Popayán, one of the Colombian destinations we never quite made it to , but it gives us an excuse to go back! Luckily for us, Katie from What’s Katie Doing has been and was happy to share her experience of this south-western Colombian city. Here are the details on where to stay and things to do in Popayán, Colombia. Hey foodies! I should point out that Popayán is one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities of Gastronomy. So let’s dig in…
Where is Popayán?
Popayán is over a day’s drive north of the border with Ecuador, which makes it a convenient stop when you are travelling between the border and Colombia’s Cali or Medellin. It is located between two mountain ranges, so the city is pretty much circled by mountains. I first stopped at Pastor before travelling on to Popayán on my way to Medellin.
Popayán is known as La Ciudad Blanca as it is a beautifully preserved colonial town, full of grand white buildings. The bus station is walking distance from town; I managed the walk to my hostel in the centre quite easily with a full backpack.
Popayán’s People and Culture
Popayán is a university city and the students give this town a vibrant feel. However it’s not as full on a party town like Cali, and doesn’t have an established ‘gringo’ centre like Medellin. The fact that the city hosts students means that it suits a backpacker budget with plenty of places to get cheap food and snacks. There are also lots of museums and churches to visit.
Another South American city with stunning churches
Things to do in Popayán, Colombia
Walk Around the Colonial Centre
Check out the Cathedral on the Parque Caldas and the main landmark of Popayán, Puente del Humilladero, which connects the centre to the northern suburbs. It is right next to the Puente de la Custodia, a pretty stone bridge built to allow priests to cross the Río Molino to bring the holy orders to the sick.
- Iglesia de San Francisco is the largest colonial church and very beautiful. It is possible to get a guided tour from 2,000 COP / 68 cents / 56p cnr Carrera 9 & Calle 4
Turning every corner you will spot another church.
Visit the Museums
Museo Guillermo Valencia, a well preserved late 18th century building full of period paintings, furniture and old photos that used to belong to its poet owner.
- Carrera 6 No 2-69
Casa Museo Mosquera – the museum is set in an 18th century mansion, which was home to General Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera (who was president of Colombia four times from 1845-1867). Apparently the urn in the wall contains his heart!
- Calle 3 No 5-38
Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso – a collection of religious art, including paintings, statues, silverware and altar pieces from 17th-19th century.
- Calle 4 No 4-56
Museo de Historica Natural – the natural history museum situated on the university grounds. It has an extensive collection of stuffed birds, insects, and butterflies.
- Carrera 2 No 1A-25
Spot Street Art
The large population of young people has introduced a vibrant art scene, which is easy to spot out with the preserved colonial centre. Don’t miss Bogotá graffiti scene; it’s the best in Colombia.
Talent on the walls
See the City
Like many of Colombia’s tourist attractions, you merely need to use your two feet to explore them. Walk up to the Popayán viewpoint over the city. A statue of the city’s founder, Sebastian de Belalcazar, seated on a horse overlooks the town. It is actually situated on top of an ancient pyramid El Morro de Tulcan. Locals also use this green space. On a clear day you can see across the Old Town, all the way through to the mountains that circle the city.
Things to do in Popayán – hike!
Get Out of Popayán
Why not take a trip to San Agustín which is famous for the UNESCO pre Colombian archaeological site. I’d recommend a couple of days in San Agustín, seeing the main sites in the town via horseback!
Restaurants in Popayán
There is a wide selection of typical Colombian eateries. As the town caters to the student population, there are cheap cafes which sell arepas – Colombian corn bread filled with meat, vegetables and cheese.
Alternatively, you can go more up market by grabbing an amazing set lunch – almuerzo (lunch) with steak which costs 10,000 COP. Try the plateful local dish, Bandeja Paisa which is rice, beans, fried egg, steaks, pork fat crisped up, avocado and plantain – we had to go for a walk to burn it off!
As Popayan is a UNESCO city of gastronomy there are plenty of seriously good restaurants, however these were out of a backpacker budget. There are also several vegetarian restaurants should you want to try them out.
Accommodation in Popayán
I chose to stay at the Park Life hostel and was pleasantly surprised to find it right in the main square, Parque Caldas, sharing a wall with the Cathedral. This converted colonial house is beautifully preserved. It’s something special to have breakfast accompanied by hymns from the Cathedral! They have both shared dorms for £6 / $7.31 a night and some very cute private rooms starting from £16 / $19.49 a night. Dorm beds in hostels in Popayán are naturally cheaper than hotels however hotels in Popayán are not ridiculously priced starting at £9.85/ $12 for a private room in a 6.9 rated hotel. Prices vary up to £123.12 / $150.
Buses in Colombia are fairly easy to use and the bus station in Popayán is easy to get to from the centre of town on foot. Cheap local buses to Popayán are accessible but they are slow and stop at each town until full. The larger bus companies provide overnight buses which are more expensive but faster.
Popayán does have an airport, and flights can cut down on time on buses. The local airlines are like easyJet in Europe; you can book online and they take credit cards.
How Much Things Cost in Popayán
- Hostels are from £6 a night for a bed in a shared dorm, £16 for a private room
- Museum entry and/or guided tours start from 2,000 COP to 5,000 COP
- Bus ride to Medellin is from £20 (12 hour ride, the direct overnight recommended)
- Food – a decent set lunch or almuerzo is c10,000 COP (around £2.50), snacks will be cheaper
I saved money by cooking at the hostel – there is a supermarket around the corner from Park Life hostel, so eggs for breakfast and plenty of fresh baguettes with cheese and avocado for lunch! I even splashed out and made pasta one night, with some wine, it’s the small luxuries!
Like Barranquilla, Popayán may not be the hottest city on every Colombia itinerary list but it is a pleasant stop over to break up the journey with cheap options, which won’t break el banco!
Popping to Popayan?
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Katie is based in London, UK and has been travelling since she was a child with family and then independently from her late teens. She currently has 56 countries under her belt, with a lot of help from a year off that in 2013/2014, which included 5 months in South America. Outside of travel she adores trying new foods and is passionate about gin.
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