Francisco José de Caldas Park, with it’s ancient towering trees and floral gardens, has marked the heart of Popayán’s colonial era historic district for almost 500 years.

Detail of sculpture on the front facade of the Church of San Francisco. This beautiful church–see header image above–is one of the few buildings in the historic district that is painted a color other than white.

If American playwright Tennessee Williams had been born in Latin America, it surely would have been in southern Colombia’s former capital of Popayán. Walking the lonely streets of Popayán’s historic center after nightfall reminds me of discovering a forgotten antebellum town in the southern USA, albeit with Spanish Colonial architectural roots.

Old Town Popayán gets up early every morning and makes sure to put on just a bit of lipstick and rouge for the day, but by nightfall she has lost her energy so she walks slowly home, closes her shutters and abandons her streets to the happenstance traveler who is curious enough to seek out unique cultural experiences not too far off the well-trod tourist trail.

The clock tower (Torre del Reloj) and the Cathedral (Catedral Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) share a prominent location opposite Caldas Park.

View from Ermita (hermitage) de Jesús Nazareno looking west with the blue dome of the Cathedral at center.

Take time to linger

At first glance, Popayán might not appear to be a debutant in the same league as San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Antigua, Guatemala or Cuenca, Ecuador. But to me, Popayán blends different elements of all three of these wildly popular colonial cities, all the while presenting itself as a poor dowager whose faded jewels and tarnished silver are hidden away and only brought out when unexpected company drops by on a Sunday afternoon. Or for the Easter celebration of Semana Santa, as the case may be.

Lovely arches of the National Palace (Palacio Nacional).

Palacio Nacional and statue of General José María Obando who served twice as Colombia’s president.

The first time I read about Popayán was via a 2016 post on a travel blog. Let’s just say the blogger was underwhelmed by the city during their visit, complaining about the deserted streets and apparent lack of university students milling about at night, despite the presence of one of Colombia’s oldest major universities. In fact, the University of Cauca buildings take up around 20% of the entire historic district.

I suspect the disappointed blogger may have visited during the summer vacation period like I did. The months of June through August offer the best weather in this unique region of southern Colombia with very little rainfall, but with students on summer vacation, a traveler can expect the streets of the old town to be deserted after 8:00 PM.

The Puente (bridge) del Humilladero is a marvelous Roman style bridge with 12 arches that connects Popayán’s historic center to newer neighborhoods to the north.

 

Puente del Humilladero as it crosses the Molino River.

The historic center was even more deserted on weekends with most shops and restaurants closed on both Saturday and Sunday. This was a major surprise to me since I live in a much smaller tourist town in northern Colombia which turns into a chaotic nightmare on weekends as the throngs of Colombian tourists fleeing Medellín descend in hundreds of cars and dozens of buses.

The White City

Popayán is known as La Ciudad Blanca or ‘the While City’ since almost all the buildings in the historic center are painted white. As a great lover of colorful Spanish colonial towns, I initially thought I might find the monotone cityscape visually boring, but the opposite was true.

When night falls, Old Town Popayán takes on a warm, romantic glow. The white walls are illuminated by vintage-style electric lanterns which cast a magical spell over the historic buildings. Honestly, it was frustrating to be a solo traveler walking such romantically lit streets.

The Church of Santo Domingo is one of many beautiful churches in the historic center. Many are open early each evening for music and communion which presents a great opportunity for experiencing the local community.

The white facade of Ermita de Jesús Nazareno as the hill climbs from old town heading east toward Belén Church (Sanctuario de Belén).

The uniformity of color and architectural style give the old town a feeling of continuity that’s often missing in other more popular colonial towns in Latin America. I was also impressed by the cleanliness of the streets. In other words, while Popayán is still a very sleepy town which hasn’t begun to exploit its charms commercially, there are some things that the city administration is getting just right.

Almost deserted streets looking east at Ermita de Jesús Nazareno with the (small) white facade of Sanctuario de Belén on the hill just behind.

Go now

Go to Popayán now before its city leaders wake up to the fact they’re living in a jewel of a location and it becomes over-run with both domestic and international tourists. If you’re like me you’ll love having the streets all to yourself and soaking up all that historical ambiance. But even better, take a special someone along to enjoy the romanticism of the historic streets at night.

