Cauca & Huila
These two departments are home to Popayán, one of Colombia's most charming colonial cities, plus two of the country's most important archaeological sites – San Agustín and Tierradentro. Here you'll also find the peculiar Desierto de la Tatacoa, a striking anomaly near Neiva, halfway between Bogotá and San Agustín.
This small colonial city is famous for its chalk-white facades (its nickname is La Ciudad Blanca, or 'the White City'), and is second only to Cartagena as Colombia's most impressive colonial settlement. It sits beneath towering mountains in the Valle de Pubenza, and for hundreds of years was the capital of southern Colombia, before Cali overtook it.
Welcome to Ecuador – almost. Nariño is Colombia's most southwesterly department, and the Ecuadorean influence here is strong. The Andes here loom high and forbidding on their southerly march. The 'volcano alley' that runs the length of Ecuador begins here – pleasant Pasto, the departmental capital, sits a mere 8km from an active volcano covered in patchwork farmland.
Five thousand years ago, two indigenous cultures lived in the adjacent river valleys of the Magdalena and the Cauca. Divided by uncrossable peaks, the rivers were their highways, and here, near San Agustín, within several days' march of each other, lie the headwaters of both rivers. It is here that those two civilizations met to trade, to worship, and to bury their dead.
Just two hours from Ecuador, Pasto is the capital of the department and the logical jumping-off point for the border. It is a pleasant enough city with several fine colonial buildings as well as a bustling downtown area, but there is little here to hold most travelers' attention for more than an overnight stop.
Tierradentro is the second-most important archaeological site in Colombia (after San Agustín) but gets surprisingly few visitors. Located well off the beaten track down some rough dirt roads, it is a peaceful place with friendly locals and awe-inspiring archaeological wonders.
This small desert town was founded in 1550 and has largely been forgotten about since. A few families continue to eke out a living herding goats, but many have turned to tourism. On weekends and holidays it is often visited by bogotanos looking to warm up but on other occasions you'll have the place to yourself.
This small town has a few budget hotels, a couple of supermarkets, a few ATMs, a couple of internet cafes and, on the weekends, several lively discos. Most everything clusters within two or three blocks of Parque Los Fundadores, the main plaza. Of interest is the Museo Arqueológico Calima, where you'll find a collection of almost 2000 pieces of pre-Columbian pottery.
Santuario de Las Lajas
Built on a stone bridge spanning a deep gorge at the village of Las Lajas, the neo-Gothic Santuario de Las Lajas is a strange but spectacular sight. On Sunday the place is full of pilgrims and vendors selling ice cream and souvenirs; during the week it gets hardly any visitors.
Parque Nacional Natural Puracé
Forty-five kilometers east of Popayán along the unpaved road to La Plata lies this 830-sq-km national park. The vast majority of the park lies within the resguardo (official territory) of the Puracé indigenous group. At the time of research, the indigenous community had taken control of the park following a dispute with the national government over its management.
There are two thermal springs near the town of Coconuco (2360m), in the mountains outside Popayán on the road to San Agustín. On weekends they are packed with kids and rum-soaked parents; during the week they are all but empty. The weather here is decidedly cool, which makes the springs even more enjoyable.
Laguna de la Cocha
Set amid rolling green hills, and often shrouded in mist, this spectacular lake is a must-do day trip on your visit to Pasto. You can take a boat ride around the lake, stopping at Isla Corota along the way. The island is a national park, and at an altitude of 2830m offers a rare glimpse of a well-preserved, evergreen cloud forest.