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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.