Who wants to stay all the time on the beaten path? Pasto, the westernmost biggest town in Colombia, hardly features on any route plan. Truth is, the places in the north take the fame: postcard-perfect Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, the tropical paradise Tayrona Park or backpackers’ favourite Medellin. But in fact, Pasto is blessed with amazing nature around, Colombia’s most beautiful churches and laid-back vibes. So don’t miss this hidden gem, especially on your way to or from Ecuador.
Well, I know most travellers have limited time: that’s how I’ve been in the past…erm…many years. But imagine a city where people are friendly, there’s no tourist crowd (except once a year – read further to discover), and with a lot of possibilities for days out in gorgeous nature. Sounds convincing? Then add Pasto to your ever-growing list of places to visit in Colombia and read on for some concrete ideas.
Why go to Pasto in Nariño department
Let’s start with the basics. Pasto is the capital of the Nariño department of Colombia. In fact, its full name is San Juan de Pasto. Have you noticed that many South American cities have a long obscure name that hardly anyone uses?
Pasto was the theological center of Colombia. I wasn’t surprised to learn this, seeing the many beautiful churches the city boasts. (More about this later.) During the American Independence Wars it was a bastion of the royalist forces (read: the Spaniards). So after the independence, the city lived in relative isolation from the rest of Colombia.
Current day Pasto is a city of extremes (as one of our Couchsurfing hosts had said, spot on). Located near the border with Ecuador, you can find a mix of cultures there.
For example if your biggest wish is to taste a roasted guinea pig, here’s your chance. Pasto is the only Colombian town where you can find them in restaurants (and on the street). We won’t tell you how they taste, being vegetarians. However, we can tell you that it’s a common food in Ecuador and Peru. So if you travel southbound you’ll see it often on the menu. Look out for the word ‘cuy‘.
Apart from typical culture, the other highlight of the area is the great outdoors. Nature lovers won’t be disappointed, as the Andes lie in the Nariño department and is home to many beautiful hiking spots which are hugely off the path of most travellers. Pasto and Nariño are a great change from the most famous crowded hikes of South America, like Machu Picchu.
Your must-see visit near Pasto: Lajas sanctuary in Ipiales
On our way from Otavalo to Pasto, after a tedious border-crossing from Ecuador, we headed to Ipiales. This small unremarkable town is the gateway to the Lajas sanctuary. I had to motivate Anthony to do the detour; he’s always affected by the administrative hassle of border-crossing, so he just wanted the day to be over.
But the Lajas sanctuary (Santuario Virgen de Las Lajas) is very near the Ecuadorian border, so if you are travelling from / to Ecuador, you must visit it.
You don’t often see the word “must” on Green Mochila – our advice are usually rather “shoulds” and “woulds”. But in this case, I’ll be fearless and unsheathe a “must”. Just look underneath at pictures of this majestic church and you’ll understand why.
Tip!If you do cross the border near Ipiales, we recommend another short pit-stop in Tulcán, on the other side. The cemetery of that small town is very special and fascinating!
Visiting the Lajas sanctuary
The Lajas sanctuary is a small church built in the valley above the Guaitara river. The road leading down to it is pedestrianized, so prepare for a steep way down and a steep back up. Or you can take a cable car to skip the steep slopes but that won’t bring you to the church itself.
The most beautiful neo-Gothic church in Colombia is a national pilgrimage place for religious people and tourists alike. The many spiky towers and ornaments reminded me of Neuschwanstein castle in Germany, which was made world-famous by Disney’s logo. In fact, if Neuschwanstein is the Disney castle, Lajas could well be the Disney church. But psst… don’t tell Disney about this million-dollar business idea!
The interior of the church left me just as astonished as the outside: instead of the traditional religious elements like saint sculptures and exquisitely carved wooden altar, the decoration was rather modern, with abstract shapes and bold colours. The interior is completely in contrast with the traditional exterior.
The best views of the sanctuary are from the many lookouts further on the other side after crossing the bridge. You’ll also appreciate the surrounding green hills and the river. Apart from the famous picturesque photo you should also take a 360 degrees picture to include the two waterfalls a few meters down. It’s really a scenery worth a million [insert your currency here]!