In case you’re wondering, I felt perfectly safe wandering these almost empty streets alone at night. Whatever activity is going on—both good and bad—is most likely taking place in the newer sections of town. Of course, this situation could change as the number of tourists arriving increases and they become more visible.

On the other hand, there is reason to take care. You risk leaving a part of your heart on the historic streets of this very underrated  destination.

peace~henry

Note: If you visit Popayán, your first stop should be at the informative tourist office located just one block west of Caldas Park on Carrera 5 N #4-68. Just ask anyone on the street for directions to the Oficina de Tourismo. They offer a very good free map guide to the city.

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Posted by Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

23 Comments

  1. Great post! Loved the photos

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Thank you for the kind comments. I’m not a professional photographer like you, but sometimes the locations make up for my lack of skill.

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      1. Haha you are took kind. Keep up the good work!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Check out my blog when you get the chance 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. A very very beautiful place. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Yes, it is Dracul. And it’s so quiet and unpretentious. Amazing to find that these days. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

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  3. SO INTERESTING – INFORMATIVE – BEAUTIFUL . WELL WRITTEN – IN MAKING COMPARISONS TO OTHER LATIN AMERICAN HISTORIC DISTRICTS – SURPRISED AT THE ALMOST ALL WHITE – BUT WOULD GIVE A SPECIAL – DIFFERENT – OVERALL LOOK – HAD TO BE ESPECIALLY PRETTY AND MAGICAL AT NIGHT. AM ALSO SURPISED ATHE LACK OF CROWDS ON STREETS AFTER 8 PM OR SO – WOULD BE APPEALING ESPECIALLY IF ONE FEELS SAFE- THE PEACE AND SERENITY. HOPEFULLY LEADERS CAN KEEP A GOOD BALANCE OF CHARM AND PEACE AS SO CALLED PROGRESS MAY BRING IN TOO MUCH DEVEOPMENT, ETC.

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks dear Sister. You would love Popayán!

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  4. Beautiful! Reblogging this to my sister site “Timeless Wisdoms”

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Thanks Anna. Hope all’s well with you!

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      1. All’s as well as it has to be for me to be back to writing my fool haid off — seemingly a tall enough order for such a shortlist of requirements! I won’t lie and say I’m not open to cocreation of a touch more luxury in life, but we work with what we have. Thanks for the reach back, bro 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s good news Anna!

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  6. So beautiful..thank you for sharing this

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Jane!

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  7. So interesting – felt like I had a guided tour – Love your pics , so beautiful with all the white buildings & lighting at night – would be a shame to disturb that element of enchantment – Very Good Post ❤️

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    1. Thanks Sis! Wish I could have strolled the streets with you. I’m sure you would have enjoyed! love ya!

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  8. I came to Popayan about eight years ago and fell in love with the city. After half a lifetime of wandering from country to country, I have found where I belong. I was captivated by your blog about the White City. It is deliberately subjective. So unlike an encyclopedia entry. More like a dream sequence, but more informative than a dream. I have always been drawn to cities and countries that have a sense of their own history; and it seems that you, Henry, have picked up on that same vibe. I love that it is obligatory that all of the white buildings must be painted white shortly before Semana Santa. Every year, like clockwork, small armies of painters flow into the city to perform the annual ablutions. I admire the decisions of the city councils, generation after generation, that the traditions must be followed to the letter and that none of the buildings in the historic district can exceed two stories. In some respects, time almost stands still here. And Henry, you get that.
    As you can imagine, I have taken hundreds of photos of Popayan, but hardly any of the city at night, so I have missed that haunted aspect that you capture so well. Thank you for the fresh view of my favorite place.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Hola Holly,

      Yes, I too was captivated by Popayán and can certainly understand why you feel such a sense of belonging to that timeless place. Thank you for adding the details about the the city being freshly painted in a new coat of white each year just before the major festivities of Semana Santa. Thanks so much for offering a local’s point of view!

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  9. Catherine Crowley August 4, 2018 at 5:35 am

    wonderul place! magical!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    1. Thanks Cathy! It truly is a special place.

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  10. I truly enjoyed your night photography of Popayán. Honestly, the dimension of night lighting somehow gave me a more emotional connection to the town. Great writing, as always. Thanks for sharing this. xoxoxoxoxoxo

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    1. Yes, the historic buildings seemed to come alive at night with their warm golden glow. Magical! Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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