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Pasto

Pasto is the capital of the southwestern department of Narino. South of Cali and Popayan, and less than two hours north of Ipiales and Ecuador's border city of Tulcan, it's an important commercial and agricultural center. With 400,000 inhabitants, it lies at the foot of the towering Galeras volcano.  Pasto is not a wealth of tourist delights, but it is worth a day's time to explore. It is roughly 21 hours by bus from Bogota, and 19 from Medellin.

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The city is centered on the Plaza del Carnaval where the city's iconic event, el Carnaval de Negros y Blancos (the Carnaval of the Blacks and Whites) takes place. Pasto, at an altitude of 2500m, features a cool and wet climate, but, like Bogota, it makes it one of the lushest, greenest places you've ever seen, with spectacular views of the hills, mountains, and volcanos around the city.

While it might make the characteristically politically correct Americans and Europeans cringe, a key component of the carnaval is actually painting lighter skinned peoples' faces blank, and darker skinned peoples' faces white.  It seems to bear no kind of stigma of any kind, and seems to be enjoyed by all in Pasto. In fact, people come from all around Colombia specifically to experience the Carnaval. If you are planning on coming, the dates are December 31, and January 2-6.

Pasto presents fine examples of colonial architecture, especially with regard to churches which form a great contrast with the characteristically gray skies behind them. Though you can walk the city pretty easily, there is a bus network that runs on mostly north to south routes. If you are a bit lost, just ask for help.  Pastusos, as residents of Pasto are known, are a friendly people.

For various political and economic reasons, gas prices plummet as you approach the Venezuelan and Ecuadorean borders. In Pasto, a gallon of gas costs around $3, or roughly a 40% discount to the price in Bogota.

When you head to Plaza del Carnaval, look for Esteban Martinez's "Carnaval Toda La Vida", emblematic of the richly visual pagan traditions that have been blended into Carnaval, which blends the sacred and the profane, originating in religiosity but now largely inhabiting the realm of revelry. These beautiful and interesting towers rise up to meet the gray clouds that often surround Pasto.

Throughout the five hundred year history of the interaction between the Spanish and Latin America indigenous peoples, it should be noted the degree to which indigenous traditions were never really abandoned, but blended in an interesting manner into the context of Christianity and conversion, often forced.

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Pasto has one youth hostel, but you are just as well off staying in any of the numerous cheap hotels located near the bus station. Hotels can be had for as cheap as $12.000 COP a night, possibly the cheapest you will find in any city in Colombia.  

Pasto offers a great stopping point for travelers either headed north up to Cali and Medellin, or south to Ecuador's Otavalo and Quito. If you are headed south, seriously consider stopping in Ipiales for a look at Las Lajas, a one of a kind church built between two cliffs.

Although tucked away in a remote part of the country, Pasto is not immune to the larger political currents sweeping the country. Walk the streets, and you'll find graffiti expressing student anger towards President Santos and his plan to charge students more for college tuition. Latin America in general, and Colombia in particular, is famed for its political graffiti.

Colombians, many poor and rural, have experienced a history of being sandwiched between the military, guerrillas, and paramilitaries for decades. People are sick and tired of the armed conflict. Alvaro Uribe used this point to catapult himself into history, dramatically pushing the guerrillas out of urban areas, and in the process becoming arguably Colombia's most popular president in history. Pasto is not the most touristy place in Colombia, but you will enjoy a day there. You may even want to come back again!

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