This article has replaced the original text about Southern Colombia on May 2, 2021.
Pasto is the capital of the south-western department of Nariño with a population of around 400 thousand people. While the major tourist locations in the wider area are the cities of Cali and Popayán located north of here, Nariño also has a lot to offer, but not that many people seem to be aware of that, which gives it a certain “off the beaten path” vibe. Pasto is actually located on a Pan American Highway and quite a few travellers use the city as a stopover when travelling between Ecuador and Colombia, but not that many of them explore the beauty Nariño province has to offer. This post will therefore try to highlight few possible attractions and things to do in and around Pasto to tempt you into extending your stay in the region by few days.
Life in Pasto and Nariño province
The province’s territory was occupied during the Pre-Columbian era by numerous Andean tribes, including the Pasto tribe, which obviously gave the name to the province’s capital. Founded in 1537, Pasto itself is one of Colombia’s oldest cities. The settlement quickly established itself as a cultural, religious as well as trade regional centre.
One of the major events that affected the city is the fact that it stood by royal Spanish forces during the independence wars (1810-1816), which together with the mountainous nature of the region played a role in Pasto‘s partial isolation from the rest of Colombia in the post-war period.
The twentieth century however took the region out of isolation, mainly upon competition of Pan American Highway that cuts through it. At the height of the Colombian Civil War, given its remote/border location Nariño suffered under influences of numerous rebels-turned drug traffickers badly. Those influences are presently rare but not entirely non-existent. For instance, in 2020 a tragic massacre took place in the region.
When it comes to the local economy, more than 1/2 of its volume is still based in the trade industry. Local people often work in agriculture, mostly growing potatoes, wheat, barley and beans. Services, mining and famous local craft manufacturing are also quite common ways to make living around here.
Things to do in Pasto
Like many other settlements in this region, San Juan del Pasto is also a colonial Andean city, which means that it is often located at the foot of a volcano and at a high altitude. In this case, Pasto tick both boxes, although we’re talking about a relatively mild altitude of 2527 metres (82890 ft) above the sea level and the volcano is Galeras is also a bit lower than its friends south of here (4276m/14 029ft).
Most Andean cities also come with rich cultural diversity, mainly due to the high concentration of indigenous population. All of these properties usually mean that a visitor can expect some beautiful colonial architecture with many churches, stunning nature and various festivals celebrating the indigenous culture.
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about where we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into "want to go", once you arrive to the destination, it could make things easier for you to orientate yourself in the area, not to mention the (sometimes) helpful and informative reviews or the fact that it might also help you to determine your itinerary ;)
Blacks and Whites Carnival
For people keen on festivals and carnivals, Pasto is a destination known for its Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) that celebrates the local Andean, African and Hispanic traditions. To experience this giant party that lasts six days, you’d have to plan your trip to visit the city in early January.
Please note that booking your accommodation in advance is recommended as this event attracts a considerably large number of many Colombians, Ecuadorians as well as numerous tourists from around the globe. To boost your curiosity, please note that in 2009, UNESCO recognised the carnival as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for its emphasis on the multicultural aspect of the region. FYI, the carnival has also its own museum in the city’s centre.
Historical centre and museums
As for the non-carnival activities in the city itself, there isn’t exactly much to explore. Well, it’s certainly worth checking out Centro Historico with well preserved colonial architecture and colourful facades and plenty of shops. During your stroll in the centre, do not miss out on Plaza del Carnaval, the city’s main square Plaza de Nariño where you can enjoy a beverage in one of the cafés.
And then there are churches. Even for Latin standards, there’s quite a lot of them in Pasto. Another rather significant thing about the region is the local artisanal craft skills, which you could appreciate in the local shops and markets. There are, of course also few museums around. The most popular appear to be Taminango Museum, in case you wanted to learn about the art and culture of Nariño province.
Things to do around Pasto
Except for the Blacks and Whites Carnival, most of the beauty and fun Nariño province has to offer is located outside of its regional capital. If you are into rural tourism, I believe that you could find few places to enjoy around here, especially if you like volcanoes and wetland habitats.
Lake La Cocha and National Park Corota
La Cocha lake (also called Guamuez Lake), is a 20 x 5 km lake of a glacier origin located at 2 280 meters above sea level, about 20 km from Pasto. Except for the beautiful landscape of mountains that surround the lake, this is a superb location for visitors keen on wetland habitats. Since 2000, the lake is registered as a landmark of international importance within the Ramsar Convention, which is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. One of the lake’s small islands has been declared as a National Park (La Corota).
To get there, take a collectivo for 5000 COP (€1,15) from Pasto (your hotel receptionist should be able to tell you where to catch it), which will take you to the lake in under an hour. Boat ride to as well as around the island is 40000 COP (€8,95) to be split between passengers. Park entrance is further 1000,- COP. Depending on how much time you have available, you could either visit the island in a short day trip from the city or stay for the night in one of the numerous hotels on the lake’s shore, where you could enjoy the stunning landscapes together with the local hospitality for a bit longer.
