Pasto is the capital of Nariño Department, which is Colombia's most
South Westerly department. Most travellers simply pass through coming
from or going to nearby Ecuador, but there's actually plenty of very
interesting and scenic tourist sites nearby that are well worthy of a
few days exploring.
With greatly improved security in Colombia in recent years, the
traditionally dangerous departments of Nariño (and Putamayo) are seeing
their rural areas slowly open up to tourism. None-the-less, err on the
side of caution in more remote, rural areas of Southern Colombia.
Travelling from Pasto down to the Pacific coast at Tumaco is probably
still not particularly safe.
is a pleasant enough Andean city with a few fine colonial era buildings
that lies in the shadow of an active volcano. January 5 and 6 sees the
annual Carnival de Blancos y Negros, a riotious carnival involving a
lot of face painting and drinking - this is certainly one of Colombia's
best festivities/carnivals. The rest of the year, there's not a huge
amount to do in Pasto, other than use the city as a base to visit
nearby sites of interest or to travel onwards to the border with
Ecuador (2 hours away - for safety reasons, avoid travelling this road
at night - by day it's safe and is a very scenic journey).
People from Pasto are very friendly folk, they are rather unfairly regarded as being the most stupid people in Colombia though!
Pasto has a variety of hotels - Koala Inn is supposedly the best backpacker accommodation. Hotels (with websites only in Spanish) include Loft Hotel, Fernando Plaza and Hotel Galerias.
The best day trip from Pasto is to visit the beautiful lake called Laguna de la Cocha.
Boat rides around the lake are good value - the highlight of such a
tour is the small nature reserve at Isla de Corota, a small island (and
National Park) with well preserved cloudforest and wonderful views.
Laguna de la Cocha is less than an hours drive from Pasto and can
easily be visited on a day trip (take a taxi from Pasto, or shared
taxis depart regularly). There's various hotels here, romantically
located overlooking the lake - the best of which is probably Hotel Sindamanoy (website in Spanish only).
is a wonderful, emerald green lake found in the crater of the extinct
Volcan Azufral. Ask locally (try the tourist office in Pasto) about
joining an organized tour to this lake, and check that is safe to do so.
Depending upon current seismic conditions, you might also be able to climb Volcan Galeras,
the active volcano which looms over Pasto. On a clear day, the views
stretch as far as the Pacific coast of Colombia. There are land mines
in the area though.
Ipiales, Santuario de las Lajas & South towards Ecuador
is pretty much right on the border with Ecuador - there's no point in
staying in this border town unless you have to (border towns are never
attractive in South America). However, Ipiales does have a colourful
indigenous market on Friday mornings.
The real travel highlight in this area is Santuario de Las Lajas,
a church which is spectacularly located in a mountain gorge (see photo
to the right). Santuario de las Lajas is located just 7km from Ipiales,
so taking a taxi costs very little. If you want to avoid Ipiales
altogether, there's also shared taxis that leave from Pasto (about 2
hours travel time). If you want to spend the night in this area,
there's a few hotels located next to the Santuario (hence no need to
spend the night in Ipiales).
It's a short and simple hop from Ipiales over the border to Ecuador
and the town of Tulcan. If travelling from Ecuador into Colombia, in
Ipiales there's a large and modern bus terminal with buses to Pasto (2
hours travel time), Cali (10 hours) and Bogota (25 hours) as well as
other destinations. Remember, it's not particularly safe to travel
North between Ipiales and Pasto late at night (due to bandits rather
than guerillas - plus you'd miss the stunning scenery). Note that both
Pasto and Ipiales have an airport serving domestic destinations in
Colombia (check Satena or Avianca airlines).