Popayán, Colombia – the illustrious White City that delivered 17 Colombian presidents

Popayán, in southwest Colombia, was founded in 1537. It was once one of the most important cities in South America, being strategically located between the three major Spanish ports of Cartagena, Quito, and Lima.

The White City, Popayán, Colombia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

All the gold recovered by the conquistadors in Peru transited through Popayán on its way to Spain. Popayán became wealthy and important; it became the White City.

It remains one of the best preserved colonial cities in Colombia.

The White City, Popayán, Colombia

The White City. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Popayán maintained its political importance over the years, rearing no less than 17 Colombian presidents, as well as giving birth to notable poets, painters, and composers.

Popayán, Colombia

Photo credit: Benjamin White

Museo Guillermo León Valencia, Popayán

Museo Guillermo León Valencia (shown below) is the former home – some might say mansion – of the much acclaimed poet Guillermo Valencia (whose son went on to become president of Colombia).

There are several other period homes in Popayán also worth visiting, including the Mosquera House Museum.

Museo Guillermo León Valencia, Popayán, Colombia

Museo Guillermo León Valencia. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Humilladero Bridge, Popayán

This twelve arch bridge, built in 1873, was once the main entrance to the city. It spans a natural, awkward depression in the landscape that locals used to scramble across on their hands and knees – hence the name: He Who Bows In Humility Bridge.

Humilladero Bridge, Popayán, Colombia

Humilladero Bridge. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Mora Castilla, Popayán

Mora Castilla is a great little ma-and-pa restaurant selling all sorts of local dishes. Try the salpicón payanese, a drink made of blackberry, citrus, and crushed ice.

Mora Castilla, Popayán, Colombia

El salpicón payanese at Mora Castilla. Photo credit: Benjamin White

El Morro del Tulcán

A mysterious, pre-Columbian, grass covered-pyramid about which almost nothing is known, apart from that it is a mysterious, pre-Columbian, grass-covered pyramid.

Practical Information and how to reach Popayán:

Popayán is an easy, safe 2.5-hour trip from Cali – the so-called salsa capital of the world, and nearest hub.

The highway between Popayán and Pasto, near the border with Ecuador, is a little less safe; make sure you only travel during daylight hours. The same goes for travel between Popayán and San Agustín. More transport info here.

More on Colombia:

Southern Colombia:

San Agustín – cartoonish statues that protect the dead? 

Central Colombia:

The salt mines of Zipaquirá – ever seen a salt cathedral?

Bogotá – gold, graffiti. and Botero

La Candelaria Street Art – world famous graffiti in downtown Bogotá

Barichara – sleepy colonial town where they eat fat-bottomed ants

Villa de Leyva – Casa de Antonio Ricaurte, El Fósil, and a colossal public square

Northern Colombia:

La Ciudad Perdida – four day hike to the Lost City of the Tayrona priests

Santa Marta – oldest continually inhabited colonial city in Colombia

More on South America:


Perito Moreno Glacier – colossal ice wall

El Chaltén – meringue-like glaciers and jagged peaks


Iguazu Falls – greatest cascades on Earth

Ihla Grande – home to Brazil’s most beautiful beach


The Moai Quarry archaeological site, Easter Island

Mount Villarrica – trek to the top of an active volcano

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