San Juan de Pasto, also known as “Pasto,” is the capital of the Nariño Department of Colombia, located in southwestern portion of the country. Though many tourists give it a miss, Pasto is in a prime location for exploring dramatic natural sites in the countryside like volcanoes, crater lakes, canyons, and the beautiful La Laguna de la Cocha.
The locals of this city are friendly and the town itself has a laid back vibe. Try regional Pastuso specialties like roasted guinea pig while you’re here, or just have an ice cream as you stroll through the city streets with the ever-present Galera Volcano as your backdrop. Famous for their Carnaval de Blancos y Negros, you’re in for a treat if you’re here in late December or early January for those rowdy festivities.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Pasto:
1. La Laguna de la Cocha
A main attraction of the city, La Laguna de la Cocha is one of the biggest lakes in Colombia.
Surrounded by rolling green mountains and Andean meadows, head to the village of El Encano on the shores of the lake where you’ll find a community of around 200 families and restaurants serving up the local specialty – rainbow trout or trucha. Have it served any way you like (creamy, grilled, with garlic sauce, etc.) alongside a beer before wandering through the town’s colorful Swiss-style wooden houses.
Then take a boat – or lancha – out on the lake to La Isla Corota where you can hike around the trails and viewpoints of this tiny national park reserve.
2. Casa Museo Taminango de Artes y Tradiciones
You might notice a lot of traditional indigenous handicrafts being sold around Pasto, and this museum is a commemoration of that.
It houses a mix of antiques, wood carvings, traditional mopa mopa (Pasto varnished items), straw weavings, and wool garments.
Located in a restored colonial casona dating back to 1623, this museum has been declared a National Monument as it’s rumored to be the oldest standing two-story house in the country.
Take a tour and visit the interior courtyard where you’ll also find plants and flowers used in customary Nariño medicines.
3. Carnaval de Blancos y Negros
The event the city is known for, if you’re lucky to be around in late December or early January, plan to party at the city’s Carnival of Whites and Blacks.
It’s a celebration that dates back to the few days under Spanish rule each year when slaves were given the day off to celebrate.
Now it’s a celebration of the multicultural community, tolerance, and mutual respect within the city and country.
The festivities begin with the Carnival of Water, when people throw water on each other, homes, and anything and everything in the streets.
For New Year’s, attendees make satirical figures representing the past year and then burn them.
In the final days, everybody dons black makeup one day and then white talcum powder the next, and all throughout there are colorful parades, floats, costumes, and partying in the streets.
4. Santuario Las Lajas
Just near the Colombian border with Ecuador, you’ll find this breathtakingly ornate church perched on a cliff.
One of the most iconic churches in the country, Our Lady of Las Lajas is located right next to the Rio Guaitara canyon – you can arrive via teleférico for the best views and photos.
Built in a fairytale Neo-Gothic style on the site of a supposed miracle, there are now gift shops and restaurants that line the path down the valley.
It’s free to enter and roam the trails around the sanctuary, but there is a small fee if you want to check out the church museum.
5. Museo del Carnaval
Learn a little more about Pasto’s main attraction, the Carnaval de Blancos y Negros, at this museum dedicated to its heritage.
It’s small, but you can read all about the history and evolution of the carnival even if you can’t attend in person, and you can see lots of things from prior carnavales.
Some of the exhibits include past winners of the float contest (updated each year) with their giant colorful faces and painted wooden figures.
There are photographs and bright costumes on display so you can get an idea of what the party is like in full swing.
6. Centro Historico
Take a stroll through Pasto’s historic center and you’ll find cathedrals, winding narrow streets, colonial architecture, and lots of cafes and heladerías to keep you occupied.
Wander through the city’s main square, the Plaza de Nariño, where you’ll find lots of pigeons and a statue of the man himself, Antonio Nariño, an important figure in Colombia’s fight for independence.
The nearby yellow government building is also named for him, and outside you might even find people sitting at old school typewriters, ready to create documents and important legal forms for a fee.
Grab an ice cream, have a wander, and do some people watching.
7. So Many Churches
After you’ve visited the main event – Santuario Las Lajas – there are plenty more churches in town if you’re into religious architecture and artwork.
The Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, located on the Plaza de Nariño with its white facade, arches, and green domes, is an example of the colonial baroque style and its inside is filled with gold decor.
Nearby the Catedral de Pasto looks more like other cathedrals in Colombia, but the inside is dramatic and ornate with tons of religious art.
The Iglesia San Felipe has an intricate almost birthday-cake like exterior of blue and white, while the imposing Iglesia del Cristo Rey with its towers and stained glass, was built by the Jesuits.
The Templo de la Merced and the Iglesia de San Andres are a couple others you can visit in the city as well.
