Popayán (known as La Ciudad Blanca) is in western Colombia. It’s renowned for its white washed colonial buildings and Easter week parades. There’s so much more to this historic city and it’s surrounding area than what the usual travel blogs flag up (they tend to just focus on churches and museums). Here are the best things to do in Popayan and the most comprehensive travel guide to Popayán you’ll find.
Top things to do in Popayán
1. Go on a free city walking tour
Yes, you can visit Popayán sights such as the Humilladero Bridge and Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption yourself. But this walking tour will actually give you the history of the area. We did our walking tour in Popayán with Get Up & Go Colombia and really enjoyed it. Get Up & Go Colombia also offer free dance lessons, trekking and Spanish classes in Popayan.
On the Walking Tour, you’ll find out why all the buildings are white in Popayán. And learn about the annual Easter processions in the city, where men carry huge religious motifs weighing almost a ton through the streets.
The walking tour guides are good at getting you into areas you wouldn’t normally be able to go as a tourist such as the local university. This tour also includes a superb food aspect which is suitable for vegetarians. Win!
Price for Popayan walking tour:
Pay whatever you feel it’s worth. However, do remember the guides need to make a living. We recommend giving $10USD per person as standard if you like a walking tour in Colombia.
2. Take a dip in the hot springs and then cycle back through the beautiful countryside
This was my most favourite thing we did in the Popayán area. We went to the hot springs called Agua Hirviendo, then cycled back 30km to Popayán.
The hot springs were very sulfuric smelling, but very pleasant and surrounded by lush green mountains. A few Colombian families were in there with us, but as it was a week day it wasn’t too busy. Don’t expect these hot springs to be like a fancy spa, it’s more for locals but it’s very pleasant.
The cycle back was largely downhill and the scenery was absolutely stunning. Do note there is some up hill in there. My bum hurt for a few days afterwards, but then I am a dreadful cyclist! We cycled along quiet country roads, through the indigenous village of Coconuco and into Popayán.
We did this through a excellent tour company called Popayan Tours. They drove us to the hot springs, sorted out entrance and organised the bikes. You cycle back on your own but the area around Popayán is safe.
If you didn’t want to or aren’t able to cycle back you could do this cheaper through taking the local bus to the hot springs and back again.
Price for hot springs bike tour:
For the tour it cost us 70,000 COP each.
Alternative hot springs
There are a number of hot springs in the area. A local recommended Salinas to us. This is the most natural hot spring in the area, as it is set into the rocks. It has a waterfall (although it’s cold) and then a hot pool.
To get there you can take a public bus to Coconuco (which costs 5,000 COPs), then you need to ask a local in Coconuco how to get to Salinas. Entrance is 10,000 COPs. There is nothing on google about these hot springs, so it might be a bit of an adventure!
3. Explore Popayán Old Town
Now for the things most blogs will advise you to do. Here are a few sights around Popayán old town you should see:
- Humilladero Bridge
- Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption
- Caldas Park
- Iglesia San Francisco (Church)
- Iglesia San Jose (Church)
- Puente de la Custodia (Bridge)
- Cerro el Morro de Tulcán (Viewpoint across the city)
If you don’t have a Colombian SIM card, download the maps.me app on your phone to help you navigate the city.
4. Visit the Popayán Natural History Museum
I read somewhere that the Natural History Museum (Museo de Historia Natural) in Popayán is one of the best in Colombia. If this is so, poor Colombia! However, it’s not bad to visit though.
I really liked the selection of taxidermy birds they had in the museum, particularly as most of them are local to Colombia and are often hard to spot when they are alive. There are some very impressive (and damn right weird) birds in Colombia! It’s always sad to see dead animals though, but most of the taxidermy done here took place a long time ago. There are a few random African animals in the museum too.
Price: 4000 COPs per person.
5. Climb the steaming Volcan Puracé
Volcan Puracé is one of Colombia’s most active volcanos. It is a stratovolcano located in Puracé National Park. The peak is 4,700 metres high, so is at altitude (and can get cold and wet).
Hiking Volcan Puracé is an option for those with a little more money. You can climb Volcan Puracé with a tour or independently but neither are particularly cheap.
