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City Center and Plaza
City Center and Plaza
Flag of Popayán
Official seal of Popayán
Nickname(s): "The White City"
Location of the City and municipality of Popayán in the Cauca Department.
Location of the City and municipality of Popayán in the Cauca Department.
Popayán is located in Colombia
Location in Colombia
Coordinates: 2°27′15″N 76°36′33″W / 2.45417°N 76.60917°W / 2.45417; -76.60917Coordinates: 2°27′15″N 76°36′33″W / 2.45417°N 76.60917°W / 2.45417; -76.60917
Country  Colombia
Departamento Cauca
Founded 13 January 1537
Founded by Sebastián de Belalcázar
 • Mayor Cesar Cristian Gómez Castro
 • City 483.11 km2 (186.53 sq mi)
Elevation 1,760 m (5,770 ft)
Population (2017)
 • City 439,257 (Metropolitan)
 • Density 584.90/km2 (1,514.9/sq mi)
 • Urban 252,570
 • Metro 282,561
Demonym(s) Payanés
Time zone EST (UTC-05)
Postal code 190001-19
Area code(s) +2
Website Official website

Popayán is the capital of the Colombian department of Cauca. It is located in southwestern Colombia between Colombia's Western Mountain Range and Central Mountain Range. It has a population of 258,653 people,[1] a territorial extension of 512 km2, is located 1760 meters above sea level, and has an average temperature of 18/20 °C.

Popayán downtown ceilings view at night
Popayán evening
Purace volcano

This town is well known for its colonial architecture and its contributions to Colombian cultural and political life. It is also known as the "white city" due to the color of the most of colonial houses and places in the city downtown, where several churches are located, such as San Francisco, San José, Belén, Santo Domingo, San Agustín, and the Catedral Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, known locally as "La Catedral". The city's cathedral was home to the Crown of the Andes, a 16th-century Marianist devotional object featuring emeralds taken from the captured Inca Emperor Atahualpa before its sale to finance local health care institutions.

Popayán has been home to seventeen Colombian presidents, as well as noted poets, painters, and composers. The University of Cauca (est. 1827), one of Colombia's oldest and most distinguished institutions of higher education, is located here; that is why Popayán is also known as the "University City." Nearby is Puracé National Natural Park, a geothermal wonderland of hot springs, waterfalls, and an inactive volcano from which the park derives its name. The nearest large city is Cali, in the Valle del Cauca Department, to the north of Cauca.

Much of the city's original splendor was destroyed on 31 March 1983, when an earthquake toppled many buildings. Though many of them were rebuilt and repaired, the heart of the city still bears ruins and empty lots since the disaster. In 2005, Popayán was declared by the UNESCO as the first city of gastronomy because of its variety and meaning to the intangible patrimony of Colombian culture.[2] The culinary history of the Cauca Department was chosen because of their maintaining of traditional methods of food preparation which has been passed over through different generations orally. On 2009 September 28, UNESCO also declared the processions of the Easter Week processions as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Patrimony of Humanity.


The word Popayán comes from an indigenous language. There are different theories about the origin of this word, one claims it means: Po: "Two"; pa: "reed"; yan: "village", or; "Two villages with reed roofs". Another theory says that the word Popayán comes from the name of the indigenous cacique, called Payán, who used to live around Eme Hill, nowadays known as Las Tres Cruces Hill. Yet another theory says that according to the historian Arcecio Aragón, the origin of the word Popayán is "Pampayán" and it comes from the Quechua language: pampa (valley) and yan (river), or in other words, the "Valley of the river", where river refers to the Cauca River.[citation needed]


Colonial era[edit]

Popayán downtown

There are no records regarding the pre-Hispanic history of the indigenous village of Popayán, but on 13 January 1537 the Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar came to the conquered village and declared the foundation of Popayán. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Popayán was administered by an appointed governor under the jurisdiction of the Royal Audience of Quito.

Popayán was a very important town during the colonial period because of its location between Lima, Quito and Cartagena. Even after the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, Popayán remained a transfer point of gold and riches going to Cartagena on its way to Spain. Popayán also served as a colonial mine, producing various denominations of the Escudo gold coins and silver Reales from 1760 through 1819; it continued producing coinage for the new Republic of Colombia after 1826.[3]

Popayán downtown

Natives populated the town before the arrival of the Spanish. Next to the city there is still a huge mound built by the Indians, similar to a pyramid and now covered by grass; legend says the inner structure holds richness and gold. Later, Spanish immigrants settled next to the Indians taking advantage of their good heartedness and cheap labor, and Catholicism was taught to the Indians in exchange for their gold and work.

