Stretching from the southern edge of the Valle de Cauca to the border with Ecuador, the Southern Colombian region contains everything your imagination can conjure: high-altitude páramo plains and snowy volcanoes, flanked by mangrove-filigreed coastline to the west and sultry jungle to the east.
Popayán is a beautiful colonial city, renowned for its Semana Santa processions. Stroll through the narrow streets, stopping in the numerous churches and several museums. Popayán serves as the gateway to some of Colombia’s premier archaeological sites, both of unknown cultures: Tierradentro, brilliantly painted, human-carved burial caves; and San Agustín, many sites of incredible statuary. The surrounding countryside of both provides great hiking opportunities.
Between the two lies Parque Nacional Puracé. After trekking around the Cadena Volcánica de Coconuco or scaling Volcán Puracé, you can soak your strained muscles in several local hot springs.
Further south on the Pan-American Highway, you arrive at Pasto. This city, overlooked by smoldering Galeras volcano, also has pleasant colonial-era architecture and plazas, as well as a Gold Museum (Museo de Oro).
Accessible from Pasto, you can visit the country’s second-largest lake, Laguna La Cocha. On its shores a many eco-farms that welcome guests. Santuario de Flora y Fauna Isla La Carota is on a small island in the lagoon.
Just north of the Rumichaca border with Ecuador is Ipiales. Eight kilometers (5 mi) away is the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de las Lajas, a neo-Gothic church spanning a river gorge. Also near Ipiales is the indigenous village Cumbal, shadowed by two icy volcanoes.
The entire region has experienced guerrilla and paramilitary activity in recent years. Please read the Southern Colombia Safety section.