Surprisingly sophisticated and well preserved Popayán has just about everything you could hope to find in a Spanish colonial city. The bright white buildings and the high architectural standard doesn't just extend for a few blocks around the central plaza, but covers the whole downtown area.
Within the city, there are some nice walks offering excellent views of Centro Historico, several worthwhile museums, galleries, churches, and many good cafés, bars and restaurants. As in many Latin American towns, the central square serves as the social center of the city where you can buy a cup of hot coffee or meet with a friend. It is usually full of street vendors and at night concerts or performances are taking place sometimes.
Popayán is a very enjoyable place just to stroll around without any particular plan. You can walk hours and hours, admiring the details of all those beautiful centuries-old buildings. Each turn of the corner brings another surprise or picturesque view.
The Iglesia de San Francisco is perhaps the most stunning church in a town full of such colonial gems and appropriately enough it is its oldest as well. Built in the late 1700s, the imposing structure is even more impressive inside, with seven separate and unique side altars. It is also different in its color scheme with a chartreuse hue.
Best light for exterior photography is morning though not too early as much of the structure is in shade.
There are six mummies on display, uncovered during a 1983 earthquake but you'll need to find someone to conduct the one hour tour as there is no booth set up for such purposes. The cost is 1000 COP (50 cents) once you happen upon your guide!
The newest church in town is the neoclassical Catedral Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción which was built in the late 1800s and not completed until 1906. The previous church in its place was reduced to rubble by an earthquake necessitating the reconstruction. The current structure looks a bit like a government building from outside but the interior is interesting in its simple beauty. The color scheme is very relaxing, blue with white trim and the main altar is quite captivating. It features Jesus rising above Earth against a gold backdrop. The stature as well as the planet are both white and though Jesus has his arms outstretched as if on a cross, there is no crucifix behind him. It was that rare modern touch that didn't seem overdone or incongruous. We found it very comforting.
Best light for photos is early morning.
The Tower of Reloj has an interesting history. Built in the late 1600s to help shore up the foundation of the Cathedral, the bell-tower unlike most other structures in town, strong enough to withstand the earthquake of 1736. This led the city to install a special clock brought in from London which was unfortunately seriously affected by the 1983 earthquake and needed to be sent back to London for repair.
The bell-tower is well lit at night for some atmospheric photos. Otherwise, there are lots of angles to shoot it from so mornings and afternoons are good.
Though by no means the oldest building in Popayán, the Teatro Guillermo Valenicia became our favorite and certainly the one we took the most photos of. Though conceived of in the late 1800s, construction was thwarted by a civil war and was not completed until 1927 in an early Baroque style. The color combination of muted yellow with green trim adds a surreal effect, especially when the sun is low to add just the right amber hue. It is particularly stunning compared to all the white colonial buildings it is set against. The statues that rise from its roof are magical at dusk.
Best photographed late afternoon.
The theater is very much a working one, not a museum piece which features productions of a religious and secular nature. I would have loved to see the interior and a shame tours are done for those not into going to shows.
Today, the 240m-long Puento del Humilladero is how the fine citizens of Popayán cross the Río Molino. It's an impressive bridge featuring eleven arches but some 160 years prior, a footbridge was how local priests crossed this same river to service the poor area to the north. Puente de la Custodia was built in 1713 and remains in place alongside its larger brother, thus rendering it “Puente Chiquita”or the Little Bridge.
This is a nice area bounded by lush trees and very nice to get away from the city with minimal effort.
Iglesia de San Francisco is Popayán's largest church and truly a masterpiece of colonial art. Destroyed in the 1736 earthquake and then reconstructed between 1775 and 1795, it was designed by Spanish architect Antonio Garcia. The beauty of the atmosphere, the soft light of the stained glass windows, the excellent paintings, statues and goldwork, every detail of its construction assure the visitor of an incomparable experience when visiting this church.