As a result of its colonial importance, Popayán is one of the most traditional Colombian towns and is very rich in Colonial architecture. Although in 1983 an earthquake destroyed part of the city, there are still several colonial bridges, museums and churches in the town.

The city is the home of an ancient pre-Hispanic pyramid known as El Morro del Tulcán. It was already abandoned when the first Spanish arrived to the city in 1535. Analyses of dental samples have revealed that individuals buried there probably belonged to the most important social class from their Indian society.

Popayán has been destroyed by several earthquakes. The most recent and destructive lasted eighteen seconds and occurred on 31 March 1983. The reconstruction of the colonial city took more than 10 years and today it is still possible to see some lots that have not been reconstructed. The first earthquake seismic design code was established in Colombia as a consequence of this earthquake.

Colonial city[edit]

Popayán's historic downtown is considered one of the most beautiful and best preserved in Colombia and Latin America.[citation needed] Popayán has preserved its colonial architecture for more than four centuries, a reason why national Colombian and foreign visitors are seduced by its historic downtown. The cobblestone streets were almost all paved in 1937; however, there are a few projects which are currently being implemented to recover the old city's original look.

Places of interest[edit]

El Morro, in the background

El Morro de Tulcán[edit]

El Morro de Tulcán is the main archaeological site of Popayán. It consists of a truncated pyramid built in prehistoric times, approximately between 500 and 1600 A.C., a period known as late chiefdom societies. In 1937 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the city, a monument was opened in 1937 at the top of the hill in honor of the founder of the city, Sebastián de Belalcázar, with an equestrian statue made by the Spanish artist Victorio Macho.

Francisco José de Caldas Auditorium[edit]

Better known as the Paraninfo, it is an imposing building of the mid eighteenth century and it was part of the monastery of the Dominican order until 1826. First, it was built with a mud and straw roof, then it was reinforced over the years with rammed earth and tile, until it became a colonial architecture expression again. Simón Bolivar declared it in 1827 as a property with historic heritage value, when it was already a two steps hose in front of the Santo Domingo plaza. The last great governor of Cauca, don Miguel de Arroyo Hurtado, made more renovations and reforms that gave it the most current look. When the building was handed over to the University of Cauca in the early twentieth century, several changes and additional extensions were made, which recovered all the original spaces.

Caldas Park

Caldas Park[edit]

This park, common passageway of students, executives, and all citizens, and cultural reunion place, it was born at the same time as Popayán in 1537, when the track in grid generated around religious, governmental, and founders buildings. Initially it was used as a marketplace. In 1538 it was placed a trap in the center of the park, where Jorge Robledo y Álvaro Oyón were beheaded. This trap lasted until 1766 when it was replaced by a faucet of water, which lasted until 1805 when a stone pile was put in its place, but it was removed too in 1910 after the inauguration of the monument to Sabio Caldas, a piece of the French sculptor Raoul Verlet, which has remained since that time in the same place. There exists a replica located in the Plazoleta de las Nieves in Bogotá. At the same time there were planted leafy trees which currently round up the monument and embellish this place. In May 2007 a proposal of architect Lorenzo Castro was made to remodel Caldas Park by expanding the pedestrian zone around the park, and in April 2009 the first phase of the work in the park began, in preparation for the celebration of Easter, a touristic time for Popayán.

Humanities Faculty of University of Cauca

University of Cauca[edit]

Clock Tower
Humilladero Bridge

It is the main university of Popayán, which gathers students from around the country. It was founded in 1827 by decree of General Francisco de Paula Santander. Its motto is Posteris Lumen Moriturus Edat. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the main headquarters have been placed in the old convent of the Dominican Order, cloister which is one of the best examples of religious architecture in the city.

Clock Tower[edit]

Called "the nose of Popayán" by Guillermo Valencia, the clock tower is a well known symbol of the city. It was constructed next to the Cathedral church between 1673 and 1682 with 96 thousand bricks. The clock, made in England, was placed in 1737. Its mechanism operated by the action of two lead weights which were changed by Antonio Nariño in the Colombia independence dispute in 1814, when metal was required to manufacture ammunition.

After the earthquake of 1983, the clock was restored and put back in operation by the same English company that manufactured it, but it stopped working a long time ago.

