The historic centre of Popayán is considered the most beautiful and best preserved in Latin America, and whilst many have been given the nod by UNESCO, Popayán was appointed as the First UNESCO City of Gastronomy.
Some of the traditional foods and cooking methods here are very unique to Colombian culture, and have spanned many centuries. It’s best to preserve these things, right?
First impressions weren’t all that positive when we arrived in Colombia’s “White City” or La Ciudad Blanca, where the façades of the entire colonial city are painted white. The streets were deserted, no shops or restaurants were open and we began thinking it was a complete waste of time.
We later learned it was a public holiday, and much like a typical Sunday in many parts of South America, virtually nobody opens their businesses. Bad news for travellers, as food options are very, very lean.
Despite the city being in shut-down mode on our first day in town, there is enough in the old town to keep you occupied for a short visit.
The historic core of the city centres around Parque Caldas, a popular park used by locals and visitors to socialise, relax, escape the traffic-clogged streets, get your shoes shined or grab a quick bite.
You could easily wander the town and partake in a little church-spotting, and it comes as no surprise why Popayán has been labelled as having the highest number of churches per capita in Colombia. Honestly, it’s like there’s one on every block.
On the northern boundary of the historic centre is Puente del Humilladero, an 11-arched, 240m long stone bridge built around 1860. It actually looks much older than that. Right next to it is the much smaller single-arched Puente de la Custodia, built in 1713 to allow priests to attend to the sick in the poorer northern areas of town.
Be sure to visit the Silvia Market, held every Tuesday, 2 hours colectivo ride out of Popayán. More about Silvia Market here.
For some of the best views of Popáyan, head up to El Morro de Tulcán, a grassy hill that’s actually a pre-Columbian pyramid that dates to around 1535.
Some may think of Juan Valdez as the Starbucks of Ecuador’s coffee-chain scene, but unlike the latter, the coffee is actually very good. It’s here that we dosed up on excellent espresso whenever we had the chance, plus took advantage of their free wifi in the rear courtyard. The only downside is the tardy opening hours, but this is South America, after all.
Juan Valdez Café, Carrera 7, 4-44
Get you local breakfast fix at this corner that’s very popular with the weekday crowd. Scrambled eggs, tamales, empanadas, plain or cheese & choclo arepas, pastels and fresh juices. It may not rock your world, but it does open early.
La Chocolatada, corner Carrera 5 & Calle 4
When it comes to street food, Popayán didn’t seem to deliver much while we were in town. Most of it seemed to be on Parque Caldas in the afternoons – vendors slicing up some of the sweetest pineapple you may try or grilling up corn or skewers of sausage, chicken or beef.
If you need some serious cooling down and a bit of a sugar hit in one, order a raspado from one of the little carts in the parque. A cup of shaved ice, any colourful syrup of your choice and a good drizzle of condensed milk.
If you’re after some of those traditional snacks, as well as drinks, that are unique to the region, head upstairs to Mora de Castilla. The selection is fairly limited, but you could easily fill up on a selection of snacks.
I’d say definitely order the salpicón payabés, a very refreshing drink of mora (blackberry), lulo (naranjilla) and guanábana (soursop). Or go for champis, another unique drink made with maiz, lulo, pineapple and panela.
A plate of complimentary crispies hits the table soon after you place your order, then maybe a basket of delectable empanaditas de pipián (3000) – made with corn dough and stuffed with roasted peanuts and potatoes. Very addictive, especially the peanut sauce.
The tamal de pipián (2600) is also quite nice – peanut and potato mixed with pork.
Mora de Castilla, Calle 2, 4-42
This Mexican expat-run restaurant and bar may draw those that are up for a hit of Mexican stock standards, but we were there for drinks – namely the mojito which many folk seem to rave about.
Let’s just say we didn’t order a second round and ended up at El Sotareño, a tiny local’s bar dripping in dimly-lit ambience.
Tequila’s, Calle 5, 9-25
Anyone with a penchant for really good arepas that cost next to nothing ought to drop into this hole in the wall. Arepas are the draw, but there are burgers and sandwiches to enjoy with your beer or malteada.
I’d say skip the hamburguesa doble carne (9000) and focus on something like the arepa con pollo, chicharrón & carne (6500), down it with a Poker beer and watch whatever trash is on the television.
Rapi Arepa, Calle 5, 9-36
We got a colectivo from the Terminal Transipiales in Ipiales to Pasto’s Terminal de Transportes. It took 1½ hours and cost 5000 pesos per person. Once in Pasto, got a taxi into Centro to our hotel. Cost 5000 pesos.
We overnighted in Pasto and returned to the bus station and got a 9.30am Transipiales bus to Polayán bus station. Cost was 35,000 pesos per person and it took 6 hours.