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Popayán, a city in southwestern Colombia and capital of the department of Cauca. The city was a major administrative and commercial center during the colonial period, but it declined in importance after 1850 and had an estimated population of only 239,087 in 2005.

Located in the foothills of the Central Cordillera at an altitude of 5,700 feet, Popayán was founded in 1537 by Sebastián de Belalcázar. In 1540 Belalcázar was named governor of the province of Popayán, which included the Cauca Valley as well as the region to the west bordering the Pacific Ocean. The indigenous inhabitants of the province, who were divided into numerous chiefdoms, resisted the Spanish fiercely and were never completely subdued, though their numbers declined drastically. Gold mining became the province's most important economic activity, made possible by the forced labor of Indians and later Africans.

The city of Popayán was the birthplace of numerous statesmen and intellectuals of the early national period, such as the scientist Francisco José de Caldas (1768–1816), and President Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera (1798–1878), and it became the capital of the huge state (later department) of Cauca. It was gradually superseded economically, however, by Cali. In addition, Cauca lost most of its territory as new departments, such as Nariño (1905) and Valle (1910), were carved out of it. Popayán remained important for its colonial art and architecture and its Holy Week processions. A severe earthquake on 31 March 1983 destroyed or badly damaged more than 5,000 buildings, but subsequent restoration work preserved Popayán's colonial character.

See alsoCauca Valley .


Andrew H. Whiteford, An Andean City at Mid-Century: A Traditional Urban Society. East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1977.

Peter Marzahl, Town in the Empire: Government, Politics, and Society in Seventeenth-Century Popayán. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

Additional Bibliography

Cieza de León, Pedro de. Crónica del Perú: primera parte Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1996.

Colmenares, German. Historia económica y social de Colombia. Santafé de Bogotá: TM, 1997.

Díaz de Zuluaga, Zamira. Oro, sociedad, y economía: El sistema colonial en la Gobernación de Popayán, 1533–1733. Santafe de Bogotá: Banco de la República, 1994.

Ramos Gómez, Oscar Gerardo. Sebastián de Benalcázar: Conquistador de Quito y Popayán. Madrid: Anaya, 1988.

Whiteford, Andrew Hunter. Two Cities of Latin America: A Comparative Description of Social Classes. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1991.

                                            Helen Delpar