Las Lajas Sanctuary in Ipiales
One of the major border crossings between Ecuador and Colombia is Tulcán – Ipiales and if you’re travelling to southern Colombia from Quito by road, you will most likely end up passing by here. From the tourism point of view, Ipiales is a gateway to one of Colombia’s national monuments: Sanctuary Las Lajas. The picturesque gothic church from the early 20th century that is built in a place where Virgin Mary allegedly appeared in 1754 to a mother with her half-deaf daughter, is built over the Guáitara river canyon.
Logistic-wise, once you arrive in Ipiales, you’d have to take either taxi or a collectivo. About 15-20 minutes drive for only 2200,-COP (€0.70) from the Ipiales‘ bus terminal would get you to a spot that is about 15 minutes walk away from the site. You don’t need to pay to get in unless you want to see the museum below the church, which will cost you 1500,-COP.
Vulcanos Galeras, Azufral and Cumbal
One of the popular activities nearby Pasto is visiting the Galeras Flora and Fauna Sanctuary to enjoy the local wildlife and get some amazing views upon hiking up Galeras Volcano (4276m), which is only 9km away from the city. Due to the fact that the volcano is active, a guide for this trek is required. People often opt for combining this trek with visiting Laguna Mejía del Volcán Galeras.
If you were into volcanoes, you are in a treat, because except Galeras, you could also check out Azufral (4070 m) with rather popular Laguna Verde and/or Cumbal (4764 m) volcano, both located south of Pasto. FYI, both of these volcanos are a good option for a stopover between Ipiales and Pasto, if you’ve based yourself for the night at a small town of Túquerres, where you taste the authenticity of the “off the beaten path” rural tourism even further.
Other possible attractions and/or activities nearby Pasto
In case you liked the region, there are still few nice options to explore the area even further. Staying in the “off the beaten path” vibe, north of the city, there’s quite a spectacular Cañon de Juanambú as well as Tajumbina Central Park with cute thermal springs. West of Pasto, you could opt to visit “a jewel in Nariño“, small picturesque village Sandoná with a gothic cathedral and stunning surroundings.
Go out and events
Except for the Blacks and Whites Carnival, there are also other occasions you could experience the local hospitality on a large scale. One of them is the city’s anniversary that once again brings up various cultural events on the streets of Pasto in June. If you are a religious person, you could perhaps consider visiting the city during Easter. Holy Week is a huge occasion around Latin Americas and it is celebrated with various pilgrimages to nearby mountains and, of course with church visits and proceedings.
In case you wanted to get social outside the carnival days, well there are plenty of opportunities to experience authentic Colombian nightlife. In case you didn’t know that already, Colombians are very social. However, in the of Pasto, I’d recommend finding a local person to take you around as I’m not entirely sure about the safety in the city when the night falls. If I were you, I’d check out the Showaround website to find a local friend who can do what the name of the website says.
As I’ve just said, I wasn’t exactly 100% sure about safety in the city at night. I mean Pasto isn’t exactly a place that’s packed with tourists so those few around are quite visible. When it comes to the daytime, I’ve felt perfectly safe but when I was heading out in the evening, I was told that the area around my hotel was seguro. And it was. But I didn’t know where exactly was the area’s borders and being the only gringo around, I hanged around few blocks, had few beers and headed back to the hostel.
Furthermore, in the light of being a rather forgotten region when it comes to President’s Duque‘s policies of regional development, certain echoes from the Colombian Civil Conflict resurfaced in the region in 2020. It has manifested itself in the tragic massacre of young people in Samiengo town not far from Pasto. Now, I am not sure the impact of such horrible incidents affect the tourism and safety in the province, but one thing is for sure: it’s horrible news not only for the families of the deceased students but also for the locals, who suffered enough in the past.
When it comes to short-distance regional traffic, there are either taxis or the complicated system of much cheaper collectivos, which is a fixed-journey shared taxi sort of thing, in case you didn’t know. Well, being a considerably large city, Pasto also naturally has its public transport service system but it’s even more complicated to work it out than the collectivos.
To get to the locations outside the city, I’d advise you to talk to your hotel receptionist about where to grab the right collectivo. It always worked for me. As for the city itself, if you stay in the centre, you shouldn’t need to use any of it because the centre is easily walkable on foot.