8. Museo del Oro Nariño
Like many other cities in Colombia, Pasto has its own gold museum.
Situated in the Bank of the Republic building, pay a visit to learn about the first indigenous inhabitants of Pasto, their culture, lifestyle, pottery techniques, and of course, their metalworking skills and all the ways they used gold.
There are many gold pieces on display that have been discovered through archaeological digs along the Andes and Pacific coast, as well as other metals and materials used by native peoples.
Entrance is free, guides are available, and it also contains a library and a children’s room.
9. Taste Some Pastuso Cuisine
For the adventurous tourist hoping to try some truly local delicacies, be sure to seek out the asado de cuy, or grilled guinea pig.
Asadero de Cuyes Pinzon serves up a whole roasted guinea pigs and hands you a pair of plastic gloves – you get to eat the meat right off the bones using your hands! Other Pastuso dishes include empanadas de añejo, which are fried empanadas made with a fermented corn dough.
Try the empanadas de pipián, popular along the Pacific and filled with meat, potatoes, and peanuts.
As for sweets, try quimbolitos – cakes made with raisins, corn, and vanilla, wrapped and cooked in canna leaf.
Salon Guadalquivir is a good place to try traditional dishes in Pasto.
10. Santuario de Flora y Fauna Volcán Galeras
This wildlife sanctuary surrounds the Galeras Volcano which you can see all the way from Pasto when it’s not surrounded by clouds.
The reserve is part of the cloud forest and it contains over 7,500 acres of land filled with rivers, lakes, and streams.
Home to hummingbirds, endangered frogs, and 100 species of birds like eagles, owls, and wrens.
Due to seismic activity you can no longer climb to the top of the volcano, but typically you can still hike, bike, and go birdwatching along the paths and lagoons – check to see if you’ll need a guide before entering.
11. Shop for Artisan Handicrafts
You’ll no doubt see local handicraft vendors throughout your time in Pasto and the surrounding villages.
Buying the authentic stuff is more expensive, but worth it if you’re into collecting.
Pasto is most famous for barniz, a local resin made from seed pods called mopa mopa which is used to create intricate and colorful designs.
This resin is typically layered to decorate wooden crafts and jewelry, and you can purchase these at shops like Barniz de Pasto Obando or La Casa del Barniz de Pasto.
Leather and woodworking are also popular in the region, and you can find often them together in exquisitely engraved leather-covered wooden furniture around town.
12. Laguna Verde and Volcan Azufral
Less than two hours outside of Pasto in the town of Tuquerres, Laguna Verde is a vivid green lake which fills up the crater made by the Azufral Volcano.
From the park entrance it’s a six-kilometer hike up to the rim of the volcano (3.7 miles), but the exertion is worth it for these unique views.
The crater lake is located 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level in an area of several of creeks, streams, and foothills.
The park is home to hundreds of species of flora and fauna, and it makes a great stop on your way to Ipiales if you’re headed that way.
It’s a challenging trek, but you’ll be rewarded with incredible scenery – be sure to bring enough water, food, sunscreen, and warm clothes.
13. Parque Cañon de Juanambú
An area known for its natural pools and green landscapes, Juanambú Canyon Park is located about an hour north of Pasto.
Visitors can try adventure sports like climbing, kayaking, rafting, rappelling, and ziplining here.
Hike through these verdant hills of Colombian countryside and check out a little history – you can still see the trenches used when Nariño fought the Spanish.
Then have a soak in the healing natural pools – they’re supposed to be therapeutic for the body. This park is the perfect place for a picnic and some relaxing in nature with your family.
14. Visit the Village of Sandoná
There are several settlements surrounding the Galeras Volcano that you can visit, and perhaps the most popular of those is Sandoná.
It’s an indigenous town where they make Panama hats and hold a busy Saturday market.
You’ll see the finished hats drying on the streets here – they’re named for where they were originally sold, not where they’re made.
Basket weaving is also a specialty here, as are the traditional sweets made of sugar cane.
In addition to the market and the palm tree-lined square, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Rosario is outstandingly ornate and the artisanal ice cream (helado de paila) is fantastic.
15. Museums Surrounding Parque Infantil
There are a couple more museums within the city if you’re interested in packing a lot of knowledge into your Pasto stay.
Start with a stroll through Parque Infantil where you’ll find lots of green space, kids playing, and locals exercising.
Within a couple of city blocks, you’ll see the Museo Taller Alfonso Zambrano and its private collection of colonial and indigenous artwork, especially woodcarvings.
There’s also Museo Madre Caridad Brader which is filled with religious art and relics, as well as the Museo Juan Lorenzo Lucero, home to artifacts from indigenous groups and colonial times.