11 fun things to do in Popayan Colombia – The White City

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What we talk about in this article

For us, just as it is for most backpackers between Colombia and Ecuador, Popayan was supposed to be a short stopover to break up an otherwise long journey. We were traveling North from Ecuador and after a short break in Pasto, which we didn’t like too much, we weren’t expecting a lot from Popayan.

Boy! Were we wrong!

Popayan Colombia is a charming and beautiful city in the South of the country. And it is much more than a simple stopover. It’s that type of place where you end up staying forever.

Actually, we ended up using it as a long stopover again on our way back South!

There’s a surprising amount of things to do in Popayan. But even if you decide not to do anything, you’ll still enjoy the charm of the white city a lot!

In order to convince you to take you time to visit this gem, we decided to write up a guide to Popayan and list the most interesting highlights of the city!

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1 - Explore the city center

Did I already tell you that Popayan is also called ‘The White City’? Well, it is!

The old colonial city center of Popayan is an area where all the houses and facades are white. And it looks beautiful and charming.

The city center consists of tons of large and smaller streets that are laid out like a square.

It’s difficult to get lost and chances are real that you’ll find a true gem. This may be a cute restaurant with a garden in the back, a beautiful store with local handicrafts, or a marketplace that’s hidden underground.

2 - Relax on the main square

The main square or Caldas Park is a compact and beautiful square in the center of the city, dating back to the 16th century. It’s a great place to walk around, but also to find an empty bench and just sit for a while.

Most important buildings in the city are located in this square and they’re all white, unsurprisingly!

Chances are good that you’ll see things you haven’t seen before in your life!

We saw a man with his lama walking by, for instance!

Man with his pet in Popayan Colombia

3 - Check out the Pueblito Patojo

Even though this place was created for tourist, the tiny replica village of Patojo is a fun and relaxing place to go to.

It’s located at the edge of town.

Pueblito Patojo is a scale model of the most important tourist attractions in Popayan and it resembles a cute little village.

It’s a good place to spend an hour or 2 while you get some street food and check out the souvenirs in the little shops.

During the week, there might not be a whole lot to see, so it’s a better choice to visit during the weekend, if you have the time and chance to do so!

4 - Humilladero Bridge

The historic Humilladero bridge was built in the 19th century to help villagers climb the steep last part of the journey into town. They used to carry heavy loads to the marketplace and the climb was near to impossible. The walk was pretty humiliating and that where the bridge got its name in the end.

Even though it’s actually just a bridge, it is a pretty one and some might even call it Instagrammable!

The Humilladero bridge has 12 arches and it is a lot more impressive than the much older Puente de la Custodia, which you can see from the more recent bridge.

Humilladero bridge Popayan Colombia.

5- Count the churches

Popayan is the capital of the Cauca department and it needed a lot of churches to deserve this title.

We certainly didn’t visit all of these churches, but you will probably pass quite a few when walking through the city.

There’s the Basilica of our Lady of the Assumption on the main square, which is one of the more important churches in town. But then there are many more!

One block further, you can find the Iglesia San Jose and if you walk another 2 blocks, you’ll find the Iglesia de San Francisco.

It doesn’t end there! You can walk three blocks in any direction and find another church! I’ll stop summing them up now, because we’re not that religious and we didn’t count them for sure! But if you want to, you can try to count them!

6 - Join a free walking tour!

A free walking tour is one of the best (and cheapest) ways to discover a new city.

So it’s a good idea to join this free walking tour in Popayan.

If you decide to do so, we recommend joining a walking tour on the first day of your stay, so you can enjoy the things you learned on the other days!

7 - Check out a museum

Popayan has a lot of museums!

There’s the National History Museum, which is supposedly the very best in its sort in the entire country. You can find this museum on the University grounds and it mostly covers the wildlife of Colombia, like stuffed animals and historic items.

There’s also the Museum of Religious Art, which exhibits a passion for religion.

You can find a list of the most interesting museums in Popayan on the tourist website of Popayan.

8 - Eat the local empanadas de pipian

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Colombia has some of the very best empanadas we ever tasted. When coming from Ecuador, Popayan is the first place where you can get them!

It happens to be that Popayan is an UNESCO site for gastronomy, so you’ll definitely be able to find a lot of great food in the city.

The signature dish of Popayan are the Empanadas de Pipian, which are empanadas with a potato filling.

Go to ‘La Fresa’ to get the best empanadas in town!

Pro tip: if you’re allergic to peanuts, don’t eat the spicy sauce that come with empanadas de pipian! It’s a peanut sauce!

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Take a day trip out of town

There’s no reason to spend each of your days in the city, because the surroundings of Popayan have a lot to offer. There are quite a few interesting day trips to check out in the Popayan area!

9 - Visit the Tombs of Tierradentro - Day trip

The Tombs of Tierradentro are an interesting sight to visit in the Popayan area. This archeological site holds more than 150 underground tombs that were once used as burial grounds.

The tombs are pretty impressive, as some of them are over 12 meter in diameter. They’re all beautifully decorated with human figurines and other artwork.

The tombs are pretty much off the beaten tracks and most tourists just skip them.

But since they’re such a remarkable and interesting historical place, they actually made to our list with the very best places to visit in Colombia.

Tierradentro Tombs Colombia

10 - Explore the beautiful Puracé National Park - Day Trip

Puracé National Park is the largest nature reserve in the area and it’s relatively easy to reach from Popayan.

The main sight in the park is the snow-capped Puracé volcano, which can be hiked if you’re ready for a difficult and challenging hike. But you can also hike the regular trails that run through the park.

Along the trails, you can see a lot of wildlife and birds, like hummingbirds, toucans, and condors.

There’s also an impressive waterfall and beautiful green valleys.

Puracé is not the most impressive National Park in Colombia, but it is a great place to see a variety of birds and to have a relaxing day of hiking.

11 - Coconuco Thermal baths - Day Trip

These thermal baths are a great place to relax for a few hours after hiking a volcano or just to soak your weary muscles. You do need to travel to the village of Coconuco, which is not too far from Popayan.

After reaching Coconuco village, you can choose between 2 different baths, both have an entrance fee, but they’re not expensive.

Aguas Tibias is a series of pools, surrounded by nature. They have a waterslide and a restaurant.

The Agua Hirviendo Pools are a little bit hotter and busier. They also have a waterslide!

Both of these thermal springs are heated naturally by the heat of the nearby volcano. Some of the pools are filled with water, but both thermal springs also have baths where the hot water is mixed with clay and mud, resulting in a mud pool. These mud pools are great for the skin!

Pro tip: visit the thermal baths during the week, because they tend to be very busy with locals during the weekend.

Fun things to do in Popayan and the surrounding area

As you can read, you can easily spend a few days in the Popayan area without running out of things to do.

Personally, I was surprised to enjoy this city as much as I did. This might be because I wasn’t expecting to like it anyway.

So before writing Popayan off as a simple one night stop, check out if there are any interesting highlights and things you want to see or do in this charming colonial city.

And if you plan to travel all through Colombia, make sure to read our backpacker guide to Colombia and our awesome itinerary! We stayed in this country for a reasonable amount of time and we got to explore quite a bit of it, so see if you can find more interesting Colombia articles to get inspiration for your trip!

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11 fun things to do in Popayan Colombia - The White City
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