As I sat down at the end of the bridge to draw a picture of the church, a sweet local child came to me out of curiosity. He told me that he was on holiday too, with his parents, from a neighbouring department. In fact, we saw at Lajas more national visitors than foreign tourists.
Things to do in Pasto, Colombia
After a full day spent crossing the border hop on hop off, we finally arrived in Pasto. We felt like indulging in Colombia, the country we were so looking forward to set foot on! This city is a perfect place to start, and we didn’t expect it to have such a variety of activities.
What truly mesmerised us on the first day was the many beautiful churches in Pasto. Colombia (like the rest of South America) is a very catholic country, where indigenous beliefs are not as strongly present as in other countries of the Andes, like Peru and Bolivia.
The ancient indigenous belief system is still very much alive today. Want to know more? Read our article about it.
On a nice sunny afternoon we went church-hopping and visited a great many number of them. They are surprisingly built in quite different styles. Luckily, most of them were open, so we didn’t have the issue of closed doors as often happened during our trip.
For some reason, we really like visiting churches. We admire them from an artistic point of view, and get lost in the local peculiarities of the decoration. They also tell much of the history of a place, the hazards of wealth, the battles for power. Here are my favourite ones in Pasto:
Pay a visit to the local market
If my church visits are purely platonic, I am a strong believer in markets. I mean I strongly believe that markets are great spots to really learn about the local life.
We always stop by on our first walk in a new city, sometimes merely to have a look. Colombian markets are just the thing, and Pasto is no exception to that! They not only sell delicious fruit and veggies, they also have a super local canteen area where individual booths sell breakfast, lunch, and freshly prepared juice made from regional fruits.
If you are a responsible traveller and a zero waste fan, markets will be an important shopping place for you too, as they sell most of the things package-free. You can even find things such as cheese and butter package-free – what a heaven! Don’t forget to bring your own shopping bag.
The Pasto market (called “Dos Puentes“, Two Bridges) is small, but has all the essentials: we got an introduction to all the fruits and veggies we would see all along in Colombia. It’s an atmospheric and authentic local life-spotting place. We had a juice made of borojo and maracuya – both are typical exotic fruits from the region.
Nature, nature, nature
Now, the big thing in this region really is the nature that surrounds Pasto. Travellers often arrive unprepared and miss this beautiful paradise.
Honestly, this was exactly our mistake (facepalm). But hopefully you, dear reader, will plan sufficient time after this post to wander out and about. For sure, next time we visit Colombia, we’ll discover the beautiful spots in the great outdoors of Pasto. Until then, I gathered the below information from these Colombian websites: Colparques, Experience Colombia, Colombia.travel.
So let’s see which places we wish we had heard of before setting foot in Colombia…
La Cocha lake (Laguna de la Cocha)
Alright, we actually did hear about this lake before crossing the border, but decided not to visit it. Just the day before, we hiked around the Cuicocha lake in Ecuador. We thought it was enough -cocha lakes for now.
However, if you feel the hikers’ boogie, Colombia’s second biggest lake offers very pleasant activities for your day out from Pasto: hike around the lake, take a boat tour between the small islets, rent a kayak, eat regional meals in a local restaurant.
Being only an hour bus ride away from Pasto, you don’t even need to wake up that early! This area is actually part of the Amazonia, so if you don’t have any other trip planned to the rain forest, I believe this should be on your list.
Read about our unforgettable camping trip to the Peruvian Amazonia. The best hike in my life!
And if you’re still not convinced: some indigenous groups consider this area specifically high in positive and healing energies. In fact, they say that this is the place with the second highest amount of energy after the famous Machu Picchu, where human and nature are in perfect harmony.
Lake of the Azufral Volcano (or Laguna Verde)
Have you ever seen a lake and thought you must be hallucinating? The Azufral volcano lake in Nariño brings this feeling to the next level.
The lagoon that’s aptly also called “Green Lake” is at a spinning 3900m altitude and is hugged by three volcanoes: Chiles, Cumbal and Azufral. The water is close to boiling point at certain places, since the volcano heats it up. If you can still breath, it’s also possible to hike up to the top of the Azufral volcano. It just takes an additional 100m to enjoy stunning views of the region.
