Aerial view of Andes mountains near Pasto Colombia
View from the air of the gorgeous Andean landscape, just before we landed in Pasto

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.

Brick church, the Templo de San Andres, in Pasto Colombia
Many of Pasto’s churches and other points of interest include informational signage in both Spanish and English.

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).

Yikes! Now THAT’s a scary tire.

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 Santuario Las Lajas, an ornate church near Pasto Colombia
The splendid church is built directly into the rock face on which the image of the Virgin Mary is still visible.
The famous image of the Virgin and Child on the rock wall inside the church. There was a mass going on when we were there, so we weren’t able to see it up close. (Photo Credit: The City Paper)

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.

Getting There

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.

Trout filet served for lunch at Laguna La Cocha near Pasto Colombia
Yummy trout lunch at Restaurante Rancho Grande

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.

Our Lodging

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.

In Summary

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!

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  1. I’ve never heard of Pasto, but wow, that’s a lot of beauty in every corner! So many gorgeous colonial-style and Gothic-style architecture. Should I ever return to Colombia, Pasto is definitely on my list!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca. We didn’t know much about Pasto either, and weren’t sure what to expect. It really exceeded our expectations!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca! The pinchazo turned out OK, even thought we had to change the flat ourselves in a busy spot. We were lucky!

  2. Wow what an incredibly beautiful and colourful place. It’s so green – I’d absolutely love to visit Pasto one day.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Hannah! Pasto isn’t that easy to get to, but it’s well worth the effort.

  3. Larry Wilkinson Reply

    Beautiful photography, thank you. We enjoyed the tour.

    Larry & Cathy

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Larry and Cathy! Great to hear from you, and we hope you’re doing well. 🙂

  4. Wish we heard of Pasto and didn’t stay in Ipiales. It looks so much nicer!! And the lake! Missed it too. Love Las Lajas pictures. Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      We thought about spending a night in Ipiales to make seeing the Santuario easier. I think that’s a good option if you don’t have a car. Pasto is well worth a visit!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Mel! Pasto really did surpass our expectations.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, lovelies! We have been enjoying your Vietnam posts. 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Muriel! Hugs 🙂

  5. Beautiful churches, but my goodness the one in the hillside is incredible!!! Loved following along on this tour of such a beautiful and interesting city 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Meg! Have a great day 🙂

  6. So much to entice here. I would go for the Basilica (what a magnificent building!) but also as much for El Encano, which looks charming, and for the cultural festival. Great write-up.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Alison! The Basilica is definitely the draw for that area, and also El Encano and the lake. But we really enjoyed the city of Pasto itself. Have a lovely day!
      – Susan

  7. You keep showing us interesting places in Colombia we would’ve otherwise not known about. Pasto certainly looks surprisingly appealing! I love any city that is walkable, and with a lot of old buildings, and located not far from some sites or monuments of national or international significance. That trout looks really delicious!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Bama! We feel the same about your amazing writeups on points of interest in Indonesia. We can’t wait to get there and see for ourselves someday! And we’re with you on walkable cities. The more we can avoid cars, taxis, and buses, the happier we are. And the trout was as good as it looks!
      – Susan

  8. Wow Pasto has a lot to offer. Such a beautiful place, I particularly loved hearing about the stunning Sanctuary. Your photos are gorgeous.
    I hope you will keep improving your ankle issues and will soon be able to go hiking again.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Gilda! Ankle is almost back to 100 percent – appreciate your concern 🙂

  9. It’s quite an adventure just to get to Pasto, right? So many churches and as you say, one is as beautiful as the other … but wow, The Santuario church – it is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. You have so many beautiful photos here – thank you, it was lovely looking through them.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Yes, quite the adventure indeed! We really felt worlds away from our usual lives in the Medellin area, and being so close to the Ecuador border makes that area feel even more exotic. And thanks so much for your comments!

  10. A wonderful overview of an area we are soon to visit. But it will probably take us longer than a six-hour ride from Popayán! 🙂 Thank you for the guide!

    I assume the carnaval museum is in Pasto as well? We are looking forward to visiting this town – and maybe we will check out the lake as well. We do hope that there is a useful road around the landslide now and that will hold our camper, because we’ve had our minds set on the Las Lajas church for a while… It will be our last stop before the border.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Liesbet! We have not driven between Popayán and Pasto and therefore aren’t familiar with the road conditions. I’m assuming that’s where the landslide is? As far as the road from Pasto to the Santuario, you will think you’re in highway heaven! It’s a brand-new four-lane that’s not crowded at all (but there is a toll plaza – sorry). And the lake is well worth a visit, especially since you’re carrying your own lodging with you! Yes, the carnival museum is in Pasto 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much! It’s a really special corner of Colombia.

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