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.
A small colonial city famous for its chalk-white facades (its nickname is La Ciudad Blanca, or 'the White City'), Popayán is second only to Cartagena as Colombia's most impressive colonial settlement. Perched beneath towering mountains in the Valle de Pubenza, it was the capital of southern Colombia for centuries, before Cali overtook it.
Welcome to Ecuador – almost. Nariño is Colombia's most southwesterly department, and the Ecuadorean influence is strong. The Andes 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.
While Cali is a sprawling metropolis, you don't have to travel far to be surrounded by some serious nature. Just south of the city, Río Pance is a favorite place for caleños to escape the heat. Pance backs on to Parque Nacional Natural (PNN) Farallones – the closest large national park to any major city in the country.
This small desert town is the portal to the Desierto de la Tatacoa. Founded in 1550, it 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's 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 and ATMs, a couple of supermarkets and internet cafes and, on the weekends, several lively discos. It's a perfectly pleasant place that's mostly clustered within two or three blocks of Parque Los Fundadores, the main plaza, but a trip to Lago Calima is the big drawcard.
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.
This artificial reservoir attracts kitesurfers and windsurfers from around the world for its year-round winds. The lake covers the flooded Darién valley of Río Calima, and was built in 1965. Some 86km north of Cali, its temperate climate also attracts caleños looking to cool off on weekends. The green hills that surround the lake are populated with holiday fincas.
Desierto de la Tatacoa
Halfway between Bogotá and San Agustín lies the Tatacoa Desert: a striking landscape of eroded cliffs and gullies, sculpted by the infrequent rain. Tatacoa isn't really a desert, although the thermometer says otherwise – it sometimes hits 50°C. It's technically semi-arid dry tropical forest, averaging 1070mm of rain annually.
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.