Hopefully by now your eyes are sparkling with excitement (Hungarian expression), so here’s the practical info. There are two starting points:
- from Túquerres (70 km from Pasto) following the Los Tanques path, which is a 12 km dirt road type of path;
- from Espino (82 km from Pasto) with the Cementerio (cemetery) path.
From Pasto you first need to get to one of these two villages to begin the hike, or book a tour; there are plenty of local tour agencies offering this hike, just book on the spot.
If you’d like to camp in the area: there’s no camping at the lake, but wild camping is allowed. Make sure you have enough warm clothes and reliable tent and sleeping bag. The average temperature by day is 8 degrees celsius and it can drop even lower at night.
Also, remember that the lake is at high altitude, so prepare yourself with acclimatisation and coca leaves / tea if necessary. A few years ago the trail was closed as irresponsible tourists damaged this fragile ecosystem. Please take extra precaution to leave no trace and keep on the hiking path. Go green, go to the Green Lake!
Juanambú Canyon Park (Parque Cañon de Juanambú)
This adventure park is set in a beautiful valley with a river, rolling green foothills of the Andes and a climate that is said to be one of the healthiest in the world. It can be the favourite spot of those who like outdoor sports, like rafting, kayaking, rappelling, hiking, climbing and canyon tours.
Apart from this, there are three thermal pools to enjoy after an active day, and a camping to stay at. The park is an hour north from Pasto, ideal for adventure travellers and families.
Tajumbina thermal spring
Those who are up for a hot-cold challenge shouldn’t miss the Tajumbina thermal springs. The water temperature reaches 62 degrees celsius, while the air is only 10-12 degrees.
We had similar fun in Baños, Ecuador where I (almost literally) jumped between the 18 and 45 degrees celsius pools. Such a quick temperature change is good for the blood (so they say). The spring is located among the volcanoes Galeras, Azufral and Doña Juana, so your eyes can relax on the beautiful, green scenery too.
Read more: Hot baths and more in Baños, Ecuador
And finally, another volcano – the symbol of Pasto – which is so near that you can see it on a clear day from the city. It’s home to 100 species of birds, out of which 16 are different types of hummingbirds! Test your eyesight: are you able to make out the different types?
Just a small warning though: this volcano near Pasto is the most active in Colombia and it erupted in 1993 the last time, killing a team of volcanologists and tourists. Don’t mean to scare you off…
The carnival of blacks and whites
If you are lucky to travel to Colombia in January, don’t miss the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros which takes place every year in Pasto. This is one the most famous festivals in Colombia. The UNESCO-listed carnival is held between 2-7 January in Pasto and it draws a huge amount of national and international visitors.
The origins of this carnival goes back to the black and white ethnicities of the country, and nowadays it’s the celebration of diversity. Local and national groups work on their elaborate costume for months just to parade on these days, and the results are amazing, colourful and… messy!
The city becomes a huge party for the days of the celebration, people throw foam and rainbow coloured powder at each other, so better not wear clothes that are valuable to you.
If your dates don’t match with the carnival, you can still get a sneak peak into the carnival world. Visit the Museum of Carnival in Pasto where you can see traditional costumes and learn about the background of the celebration.
What to eat & drink in Pasto, Colombia
As with many towns close to country borders, Pasto enjoys a varied cuisine with both Ecuadorian and Colombian dishes.
One of the region’s specialities is the guinea pig that they prepare fried or roasted. If you travel north, this is your last chance, since they don’t eat guinea pigs in the rest of the country.
Being super fans of street food, in Pasto we quickly discovered the Colombian arepas. It’s a corn flour fried disc filled either with cheese or with meat. Those of you who are travelling longer in Colombia will find arepas EVERYWHERE, and will notice that their type, size and price change from town to town. Psst! Let me tell you that the arepas of Pasto were the best value for money we found in Colombia; they are big, cheap and the quality is good.
Our other vice regarding food are bakeries. So we were very happy to find a nice bakery very near our accommodation, the Panaderia Sabropan bakery. It’s a great place for breakfast. We quickly discovered the local savoury speciality, called almojábana: a palm-sized soft scone baked with cheese. It’s best enjoyed warm, so make sure you ask at the bakery to warm it up.
Colombia is famous for its tropical fruits coming from the Caribbean coast and Amazonia. The best place to drink a delicious juice made of local fruits is the local market; so go get a cheap juice and watch people buying, selling, gossiping.
