Our initial reaction, after we read about this city in our guide book, was “Yeah, another Ciudad Blanca / White City”. Did not Arequipa / Peru adorn itself with the same fancy title? Only to have its few white colonial buildings disappear in a madness of honking cars / busses and exhaust fumes that make you dizzy?
What a difference! Popayan’s historic centre truly deserves to be called Ciudad Blanca! Literally every building is beautifully restored with elegant iron grills in front of the windows and massive wooden doors also decorated with iron works.
Most of the historic buildings house busy government offices, banks or insurance companies. Since Popayan is the capital of the department of Cauca, during the day the centre is milling with people lining up for whatever service they have come for. The city is also famous for its many colonial churches, and there surely is a demand – they are packed with worshippers in the evening, even on week days.
All this is even more impressive considering that many of the buildings were damaged or even destroyed in various earthquakes that plagued the city, the last one as recent as 1983.
Considering all these assets, why did it take two days of wandering around in the city before we encountered the first tourist? A wild guess – it is not earmarked as a must-place to go in the Lonely Planet. Let’s face it, backpackers are more or less the only tourists in Columbia, except maybe for Cartagena. So mainly travellers on their way to Ecuador stop here, maybe do a side trip to Silvia, and then move on. Few like us have the time or take the time to explore the area.