Pasto made a big impression on us.
One of the first things we noticed upon arriving in this medium-sized city in far southern Colombia was the slogan “Pasto: Cuidad Sorpresa,” the Surprise City. It’s everywhere – on buses, billboards, tourist maps. And it didn’t take us long to understand why: Pasto surprised us with its many beautiful and historic churches, rich colonial history, and gastronomic delights. Pasto is well off the tourist radar, but it was a perfect home base for us to tick another box on our Colombia bucket list, the world-famous Santuario de Las Lajas near the Ecuador border.
The capital of Nariño department, Pasto sits in a high Andes valley at 2,500m/8,500ft. It’s one of Colombia’s oldest cities, founded by the Spanish in 1537 and named for the indigenous Pasto people who inhabited the region at the time. Looming over Pasto is Volcán Galeras – one of 25 monitored active volcanos in Colombia.
Since Pasto is halfway between Quito, Ecuador and Cali, Colombia, it’s more of a stopover for travelers than a tourist destination. That’s a shame, because there’s so much to see and do in Pasto and nearby Laguna de la Cocha. Pasto is made for walking, with most of the prettiest churches and other key landmarks within a few blocks of each other. The city has done a nice job of supporting visitors with tourist information offices and bilingual signage at points of interest.
Getting There/Getting Around
Pasto is not easy to reach over ground. It’s a 12-hour bus ride from Bogotá and a six-hour ride from Popayán over some seriously rugged (but beautiful and dramatic) mountain terrain. We decided to fly from Medellín on Avianca, connecting in Bogotá for the 1.5-hour flight to Pasto. (The airport sits on a high, narrow ridge, which makes for an exciting landing and take-off!) The airport is actually about 17 miles from the city center, but a taxi to or from downtown Pasto is only about $55,000 COP ($12 US).
For the first couple of days, we rented a car to streamline our visits to Laguna de la Cocha and the Santuario de Las Lajas. Rental options are limited in Pasto; there are no national chains such as Localiza, our preferred agency. We chose the top-rated company, Rent-A-Car/Pasto, but the car was a dud – with suspension problems and a bald tire that finally gave way on our way back to our hotel from the Santuario. Luckily, we were just outside the Pasto city limits, and the Rent-A-Car people were very responsive and also refunded our money for the day we decided not to use. Bonus: We learned how to say “We have a flat tire” in Spanish! (¡Tenemos un pinchazo!)
Within Pasto, Uber and taxis are plentiful and super-cheap. We had one of our best experiences to date with Uber there; it’s fast and reliable.
NOTE: Photos are in galleries. Just click on the first to see the caption and a bigger version, and click through the rest.
A City of Iglesias (Churches)
The early Spanish settlers must have thought Pasto was a pretty sinful place, because they established more than 30 Catholic churches, seminaries, and convents in the city limits alone. As the friendly agent in the tourist office told us, for that reason Pasto today is known is one of Colombia’s primary theological centers. Many of the churches are gorgeous inside and out, and several are beautifully lit in the evenings.
Speaking of Churches: The Santuario de las Las Lajas
When we first saw pictures of the Santuario de las Lajas, it didn’t seem real – almost like a fairyland castle in an imaginary kingdom. And now that we’ve seen it for ourselves, we can say that the Santuario is one of those rare places that is just as spectacular in person as it is in photos. The Basilica Santuario de las Lajas sits high above a deep gorge carved by the Guáitara River only 11 km from the Ecuador border. The site of a miraculous appearance by the Virgin Mary, the beautiful neo-gothic church is a Colombian national treasure that draws Catholic pilgrims from both Colombia and Ecuador.
The story begins in 1754, when a mother and her deaf-mute daughter sought refuge from a storm in between two large slabs (“lajas”) of rock. A bolt of lightning struck and imprinted an image of the Virgin Mary on the rock face, and the daughter was suddenly cured of her deafness. The locals built a small chapel at the site, which began to draw pilgrims seeking healings and other miracles. That chapel is long gone, but the current church, built in the 1940s, still encompasses the rock wall and image at the rear of the altar.
The Santuario de Las Lajas is located in the town of Potosí near the city of Ipiales, about a 1.5-hour drive south of Pasto. For much of the trip, we drove on a beautiful four-lane highway. (Colombia is making a lot of strides in upgrading and expanding its highway systems, and this is one of the newest projects.) Las Lajas is also easy to reach by bus, and a taxi ride costs about $14. Rome2Rio gives all the details here.