Hiking Volcan Puracé independently
To hike Volcan Puracé independently you need to catch the first bus from the Popayan bus terminal which leaves at 5am (19,000 COP). Let the driver know you need to get off the bus at Cruce de la Mina. From there you’ll need to trek 30mins and 300m up to the ranger station at 3,300m high and pay the entrance fee of 50,000. You tend to have to get a guide, which costs around 40,000. The cost of the guide can be split with other trekkers.
The trek takes around 7 hours. It’s not a technically hard hike, but do consider the altitude. You have to make sure you are back for the last bus at 5pm. Another bus leaves earlier at 2:30pm. The return bus is cheaper for some reason. HOWEVER, these buses are terribly unreliable and might not be running. The rangers can organise you transport back or you can stay onsite as they have accommodation.
Total price to trek Volcan Puracé independently:
Around 90,000 COPs per person, plus your share of 40,000 COPs for the guide (so about 220,000 COPs for 2 people).
Hike Volcan Puracé with a tour
If you can push the boat out and don’t want to risk issues with the problematic buses after your trek, get a tour. Popayan Tours is an excellent tour operator in Popayan. They will also drive you up to 4,000m, cutting out over half the uphill distance
Price for a tour of Volcan Puracé:
1 person: 550,000 pesos
2 people: 570.000 pesos
3 people: 640,000 pesos
4 people: 710,000 pesos
5 people: 780,000 pesos
6 people: 850,000 pesos
6. Explore Puracé National Park
Puracé National Park is home to huge Andean condors, waterfalls, thermal pools (not ones you can swim in though), incredible geysers and more.
Explore Puracé National Park independently
You can explore Puracé National Park independently in the same way as the volcano (see above). Again you will have to pay the entrance fee (of 50,000 COPs) and the rangers will most likely insist on a guide (40,000 COPs).
Total price to explore Puracé National Park independently:
Around 90,000 COP per person, plus your share of 40,000 for the guide (so about 220,000 for 2 people).
Tour of Puracé National Park
To properly see what Puracé National Park has to offer you might want to consider a tour. Again, Popayan Tours is an excellent and well organised local tour company. They will drive you to Puracé National Park and take you to the key sights (e.g to see the condors, visit Bedon waterfall, the San Juan thermals with geysers and the paramo area) within the park via car.
Price for a tour of Puracé National Park:
Same as above for hiking up the volcano.
7. On Tuesdays, head to the Silvia indigenous market
Silvia is a small town about 1 hour from Popayán. Most days there’s not much here, bar a plaza and a number of churches.
However on Tuesdays the place becomes a bustling market town. You can buy electronics, homeware, meat, fruit, clothing and more. On market days, you’ll find indigenous folks (the Guambiano Indians) dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing.
8. Volunteer or WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) at a finca in the countryside
Popayán is surrounded by absolutely stunning countryside. It’s green, lush and totally worth spending some time in. The best way to do that is through visiting a local finca.
Ned and Lila live outside of Popayán and have done an amazing job transforming their place into a mini farm. It’s not a huge piece of land and is fairly rustic but they are completely off grid, pretty much self sufficient for food thanks to their home grown organic food production and have a wealth of knowledge about low-impact living.
It is possible to volunteer or WWOOF at their beautiful finca. Contact Ned (email@example.com) for further information.
9. Volunteer at an observatory
I’m not gunna lie, Popayán and the surrounding area is probably not that amazing for stargazing. Perhaps I was spoiled by La Serena in Chile, but when we were there in October it was cloudy. However I might be totally wrong and maybe it’s better out of the rainy season.
Anyhow, you can volunteer at Obseratorio Astronomico Sueno Paraiso. Do make sure you contact them in advance through their website or facebook page and you might want to check they cater to English speaking volunteers if you aren’t fluent in Spanish.
Eating & drinking in Popayán
So, Popayán is a bit special compared to other parts of Colombia. It has some unique (and delicious) dishes you can’t get elsewhere! Look out for these:
- Empanaditas de pipian
These are cute baby empanadas served with spicy and peanut sauce. They are vegetarian and AWESOME!
