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Mini Guide Pasto & Nariño | Discover the diverse south of Colombia

by Sabine
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The city of Pasto is sometimes called the surprise of Colombia, and for a good reason. Pasto, located in Nariño, is a particularly nice place to stay with beautiful architecture, interesting museums and impressive surroundings. In fact, one of Colombia’s must-sees can be found just a few hours from Pasto. The south of Colombia is surprisingly diverse and definitely worth visiting during your round trip Colombia. In this mini-guide you will find all the information you need for a great stay in this still fairly unknown part of Colombia.

Pasto | The surprise of Colombia

The city of Pasto is located in the department of Nariño. In the far southwest of Colombia. The city is just eight kilometers from the Galeras volcano, at an altitude of 2527 meters. The Galeras volcano is one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia. Pasto was founded in 1537 and inhabited by the Pastos Indians. Hence the name. Today, more than 460,000 residents live in Pasto. Known as the theological center of Colombia, the city has many churches that are very much worth visiting, because of their unusual architecture. In Pasto, you can also enjoy interesting museums and beautiful street art.

Pasto is famous for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos that takes place every January. But even beyond these days of celebration, there is much to see and do in the city and the department of Nariño.


What to do and see in Pasto Colombia?

Pasto is not called the surprise of Colombia for nothing. A particularly nice city with beautiful architecture, lovely people, good food and interesting museums. In addition, the surroundings are spectacular. A visit to Pasto is absolutely worthwhile!

Carnaval de Negros y Blancos

Not only Barranquilla is known for its carnival. Indeed, every year between January 2 and 7, Pasto is home to the most important and largest carnival in southern Colombia: Carnaval de Negros y Blancos. Locals paint their faces black one day and white the next to reflect the racial diversity in the region. The festival is a festival of colors and has been on the UNESCO Cultural World Heritage List since 2009. Click here to read more about the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos.

Did you miss the carnival? Then visit the impressive Carnival Museum (see below).


Beautiful architecture and churches

The beautiful architecture in Pasto amazed me. Many beautiful churches of different colors and old buildings that you don’t see much in other parts of Colombia. Take a stroll through downtown Pasto and enjoy the beautiful architecture.

Among other things, visit the Cathedral of Pasto. In addition, the churches Templo de Cristo Rey, Our Lady of Mercy, Iglesia Santiago Apostol and Iglesia de San Andrés are also worth visiting.


Visit a museum

There are three very interesting museums in Pasto, all worth a visit.

The Museo del Carnaval

An absolute must-see! As if you have entered a fairy tale. The museum tells the story of the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos in Pasto and is a true celebration of color. Masks, dolls, carnival floats, you can find everything. You’ll find the museum in the north of the city and I promise you: you’ll be amazed.

Location: Calle 19 # Cra 42 – Centro Cultural Pandiaco. Cost: free.


Museo del Oro Nariño: the Gold Museum in Pasto

There is a gold museum in many cities in Colombia, with the most famous in Bogotá. And Pasto couldn’t be left behind either. In the Banco de la República you will find this small but beautiful museum that is interesting to visit. The museum offers a contemporary view of pre-Hispanic societies in the Pasto region. You will find 432 pieces of gold, ceramics, stone, shell, wood and fabrics. More information can be found here.

Location: Calle 19 # 21 – 27, Banco de la República. Cost: free of charge. Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 10AM – 5PM. Closed on holidays.

Please note that as of March 14, the museum will be closed indefinitely due to the current crisis.


The Taminango Museum

Baptized a National Monument in 1971, this old house was once inhabited by a writer and you can now visit it. The museum gives a glimpse of traditional products from the department of Nariño. Although the museum is not very well known, it gives a nice picture of the traditional culture of the region. The museum is something you don’t expect in Pasto and worth learning something about the history of the region. Hereyou read more about the background of the museum.

Please note that the museum is located on the edge of downtown against a more unsafe neighborhood. After your visit it is best to walk back to the center, do not go further into this neighborhood.

Location: Calle 13 # 27 – 67. Cost: free. Guided tour required.


Hostel in Pasto: Hospedaje La Bohemia

There are not many hotels and hostels in Pasto. But that doesn’t matter, after all, you only need one. I traveled alone to Pasto and chose the most popular hostel in Pasto: Hospedaje La Bohemia. Perfectly located, a beautiful view, very nice owners who provide you with all the information you need, and close to everything. From here you can visit all of Nariño and explore Pasto itself well on foot.

I stayed in this hostel for 5 days and it was excellent. The hostel is very cozy and equipped with everything. Good wifi, hot water and a kitchen to cook your own food. You can choose from a private room or dorm, both very clean. If you want to meet fellow travelers, this is the place to be, especially as a backpacker. In fact, all the backpackers who come to this area seem to stay here.

