The White City of Popayan, Our First Taste of Colombia
I’m not going to lie, our time in Colombia did not start quite how we’d imagined it would. After our uneventful border crossing from Ecuador to Colombia, (read more on this here), we decided to stop for the night in Pasto, and catch an early bus the next day to Popayan.
Early morning the next day we headed out on the five-minute walk to the bus station. Temporarily distracted while crossing the road, a thief on a motorbike snatched our camera bag (containing our camera, zoom lens and Gopro) from around Simon’s neck. He sped off quickly but thankfully the strap snapped and Simon was unhurt. However, it was goodbye to some of our most precious items on this trip.
It wasn’t a good start to Colombia and we were a little in shock. We spent the first half of our first day in Popayan at the police station.
Four hours in a Colombian police station
After our six-hour bus ride from Pasto to Popayan, we made sure the first thing we did was report our robbery to the police. We arrived at the Tourist Information Office and a tourist police officer greeted us.
When I tried to explain in Spanish what had happened to us, he realised it was difficult for me and straight away switched to English. It was such a relief that he spoke English! He quickly offered to accompany us to the police station after his shift ended, to fill in the police report.
At 5.30 pm we met him at the tourist office and he walked with us to the police station. Once there, we waited over an hour for the clerk to free up and then over an hour to fill in a police report which was in both languages.
Throughout that time, this lovely officer who by now was supposed to be back home with his family, stayed on to help us! He even made sure we made it back to our hotel safely that night. It was a long day for us but it would have been a long day for him too. The fact that he was so friendly and helpful and extremely apologetic made us feel so much better about Colombia. The people are very nice here (not the thieves obviously :)).
Enjoying Popayan … finally
Day two and three in Popayan were, however, a lot more enjoyable. Those days involved no bus rides, no robberies, no police stations. Popayan is a relatively small town in the south of Colombia. It’s also called la Ciudad Blanca or the White City because of the many white colonial buildings in its “Centro” area.
If you are travelling by bus from Ecuador and making your way to Cali or further north, Popayan is a great place to stop for a few nights. Although the town’s main attractions can all be seen in a single day, it’s worth staying a couple of nights to soak up the atmosphere and to recover from those long bus rides and perhaps a stressful border crossing.
What to do in Popayan?
Take a free walking tour
Popayan is a beautiful city and the first thing we did was sign up for a free walking tour to learn more about the city and to see its main sights. The free tour starts every day at 10 am, departing from the Tourist Information Office in the town centre. Be sure to make it the first thing you do in Popayan.
Hang out in Parque Caldas
Sit down on one of the benches in Parque Caldas and watch the world go by. This park is popular with locals and tourists and there are many street vendors selling drinks, food and nick-nacks. There are also a lot of pigeons there that people seem to feed, which is probably not a good thing! All the buildings around the park are white and it’s a beautiful place to admire them from.
Check out Popayan’s many churches
Popayan is a very religious town and there are many churches around town to check out. The best ones are Iglesia de San Francisco and Cathedral Basilica Our Lady of the Assumption.
Get lost in the white streets of Popayan
Go for a walk and enjoy the whiteness of it all. Popayan is very photogenic and I was glad that I never put my phone in with my camera. Otherwise, I would have nothing to take photos with! The streets of Popayan are lovely and it’s nice to just walk around and explore them.
Sip Colombian coffee
Being in Colombia, you have to drink coffee and even though great coffee is not everywhere (they export most of the good stuff), it’s still easy enough to find a decent cup. I loved the coffee at Caracol Cafe.
Go up the Cerro de Morro
For the best view of the city, take a short walk on the outskirts of the old town to El Morro. A short 5-minute stroll up the hill rewards you with a panoramic view over the city.
Try some local delicacies
While in Popayan, make sure to go to Mora Castilla to try some local food, such as the Empanaditas, Pipian Tamales and local drinks such as Champu and the yummy Salpicon de Mora.
Where to stay in Popayan
We stayed in Hotel Krone, which was perfectly located, a 5-minute walk from the Parque Caldas. The owner was very friendly and the rooms were clean and spacious.
If you’re after something a little different, here are the best reviewed places in Popayan on booking.com:
Great value: Hostel Caracol – A clean, well located hostel with great wifi.
Best location: Apartamento Centro – A spacious apartment in a great location.
Highly recommended: Hostal Casona Tulcan Popayan – A great value hostal with a free laundry service.
Alternatively, if none of those suit, try using HotelsCombined to search across all major accommodation sites. We use it all the time.