Backpacking in Southern Colombia

Before coming into Colombia I met this Colombian couple who mentioned to me that “there is nothing to see in the south” of Colombia and that I “should avoid it” and simply “pass through it”.

After spending two full weeks roaming the southern cities of Pasto, Popayán and Tierradentro, I couldn’t disagree more. I’m loving backpacking in southern Colombia!!!




If you’re travelling your way up South America, the south of Colombia might seem as a repeat of the Andes regions of Ecuador, Peru, Chile and the north of Argentina. An endless array of mountains that not only make a long bus ride even longer, but also the altitude which at some point I couldn’t wait to get out of.

For this reason many will choose to go from Ipiales to Cali or Bogotá. But to not visit the south of Colombia would be a HUGE mistake. There is just so much to see and do! Even though it may just be for a short while.

PASTO

I won’t lie…the city of Pasto is ugly. My first impression of the city once I left the bus terminal was definitely not one which would make me want to move there. There is not really much to do in the city, and the architecture is not one which will have you snapping pictures left and right. But there is something about spending time in a non-touristy off-the-beaten-path area that picked my curiosity.

My original plan was to spend one night in Pasto, only to rest and take the first bus to Popayán the following day.

Upon arriving at my hostel I met a guy who talked to me about this hike he did that same day up a volcano to a lake called Laguna Verde. Having no idea what he was talking about I decided to look it up in trusty ol’ Google….

“Do you mind booking me for a second night?”

Yep! The Google images were enough to convince me to stay an extra night only to hike Volcan Azufral and see Laguna Verde with my own eyes.

The hike itself was not too bad. A 5 kilometer hike upwards until reaching 4000 meters above sea level (m.a.s), and then 400 meters down a steep hill. Coming back up the 400 meters is a real killer however, going up a steep hill up to 4000 m.a.s. is not as fun as it sounds…if it even sounds fun at all.

The lake itself is of a bright green due to the gases and chemicals emanating from the volcano. Dig your feet into the sand and you’ll feel the water go from freezing cold to burning hot, all in a matter of seconds!!! Unfortunately there is a smell of rotten egg all around, but hey…it’s a volcano!!!

Getting to Laguna Verde

Get to the Pasto bus terminal and take a taxibus (colectivo) to Túquerres, the ride shouldn’t cost more than 10000 COP. Once in Túquerres take a taxi to the entrance of the park for about 30000 COP both ways. Make sure you deal with the taxi driver and that this is understood (it shouldn’t be too difficult to find one….they all swarm you coming out of the bus yelling “laguna verde?! laguna verde amigo?!?!”).

There is also a second lake called Laguna de la Cocha. Locals seem to think this is the better lake (I was suggested to go there instead), but I did not see what the fuzz was about this lake from the research I did.

POPAYÁN

Also known as “La Ciudad Blanca” (The White City) due to all of the houses and commerces being painted white, Popayán is a little slice of colonial heaven perfect for taking a couple of days before moving on through your journey, regardless of whether you come from the north or the south.

I found Popayán to be a city bursting with both with beauty and simplicity, and even though I did not stay too long in it I still found time to stroll within and outside of the city.

A walk through the city of Popayán will provide many one opportunities to see the colonial architecture. Head to the Morro de Tulcán viewpoint for a bird’s eye view of the city.

Silvia Market

On Tuesdays, head on to Silvia for one of the most authentic and vibrant markets you will see in Colombia. Every Tuesday the “Guambianos” head down from areas near La Campana to sell their produce to both locals and tourists.

What I found very peculiar about the Guambiano people is the way in which they dress. Bright blue colored ponchos with black skirts and pants…everyone dresses the same. The Guambianos are also quite reserved, and it is quite difficult to find one who will allow to snap a photo of him/her.

Within the market I tried some fried potato empanadas and some “emborrajados”, fried banana with melted cheese inside…it sounded weird to me too but man what a treat! As with many foods in Colombia, both of these are deep fried, but are still worth the guilt and fake promises of eating healthy after that.