Humilladero Bridge[edit]

This bridge connects the central and northern zones of the city. It was built in 1873 on arches of brick and masonry. The designs were prepared by the Italian friar Fray Serafin Barbetti and a German engineer whose mummified remains are preserved in the Archdiocesan Museum of Religious Art in the city. The bridge crosses a fault between the city center and the El Callejón (now Bolivar) neighborhood which was previously extremely difficult to cross, requiring pedestrians to almost crawl on their knees. Accordingly, the new bridge was named Humilladero. For a long time this bridge was one of the main entrances to the city. The liberating armies crossed it to enter Popayán during the early stages of the struggle for Colombia independence. Its well-planned design and strong construction has allowed the bridge to remain intact through many earthquakes.

The Estate of Calibio[edit]

This country house was built in the 17th Century. On its grounds there was a battle fought for the independence of Colombia on January 15, 1814.[4]


San Francisco church
Santo Domingo church
Catedral Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción Church
Belén Church

San Francisco[edit]

According to the architect, critic and historian Germain Téllez, the facade of this church is the best example of baroque style throughout Colombia. In its tower is placed a famous bell donated by Don Pedro Agustín de Valencia. This temple is remarkable because of its altars decorations and its naves and apse proportions. In the San Francisco's square, it stands the monument to the local hero Camilo Torres, whose replica is located in the square of the Colegio Mayor de San Bartolomé in Bogotá.

Santo Domingo[edit]

Late Neogranadino Baroque work, designed by the Spanish architect Antonio Garcia. It has excellent examples of architectures, metal works, and furniture from Quito and Spain schools. His pulpit was designed in the first half of the nineteenth century by an illustrious son of the city, the Wise Francisco José de Caldas. Next this church is located the faculty of Laws and Political and Social Sciences of the University of Cauca. Whose style is colonial too.

San Agustín, church and convent[edit]

Fray Jeronimo Escobar founded the convent of the Augustinians in the late seventeenth century, whose temple was destroyed in the earthquake in 1736. Then, it was reconstructed thanks to contributions from notable people of the city, but it was necessary to restore it again after the earthquake of 1983. In particular it stands out its altar carved in wood and covered in gold, its expository baroque made in silver and a beautiful image of the Lady of Sorrows.

La Ermita[edit]

It is the oldest church in the city and sometimes it served as "Pro Tempore" Cathedral. It dates from 1546 and contains a fine altar discovered after the earthquake of 1983. The principal attraction of this church is the street because its road is made of stones, like old roads in Popayán.

Catedral Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Asunción[edit]

Originally it was a straw hut, but in 1609 it was opened a second cathedral of mud and masonry. The current construction was consecrated in 1906 by Archbishop Manuel Antonio Arboleda, who brings it a magnificent European pipe organ. Its style is the neoclassical, and much of the building was restored because of the earthquake of 1983, including the great dome of 40 meters high, whose restoration was made according to guidelines of the original structure designed by the local artist Adolfo Dueñas.

San José[edit]

It was built in 1702 according to the architectural guidelines of the Jesuits in the American Baroque. It has put up with some changes, for example, the most recent occurred in 1983, when much of the facade which had been covered with paint and lime for at least two centuries, was left on view.

Belén Chapel[edit]

It is located on the hill of Belén, and from the chapel you can see a panoramic view of the city. To arrive to this church, it is necessary to pass through the “quingos", a road of stone steps that allow a nice climb to one of the viewpoints of the city.

Since 1717 this chapel is in charge of the image of Santo Ecce Homo, patron saint of the city. Next to the church there is a cross of quarry stone of 1789, which are attributed to many legends. The original church was completely replaced by a new structure after the earthquake of 1983.


House-Museum Mosquera[edit]

This house displays a very interesting collection of colonial art and precious memories of the Mosquera family. It works in the house that belonged to the Mosquera Arboleda family, a recognized family in the history of Colombia, whose members occupied the highest positions of political power, ecclesiastical, military and diplomatic, simultaneously during much of the nineteenth century. The most important were: Joaquín Mosquera, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, Manuel José Mosquera and Manuel Maria Mosquera. The father of them all, Jose Maria Mosquera y Figueroa, was considered by the Liberator Simón Bolívar as the only person he would choose as a second parent.