The owner will arrange a cab to anywhere without a problem and help you plan your days in Nariño. You will also find information on the current security situation in the area.


Discover the department of Nariño from Pasto

Nariño is a very versatile department. From unknown villages to the spectacular Las Lajas to the Little Switzerland of Colombia. And I have by no means seen all that Nariño has to offer. The influences from Ecuador are very noticeable, including the strange eating habits. If you’ve ever wanted to eat guinea pig, you can do it here.

Las Lajas in Ipiales: the most spectacular cathedral in Colombia

And that’s no exaggeration. Las Lajas is truly amazing. To die for, so beautiful. This cathedral, which is not actually a real cathedral, can be found in Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border. This place is the tourist attraction of Nariño, but is mostly visited by travelers on their way to Colombia or Ecuador. Las Lajas is built against a rock above a river, resulting in a rather unusual structure. In the evening, the church is illuminated and that too is quite impressive. If I had to name a must-see in Colombia, it would be Las Lajas. Here you can read all about Las Lajas in Ipiales and how to get there.


Just across the border to Ecuador: visit the extraordinary cemetery in Tulcán

On a day trip from Pasto to Las Lajas, you can immediately cross the border into Ecuador. Indeed, there in the border town of Tulcán you will find a special cemetery: Cementerio de Tulcán. Here you can wander for hours past some 300 figures carved from cypress trees. In various shapes that show something about Ecuador’s flora and fauna and Roman, Greek, Inca, Aztec and Egyptian cultures. And that’s a pretty beautiful. Here you can read all about the cemetery in Tulcán and how to get there.


Take a look at the village of La Cocha: the Little Switzerland of Colombia

A little closer to Pasto you will find the lake Laguna de la Cocha. High altitude and therefore quite cold. A beautiful lake with a small island where you will find Colombia’s smallest national park. On the lake is the village of La Cocha, and that in particular is why more and more (domestic) tourists visit this place. After all, La Cocha is called Little Switzerland, and for a good reason. Indeed, the many canals, narrow boats and wooden houses filled with balconies with flowers resemble Switzerland or Austria. In any case, La Cocha is a totally different village than you are used to from Colombia. And worth a visit for that reason alone. Here you can read all about La Cocha, the lake and how to get there.


Go off the beaten path in Colombia and visit Sandoná

Although this whole region is pretty off the beaten path; you can go even more off the beaten track. Near Pasto are several small villages that are interesting to visit. I chose Sandoná. This village has a beautiful waterfall more or less in the middle of the village, cute colored houses, beautiful views, an impressive cathedral and beautiful street art. Its lower elevation makes it much warmer than Pasto, so it is also perfect to escape the cold for a moment. Here you can read all about Sandoná and how to get there.


And there’s more…

About 8 kilometers from Pasto is the Galeras Volcano (4267 meters high), one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia. Here you will find the national park Santuario de Flora y Fauna Volcán Galeras that you can visit, an important páramo area in southern Colombia with some 200 bird species.

There is also the Azufral volcano, further south to the west of the village of Túquerres. The volcano is 4070 meters high and on the northwest side of the crater is the small lake Laguna Verde at 3970 meters altitude. This is a popular day trip into nature and is said to be spectacularly beautiful. The volcano is located in the Reserva Natural del Azufral nature reserve and is open for visits. There is a road to the top that you can travel by car. You have to walk the last 1.5 kilometers to Laguna Verde. Make sure you are somewhat accustomed to the altitude if you are going to do this, and bring warm clothing.

Both, unfortunately, I was unable to do. Ask at the hotel where you are staying how to get there.


Flying to Pasto: landing on Colombia’s most dangerous airstrip

Flying to Pasto is quite an adventure, as the runway is known to be the most dangerous in Colombia. Coincidentally, I saw this just before departure and it caused me quite a lot of nerves at the moment before leaving. And not just me. The passenger next to me said he flies to Pasto almost every week, but never gets used to the last ten minutes. Fortunately, I was not at the window side…

Pasto’s runway is on the edge of a cliff, so you only see mountain peaks before you hit the ground. This location also means that flights are quickly canceled or diverted to Popayán, for example, when there is a lot of wind or it rains very hard.

Curious about that scary landing? Watch the video below. If you dare, of course.


Practical information

How to get to Nariño?

By plane

Few flights go to Nariño and in particular they fly to Pasto. No matter where you are coming from in Colombia, it is likely that you will have to make a transfer in Bogotá. Only Avianca flies (so far) to Pasto, so little choice and therefore quite pricey. 600,000 pesos for a round trip Bogotá is a normal price for this route. From Bogotá, it is a one-hour flight. The airport is about an hour away from Pasto, so upon arrival you have to take a cab for an hour to get into town. No punishment by the way: it’s a beautiful ride!

