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Things to do in Popayan

Popayán, the historic “White City” of Colombia, isn’t just a destination for history enthusiasts. Its cobblestone streets and colonial architecture beckon travelers from around the world. Yet, beyond its well-documented past, Popayán holds a treasure trove of unique experiences waiting to be discovered. Dive deep into this guide to uncover the distinctive charms that set Popayán apart from other destinations.

1. Experience Semana Santa Like a Local

While Semana Santa is celebrated across Latin America, Popayán’s Holy Week stands out for its authenticity and grandeur. The entire city transforms into a stage for religious processions featuring meticulously crafted statues, some dating back centuries. To truly immerse yourself in this cultural extravaganza, consider:

  • Joining a Precession: Many locals participate in the processions, carrying statues on ornate platforms. While tourists can’t carry the main statues, joining a procession as a follower or spectator offers a profound insight into the city’s religious fervor.
  • Sampling Traditional Foods: Semana Santa is also a culinary event in Popayán. Seek out vendors selling traditional treats like torrejas (sweet fritters) and cuaresmeños (spiced candies) to complete your Holy Week experience.

2. Attend a Traditional Papayera Concert

Popayán is renowned for its vibrant music scene, particularly the papayera. A papayera is a musical ensemble featuring traditional Colombian instruments like the guasa, bombo, and gaita. These concerts, often held in local plazas or theaters, are a fusion of rhythm, melody, and dance.

  • Dance the Night Away: Don’t be shy! Join locals as they dance to the infectious beats of the papayera. It’s a fantastic way to connect with the community and let loose.

3. Explore the Indigenous Roots at Coconuco

A short drive from Popayán lies Coconuco, a picturesque town known for its thermal springs and indigenous heritage. The local Páez community offers guided tours that delve into their traditions, including:

  • Ceremonial Rituals: Witness ancient rituals that celebrate the earth and its natural elements. These ceremonies are a testament to the indigenous culture’s resilience and deep connection to the land.
  • Thermal Baths: After the tour, unwind in Coconuco’s natural thermal baths. The mineral-rich waters are believed to have healing properties and provide a rejuvenating experience.

4. Discover Popayán’s Gastronomic Delights

While Colombian cuisine is celebrated worldwide, Popayán boasts a culinary identity that’s uniquely its own. Beyond the well-known dishes like empanadas and friche, explore:

  • Local Markets: Wander through Mercado de Popayán, where vendors sell an array of regional specialties, from exotic fruits to artisanal cheeses.
  • Cooking Workshops: Several local organizations offer hands-on cooking classes where you can learn to prepare traditional Popayán dishes under the guidance of seasoned chefs.

5. Take a Nighttime Stroll Through the Historic Center

Popayán’s Historic Center is enchanting by day, but it takes on a magical quality at night. The colonial buildings, illuminated by soft lights, create a serene ambiance perfect for:

  • Ghost Tours: Join a guided ghost tour to hear tales of legends and mysteries that have intrigued locals for generations. It’s a spine-tingling yet fascinating way to delve into Popayán’s darker folklore.

6. Visit La Laja Archaeological Park

For history buffs, a visit to La Laja Archaeological Park is a must. This ancient site, dating back to pre-Columbian times, offers insights into the region’s indigenous cultures:

  • Guided Tours: Engage with knowledgeable guides who share stories about the park’s significance and the civilizations that once thrived there.
  • Artifacts and Exhibits: Marvel at the collection of artifacts, including pottery, tools, and ceremonial objects, that provide a glimpse into the daily lives and spiritual beliefs of the ancient inhabitants.

7. Attend the Festival de Música Religiosa

If you’re fortunate to visit Popayán in September, don’t miss the Festival de Música Religiosa. This annual event showcases choral and orchestral performances in the city’s historic churches:

  • Concerts in Historic Churches: Experience the acoustics of colonial-era churches as they come alive with the sounds of classical and religious music.
  • Street Performances: Beyond the formal concerts, the festival also features street performances, workshops, and interactive sessions that celebrate the rich heritage of religious music.


Popayán, with its blend of history, culture, and natural beauty, offers a plethora of unique experiences that cater to every traveler’s interests. Whether you’re seeking spiritual enlightenment, culinary delights, or simply a deeper understanding of Colombia’s diverse traditions, Popayán promises a journey like no other. Embrace the city’s unique charms, and let its stories, flavors, and rhythms captivate your heart and soul.