The Santuario is about a 15-minute walk down the footpath from the (well-marked) parking lot. Or, you can do as we did and take the Teleferico (cable car), beginning before you get to the parking lot. It was a scenic and relaxing ride! Here’s the Teleferico website for complete info, including hours and fees.
Here’s a video John made that really captures the majesty of Las Lajas:
Laguna de la Cocha
Most visitors to Pasto make a stop at Laguna de la Cocha, a gorgeous high-Andes lake and Colombia’s second largest (after Laguna de Tota, which we’ve also visited). La Cocha is also a primary source for the Amazon river – with its waters passing through the Guamez and Putumayo rivers before reaching the mighty Amazon. Located about 20 km from Pasto, the lake is ringed by beautiful mountainous terrain with the islet of La Corota – Colombia’s smallest national park – at its center.
The lakeside hamlet of El Encano, aka El Puerto, has been labeled “The Venice of Colombia” for its numerous canals and small footbridges. You’ll also notice that many of the pretty, flower-bedecked houses bear a striking resemblance to Swiss chalets, earning El Encano another nickname, “Little Switzerland.” According to the locals, the chalet trend was started a few decades back by a Swiss immigrant who opened a hotel modeled on the guesthouses of his home country.
Two Awesome Museums
Pasto is known for its Carnaval de Negros y Blancos festival, held every January to celebrate the area’s melding of African, indigenous, and Spanish cultures. A visit to the Pandiaco Cultural Center, also known as the Carnaval Museum, is the next best thing to attending the live event. It’s a small museum, easy to navigate in half an hour or so – but its ginormous and colorful floats, hand-crafted by local artisans for past Carnavals, are fun to see. It’s a must-visit, and entrance is free!
We also enjoyed our visit to Museo Casona Taminango, occupying one of Pasto’s oldest houses (built in the early 17th century). The museum, now a Colombia national monument, celebrates the region’s cultural, artistic, and economic heritage. We were taken through by a friendly guide who spoke no English, but we were surprised how much we understood. Maybe our Spanish comprehension really is getting better!
The Culinary Scene
Another Pasto surprise for us is the city’s growing reputation as a culinary center, and its Distrito Gastronomico has outstanding restaurants to suit virtually every taste. We especially enjoyed La Catedral (TripAdvisor’s #1 restaurant), Peru Fusion for GREAT Peruvian-style ceviche, Pascolo for excellent pasta and pizza, and La Paila Gourmet for ice cream. There’s no shortage of cafés and panaderías (bakeries) for the coffee and sugar fiends.
Beyond Pasto, one thing that struck us is the Ecuadorian flair of the region – reflected in the people, the music, and especially the food. Roasted cuy (guinea pig) is a popular delicacy that’s more commonly associated with Ecuador and Peru, and the local restaurants always serve a bowl of popcorn or maiz tostada (roasted corn) with each meal (so very Ecuadoran).
At the Laguna de la Cocha, locally raised trout is the specialty to try. We had an excellent trout lunch at Restaurante Rancho Grande in El Encano.
We spent two nights on the shore of Laguna de la Cocha in accommodations that were, shall we say, RUSTIC. A bit too rustic, actually – and cold. The guest cabins were pretty, but too lacking in amenities for the price and therefore not recommended. In Pasto, we made a big upgrade – for less money – to the Hotel Plaza Carnaval. The hotel is modern, clean, and comfortable with a super-friendly and helpful staff and a central location that made walking to points of interest easy. Just one tip: Ask for a room in the back; our street-facing room did get a bit noisy.
Pasto lived up to its marketing slogan – the Surprise City – by providing a safe and scenic base for us to explore the sights in this area of far southern Colombia. But Pasto offers plenty of pleasures in its own right. At such a high altitude, the city and surroundings are on the chilly and damp side, but we had good weather for the most part (the only time we felt really cold was at the lake). And Pasto is a bargain – one of the most inexpensive destinations we’ve visited in Colombia so far! We wouldn’t be surprised if the city grows as a travel destination, particularly since Pasto is making a big investment in tourism.
Hiking is one thing we weren’t able to do much of (due to continued ankle rehab), but the area surrounding Pasto offers an abundance of nature preserves and hiking trails. Next time, maybe.
And on a side note: Colombia has been getting quite a bit of press lately as an up-and-coming travel destination. Here’s a cool article that just came out in the Boston Globe about Medellín.
Have you visited this area of southern Colombia? Tell us about it!