By bus

Do you prefer to travel by bus? Then it is best to choose an itinerary Colombia that more or less passes by Pasto. Nariño is in such a remote corner that a bus ride from Bogotá takes about 22 hours. From Popayán it is a lot more manageable in about 6 hours. From the border with Ecuador, you are about 2 to 3 hours away depending on whether there are roadworks.

Keep in mind that traveling by bus between Ecuador and Cali is not always safe, especially at night. Travel during the day whenever possible and read up on the situation at that time just before your trip.

By car

Driving through Colombia by car is fun, and Nariño is also great to explore by car. Here you can read all about car rental in Colombia, the rules, itineraries and more. Be aware that the distances in Colombia are huge and it takes you much longer to get from A to B than in, say, the Netherlands. Take plenty of stops and plan enough time to drive to Pasto by car. And again, only drive during the day.

Border crossing Colombia Ecuador

Many travelers in Nariño come from Ecuador or are transiting to Ecuador from Colombia. While that is the easiest way to discover this beautiful Colombian department, it is also definitely worth a detour if you are not going to Ecuador.

From Nariño you can easily take a day trip to Ecuador or in a few hours to this famous cemetery in Tulcán.

The border between Colombia and Ecuador is called Puente Internacional de Rumichaca. If you only cross the border for a few hours you don’t have to show your passport anywhere and within 10 minutes you are on the other side of the border. How: From where you are in Colombia you first go to the bus terminal in Ipiales. From Pasto this is about 2 to 3 hours by bus. In Ipiales you take a colectivo to Puente Internacional de Rumichaca. Duration: 15 minutes, 3,500 pesos. There you transfer to an Ecuadorian cab or colectivo to Tulcán or wherever you want to go (15 to 20 minutes, 3500 pesos).

No need to change money if you’re not going to eat, drink or sleep anywhere. Of course, exchanging money is handy if you cross the border to travel through Ecuador and do not return to Colombia.

Climate in Nariño

Nariño is a very versatile department with diverse climates. As you can see in this article about the climate in Colombia , the climate depends on the altitude you are at. And that is no different here. That means it can be quite chilly in Pasto and you’ll be walking there in clothes for US autumn or spring. The same goes for Ipiales and Las Lajas. La Cocha is a bit fresher, especially going up the lake. Bring a raincoat and possibly a hat and gloves. You can buy these anywhere there, by the way. When the sun is shining it is a little warmer, but you never know in advance.

As in all of Colombia, it warms up considerably as soon as you drive down the mountain. For example, if you go from Pasto (2527 meters altitude) to Sandoná (1848 meters altitude), in the 1.5 hours it takes you have quite a temperature difference. Pasto is chilly, Sandoná is quite warm.

Want to climb a volcano? Then you need clothing for about 0 degrees or colder.

So decide in advance where you are going: the higher you go the warmer your clothes should be.

Safety Nariño Colombia

Nariño is not known as the safest region of Colombia, but it very much depends on the time and the exact location. For example, there are often problems in the coastal town of Tumaco, but there’s no way you’ll get there if you visit everything described above. The main attractions, such as Las Lajas and La Cocha, can also be visited without difficulty. Pasto itself is a safe city with no problems.

On the major roads between Pasto and Ecuador and Pasto and Popayán, it is best to travel only during the day.

If you visit Pasto. ask at your hotel if there are any special things in terms of safety to consider.

By the way, I visited Nariño on my own and as a woman alone experienced no problem. I do speak fluent Spanish, something that always helps to stay safe.

How many days do you need for Pasto and Nariño?

All the foreign travelers I spoke to at the hostel were in transit from Ecuador into Colombia, or just on their way to Ecuador from Colombia. And stayed only 1 or 2 days in Pasto. In this short time, however, you can see little of the surroundings. If you want to see everything described above from Pasto, you will need at least 4 days. If you also want to visit other villages and/or climb the volcano, you can add another day. If you have few time I would at least visit Las Lajas and try to see the Carnival museum.

Continue your round trip Colombia from Pasto

Pasto is literally in a remote corner of Colombia and should be well planned during a tour of Colombia. For example, you could fly from Bogotá to Pasto and then travel to Medellín via Popayán, Cali and Salento.

If you want to see more destinations south of Bogotá, such as San Agustín, you can also stick to this itinerary:

BogotáPiscilago – the Tatacoa DesertSan Agustín – Mocoa – Pasto – Popayán – Cali – SalentoMedellín – and then to Barichara or on to the Caribbean coast.

Obviously, for the above roundtrip Colombia you need time, three weeks is not enough for this.

If you’re coming from or going to Ecuador, it’s easy: make a stopover in Pasto to explore Nariño.


Discover the beautiful south of Colombia! Is Pasto on your Colombia wish list?

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