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If you’re traveling to Colombia, you probably have a few must-see cities and towns on your list already: Medellin, Cartagena, Bogota, Salento. But what about the rest of the country? Southwestern Colombia is full of rural towns and natural beauty, often only looked at as a stop on the way to the border — but in reality, the region is worth so much more than that. From rolling green farms to cultural heritage sights, the Nariño Department and its capital city, Pasto, are a unique, off-the-beaten-track vacation site begging to be visited.
The Nariño Department sits right on the edge of the country along the border with Ecuador and has three major cities: Pasto, the surprisingly large capital of roughly half a million inhabitants, the border city of Ipiales, and the beachside Pacific coast city of Tumaco. In between are mountainside towns that conserve indigenous culture and traditions much more than many other parts of Colombia, making it a unique stop during your travels in Colombia.
1. Carnaval de los Blancos y Negros
Every January, the city comes alive with the Carnaval de los Blancos y Negros, translating to “Blacks and Whites Carnival” in English. Often described as the most important cultural event to happen in Southern Colombia, the traditional event has its origins in celebrating the racial and cultural diversity of the region. The festival happens each year from January 2-6, though there are pre-Carnaval activities starting just after Christmas, including a day for everyone to grab some chalk and color the roads in their city. During the carnival, parades line the streets, including a parade of traditional Andean dance schools and music, and the final parade, “Desfile de Carrozas.”
The days of the carnival are filled with people in the streets spraying friends and strangers alike with a foam-type substance called “carioca”, while nights consist of free concerts in the main square. The fifth day of the festival is “Dia de los Negros” translating to “day of the black people.” The origin is to celebrate the day the slaves in Colombia were freed, but now, the day consists of lots of foam, chalk, and paint thrown at carnival-goers.
The final day is Dia de los Blancos” or “day of the whites”, called so because, on this day, people lather on chalk and foam. The day is much more chaotic than the days before, and you’ll hear people shouting “viva el 6!” and “que viva Pasto carajo” from every corner. While dodging the next sneak spray attack, be sure to catch the final parade, ‘Desfile de Carrozas.’ Locals work all year to handmake intricate floats telling the stories of traditional Andean tales. The floats are massive and extremely vibrant and colorful. Carnival-goers don clothes that can get dirty, ski goggles, traditional ponchos and/or raincoats, and have a big can of “carioca” (spray).
2. El Santuario de Las Lajas
This one technically isn’t in Pasto, but rather in Ipiales, just two hours south of Pasto. Las Lajas is a definite can’t-miss, as one of the most stunning cathedrals in the country, and quite possibly in the world. The gray-stone church is built into a gorge over a rushing stream with a bridge extending high above the water to the other mountainside. All around, vendors are selling traditional lunches and souvenirs, while below the church itself sits as a museum explaining the history. The story goes that a mother and her young daughter were seeking refuge during a storm and became trapped in the mountains. The daughter, who was said to be deaf and mute, spoke for the first time to tell her mother that the Virgin del Rosario had appeared above them, in the spot that would eventually become the sanctuary.
The church is breathtaking and you can easily spend a couple of hours there. However, other than that, Ipiales has little to offer in the way of tourist activities. The city is largely sleepy and filled with local shops, restaurants, and bars that the local community enjoy.
3. Laguna de La Cocha
The little lakeside hamlet just 45 minutes outside the city of Pasto seemingly transports you to another time. Laguna de La Cocha consists of a series of canals that lead to the main lake. Around the canals are the village’s shops and restaurants. Each building looks more like a wooden chalet you’d find in the Swiss Alps than in the Colombian Andes. Hop into the restaurants serving freshly caught trout, and pick up a hand-made Alpaca fur sweater in the shops across the water. Once you’re done, you can take a flecha, a traditional type of wooden boat, out onto the lake. In the middle of the lake sits Isla Carota, a small island housing a wood-paneled church and an ecological park.
4. Galeras Volcano
Pasto sits right at the base of Volcan Galeras, a volcano rising about 14,000 feet above sea level. It is the most active volcano in Colombia. For an outdoorsman, this is a perfect adventure. The volcano is the first thing you can see from any side of the city, but it’s more than just a beautiful sight. It’s also possible to climb Galeras, although it’s not an activity for the faint of heart. The full climb can take up to a total of 12 hours up and down, though parts of the trail are often closed due to dangers on the paths.
If Volcan Galeras sounds a little too intense, but you’re looking for a hike in the area, check out some other popular routes. Volcan Chiles sits literally on the border of Colombia and Ecuador, just a few hours south of Pasto. The hike is only slightly less challenging than Galeras. The volcano is 17,000 feet above sea level, and the summit can reach near freezing temperatures, but the hike has lower paths that can be fit for anyone. Volcan Cumbal is another popular climb, a few hours from Pasto, closer to Ipiales. Just below the base is an Ecological park and lake you can explore if the hike is too much. Laguna Azufral sits just between the cities of Pasto and Ipiales and offers a simple walk through the mountains to arrive at the “Laguna Verde” or the “green lake”, in English.
Cuy translates to guinea pig. Yes, we are suggesting you eat guinea pig. This may sound bizarre to the majority of foreigners, but the dish is a traditional delicacy in the Nariño department. Restaurants will fry or roast the cuy over a traditional open fire before serving. The dish comes with everything included, even the head, but don’t knock it before you try it. The meat is most often compared to chicken, with the bone consistency of a fish dish. Cuy is a staple in Pasto, Ipiales, and most of the small towns around. You likely won’t find it much farther north than the city of Popayan, so you need to try it while you’re in town.
6. Helado de Paila
It may sound strange — ice cream in an already chilly city, but the traditional treat in Pasto and the southwestern regions of Colombia is so unique, it’s hard to pass up. Helado de Paila, which translates to “pale ice-cream” is made inside a copper pot surrounded by ice. Vendors usually sit on the streets churning up this fun treat by hand. Helado de Paila comes from a time before refrigerators and freezers were in the region, causing the need to make ice cream using natural ice when it hailed. The flavors are usually fruity and the texture is more like a sorbet than typical ice cream. The best place to get the ice cream in Pasto is a little shop called La Paila Heladeria.