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Popayán - Colombia

In south-west Colombia, in a verdant valley flanked by mountains, Philip Sweeney discovers a city rich in architecture and a rival to Seville for its Easter celebrations

Travel Time 12hrs 40min

Why go?

Popayán is one of Colombia’s loveliest historic cities. Centred around a small ensemble of white baroque churches, colonial mansions and palm-adorned squares, it sits in a prime position in a temperate valley betwixt the green Andean highlands and the cane fields of the Cauca Valley. An important religious centre, its greatest international claim to fame is its spectacular Semana Santa, a Holy Week that rivals Seville’s in both antiquity and splendour. Huge nightly processions make their solemn way on a 2km cross-shaped itinerary through the town, composed of pasos (floats) borne on the shoulders of teams of cargueros, each one a flower-bedecked stage for life-sized statues of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. It’s all set to a backdrop of military brass bands, choirs and gorgeously dressed ahumadoras – female incense burners – who intersperse the floats, before the statues return along streets lined with alumbrantes (candle holders), to the hilltop Belén Chapel for another year.

What to do

Likened to a Colombian Oxford, Popayán’s legacy as a Spanish colonial capital imbues the city with an omnipresent sense of history. The discreet Casa Museo Mosquera 5-14 Calle 3 is a former residence of a Popayán-born Colombian president, and offers insight into the lives of the gentry during Independence. Museo de Arte Religioso 4-56 Calle 4 has a fine collection of the objects featuring in Semana Santa: ornate silver, wood carving and paintings from the Quito School. Principal excursions from Popayán focus on local textiles in the market of the small town of Silvia, nearby, which is surrounded by rolling hills dotted with indigenous Guambiano villages. Or add on a day to visit the caves and stone carvings at the ancient burial site of Tierradentro, one of the country’s most important pre-Colombian sites.

Where to stay

For all of its fame, Popayán is not yet heavily developed for tourism, and major hotel groups have yet to move in. The Colombian Dann collection is behind Hotel Monasterio – the smartest of four in the city’s historic heart. The beautifully restored 16th-century Franciscan convent features an elegant central patio set around a fountain, a pool and luxurious, atmospheric rooms. Similarly historic is La Plazuela – a grand 18th-century mansion with a cloistered courtyard, overlooked by an arcaded first floor in the city centre. La Herreria Colonial is a converted late-19th-century bourgeois townhouse, now chic boutique hotel. Simpler in style, Arcada Payanesa offers excellent value and modern, comfortable rooms.

Where to eat and drink

Each September, Popayán celebrates, its status as Latin America’s first Unesco-designated City of Gastronomy with a lively food festival. Year-round, the central squares buzz with stalls selling anything from empanadas and tamales filled with pipian (potato and peanuts) to carantatas, crispy fried shavings of maize tortilla dough. For something sweet look out for the likes of salpicon, a salad of regional fruits; helados de paila (ice cream churned in earthenware pots), and the Postre Eduardo Santos, a medley of cream, condensed milk and fresh and dried fruits named after another president. For an authentic experience try informal cafés such as La Tienda de Carmelita 945 Calle 5, the celebrated 90-year-old pastry ace Josefina Muñoz’s Doña Chepa 4-46 Calle 2, or Doña Mery’s stall ‘Calle 5’ corner of Calle 5 and Carrera 8. For traditional fare, head to the first-floor Balcon de los Santos 5-6 Carrera 7 with its stellar views, or Mora Castilla – small, but beautiful. More progressive picks are Qaray 13 Carrera 9, where chef Mario Holguin offers dishes made from Pacific coast ingredients, and Terra Inca 1367 Carrera 8, where Pablo Guzman cooks pan-Andean dishes.

Time running out?

Tango lovers should seek out El Sotareno a tiny bar where vintage Latin music is played on vinyl every night to a roomful of loyal aficionados. 85 Calle 6


Travel Information

Travel Information

Currency is the Colombian peso (COP). Time is 5 hours behind GMT. Flight time from London to Bogotá is 11 hours 15 minutes, and the connecting flight to Popayán takes 1.5 hours.

Getting There

American Airlines flies from London Heathrow to Bogotá, with one stop in Miami.

Avianca flies direct from London Heathrow to Bogotá, and offers connecting flights on to Popayán.


Visit Colombia is the website of the national tourism board and has information on Popayán and surrounds.

Average daily temperatures and rainfall

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