Where to stay
Pasto is full of accommodation, so in low season and outside of the Carnival of Blacks and Whites there’s no need to book in advance.
A local Couchsurfer recommended us a cheap hotel next to the central square, the Hotel Koala Inn. It’s a two-storey building with an elegant inner patio. We took the cheapest room which was a twin room with two single beds and shared bathroom on the corridor. A friendly family runs the hotel and everyone was very helpful.
Is Pasto safe?
Colombia has a long tradition of violence, and even today gangs are not uncommon in towns. We felt safe in Pasto in general. Only the area between the bus station and the town centre looks somewhat seedy.
To stay safe in Pasto, and in general in Colombia, it’s important that you follow these rules:
- Don’t walk on the streets outside of the tourist area at night, especially not alone
- Don’t walk alone on empty streets even during the day
- Right upon arrival, ask a policeman or at your accommodation which areas to avoid and avoid them day and night
- Don’t “give papaya” and show any valuables: don’t carry your phone or your camera in your hands
Crossing border from Otavalo in Ecuador to Pasto in Colombia
The way from Otavalo to Pasto was one of our longest border-crossing days. Our route was the following:
Stage 1: from Otavalo to Ibarra (Ecuador)
Stage 2: from Ibarra to Tulcán, on the border.
Stage 3: we took a minibus from Tulcán main square (20 min walk from the bus station) to the border. It runs very frequently, just walk to the cars, take a seat inside the car and wait until it gets full. The driver collects the price right before starting the engine.
At the border
The minibus might drop you off at the Colombian border, which is technically after the Ecuadorian border, in the no man’s land. But in order to get your exit stamp you need to walk back to the Ecuadorian side. Don’t be afraid to walk back, the border police will let you pass.
We had to queue long at the Ecuadorian customs window just to be told to go and photocopy our passports. There’s a photocopy shop on site, but you need to pay yourself, so keep some dollars! Luckily we managed to skip the queue upon returning, but the customs officer took our passports to do some manual controls*. After about half an hour waiting, we could cross to Colombia.
On the Ecuadorian side we saw a lot of Venezuelan refugees who seemed to be waiting there for ages, lying on blankets and in small tents. There were UN workers on site too. Then, on the Colombian side of the border, everything was faster. After a short queuing we got our entry stamp and could leave without any bag checks.
*If you enter Ecuador in La Balza, south of Vilcabamba, the customs don’t have any computer and register you manually. Then, upon exiting Ecuador again, controls will have to check your entrance date.
Stage 4: from the border to Ipiales.
The only way to get away from the border is with a taxi. Choose the cheaper variation, the taxi colectivo, a taxi that people share. Team up with fellow travellers for a cheaper individual price.
Stage 5 (detour): from Ipiales to Lajas sanctuary; then back.
Another taxi colectivo; there again, build up a team! The good thing is that Colombian taxis list their prices in the car.
Stage 6: from Ipiales to Pasto, we took a bus for 10,000 COP. When we bought our bus ticket, we found out that it’s also possible to haggle bus prices at the official ticket counter! Really didn’t expect this…
Check out my haggling technique, used and perfected on the Otavalo market
Responsible tourism in Pasto and Colombia
Anywhere we travel, keeping true to sustainable habits is important. In South America, this is not easy. Some measures we take for granted in the Western world just don’t exist there.
Still, there are many basic practices we should be able to keep to, such as buying local fruits and veggies at the market, bringing our own bag to the shop, picking up your rubbish and the one you find in nature.
See a list of our recommendations for responsible tourism in South America
Apart from that, there are other, location specific things we can do. For example, buy local art! Pasto has its own painting style, often applied to wood. This elaborate painting technique is a pre-columbian, indigenous tradition in Pasto.
The paint is made of a certain wild bush – called mopa-mopa – found in the forest of the Amazon basin. Nowadays local woodcraft artists sell their works in the city. You can find jewellery boxes, trays and plates made with this technique.
If you decide to take a piece home, rather buy it from a local craftsman – the best place to find them is at local craft markets.
What kind of traveller are you? Do you travel on a tight schedule, or give yourself time to wander?
Tell us in the comments below!
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