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Popayán, Colombia


Popayán, one of the most beautiful and treasured colonial cities of Colombia, is the capital of Cauca Department founded at the foot of Volcán Puracé, in 1537 by Sebastián Belalcázar, a Spanish adventurer seeking the famed El Dorado.

Situated in the Andean cordillera halfway between Bogota and Quito, (see interactive map from Expedia, it soon drew settlers who established sugar plantations in the Cauca river valley. The mild climate attracted others and the town became an important religious center with many churches, monasteries and seminaries, as well as a prosperous trade center. Much of the activity of the area is recorded in the Popayán Papers, correspondence between the inter-related members of the local aristocracy, plus patriotic writings from Colombia's struggle for independence.

As the economic importance of the town waned, Popayán lost business, but retained its importance in religious and cultural spheres. The University of Cauca was founded in 1827, following the requirements established by Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, on the site of an indigenous village.

The colonial architecture remained intact until the devastating earthquake of 1983 left only one of the many churches standing. A massive reconstruction effort followed, restoring the town to its colonial look in the monasteries, cathedral, colonial houses, streets and museums. Popayán is a Colombian historical site listed on the national registry, and an attractive destination, particularly during the famed Semana Santa, Holy Week, celebrations. See these Popayan Area photos.

Getting There

By Air:

Daily domestic flights from Bogotá.

By Land:

Bus service from Cali, Bogotá and other cities. These are mountainous roads and service may be halted by troops, protest groups or the FARC.

When to Go Popayán's mild average climate of 19 C, or 66 F, makes the city an all-season destination. Check today's weather. Make sure you have reservations for Semana Santa.

Things to Do and See

  • The churches of Popayán:
    • Iglesia de San Francisco, noted for its fine side altars
    • Iglesia de Santo Domingo
    • Iglesia and convent de San Augustín
    • Iglesia La Ermita is the oldest church, dating from 1546, and has a fine altar and frescoes which were discovered following the earthquake
    • the Cathedral was almost completely destroyed and rebuilt
    • Carmen, Encarnacion and San José churches
    • Capilla de Bélen which offers a panoramic view of the city
  • Museums:
    • Casa Museo Mosquera for the collection of colonial art
    • Museo de Arte Religioso, located in the Franciscan monastery, for the collection of religious art
    • Casa Museo Negret displays contemporary art
    • The colonnaded Museo Guillermo Valencia is dedicated to the poet
    • Museo de Historia Natural displays insects, butterflies and birds, plus a collection of pre-Columbian pottery
  • Stroll through the streets for an up close look at the two storied colonial houses with balconies on the second floor.
  • University of Cauca
  • Morro de Tulcan with the statue of Don Sebastián de Belalcázar, by sculptor Victorio Macho
  • Humilladero Bridge, built over brick arches. Designed and built by an Italian priest and a German engineer whose mummified remains are on view in the Museo de Arte Religioso
  • Torre del Reloj, the Cathedral, and snow covered Puracé volcano. Out of Popayán:
  • Travel northeast to Silvia, where the indigenous community of Guambianos, one of the most traditional in Colombia, holds a weekly market on Tuesday. The Indians wear traditional clothing and sell handicrafts as well as fruit and vegetables.
  • San Augustín archaeological site with its monumental statues of varying sizes, of both anthropomorphic and zoomorphic design. They are remnants of an early civilization perhaps conquered by the Incas. The statues mark ceremonial grave sites where gold and pottery are found next to the dead. So far, hundreds of statues have been found.
  • Parque Nacional Puracé, east of Popayán, is one of Colombia's prettiest National Parks. The landscape includes the volcano, of course, and lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs. The Termales de San Juan are sulphuric but the ones at Pilimbalá offers thermal pools. The ascent of Puracé (4780 m or 15678 ft) is made from here. It takes about four hours, best done early in the day when the weather is clear.

    Shopping and Other Tips

  • Coffee, of course.
  • Textiles and baskets
  • Hammocks from San Jacinto
  • Pottery and ceramics
  • Leather items: belts, luggage, etc.
  • Gold, semi-precious stones and emeralds

    Colombia is still an uncertain tourist destination. Depending where you go, and what you do while you're there, your safety may be at risk. Travel with caution and please post a trip report on the forum.

    Buen viaje!

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