silvia, famous for its weekly Indigenous market. Every Tuesday, the local Guambiano Indigenous people arrive in the little town from surrounding mountain villages and reservations in order to buy and sell goods. Once you’re done browsing the market stalls you can take a jeep into the surrounding mountains to visit local villages, or enjoy a fresh trout lunch at one of the many farms surrounding Silvia.

Market day in Silvia

La Ermita Church

The oldest church in the city, dating back to 1546, La Ermita is a simple little church located between El Morro and the city center. It might not look like the most beautiful church in the city, but La Ermita offers lovely views over the red-tiled roofs of Popayán and is home to some delightful old religious frescoes and wood carvings.

La Fresa

This tiny little corner store a few blocks from the main square styles itself as a ‘soda fountain’ and is one of the oldest and most well-known eateries in the entire city (no small thing, considering that Popayán is a UNESCO-recognised city of gastronomy). It might not look like much at first glance, but La Fresa’s empanaditas de pipian – small potato-filled empanadas – with spicy peanut sauce are about the tastiest thing you’ll eat in the city (perhaps in Colombia!). Order five and prepare to order five more straight away!

The best empanadas in Colombia at La Fresa

Easter in Popayán

Popayán’s Easter celebrations are the stuff of legend throughout Colombia, and if you happen to be travelling in the country over the Easter period then you could do a lot worse than making sure you’re in the White City during Easter. The nighttime processions on Good Friday and Maundy Thursday are especially beautiful and dramatic, and there’s also an excellent festival of religious music to enjoy, so make sure to book your room a few months in advance!

The Natural History Museum

Billed as the best Natural History Museum in Colombia – although there admittedly isn’t much competition – the Popayán Natural History Museum has an especially notable collection of stuffed birds, collected from throughout the country. It’s located on the grounds of the city’s most important university and is definitely worth a few hours of your time.

Stuffed toucan at the Museum of Natural History

Coconuco Thermal Baths

The thermal springs of Coconuco are one of the best of their kind in Colombia and are easily visited on a day-trip from Popayán. With two different pools – Agua Hirviendo and Agua Tibia – ranging from almost boiling hot to lukewarm, the pools may not be the prettiest there are, but their natural waters are really rejuvenating, and a great trip if you’ve been hiking in Purace the day before.

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