Archdiocesan Museum of Religious Art[edit]

The old residence of the Arboleda family, was built in the eighteenth century based on plans of the priest Andres Perez Marcelino Arroyo, and it was acquired by the city in 1974 and renovated for its current use in 1979. Their collections are extraordinary examples of religious art, silverware, pictures of the so-called Quito School and paintings of the colonial period. Monstrances of the collection have such value that they are only exposed to the public for a few days during Easter.

National Museum Guillermo Valencia[edit]

It is located in a mansion on the Próceres street, and it is dedicated to the poet Guillermo Valencia, one of the most prominent members of Modernism in Spanish literature. Its numerous rooms are decorated with valuable works of art and artistic pieces, as well as a collection of hundred of selected books, diplomas, medals and awards that Master Valencia received for his distinguished political life and for its fine literary and poetic compositions. In the park located across the street it stands the statue of the poet, made by the Spanish sculptor Victorio Macho. It has too a family cemetery where the remains of several generations of Valencia are resting.

Natural History Museum[edit]

It offers an exhibition of animals, like insects, butterflies and birds native to the region, and a collection of pre-Columbian pottery.

Arts and culture[edit]


Holy Week[edit]

La Verónica

Popayán is widely known for the solemnity of its Holy Week processions, during which it commemorates the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Since roughly the mid-sixteenth century - documents in the historical archives of Popayán mention processions in the year 1558 - sacred processions have taken place each night from Tuesday until Holy Saturday, with ancient religious images paraded through Popayán's historical downtown streets. They are borne on wooden platforms by means of 4 projecting wooden "bars" at the front and 4 at the back. These bars rest on the shoulders of the “Cargueros”, as those responsible for carrying the platforms are known.

These processions are representations of different episodes narrated in the Gospels, relating the Passion, Crucifixion and Death of Jesus Christ, each representation is called a "Paso". Since the time of the conquest the pasos have been carried through the streets on the shoulders of the traditional 'cargueros' in a route shaped like a cross, which takes in the main churches and temples of the city. Since 2009 the Popayán Holy Week processions have been inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.[5]

During Holy Week, Popayán is also home to the Festival de Música Religiosa (Religious Music Festival), begun in the 1960s on the initiative of Edmundo Mosquera Troya. This festival presents choirs, soloists and artists from around the world, specialists in sacred music. It is also the tradition at this time of the year to hold art and craft fairs selling handicrafts and commercial products. One of the most important handicrafts samples is Manos de Oro, where it exposes the several works of artists of Colombia.

Amo Jesus of Puelenje[edit]

Amo Jesus of Puelenje on the procession

Amo Jesus Nazareno of Puelenje is a Catholic devotional image located in the church of Puelenje, part of the metropolitan area of Popayán, Colombia. Amo Jesus is the patron of the parish of Puelenje. The image is a polychrome baroque wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ carved in the eighteenth century in the style of the Quito school. The image is processed on the Wednesday as part of the expression of popular piety celebrated in Popayán during Holy Week (see above).[6] A festival in honour of Amo Jesus as patron of the parish is celebrated with fireworks, processions, religious ceremonies and cultural events beginning on the 15th day before the last Sunday in August each year.[7]

Fiestas de Pubenza[edit]

Popayán celebrates these festivities at the beginning of the year, from January 5 to 13. These fiestas celebrate the spirit of racial diversity in the country, in the same way as the Carnival of Blacks and Whites, which takes place in the same week, in Pasto, which originally initiated in Popayán during the slavery period as a way of escaping the racial discrimination prevailing at the time.


It is said that among the original performers there were good music interpreters, excelling in playing the chirimía, that is made up of flutes (transverse cane), guacharacas, drums, castrueras and triángulos, making its appearance in the traditional celebrations of Popayán, especially at Christmas time and at the end of the year.[citation needed]

On the plateau of Popayán, groups of farmers play stringed instruments, composed of three guitars and maracas which have incorporated into their repertoire paseos, merengues, pasillos and boleros in vocal and instrumental form.


Creative cities network Popayan of the UNESCO

Popayán is the only place in Latin America to have been declared a City of Gastronomy by UNESCO, in tribute to its significant tradition of regional cooking.[citation needed] Typical dishes of the city are a legacy of both Spanish and indigenous cultural interaction, integrating components of local origin with fruits brought from Spain.

