Popayán History

Popayán is one of Colombia’s prettiest historic cities. Centered around a small gathering of white ornamental churches, colonial mansions, and palm-festooned plazas, sitting in a temperate valley between the lush Andean highlands and the expansive cane fields of the Cauca Valley. 

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Popayan, Cauca

The colonial city was founded by the Spanish in 1537. While there are no records of its pre-Hispanic history, it is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in Colombia. During the colonial period, Popayán was an important urban center owing to its prime logistical location between Lima, Quito, and Cartagena.
The city has long been an administrative center and in the colonial era, landowners and mining enthusiasts dwelt there. This gave Popayán major cultural and religious importance and along with its architecture, a distinctive Spanish flavor.

The 481-year-old city is the capital of the Cauca department and is located in the Pubenza valley, between the two Andes mountain ranges.

The city is internationally recognized not just for its breathtaking colonial architecture, but also for its culture.
The site where Popayán was founded was an indigenous native settlement until Christmas Eve, 1536 when Captain Juan de Ampudia crushed the local indigenous inhabitants and subjugated the strategic site until the arrival of conquistador Sebastian de Belalcazar shortly thereafter. The abundance of gold and prime agricultural land made the Spanish invaders and the city of Popayán tremendously wealthy and powerful.
Gold mining became the most important economic activity, made possible by the forced labor of the indigenous and later on, African slaves.

The 1810 revolution for independence from Spain was opposed for the most part by Popayán’s elite, who continued opposing centralist rule from Bogotá until 1824 when a drastically reduced Popayán province became part of the Cauca department.

Throughout the history of Colombia, Popayán has been of tremendous importance, both politically and culturally. Indeed, eleven Colombian presidents as well as poets, composers, and painters were born in the city.

The University of Cauca (1827), which is located within the city, is one of the oldest and most renowned in all Colombia. A well-known university town, Popayán is home to eight different state and private universities. Today students are everywhere and the atmosphere is that of a university town.

Universidad del Cauca in Popayan.
Source: University of Cauca

If you’re a history buff and love to research destinations before you visit, check out our blog posts on the history of Santa Marta and the History of Guaviare. These articles provide information on the cultural and historical significance of these regions in Colombia

The city and all its splendor were nearly totally destroyed in 1983 when on Easter Thursday, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake struck. Popayán has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years after earthquakes, but this one was horrific. Mass was being held in the Cathedral Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in the Plaza Mayor. The earthquake destroyed the cathedral killing hundreds of people. The entire town was in complete shambles and most of the original buildings were destroyed.
The collapse of 448 years of history in just 18 seconds, as one historian put it, not only killed so many but left thousands homeless. This sparked one of the most impressive recovery processes in the history of Colombia.

While some of the ruins left by the earthquake are still visible today, many archaeological treasures have been restored. The historic downtown is rich in colonial architecture which has been preserved. Reconstruction took more than ten years. The cathedral was rebuilt and while the city still has some ruins and vacant areas, it is hard to imagine such devastation from the quake today. As a result of this event, the first earthquake construction code was established in Colombia.

Street Popayan

The cobblestone streets were shamelessly almost all paved over in 1937. Now there is a project to restore them to their former glory.

Popayán has a sizable residential area just outside the city center, with modern shopping centers and restaurants. Traveling up Carrera 9 leads to a more contemporary Popayán with plenty of fashionable areas.

The word Popayán comes from an indigenous language, with one of several theories being that the origin of the word derives from Pampayán in the Quechua language. Pampa (valley) and Yan (river) thus, the valley of the river, where the river refers to the Cauca River.
Indigenous people constitute less than four percent of the Colombian population, a much lower amount than in other Andean countries.
Indigenous Indian people make up a large part of the population of Cauca. These indigenous inhabitants of the province, who were divided into numerous chiefdoms, resisted the Spanish fiercely and were never completely subdued, though their numbers did decline significantly.

The Guambiano (Misak) live in the southern department of Cauca, many around the small mountain village of Silvia. They can be found mainly in this central mountain range of Cauca and are mostly a young population.

Guambiano Indigenous in Silvia

The Cauca Valley is also the home of 200,000 Paéz (Nasa), whose language is spoken by less than half of them and is related to Chibcha. The majority of Paéz is located in Cauca, where they live in and around the ancient archaeological site of Tierradentro.
Their territory was near the present-day city of Popayán in the Calima River Valley.

