CALI - IPIALES
If you finished dancing your heels of in the World's Salsa Capitol, Cali, and are now heading on your way to Ecuador, no need to rush as there's a lot to see in between.
One of the most beautiful landscapes in all South America is Parque Nacional Munchique, sitting to the west but equally between Santander de Quilichao for the north entry and Popayan for the south entry. The main feature of the park is the spectacular reservoir Morales, which you can get to faster through the north entry, and then prepare yourself for some unforgettable hiking vistas.
If you planned a week in Popayán, it would not be enough. The Alexandria of South America, this is a stately city renowned for its colonial architecture, antiquities, and a history of intellectual foundations, being the home to almost 20 past presidents and many of Colombia's fine artists and thinkers. It's also a city for foodies, in that it not only has great things and places to eat, but it has taken upon itself the obligation to preserve knowledge of local cuisine traditions. I especially love Carantata soup, named so for its crunchy corn.
If you're an architecture aficionado, you will go nuts here. Visit the opulent Paranfino without a doubt, and then include the churches of San Francisco and Santo Domingo, the Cathedral and Basilica (combined!) of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, and the 1546 old cathedral La Ermita. There are also several history and religious museums in the city, and others whose collections stem from the city's patrons and notable citizens.
A beautiful stop south of Popayan is the sleepy and heavenly little hamlet of Rosas ("Roses"), which feels like the name intends, a bouquet of a village tucked into the garden of hills that depart the humid valley. Stop if you can for lunch or to pass the night.
At this point the bus will be climbing into the majestic Andean mountain heights, as you head to Pasto. Depending upon current seismic conditions, you might be able to climb the nearby Volcan Galeras that hovers over Pasto, where there's a beautiful lake near the crater. Do go with a guide, though, this is not a good place to be on your own. If you don't even make it that far, the beautifully forested town of Mapachico near the base is a fine destination, full of rivers, trails, pools and falls. Pasto also has several important museums and churches in town, especially worth visiting ithe wedding-cake church Iglesia San Sebastian, which is aptly nicknamed "The Bakery".
Leaving Pasto, you soon come to Catambuco, which for the culinary adventurous is the prime place in Colombia to dine on "cuy", roasted guinea pig, a regional pride throughout the Andes.
Finally you come to the border at Ipiales, which is most famous for Sanctuario de las Lajas, a cathedral spectacularly built on a bridge over the Guaitara river that took over 30 years to build. Most travelers think it is the actual border crossing, but actually it is a short taxi ride east of the town of Ipiales itself.