Although less illustrious than Cartagena, Colombia’s other open-air colonial museum, POPAYÁN, has little reason to envy its more celebrated rival. Founded in 1537 by Sebastián de Belálcazar on his march northward from Quito, the “White City” was a powerful counterweight to Bogotá’s dominance during the colonial era and a bastion of Spanish loyalty during the wars of independence. Unlike Cartagena, which saw its influence wane after independence, Popayán’s aristocrats remained very active in politics, and no fewer than eleven presidents have emerged from their ranks.
When a disastrous earthquake destroyed most of the historic centre in 1983, collapsing the cathedral’s roof onto the worshippers just before the Maunday Thursday celebrations, residents banded together to rebuild. The result is one of the most attractive cities in Colombia, its streets flanked by single-storey houses and whitewashed mansions and its churches lit up beautifully at night. During Easter week the city is cordoned off to make way for thousands of parading worshippers brandishing candles and colourful flowers. Popayán’s Semana Santa celebrations are the second largest in the world, after Seville in Spain.
Besides its attractive architecture and leafy main square, most of Popayán’s attractions lie outside the city. The museums are of limited interest to visitors, though you can kill a couple of hours on a rainy day there.
The colourful market village of Silvia, an outstanding national park and some invigorating thermal springs are all within 60km of Popayán.
The high-altitude Parque Nacional Natural Puracé, 58km east of Popayán, encompasses 860 square kilometres of volcanoes, snowcapped mountains, sulphurous springs, waterfalls, canyons, trout-stuffed lagoons and grasslands. The park’s literal high point is Volcán Puracé (4700m), which last blew its top in 1956. It’s a lung-straining four-hour climb to the steaming crater where, on a clear day, there are sensational views of Cadena Volcánica de Los Coconucos – a chain of forty volcanoes. There are also less strenuous trails, including an orchid walk, and thermal baths. Enquire at the visitor centre near the park entrance if you want to hire a guide. The weather is best for climbing the volcano in December to January; it is worst in June to August.
The village of Coconuco, 26km from Popayán, is a short hop to two rudimentary outdoor thermal baths. The better maintained and more pleasant of the two is Termales Agua Tibia, 5km southwest of Coconuco on the road to San Agustín. Set at the base of a steep-sided valley with great views, the complex has five lukewarm pools, a bottom-jarring concrete waterslide and a mud spring rich in rejuvenating minerals. There is no place to lock up valuables.
The indigenous-run Agua Hirviendo, 3km east of Coconuco, is less picturesque than Agua Tibia but it’s open around the clock, its sulphur-reeking pools are far toastier, and the on-site waterfall is a refreshing shock to the system. Basic cabins are available for rent and a restaurant serves meals until late.
If you’re interested in a glimpse of the salon society of the colonial and early independence era, the Casa Museo Mosquera, the childhood residence of Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, four times Colombia’s president, offers just that. On a macabre note, Mosquera’s heart is kept in an urn in the wall.
The town’s leafy main square, Parque Caldas, is overlooked by the whitewashed Catedral. Although the biggest and most frequently used of the churches, architecturally it’s the least important, built around 1900 on the site where two earlier structures stood. Four blocks east, on C 5 and Cra 2, is the city’s oldest standing church, La Ermita, which features an austere single-naved chapel comprised of wooden ribbing and a golden altar dating from 1564.
On C 4 and Cra 5, the Iglesia de Santo Domingo’s Baroque stone portal is an excellent example of Spanish New World architecture. Equally ornate is the staircased pulpit of Iglesia de San Francisco, situated on a quiet plaza on C 4 and Cra 9, where several of Popayán’s patrician families are buried. La Ermita and Iglesia de Santo Domingo are beautifully lit up at night.
For a tremendous view of the town, follow Cra 2 north to the Morro de Tulcán, once the site of a pre-Columbian pyramid and now a hill capped by an equestrian statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, who founded Popayán in 1537. Near El Morro is Pueblito Patojo, a slightly bizarre set of buildings that are smaller copies of Popayán’s most famous landmarks. From the top of El Morro, a path continues to the three crosses of El Cerro de las Tres Cruces and on to the hilltop chapel of Capilla de Belén, accessible via a steep cobbled path from the eastern end of C4; the entire walk takes a couple of hours. There are usually people on El Morro, whereas the Capilla de Belén is more isolated; leave valuables behind if visiting either.
A few blocks east of the historic centre, the Museo de Historia Natural is worth visiting to see its rich collection of taxidermied animal and bird species, many of which are endemic to Colombia – just to see what they look like, as it’s difficult to spot many of them in the wild.
The home of modernist sculptor Edgar Negret, Museo Negret is now a museum exhibiting his work. Next door the Museo Iberoamericano de Arte Moderno (same opening hours; included in entry to Museo Negret) exhibits Negret’s private collection of works by Picasso and other important artists from Spain and Latin America.
Well worth a detour is the rural village of SILVIA, 60km northeast of Popayán, which fills up with Guambiano Indians, with the men in blue skirts with fuchsia trim and bowler hats (don’t take photos as they can become aggressive), every Tuesday morning for market day. The market itself focuses on fruit, veg and basic household goods rather than tourist-friendly handicrafts, but the presence of the Guambiano, who arrive from their homes in the mountain villages above Silvia, makes it a great opportunity for people-watching.