The National Gastronomy Congress of Popayán has been held each September since 2003, and in 2005 was recognized by UNESCO as a cultural heritage event of the United Nations creative network.[citation needed] The Congress is organized by the Gastronomic Corporation of Popayán, which has presented seven events which have also featured the participation of various countries as special guests: Peru, Brazil, Spain, Chile, Mexico, Italy and France. Today, this congress is recognized as the second largest popular event in the Cauca Department.[citation needed] As it has an academic format, it is distinguished from other culinary events and is the only one to be listed nationally.[citation needed]

Among typical dishes we can find:

Christmas Eve Dish

Carantanta: is a type of fried snack of corn placed in the pot where corn dough has been made.

Soups: Shaked Broth, Sancocho, tortilla soup, Sango, carantanta soup, wrappes soup, vegetable and pastries soup.

Dishes: Pipián tamales, empanadas de pipián, Calf.

Vegetables: Ullucos, corn wrappes.

Sauces and seasonings: pique chili, peanut chili, pineapple chili.

Cakes: tortilla pie, arracacha cake, white cake, banana cake.

Breads and cookies: cucas, molletes, pambazos, rosquillas.

Drinks: toley water.

Christmas Eve plate or dish is very special Its content is the most complete of Colombia and consists of hojaldras, rosquillas, manjar blanco, dulce cortado, natilla and syrups of fig among others.


Traditional cinema is represented in the city by the Bolivar Cultural Center, which shows independent films. There is also a new theater, the Royal Films multiplex in the Campanario Mall, which has four modern 3D digital cinema screens.

In addition there are several film clubs, many of them located within the University of Cauca. The Cineclub La Tuátara runs every Wednesday in the Comfacauca Institute of Technology auditorium (opened 2001), which has established itself as a cultural space for the city.

A very important innovation is the program of the Radio Universidad del Cauca station 104.1 fm, 'Cinema Radio', on air Saturdays at noon, in which are created thematic cycles. They present news about cinema, 'the seventh art', and also discuss the history of film and audiovisual language. Talking about cinematographic production, there are some people who are working to strengthen the seventh art in the municipality.

Born in Popayán[edit]


Popayan has one commercial airport, Guillermo León Valencia Airport, served by Avianca.


Popayán has a humid but relatively mild tropical climate, more specifically a tropical monsoon climate (Köppen: Am) that is close to being a subtropical highland climate, though unusually the driest months from June to August are opposite to when this would be expected given that the city is actually north of the equator.

Climate data for Popayán (Aeropuerto Guillermo León Valencia)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 29.0
Average high °C (°F) 24.1
Average low °C (°F) 13.2
Record low °C (°F) 8.2
Average rainfall mm (inches) 199.8
Average rainy days 17 16 19 20 21 14 10 10 15 23 24 21 210
Average relative humidity (%) 80 79 79 80 80 77 71 69 74 80 82 82 77.8
Mean monthly sunshine hours 160.6 125.9 125.9 106.8 113.0 147.6 172.8 162.3 129.2 108.9 121.4 140.4 1,614.8

Sister cities[edit]

Popayán is twinned with:[citation needed]

Arms City Nation
Coat of Arms of Málaga.svg Málaga  Spain
Coat of Arms of Seville.svg Sevilla  Spain
Escudo de Valencia 2.svg Valencia  Spain
Coat of Arms of Murcia City.svg Murcia  Spain
Caltanissetta-Stemma.png Caltanissetta  Italy
Coat of arms of San Juan de Pasto.png San Juan de Pasto  Colombia
Escudo Loja (Ecuador).jpg Loja, Ecuador  Ecuador
Coat of arms of Montevideo Department.png Ibarra, Ecuador  Ecuador
Escudo de Santiago de Compostela.svg Santiago de Compostela  Spain


  1. ^ DANE 2005.
  2. ^ Popayan, Colombia appointed first UNESCO City of Gastronomy UNESCO 28 Aug 2005
  3. ^ Krause "World Coins 1701-1800" 4th Ed and "1801-1900" 5th Ed, Colin R. Bruce II, Sr. editor
  4. ^ Casa de Hacienda: Architecture in the Colombian Countryside, German Tellez ET AL
  5. ^ See the entry in the website, accessed 4 April 2015.
  6. ^ See the description on the website, accessed 4 April 2015.
  7. ^ See, for example, the notice (in Spanish) Patronal del Amo Jesús en Puelenje advertising the festival as held in 2014. Accessed 4 April 2015
  8. ^ Clima: Climatografía de la principales ciudades

External links[edit]