- Salpicon payanes
This is a very tasty drink full of berry, lulo and soursop goodness. Use your spoon to put a little hole in the top of the drink and squeeze a slice of orange into it! Yum.
Lulada is considered to be from Cali, but is totally worth trying in Popayán if you haven’t tried it yet. It’s made from the lulo fruit, lime juice, water and sugar.
- Carantanta con hogao
Carantanta con hogao are kinda like crispy poppadoms with tomato salsa. They are very unique to the Popayán area and are a tasty snack to be shared with friends!
Best restaurants in Popayán
Popayán is known as a “city of gastronomy”, but some places are pretty pants and I was kinda disappointed. I think it got this title due to some of the traditional dishes mentioned above. All of these are great, but don’t expect streets to be lined endless amazing restaurants. There are a couple of good options though.
If you go on the Popayán Walking Tour then you will visit this place and sample the delights of the local Popayan food mentioned above. If walking tours aren’t your thing, do give this place a visit.
Restaurante Italiano Y Pizzeria
This restaurant is owned by a Swiss/Colombian couple. The pizzas are delicious!
If you are searching for a place to have a delicious coffee and cake on a rainy afternoon (or whenever) this cafe is cozy. Both the coffee and cake is glorious, and I particularly liked the chocolate cake.
Accommodation in Popayan
Popayán (like much of Colombia) is not an expensive place to stay. You can get a bed in a dorm for around $6.50 USD per night, and a double room with a private bathroom for around $12 USD and up (depending on the time of year!).
Budget accommodation options:
We stayed at Hotel Krone, which was affordable, clean and decent.
Another good budget option is Hostel Caracol. Popayán Tours and the Caracol Cafe is part of the same building. It’s a cute hostel with friendly and helpful owners.
Push the boat out:
In Colombia you can get hotels of an amazing standard for much less than you’d pay at home. Hotel La Plazuela is an example of this. It has beautiful period features and a balcony for watching the processions if you are in Popayán over Easter.
How to get from Cali to Popayan
You can easily get a bus from the main terminal in Cali to Popayan. The official journey length is 2.5 hours, but takes more like 5 hours by the time you have spent forever getting out of Cali.
There are multiple companies offering this route, with departures every 15-30 minutes. Just ask around the various desks to find the next one. The best company is Expreso Bolivariano but they only had a bus at 6pm when we were there. All the other companies seem to have rubbish old small buses or minibuses (despite the advertising of glorious double-deckers with WiFi). Most have no suspension so expect a bumpy ride. We used Expreso Palmira and paid 19,000 COP each for the dubious pleasure.
The main bus terminal in Popayan is only a 5 minute 4,000 COP taxi (there are no Ubers in Popayan) to the main square and nearby accommodation.
Next stop: how to get from Popayan to San Agustín
If you are looking for other things to do outside of Popayan or are considering your next destination, San Agustin is a good option and is not visited by many tourists (least when we were there).
In San Agustin, you can explore various archaeological sites, such as the interesting pre-Columbian statues, burial sites and various other artifacts from indigenous communities dating back to 6,000 years ago. Alternatively you can see the beautiful surrounding countryside on multi-day horse riding trips. Explore the Magdalena River, with its various canyons and waterfalls (including the 2nd tallest waterfall in Colombia) and trek to its source, the Laguna del Magdalena. In San Agustin you can try downhill mountain biking and rafting for the more adventurous of you out there. Or you can just chill the F out (like we did) in a glorious setting.
Fabulous hostel in San Agustín
Check out Casa De Nelly for a relaxing stay with a beautiful garden, a great view of San Agustin and lots of cosy hangout spaces. We extended our stay from 2-7 nights and struggled to leave!
Journey between Popayan and San Agustín
It is a 5 hour minibus journey from Popayan on quite a bumpy road. We heard some horror stories about the journey before we took it, but it wasn’t too bad. Just a bit bumpy!
Again there are multiple companies with regular departures from the main terminal in Popayan. We arrived at 8.40am at the terminal and jumped on a 9am departure, paying 35,000 COP each. A bit steep considering the state of the collectivo!
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