Few countries boast such a striking physical variety as Colombia. Its broken, rugged topography together with being on the Equator, creates an extraordinary diversity of climates, soils, vegetation and thus crops.

At the base of Puracé Volcano (15,603´/4,756m) on a tributary of the Cauca River, at an altitude of 5,702´/2,241m, the city is high enough to give it the most delightful climate, with an average temperature of 64f/18c.
Due to its altitude, the city is warm during the day and cool at night, with a short rain shower likely late in the day. The early settlers established sugar estates down in the hot, humid Cauca valley and then went back up into the mountain town of Popayán to live and raise their families.

Many of the best things to see and do in Popayán lie just outside of the urban area. After a day or two of visiting the city, Popayán can then serve as a base camp to see the many interesting places nearby.

Torre del Reloj
Constructed in 1673 Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower) is a simple plaza with whitewashed buildings.
Take a close look at the clock as there might be something unusual about it. So as not to spoil the surprise, go there and check out the clock. There is too an interesting story behind the construction of the tower.

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption
The cathedral is majestic and very photogenic and central to the city. The white facade has a calming effect and was rebuilt after the massive earthquake of 1983.

Catedral de Popayan
Catedral de Popayan

Thermal baths – Aguas Hirviendas at Coconuco
About 15 m/25k from Popayán, on the way to San Agustín, is Coconuco, a charming pueblo surrounded by verdant hills and waterfalls. In the mountains overlooking the town, is the magical site of Termales Aquas Hirviendas. Warm pools of water laden with sulfur are mixed with the cold mountain spring water with each pool having a different temperature.

The Silvia Market
This indigenous market in the pueblo of Silvia is open on Tuesdays, when the Guambiano tribe comes to market from their four villages of Pueblito, La Campana, Guambia, and Caciques. With only 12,000 of them remaining, they speak their own language and dress in wonderfully colorful traditional costumes. At the market, they sell their arts and crafts, vegetables, and fruit and in turn purchase staples such as rice, beans, potatoes, and farm tools to take back to their villages.
They travel in picturesque Chivas and congregate around the main plaza. They do not like cameras, believing photos destroy the soul.

Guambiano Indigenous in Silvia Market on Tuesdays

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Parque Natural de Puracé
Volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, natural springs, waterfalls, lagoons and grasslands are the main features of this large park. A volcanic area in the Andes, southeast of Popayán, on the way to San Agustín.
There are many beautiful springs including Termales de San Juan, which are steeped in untouched Andean magnificence. There are over two hundred varieties of orchids, thirty lakes and waterfalls.
Principal Colombian rivers, Magdalena and Cauca originate here. It is also home to a vast array of wildlife with spectacled bears, otters, sloths, pumas, deer, eagles and Andean condors all found within the park.
With the help of an indigenous guide, it is possible to hike to the crater of the active Puracé Volcano 15,000´/4,646m. A four-hour, seven km. climb to the top in a decent time of three hours. This is not a particularly hard climb, but the effect of altitude makes it more difficult than it should be.

Valley of Frailejonos in Puracé National Park

Popayán has a wonderful historical center and really is the best place to stay.
There are good quality lodgings to suit all budgets. If by chance you are planning to be there during Semana Santa (Holy Week) you need to book well ahead of time. This is a major festival in all of Colombia, but particularly here in Popayán.

Hotel Dann in Historic Center Popayan. Source: Hotel Dann

The culinary contribution of the three ethnic groups comprising the uniqueness of the Cauca people, with their variety of flavors, colors, and methods of preparation, allowed Popayán to be designated as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy in 2005.
The gastronomy of Popayán represents the cultural legacy of the region and has become an important tourist attraction thanks to its traditional and authentic style.

The pipián empanadas and tamales, the carantanta, the bittersweets, the different fruits of the payaneses, the aplanchados, the peanut chili, and the different types of bread all characterize the cuisine of Popayán and Cauca.

These dishes have been prepared in the same way over many centuries thanks to oral tradition.

Street vendors have so much to offer including chontaduro, a palm fruit cooked with honey and salt and other delicacies.  Also, go to one of Popayán’s four markets, where you can find a huge variety of fresh local fare.


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