I also had the chance to ride on the roof of a bus to La Campana, the area where many of the Guambianos live. Driving around green mountains and fields while being able to see how the Guambianos live added to an amazing day.

If you have an opportunity to strike a conversation with a Guambiano, ask them to tell you about “El Duende” (the goblin), a spirit which supposedly appears to youngsters in the hope of luring them away from their homes.

To get to Silvia, head to the Popayán bus station and take any bus heading to Sivia for about 8000 COP. The bus will drop you at the central plaza besides the market. You can take minibuses to La Campana from the plaza as well.

Other Activities

Popayán offers an array of activities outside of the city, many which I did not get to do due to the limited time I spent in the city. take a look at www.popayantours.com for a list of activities on what else you can do.

TIERRADENTRO

Now if you really, really, REALLY need to get away from it all head to the Parque Arqueológico Nacional de Tierradentro in Inza, an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It had been a while since I had felt so disconnected from the outside world until I arrived here. This town only has one road in and out, with mainly “hospedajes” lining up the road. Tierradentro is so remotely located that not even an internet signal can get in…not one bar of signal. To get “connected” there are two choices, the first is to hike the mountain leading to the Alto del Aguacate (more of that in a moment, just know that it’s extremely high for now), the second is to head to the entrance of the museum (the only place with internet) and purchase a PIN to connect you to THEIR internet and hang around their door each time internet is needed, hoping that their weak signal will not give up (but it will).

The one road in Tierradentro

What’s cool about Tierradentro is certainly not the lack of internet, honestly that’s painful, especially if you need it to work. No, what’s cool about it is hiking the archaeological sites, where there are underground tombs and statues sites, all a bit far from the other, so they serve as a kind of reward for ever couple of kilometers walked 🙂

To start go to the entrance of the museum to purchase a passport for 25000 COP. The passport is valid for 2 days, so if you find someone who only used it for one day and is leaving the site, offer to buy it from them for cheaper (or they’ll offer it to you if lucky).

The “easy” trail starts behind the museum, where most of the points of interest are situated. The trail will require some going up and down, but it is not as strenuous (or fun) as starting from the mountain in front of the museum. It is a steep way up, and I had to stop every couple of minutes not only to catch my breath, but also to negotiate with some cows and horses blocking my way…the only way to continue on my journey.

I didn’t know it before, but I am now aware that I’m totally terrified of horses and the possibility of them kicking me down a cliff of a very high mountain. Trying to move these horses around took me almost 30 minutes of talking to them, clapping my hands, kicking dust, and trying to sneak past them while one of them eyeballed me from the side of his head. Finally the horses gave up and moved…30 minutes later.

To get to Tierradentro from Popayán, head to the bus station and look for the Sotracauca bus company. Buses leave every 2 hours, however only the 10:30AM bus will leave you within the site besides the La Portada hostel (all other hostels are on the way down at about a 20 minute walk). the other buses will also drop you within 2 kilometers from the entrance to the museum, but this time the hike is up to get to the town.

Where I Stayed

Pasto: Casa Hospedaje La Bohemia – an amazing family-run hostel owned by a French expat and his Colombian wife. Comfortable beds and clean rooms, and running hot water all day :). The family is very welcoming and will spend as much time as needed to explain how to get around town.

Popayán: HostelTrail – OK hostel on the pricey side of the chart (27000 COP for a dorm). The hostel is badly situated along one of the noisiest streets in the city, therefore don’t expect much in terms of late mornings.

Tierradentro: Hospedaje Tierradentro – Like many hostels in the area, there is no website for this one, nor are they (or many) on booking.com or hostelworld.com. This one is located right in front of the museum, comfy beds and running hot water all day long, prices are also good. They make some of the best and freshest juices I’ve tasted so far in Colombia 🙂

Backpacking in Southern Colombia has been an amazing introduction to this beautiful country, offering me sights and experiences I am glad I didn’t miss. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments.

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