Pasto, the southernmost major city in Colombia, sits high in the Andes. It’s a six hour bus ride from Popayan on a road offering a look at some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes Colombia has to offer. Founded by the Spanish in 1537, the city’s name, Pasto, refers to the indigenous people, the Pastos, who inhabited the region at the time. It is one of Colombia’s oldest cities. Capital of the Narino province, it is called Colombia’s surprise city.
Since Pasto is halfway between Quito and Cali, most people just breeze through, stopping in Pasto for a transitory one night stop on their way to Ecuador or Colombian destinations north. Even guide books dismiss the city in a paragraph or two. This makes the locals feel short changed and ignored. There is so much to see and do here, they insist. You must stay longer. For the people who enjoy traveling off the beaten path, the locals are right. Pasto and its surroundings offers plenty of activities.
The historic center has some beautiful buildings and impressive colonial architecture. There are some handsome plazas in the center. Centrally located, Plaza Constitucion is the largest. But equally impressive is Plaza Narino and Plaza Carnaval. Pasto seems to have a church on every street corner. Our Lady of Mercy and the Temple Cristo Rey are the most impressive. There’s also a gold museum Museo del Oro Narino, a carnival museum, the Casa Taminango art museum and numerous parks. Plaza Bombona has a nice indoor artisans market featuring Narinese handicrafts: wood carvings, embossed leather, stone sculptures and hand-made wool clothing.
A medium size city of 500,000, Pasto sits at an altitude of 8,290 feet (2,897 meters) which is almost at high as Bogota. The city has a cool, median temperature of 55 degrees F. (13 centigrade). Tourists from the warm weather climates walk around all bundled up. The elevation causes visitors to come up a bit winded. Unless previously acclimated to the altitude in Popayan or Quito, it’s normal to be out of breath the first couple days in Pasto. Visitors who suffer acute altitude sickness may experience extreme headaches, swelling, aches, pains and nausea. The cure is to drink some of the local fruit teas like Chapil di Lulu to help ease the ill effects.
One can see most of the city sights in a day or two but don’t leave just yet. Pasto offers a good base from which to visit memorable nearby natural attractions like Volcano Galeras, Lake La Cocha and Las Lajas – the most beautiful church in Colombia.
Pasto is in the foothills at the base of the Volcano Galeras. At 14,029 feet (4,276 meters) it can be seen on a clear day towering above the town. The locals call the volcano ‘the sleeping giant’. It is Colombia’s most active volcano and has erupted in 1934, 1989 and 2006. The crater is currently off-limits after 9 people, 6 of whom were British geologist studying the volacano, perished in the crater back in 1992. But one can still explore the base of the volcano where there are numerous ravines, rivers, lagoons and a trail leading to the Galeras Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.
But if hiking up steep volcanoes in a low oxygen environment remains high on your list, there are a couple of volcanoes nearby where where scaling the crater is allowed. The Azufral Volcano has a beautiful, green hued, crescent shaped lake, aptly named Laguna Verde, on the northwest side of the crater. And on a good day, the distant Pacific ocean can be seen from the summit of Cumbal Volcano.
Lake La Cocha
One can also take a trip to Lake La Cocha. It is the largest lake in South Colombia, which sits in the crater of an extinguished volcano just 25 km. (a 1.5 hour bus ride) from Pasto – a pleasant day trip. The village has been called Colombia’s Venice, due to the numerous canals running through the town. It’s also called Colombia’s ‘ Little Switzerland‘ due to the affluence of Swiss styles chalets in lakeside town of Puerto El Encanto.
Boats will ferry you to Corota Island in the middle of the lake where there is a floral sanctuary to explore. The port town El Encanto is touristy. Nearly all the homes on main street function as restaurants. Their specialty is fresh lake trout, either caught in the lagoon or raised in neighboring trout farms. It is prepared fried or grilled but the best version is trucha ahumada (smoked trout). Best to visit during weekdays as this is a popular, local destination fills up on the weekends.
Las Lajas Church
Las Lajas Sanctuary, a catholic church located about seven miles from the Ecuadorian border, is considered the most beautiful church in Colombia. It was voted the most beautiful church in the world by the English newspaper ‘The Telegraph’ in 2015.
It’s a day trip from the southern Colombian city of Pasto to the Colombian border town of Ipiales. Though only 80 kilometers from Pasto, it may take up to 4 hours to travel each way due to current construction on the Pan-American Highway.
Some may find it a bit excessive for a day trip. But if you’re en route to Ecuador then the church is just a ten-minute taxi ride from the bus station in Ipiales. A visit to Las Lajas can be completed in couple hours. To continue onto Ecuador return to the bus station in Ipiales, a grab another taxi to the border (the crossing takes 2-3 hours). Coming from Ecuador, catch a bus at the terminal north-bound to Pasto.
Black and White Carnival January 2-7
If you’re in Colombia during the month of January one must see the Black and White Carnival called Carneval de Negros y Blancos. It takes place every year from Jan 2 – 7 when this mountain city comes to party. The six-day celebration draws tourists from Colombia and around the world. People take to the street in droves. Parades of floats and holiday revelers wind through the city. Everyone is dressed in colorful costumes, paint themselves with vivid creams and shower each other with white foam, flour and talcum powder.
The carnival is over 100 years old and it’s the largest carnival in southern Colombia; a fun and noisy way to bring in the new year. The day of January 5th is the black’s day and the people color their face and bodies with black cream parading through the streets shouting: ‘ Viva los negros’ or long live the blacks. January 6th is the white’s day and everyone is dusted white powder. The idea is to make all classes and ethnic groups the same for at least a day.
There are unique local specialties to savor. Cuy, or guinea pig, is served fried. Or try it flattened and impaled on a spit and put on a rotisserie till golden brown. Tastes like chicken and a bit like rabbit. Also try their smoked trout, sweet baked goods, ice creams and hervidos – fresh fruit juices boiled with sugar and anise flavored liquor guaranteed to warm one up.
Access to the Pacific Coast
Pasto is also connected via paved road 250 kilometers to the coastal town of Tumaco. Tumaco is a poor town and is also one of the world’s rainiest areas. There are beaches north of town where swimming is safe. The area is one huge mangrove swamp and boatmen offer tours to a myriad of villages and settlements located within the mangroves. The beautiful island-tourist resort of Boca Grande is just off shore. To get there take a boat from Tumaco for $6.