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.