Pasto, Colombia, 310 mi/500 km southwest of Bogota, is home to the Colombian National Volcano Observatory, on Volcan Galeras. This volcano remains in a volatile state, and the wildlife sanctuary that surrounds it is currently closed to visitors. The city is an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside, notably the biggest lake in the nation—Laguna de la Cocha, which provides spectacular background scenery for hikers and campers.
On the lake is the small island of La Corota, a national preserve that has more than 500 varieties of trees. The city itself wins no beauty prize, but it has 10 colonial churches—we especially enjoyed the stained-glass windows of La Iglesia de Cristo Rey—and a small but excellent gold museum.
Just outside the border town of Ipiales, 45 mi/75 km south of Pasto, is the beautiful Gothic Santuario de Nuestra Senora de las Lajas. The church, built on a bridge traversing a gorge, features a natural cliff-face altar on which superstitious people believe a legend that the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared. Whether for religious or aesthetic purposes, the sanctuary is a must-see.
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