Iglesia de San Francisco has baroque façade. Its tower was dedicated to San Antonio and it holds a 3-ton bell. The bright interior has a stunning gilded wooden high altar and a collection of seven side altarpieces. The church was severely damaged in the 1983 earthquake. Extensive renovation followed and it is now in remarkable condition.
It is open daily 07:00am-07:00pm.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo was built in 1741 after an earthquake destroyed the original chapel. Built in baroque style, the church is notable for the stonework around its doorway which depicts exotic flowers and animals, and for the image of Nuestra Señora del Rosario behind its altar, brought from Spain in 1588. The pulpit and the fountain are designed by the same great person of the era of the independence of Colombia, Francisco José de Caldas.
In the 1983 earthquake the church suffered severe structural damage but is now completely restored. A former monastery next door now houses the Universidad de del Cauca. On Good Friday the procession leaves from this church.
It is open daily 08:00am-07:00pm.
Shaded by tall palms, the main square in town is called Parque Caldas, after one of Popayán's most famous citizens, Francisco José de Caldas, the independence fighter whose statue is here. The 18th century Torre del Reloj, which faces the square, is one of the finest clock towers in the country. A few steps from here is Catedral de Popayán, completed in 1906. Around the park you find several banks, cafés (Juan Valdez, among others) and the main Tourist Office.
Unfortunately, Parque Caldas was under heavy construction during the time of my visit so I could only vaguely imagine what it would look like. But by the lucky chance I was there during Christmas time so I could at least enjoy Christmas decoration at night which was quite nice.
The oldest church in town, Iglesia La Ermita, was built in 1546. It is scenically situated atop a hill just beyond the university, even much within the old town center but on its western edge. Its interior features an impressive main altar. Though it appeared to be closed during the day each time we passed it, it had a fine following for an evening mass the one night we were in the area. Well, worth trying to get inside.
Best light for the exterior is late afternoon but it is well lit so one of the better evening photographic opportunities as well.
The Iglesia de Santo Domingo is another reconstruction of an earlier church ravaged by an earthquake. The original, built in the late 1500s, was again shaken to the ground in the early 1700s and the “new”structure dates back to 1741. The exterior is simple aside from its very impressive stone arched entrance which matches well with the stone fountain just in front of the church.
Best photographed midday to early afternoon.
We never managed to get inside this one so certainly good reason to go back to Popayán one day!
For impressive views of the city, head west to the edge of the city center and climb El Morro de Tulcán. Also at the top is a graffiti-ridden statue of Popayán's founder, Sebastián Belalcázar, atop a horse. The true entrance is at the rear where there are steps leading to the hill's top but many clamber up the front as evidenced by a lot of erosion marking its face.
This is best done early morning to avoid crowds, heat, and give you the best light on the city for photos.
Popayán is renowned as La Ciudad Blanca or White City for good reason with a plethora of well-preserved colonial gems, most of which with chalk-white facades. Only Cartagena supercedes it in size and scope as colonial settlement in Colombia. Founded in 1537 by Sebastián Belalcázar it grew to become a natural and key stop on the important trade route between Quito and Cartagena. This is a perfect town to explore on foot and at a leisurely pace as there are many colonial gems strewn along its streets.
Panteón de los Próceres is in the neoclassical style and is another of Popayán's non-white gems much like the Teatro to which it stands next to. The bright blue pillared building houses the remains of some of the town's most noted citizens like Francisco Caldas, after which the Popayán's main square is named after.
Though a primitive “church” existed on this site as early as the mid-1600s, an earthquake again made reconstruction a necessity. Built in the early 1700s in the Ionian style, the Iglesia de Sán José has gone through further renovations over the years generally due the town's preponderance of earthquakes
The interior is again simple as seems the style for Popayán's churches. Another nice touch in the town's churches is their choosing of color schemes. This one is almost in a deep peach which had a relaxing effect and made it very pleasant to sit within its walls and contemplate life. This seems to be one of the purposes of a church and this is one town that seems to get it right.
There are lots of great angles for this one but the front exterior is best shot in the morning.