The capital of the Department of Nariño stands upon a high plateau in the southwest, 88 km from Ecuador. Pasto (full name San Juan de Pasto), is overlooked from the west by Galeras Volcano (when not in cloud) and to the east by green hills not yet suburbanized by the city, and enjoys a very attractive setting. Surrounded by hills and swirling clouds, it still retains some of its colonial character, but has not been helped by several serious earthquakes in the meantime. A little unfairly, the people of Pasto have a reputation throughout the rest of Colombia as being very stupid and are the butt of many jokes. What is fair to say is that they are extremely friendly.Ins and outs
is at Cano, 40 km north of Pasto; by
(beautiful drive), 45 minutes. There are no currency-exchange facilities, but the shop will change US$ bills at a poor rate. All interurban buses leave from the new
. Get there by taxi, or take city bus No 4 from the centre.
The city was founded in 1539 by Lorenzo de Aldana, who came up from Quito, and is therefore one of the oldest cities of Colombia. During the wars of independence, it was a stronghold of the Royalists and the last town to fall into the hands of the patriots. Simón Bolívar directed the bloodiest battle of the independence war against the forces of Basilio García on 7 April 1822. His headquarters was nearby in Bomboná. Then the people of Nariño Department wanted to join Ecuador when that country split off from Gran Colombia in 1830, but were prevented by Colombian troops. Today Pasto is a centre for the agricultural and cattle industries of the region. Pasto varnish (
) is mixed locally, to embellish the strikingly colourful local wooden bowls.
A legacy of colonial times is the considerable number of churches. The
is a large but not distinguished building, sombre in its appearance and austere inside.
San Juan Bautista
church (St John the Baptist) is the oldest in Pasto, though the finely decorated building dates from 1669, a replacement for the original of 1539 after damage by earthquakes. The church of
, has a striking yellow stone west front with octagonal angelic turrets.
, has rich decoration and gold ornamentation.
, has a small well-displayed collection of pre-Columbian pieces from the cultures of South Colombia, a library and auditorium. Another museum in the city centre is the
Museo de Oro del Banco de la República
, which houses a private collection of indigenous and colonial, especially
Museo Alfonso Zambrano
(from Quito), and period arts. Alfonso Zambrano was a renowned local woodcarver. The
, is mainly concerned with religious art and relics from the region.
From the church of
, there is a good view of the green mountains beyond the city. Four blocks to the north are the green tiled domes of the
church, opposite the monastery of the
. The interior courtyard of the
, has two tiers of colonnaded balconies.
The volcano Galeras (4276 m), quiescent since 1934, began erupting again in 1989 and again in 2005. Check at the tourist office whether it is possible to climb on the mountain - it has been officially closed since 1995. A road climbs up the mountain to a ranger station and police post at 3700 m where you will be stopped. From there, a rough road goes to the summit near which there is a TV relay station. It is reported that this area is now mined to discourage unauthorised visitors, at least one of whom has died as a result. The volcano itself has claimed several victims including a British geologist, Geoffrey Brown, who died in 1993 when the volcano erupted just as he was setting up equipment to measure gravity changes which, it is hoped, will help eventually to predict volcanic activity.
Laguna La Cocha
On the north side of the volcano lies the village of
where Panama hats are made. They can be seen lying in the streets in the process of being finished. Sandoná market day is Saturday. There are good walks on the lower slopes through Catambuco and Jongovito (where bricks are made).
About 25 km east of Pasto, on the road to Mocoa is
Laguna La Cocha
, 2760 m, the largest lake in South Colombia (sometimes called Lago Guamuez). It is 14 km long and 4.5 km wide. Near the north end of the lake is the Santuario de Fauna y Flora
Isla de la Corota
nature reserve. This is the smallest protected area administered by the Colombian National Parks service and can be visited in a day. The island was the ritual centre for Quillacinga and Mocoa cultures for several centuries. There is now a small chapel near where you land on the island. There is a research unit and an interesting information centre and a marked path to see the many varieties of trees, small mammals and birds of the island. There are good viewing points of the lake, which is also surrounded by forested mountains. A (free) pass to visit the island is needed.
Around the lake are 15 or 20 private nature reserves run by a local association to protect prime forest areas and the páramo of the Guamuez river, part of the Putumayo river system. Several of these reserves have trails for visitors. Take
(rubber boots) and wet-weather clothing if you plan to hike. Average temperature at the lake is 12°C.
There are cheap and friendly places to stay in and near
(sometimes shown on maps as 'El Encanto'), with many restaurants serving trout. Beyond El Encano there is a steep climb over the Sierra, where a large statue of the Virgin marks the entry into the Putumayo. The road then descends steeply to Sibundoy, Mocoa and Puerto Asís. For many years this has been guerrilla territory and a drug growing and processing area. It is also the centre of the government-led coca eradication programme. While security has improved markedly in this area in the past two years we advise anybody to err on the side of caution and refrain from visiting this part of Colombia.