Southern Colombia: Ipiales, Pasto, Tatacoa Desert and more

While my last text looked at the general information about tourism in Colombia, the following article will describe the first part of 3-4 week basic itinerary covering this beautiful and diverse country. The goal is to cover the locations suitable mainly for the travellers visiting Colombia for the first time, especially when travelling in direction from south to north. Let’s start at the southern border with Ecuador then.

the full 3-4 weeks “gringo trail” itinerary

Ipiales

One of the major border crossings between Ecuador and Colombia is Tulcán – Ipiales and if you’re travelling to Colombia from Quito by road, you will most likely end up passing by here. For me, the crossing was rather heartbreaking experience, given the situation of Venezuelan refugees and the humanitarian disaster they are forced to suffer from, while there’s not much hope for any positive change happening anytime soon. Read more here in case you were interested.

Once you get stamped, the first place you’ll see in Colombia will be a small outpost town of Ipiales. My first and pretty much only thought of Ipiales as a town was that I was happy not to grow up there. This is not to disrespect the otherwise friendly locals or to point at Ipiales‘ visibly challenging economical conditions, it’s just coming from a person who grew up in a small town and left it as soon as he could. Life here however does appear to be hard and it must have been even harder at the height of Colombian Conflict.

From the tourism point of view, Ipiales is a gateway to a place where one of the most iconic pictures Google provides about Colombia are taken: Sanctuary Las Lajas. A collectivo (a shared taxi) would take you there for about in under 20 minutes for only 2200,-COP (€0.70) from the city’s Bus Terminal. You don’t need to pay to get in, unless you want to see the museum bellow the church, which will cost you 1500,-COP.

Santuario de Las Lajas

Pasto

Few hours of rather stunning bus ride further north will take you to San Juan del Pasto, the capital of the south-western department of Nariño. As opposed to Ipiales, Pasto (pop: 500k) appears larger and livelier at the first sight. It’s famous for its Blacks and Whites’ Carnivals, that take place in early January each year. One can also visit National Park Corota, a small island with a well preserved wildlife that’s located on a near by lake of a glacier origin (Laguna de la Cocha) at 2 280 meters above sea level.

Cali and Popayán

Between here and my next entry (Tatacoa Desert), there are two popular destinations travellers like to visit. Unfortunately I had no time to stop by due to the social commitments I’ve already made in Bogotá. If you are interested to know more about Popayán and Cali, here‘s a blog post written by a couple that call themselves NZFrance.

Tatacoa Desert

Desierto de la Tatacoa is located in the Colombian department of Huila. From the tourism point of view, it benefits from its surreal desert landscapes as well as the possibility of incredible stargazing. Visiting Tatacoa was an amazing unforgettable experience and I fully recommend it, 2-3 days would however be a sufficient time spent there. You can either rent a bike or get a tour to visit both, grey as well as the prettier red dessert.

Desierto de la Tatacoa

Other destinations in the southern Colombia

My local friends advised me to head south to Guaviare. This Amazon-bordering area which was considered a no-go zone just few years ago is now open to be explored by curious travellers. Whether it’s the mysterious cave pictograms in Serranía La Lindosa or Caño Cristales AKA the river of seven colours, one can apparently expect a priceless memory.

How to get there

  • Quito to Ipiales: 5hrs bus ride from Quito‘s North Bus Terminal to Tulcán @ $6 USD. Taxi from Tulcán to the border @ $3.5 USD. Taxi to Ipiales Bus Terminal @ 10 000,-COP (€2.85). A word of advise: Only in South America, there’s more than 3.5 million often mobile refugees from Venezuela, 1.1 of them in Colombia. Try to arrive early to the border, it can get very busy. Check if there are any local festivals or national holidays that could turn your day at the border into a heartbreaking cue marathon
  • Ipiales to Pasto: The alleged 2,5 Bus/van from bus terminal took 4,5 hours (due to the 2019 road construction work) @ 9000,-COP (€2.55). Word of advice: sit on the right hand side if you have a chance to enjoy the views 😉
  • Pasto to Antonio Nariño Airport 45mins @ 45000,-COP (€12.80)
  • Bogotá to Tatacoa: 6hrs bus ride from Bogotá‘s Bus Terminal @ 35000,-COP (€9,90) to Aipe. Walk through the village and entertain the local kids with a presence of a gringo 🙂 Walk further down into the meadows and take a boat across the river Magdalena to the village of Villavieja for 3000,-COP (€0.85). From Villavieja take a rip off tuk tuk to the dessert @ 20000,-COP (€5.70)
  • Tatacoa to Bogotá: 1hr bus/van drive to the city of Neiva @ 15000,-COP (€4.26). Then 7hrs bus to get to Bogotá @ 30000,-COP (€8.40)
  • Cali to Tatacoa: if you are travelling from Cali, the 383 km drive to Neiva takes apparently nearly 7 hours, then you’ll need to retrace my last steps in the opposite direction towards Villavieja

Stay

  • Pasto: I have “risked” staying in one of South America’s cheapest hostels Colombian House Hostal that had no reviews at the time and I was lucky. Run by a friendly dude who’s got a band and his attentive girlfriend, the place was spacious, offering kitchen, a large terrace and a very friendly atmosphere. It’s not Hilton but you’ll get a clean private room for only $6,-USD per night. I would recommend the place to my mates on a budget
  • Bogotá: I’ve personally stayed at my mate’s place so I ain’t got no recommendations. The areas to stay are listed here by Xixerone
  • Tatacoa Desert: First I’ve stayed in a review highly praised place called Alojamiento Casa de campo los Cactus. There were very friendly owners but the room I was given wasn’t the one I’ve booked according to the pictures and description, plus it cost me the staggering $25 for a private room, while I’ve slept in an empty dorm by myself. I’ve therefore moved to Hostal Noches de Saturno that came with a decent restaurant, more social opportunities and a swimming pool for only $6,30 for a basic private room. Unfortunately I couldn’t book this place in advance as they didn’t respond to my booking request made via their Fcbk site

Heading further north?

If you are heading towards Bogotá or Medellín, click here please. As for Caribbean Colombia, click here please.

This site has expired. In case you have enjoyed or you have found some of my articles on Along The Line useful, you can follow its successor https://quaintplanet.com/

Published by jb

"Life is just a ride" - Bill Hicks

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