How to get there
- Quito to Ipiales: As far as I know there’s no direct connection between Quito and the Colombian towns of Ipiales or Pasto. One has to get off in the last Ecuadorian border town of Tulcan, take a taxi to the border and then take a taxi from the border to the nearest Colombian town of Ipiales. In practical terms, we’re talking about a 5hrs bus ride from Quito‘s North Bus Terminal (Terminal Carcelen) to Tulcán @ $6 USD. Taxi from Tulcán to the border @ $3.5 USD. Taxi to Ipiales Bus Terminal @ 10 000,-COP (€2.85). A word of advice: Check if there are any local festivals or national holidays that could turn your day at the border into a cue marathon
- Ipiales to Pasto: The alleged 2,5 Bus/van from the bus terminal took 4,5 hours (due to the 2019 road construction work) @ 9000,-COP (€2.55). Word of advice: sit on the right-hand side if you have a chance to enjoy the views 😉
- Pasto to Antonio Nariño Airport: 45mins taxi @ 45000,-COP (€12.80)
- Pasto to Popayán: There is a relatively frequent connection between the two cities. The alleged 5,5hrs journey will cost you 35 000,-COP (€7.85) and can take up to 7hrs
The city has a somewhat mild and stable climate that’s similar to for instance Quito, Ecuador. While the average temperatures vary very little though-out the year, it could sometimes get a wee bit cooler so having a jumper or a jacket would be a good idea. The driest months are June to September but the rainy season isn’t exactly horribly wet down there either.
While all major online platforms show a decent amount of accommodation options, but by not being a major tourist destination outside the carnival period, I’m not sure if they would be open 24/7 on an everyday basis. For that reason, in case you were to arrive late at night, I’d advise you to book your hotel in advance so they’d know you were arriving. The same would apply, if not to a larger extent for the rural accommodation options.
As for myself, I have “risked” staying in one of South America’s cheapest hostels Colombian House Hostal that had no reviews at the time and I was lucky. Run by a friendly dude who’s got a band and his attentive girlfriend, the place was spacious, offering a kitchen, a large terrace and a very friendly atmosphere. It’s not Hilton but you’ll get a clean private room for only $6,- USD per night. I would recommend the place to my mates on a budget.
Sort of conclusion
I’d say that if you were into “off the beaten path” locations, especially with quite a strong rural vibe, you could most certainly find Nariño province charming. Furthermore, the low level of tourism makes the experience of visiting the region rather authentic because, for the most part, you’ll be interacting with locals only.
If you however prefer taking up activities in groups with other Western travellers and stay in busy hostels, where you’ll also have your social life concentrated around other (Western) backpackers as opposed to interacting with locals, I’m not entirely sure if this would be the place for you to explore. But you never know – you might just grow to like such way of travelling one day because interacting with other cultures has a high potential to learn new things and to enrich your soul – at this could be the start 😉
As for how long you should plan your visit of the area for, except the busy 6 day carnival period, I wouldn’t stretch it to longer than a night in Pasto, plus 3-4 days in the country to check out some of the highlights of the region mentioned above. Well, that is unless you wanted to take things very easy and chill by on the La Cocha lake’s shore for few extra nights.
Please note that due to the many factors, many of which are caused by the ongoing policies of President's Duque's government regarding the marginalised communities in Colombia, the country has been experiencing escalating violent and deadly protests. I would personally not recommend travelling to the country right now. It's not just the road blocks. It's far worse, bloody and dangerous. Let's hope that situation will calm down. Colombians have suffered more than enough already ):
Useful and interesting links
- Turismo Pasto: a tour operator’s informative website about local tourism with news, info, blog and so on…
- Carnaval de Negros y Blancos: UNESCO’s page on the carnival
- Sandoná: City Paper Bogotá article about Sandoná village and Nariño department
- Colombian Conflict explained: a humble attempt to explain the complex nature of the bloody Colombian Civil War.
Other popular destinations nearby
Only a few hours north of Pasto, there’s one of the more visited destinations in Colombia. Dubbed “White City” because of the facades of its old colonial houses, Popayán undoubtedly belongs to a group of the most picturesque cities in Latin America. The city also has a strong and well-reputed coffee and restaurant scene and very very tall palm trees. If you are in the region, it is definitely worth your visit for few days. Read more about Popayán here on Wikitravel, in case you were interested.
Heading even further north, you’d enter the even more popular city of Cali, AKA “the world capital of salsa” that also comes with a massive party scene. There’s however much more to this large 2 million people city in the cosmopolitan centre of southern Colombia than just party, salsa and troubled past.
The city has numerous impressive sites and museums to visit, plus at about 1000m elevation only, that is combined with the Pacific winds it has a nearly ideal climate for your hangovers, not to mention the nature that surrounds the city. Read more about Cali here on Wikitravel, in case you were interested.
For a traveller that is keen on the “off the beaten path” location, here’s a true gem I was recommended by few local friends: Guaviare province. Due to its remote character, this previously guerilla-held Amazon-bordering area which was considered a no-go zone just a few years ago is now open to be explored by curious travellers. Whether it’s the hospitality of the friendly locals, mysterious cave pictograms in Serranía La Lindosa or Caño Cristales AKA the river of seven colours, one can apparently expect priceless memories.
Another little place I was told about by my Colombian friends is Desierto de la Tatacoa. It’s a magic little place with beautiful rock formations that is worth checking out if you were in the area.
Due to its incredible beauty, Quito was among the first two cities declared as a UNESCO site ever. I must personally approve UNESCO taste as well as demanding criteria because the Ecuadorian capital is truly breathtaking and charming. In case you were interested, click here for the complete Guide of Quito that lists places of interest, areas to stay, safety and other travel tips.