The pilot swerved through the darkening storm clouds trying to find a patch of mountain and some visible tarmac in which to come to a screeching halt. Arrival in Pasto is never for the faint hearted, not even on those crisp clear days, when the only clouds that touch the green hilltops, congregate near Galeras, the not-so-dormant volcano which rises 4,276 meters above the capital of Nariño.
Even if you have booked and planned on traveling on very specific days to the city which is “the gateway to the south” – to nearby Ecuador and beyond – flights are often cancelled due to the location of Pasto’s municipal airport, some 30 minutes from town and perched at the edge of a mountain terrace, blasted incessantly by warm Pacific winds.
With one’s feet secure on the ground, San Juan de Pasto is gentle on the senses and there is no shortage of things to do in this rooftop garden setting; from an easy day trip to the Laguna de la Cocha or browsing the craft market in the Plaza de Nariño.
Nestled among the hillocks, the topography is a permanent reminder that one walks on ancient ground, and through a city founded in 1537 by Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar. While many colonial places seem to attract the attention of tour operators and are well promoted by the government (take Mompós and Villa de Leyva as pristine examples), Pasto remains largely absent from travel guides, except in January when its hosts the tumultuous Blacks and Whites Carnival (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos) declared in 2002 by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
While flour may be thrown from windows for six days in January, for the remainder of the year, Pasto’s half a million inhabitants are an unassuming bunch, grateful to visitors who come and stay, especially those who brave the white knuckle cliffs and hairpin turns of the Pan-American highway as it rises from the steamy valley of the Patia River to windswept grasslands of the Macizo.
Pasto is a halfway point overland on the Quito and Cali road, making it a comfortable place to spend a night. There are numerous small hotels nestled near the centro, including the star- rated Hotel Frances La Maison, Hotel Don Saúl and Hotel Loft. If planning on staying near the Laguna de la Cocha, there are two recommended hotels, built with plenty of Swiss chalet character and overlooking the lake: Refugio Guamuéz and Refugio del Sol. The Cocha Lake is popular with fishermen and there are outings one can arrange in Pasto to guarantee the right spot on the lake for trying your hand with the local trout.
While I am out of luck with my poisson, there is always fresh fish on the menu near the Laguna de la Cocha. It is as iconic to the territory as is the region’s other gastronomic delights: empanada de pipián, served with a personal portion of peanut sauce.
There are many typical restaurants in downtown Pasto, especially near the Bomboná shopping complex. There are also no shortage of roast chicken outlets, which draw in extended families and students.
One of Pasto’s more beautiful handcrafts are woodcarvings embellished with indigenous iconography and polished with a resin from the Mopa Mopa tree. Known as Pasto Varnish, many workshops operating in the city still use the very same technique handed down from colonial days. Some of these older items can be admired at the Taminango Mu- seum of Arts and Traditions.
Like many travelers to southwestern Colombia, I was pressured for time and hence, my appreciation of Pasto was limited to a visit to the main Cathedral with its stone spires visible from various points throughout the Valley of Atriz. There are many churches in Pasto, including Cristo Rey, San Juan (Old cathedral) and Las Mercedes. As an important center for Catholic education, Pasto receives its share of pilgrims heading to the turquoise sanctuary of Las Lajas, which juts out from the rock of the Gauítara Canyon. It is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared in 1754 to a local Indian girl here and hence, La Lajas is one of Colombia’s most venerated sanctuaries. The church can be reached from Pasto when heading towards Ipiales.
After a warm bowl of soup in the main Plaza to stave off altitude queasiness, I took advantage of the diffused light to take pictures. On a clear day it is possible to see Galeras – 50 kms away – and which sends its share of vapor into the atmosphere. In Pasto, nature is never far away. You may even be surprised to see her gentler side, except of course, when trying to land.