The small Popayán, founded in 1537 by the Spanish conquistador Sebastián Moyano de Belalcázar, is one of the oldest inland cities in the country and one of its most beautiful.
As a station on the trade route from Cartagena to Quito, Popayán grew into an important political, economic and above all religious centre. Popayán is still considered the most Catholic city in Colombia with the most churches in relation to the number of inhabitants.
It owes its nickname as “Ciudad Blanca” to the whitewashed colonial facades in the historic centre, even if these had to be rebuilt almost without exception after the devastating earthquake of 1983.
Since the foundation of the city, the central square of the old town has been the Parque Caldas, whose centre is adorned with a statue of the universal scholar and hero of independence Francisco José de Caldas.
The south side of the square is occupied by the neoclassical cathedral, the youngest church in the city. Popayán’s real landmark is the Torre del Reloj at the eastern edge of the cathedral, which was built between 1673 and 1682 from 96,000 bricks and was equipped with a tower clock from England in 1737.
The baroque church of San Francisco and the neo-Granadian Santo Domingo compete for the title of the most beautiful church in the city. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the former Dominican convent has been home to the administration of the Universidad de Caucá, whose history dates back to the 18th century.
The Puente del Humilladero, another of Popayán’s landmarks, spans a depression whose slopes could previously only be climbed in a bent posture (humillar = bend). Today it connects the centre with the Bolívar district.
An impressive panoramic view over the city can be enjoyed from the viewpoint El Morro de Tulcán, which is actually a flattened pyramid that was erected in the late pre-Columbian period and is considered Popayán’s most important archaeological site.
Since the 400th anniversary of the city in 1937, an equestrian statue of the founder of the city adorns its summit.
A highlight among Popayán’s museums is the Casa-Museo Negret & Museo Iberoamericano de Arte Moderno de Popayán (MIAMP), which shows works by the Colombian painter and sculptor Edgar Negret as well as works by other well-known Ibero-American artists. Also worth seeing is the Museo Nacional Valencia, dedicated to the most illustrious family of the same name and its history.
The former home of the Arboleda family, dating from the 18th century, is now the Museo Arquidiocesano de Arte Religioso (Archdiocesan Museum of Religious Art), with a collection of religious colonial art, including paintings from the Quito School and some precious monstrances that are shown to the public only a few days during Easter week.
Popayán’s growing popularity with tourists from Colombia and abroad is also due to its importance as a gateway to the two most important archaeological sites in southern Colombia: the mysterious tombs of Tierradentro and the equally enigmatic stone figures of San Agustín.