Visit Pasto and Laguna La Cocha

Many people overlook unassuming Pasto, a city of more than 400,000 people. It’s seen by backpackers as a place to spend the night on the way between Ecuador and Popayán, not a destination in its own right. But Pasto, along with the stunning Nariño countryside, deserves your time and attention.

Plaza Nariño, Pasto's main plaza. Photo © Andrew Dier.
Plaza Nariño, Pasto’s main plaza. Photo © Andrew Dier.

With church steeples rising out of its colonial center, Pasto is set in the verdant Valle de Atriz with the deceivingly gentle, sloping Volcán Galeras watching over it. The valley is a rich agricultural region where potatoes are king. This city even has a potato named after it—the papa pastusa—which is sold in every supermarket in Colombia. Pasto, the “Ciudad Sorpresa,” indeed may surprise you with a number of museums and sights that will keep you intellectually stimulated for more than a couple days. Of particular interest is the extraordinary handicraft technique called barniz de Pasto, as well as some incredible wood carvings, an influence of Quiteño culture.

Wonderful day trips can be made from the city to La Cocha and to Laguna Verde to the south, and an overnight trip to climb Volcán Cumbal is a good plan for the adventurous.

Due to its rugged terrain and poorly patrolled border with Ecuador, Nariño, the department of which Pasto is capital, became a major corridor for drug and guerrilla activity. The areas described in this guide are safe, however.

Laguna La Cocha

Only about 45 minutes outside of Pasto is Laguna La Cocha and the smallest park in the national park system, the Santuario de Fauna y Flora Isla de la Corota. This excursion is a delight. Minibuses from Pasto will take you to the lakeside fishing village of Encano, on the shores of La Cocha, and is home to about 200 families. The cheerfully painted wooden A-frames, the flowerboxes, and the colorful lanchas (wooden boats) waiting at the ready will remind you of someplace—but probably not Colombia! There are maybe a dozen restaurants in the Encano, all serving La Cocha trout, dozens of different ways.

Fishing community at Laguna La Cocha. Photo © Andrew Dier.
Fishing community at Laguna La Cocha. Photo © Andrew Dier.

From the village you can hire a boat to take you to the sanctuary on tiny Isla de la Corota, not far away (about a 10-minute ride). This excursion costs about COP$20,000 per boat, as the boat’s owner will wait for you and take you back to the mainland. On the island, you’ll have to pay an entry fee (COP$1,000) and sign in at the ranger’s office. From there you’ll walk through the virgin rainforest on a wooden walkway. Although the vegetation is tropical with 500 species of plants, including ferns, bromeliads, orchids, lichen, and siete cueros trees, the climate is actually quite cool. It’s about 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) above sea level. The highest points on the island have similar vegetation to that of páramos (highland moors). It’s nice to go on a weekday when there are few visitors, so that you can enjoy the wonderful peace that the island brings. It’s a lovely excursion, one that won’t take long: the island covers only about 16 hectares (40 acres) of land.

Surrounding the lake are more than 50 private natural reserves managed by local farmers through the Asociación de Desarollo Campesino. Many of these offer accommodations for visitors. One such reserve is El Encanto Andino (Vereda Santa Teresita, cell tel. 321/263-2663, COP$100,000 d incl. all meals, transportation COP$25,000 pp). Here you can take walks through the jungle, visit an orchid farm, and do some bird-watching, among other activities. Food is produced at the reserve, and it is all organic. It is difficult to get there, but the pristine environment and unique experience may make it worth the trouble. Contact the hotel for transportation assistance.

Easier to get to and more luxurious is the Swiss chalet-like Hotel Sindamonoy (tel. 2/721-8222, cell tel. 314/863-5186, COP$176,000 d) overlooking the lake. It has 23 large rooms, most with a lake view. If you are just coming for the day, you can take a boat to the hotel and have lunch at the restaurant, the best on the lake.

To get to Encano, take a colectivo (a small minivan) from Pasto. They leave from in front of the hospital (along Avenida Colombia) facing the big Alkosto store (not from the bus terminal). Expect to wait about 20 minutes for the car to fill up with passengers. It is a 45-minute drive and costs COP$4,000.

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