Amid rolling foothills at the southern end of the Valle del Cauca, Popayán is a small gem. Known as the 'Ciudad Blanca' for the stunning uniformity of its chalk-white facades, it is second only to Cartagena as Colombia's most impressive colonial city.
Founded in 1537 by Sebastián de Belalcázar, Popayán became the most important stopping point on the road between Cartagena and Quito. Its mild climate also attracted wealthy Spanish families from the sugar haciendas of the hot Cali region. In the 17th century they began building mansions, schools and several imposing churches and monasteries. Fortunately Cali overtook Popayán as the region's capital in the early 20th century, so the Ciudad Blanca was never bulldozed to make way for modernity like so many other Colombian cities.
Much of the city's historic fabric was seriously damaged by a violent earthquake in March 1983, moments before the much-celebrated Maundy Thursday religious procession was set to depart. The difficult and costly restoration was carried out over the next two decades, and the results are truly admirable - little damage is visible today.
Apart from its beauty, Popayán is a clean, tranquil and reasonably priced city. It has good food in all price categories, as well as a lively café culture, thanks to the city's universities. The weather is pleasant most of the year, although the best time to visit is from November to February, when the rainfall is lowest. The wettest months are June to September.