It’s a well-kept secret that the city of Popayán was the first city in the world to be registered as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. I have been there several times and was not aware of this fact. Indeed, it was not until I was doing research on Tucson that I learned that such a designation even existed, let alone that Popayán was the first city to get this significant accolade. In hindsight it does not surprise me – I have never had anything but an exceptional meal in Popayán – I was just unaware of the award.
It turns out that in 2004, with the aim of promoting a network of cities that cooperate in specific areas, UNESCO created the Creative Cities Network (UCCN). The seven recognized creative fields include Crafts and Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Media Arts and Music. Through this program UNESCO’s goal is to promote creativity and innovation by encouraging cities to co-operate with each other which will allow for more inclusive and sustainable development. It’s a fabulous idea and I want to spread the word that Popayán is a magnificent place to visit and not just for its cuisine! (And for the record Tucson joined the Creative Cities network, also for Gastronomy, in 2015.)
Let’s take a look at Popayán and its deep cultural heritage. The city has always had a rich and vibrant history as it occupied a strategic position between Ecuador, Bogota and Cartagena. Located in the Pubenza valley, between the Cordillera Occidental (Western Mountain Range) and the Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range) in the south-west of the country, it is the capital of Cauca region. It is a colonial-era city often nicknamed La Ciudad Blanca (White City) because of the whitewashed houses. Many important Spanish families, arriving in Colombia, built beautiful mansions, squares, parks and churches around the city. In fact, there are so many churches that Popayán has been labelled as having the highest number of churches per capita in Colombia! It is the birthplace of presidents, poets, writers and illustrious, historic Colombians.
Popayán has a favorable climate for farming and this, combined with its access to wealth through trade and the various indigenous groups living in the area encouraged its rich cooking traditions. This combination of great soil, wealthy Spaniards and seven different indigenous groups has provided a variety and diversity of food traditions that you don’t see elsewhere in the country. Restaurants, markets, and street stalls feature typical regional Caucá dishes based on indigenous traditions that have blended with Spanish and other European influences. It’s no wonder that each September, Popayán hosts the National Gastronomy Congress organized by Popayán’s Gastronomic Corporation since 2003.
The region’s gastronomy is especially rich in corn. This plant of Central American origin is kneaded by the people of Cajete (a rural town of Popayán) in order to provide a range of traditional foods. A typical dish that is made with the corn is sopa de tortilla which, with aged corn as an essential component, is mixed with ingredients such as ground meat, minced potatoes, thin slices of fried green banana, herbs and carefully selected condiments. Corn is also made into a dough create some wonderful dishes such as tamales de pipián and empanadas de pipián – a stew made from peanuts, red potatoes, onion, garlic and annatto – an orange-red condiment and food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote tree.
You must stop at a simple sweet shop right by Mora Castilla. Located in the corner of a small house the iconic Josefina Muñoz, better known as Doña Chepa, has been serving her aplanchados (cakes) more or less the same for some seventy years. Now in her 90s, her kids and grandchildren have taken over the business, producing the typical sweets.
Enjoy what street vendors have to offer (keep an eye out for chonta dura, a palm fruit cooked with honey and salt) or check out one of Popayán’s four markets: La Galeria del Barrio Bolivar, la Galeria de la Esmeralda, la Galeria de la Trece, and La Galeria de las Palmas.
Among the typical dishes you may find are the desamargados. These sweet treats are made of acidic fruits such as oranges and limes, or grapefruit lace cookies. If you’re into sweet biscuits try Doña Chepa’s aplanchados, a type of shortbread.
On Rincón Payanese you can alternate shopping for crafts with snacking. Several vendors here prepare Popayán’s famous empanadas de pipián, fried, stuffed turnovers made with the locally grown papas collaradas (colored potatoes); tamales also prepared with papas collaradas; and empanadas grandes with a potato called papa guata.
For a more fine dining experience stop at Balcón de los Santos which overlooks Popayán’s public park. Enjoy the view and the interior with its thick stonewalls painted white and red, shuttered windows and dark mahogany tables. The food is equally traditional and each dish is given a religious epithet such as Pollo a la Magdenlena and La Lengua de Judas that eludes to the restaurant’s name, ‘Balcony of the Saints.’
Talking of Saints , the famous Popayán Holy Week , Semana Santa in Spanish, has been celebrated every year around April for the last 457 years. The history of the festivities dates back to 1566, barely 30 years after the founding of the city. Because the Catholic tradition was introduced by the Spanish conquerors, the inhabitants of the city have a very strong Catholic faith. For this reason, over time, artists have dedicated their inspiration to the various passages of the Passion and Death of Christ. These processions, one of the oldest traditions in Colombia, celebrate the passion and death of Jesus Christ. During Holy Week six processions take place. The most important are the opening of Holy Week on Palm Sunday and the processions on Tuesday and Good Friday. During each procession, parishioners march in a sacred silence, interrupted only by the chorus intonation of prayers and antiphons. Ancient religious images are paraded through Popayán’s historical downtown streets with their historic baroque architecture hosting altars, sculptures and ritual objects of unique cultural and religious value. The images are arranged onto wooden platforms and then carried on the shoulders of “cargueros”.
Tens of thousands of people take part in the parades which were declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.
We would enjoy working with you to plan a trip to Popayán and a visit to the market at the nearby mountain town of Silvia. Here, the indigenous Guambiano people come for the Tuesday market. The Guambiano are considered one of the most traditional indigenous groups in the country still maintaining their own language and traditional dress.
Give us a call!