Las Cochas is the little “town” that is the gateway to Laguna de la Cocha. It may be a little touristy for some but it's in an entirely charming way. It's not fancy by any means and the ramshackle buildings that house restaurants and sweet shops are too cute to not want to take photos of. This is not a swank tourist destination and it draws almost entirely a Colombian clientele along with some Ecuadorians that are just across the border. We came during the week so it was quite quiet but from the number of boats in the various canals, it must get very busy on weekends, especially during the high season.
Though admiring Laguna de la Cocha from afar is not to be missed, a boat trip on it is a must if you've come all this way. Another good reason for doing this is you also get to visit the island that dots its surface. Isla Corota is not only stunning but also a national park. At 2830 meters, it is home to a near perfect tract of evergreen cloud forest. There is a cute little chapel close to the dock when you arrive as well as a biological research center that doubles as the national park headquarters. This is where you pay your 1000 COP (50 cents) admission fee which allows you to do the hike out to a mirador or lookout. It is entirely on a boardwalk, only 550 meters each way, and well worth doing. You literally walk right through the cloud forest so you can see up close. The views from the mirador are also stunning.
Laguna de la Cocha is one stunning lake. The name choca comes from Quechua and means lagoon. Though only 20 kilometers from Pasto, it is worlds away in feel, no doubt due at least partially to all the hills you cross to get here. Those 20 kilometers will take you 45 minutes in a taxi with a driver that has done the trip more times than even he can count! It is quite a large lake at 20 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide. Ringed by verdant hills and at an altitude of nearly 3000 meters, it is often also a misty atmospheric affair. Much like Loch Ness in Scotland, you almost wish for poor weather but I not only had a gorgeous day at the lake of the monster many years ago but also had another stunner at La Cocha. I must say, it made for a nicer boat trip and the lake was nearly mirror flat.
There are many restaurants in the area surrounding Laguna de la Cocha in various price brackets though none looked particularly expensive. Many were not open when we were there as it was midweek and off-season. There were plenty that were open, especially near the boat dock so you would not go hungry. We were in a bit of a hurry and just wanted a small snack and something hot to drink. Even though it was a nice sunny day, at nearly 3000 meters and out on the cold lake, it was not exactly hot out. We found a small cute little place where we were the only customers. It was nice to relax for a bit before the taxi back to Pasto.
Favorite Dish: We just wanted something small so ordered Dulce de Mora. We weren't quite sure what it would be but were happy when fresh homemade blackberry preserves came out with a big slice of equally homemade cheese on top. The sourness of the cheese complemented the sweet fruit well. It was a bit like cheese cake in fact, sans the crust of course. Though we thoroughly enjoyed it, one order was big enough for both of us. We washed it down for a nice hot chocolate. The two beverages and dessert came to 7000 COP ($3.50). Not too bad for a tourist town!
It's easy to reach from Pasto via share taxi which will set you back 3500 COP ($1.75) per person. We were in a hurry and it was during the week so we opted to take the “whole” thing for 15,000 ($7.50). Just ask for a taxi “compleato” if this is what you want. It takes about 45 minutes to get there and the scenery en route is stunning. We did the same thing on our return as there was no one else waiting for a taxi and we were in a hurry, planning on still busing to Ipiales that day. The collectivos (group taxis) go from different spots depending on if its the weekend or not. It's best to ask at the hostel for the most up to date information.
Once in “town” you can jump on a shared boat out to Isla Corota, the price depends a bit on how many people are in the boat. The boats are rickety old wooden ones and you will sit on a wooden plank seat so don't expect something fancy here. They seem perfectly safe, just not luxurious.
We paid 5000 COP ($2.50) each round trip. It was good fun and our boatmates quite enjoyed having a few gringos to chat with en route and on the island. The boats wait for you and circle the island on the way back. It's certainly good value.
Luggage and bags:
While I'm sure many come here for a night or two, it is mainly a day trip destination so you don't need to bring much. We only brought our cameras and a bottle of water with us.
Clothing/Shoes/Weather Gear: Comfy shoes for walking on the island but no need for boots as you are a boardwalk trail and only about one kilometer round trip at that. Definitely bring something warm with you as even if it's nice and sunny, it can be chilly especially out on the lake. Remember you are nearly at 3000 meters.
Photo Equipment: A wide angle is great for capturing shots of shore and the island, with lots of space for the mirror-like water.
Miscellaneous: This is a great place for a romantic stroll and thanks to D I had the perfect one to do just that with.
We tried to get a share taxi out to the lake but it was midweek and off-season so we bellied up and paid for a taxi compleato. It wasn't very expensive but we wanted to get in the group spirit right away and this was more isolated than perhaps we would have liked. The ride was stunning and soon we found ourselves at the dock in this very cute lakeside tourist town cueing up with lots of mostly middle-aged Colombians waiting for a boat to fill up. Much like the share taxis, the boats go out when full unless you want to charter one on your own. We did not want to do this, not only because of the cost but we truly wanted to do it in a group. A small group of Colombians in need of a few extra bodies spotted us and soon we were in their group as they negotiated with the next boat going out. Before we knew it, we were all in the small boat after nearly tipping it on getting in, giving our new comrades a big laugh. We spoke in Spanish but they enjoyed having some gringos along for their trip and since we living in Florida, they were even more interested in us. The boat ride out was fun but it wasn't until we were on the island that we really bonded. We did the short hike out to a viewpoint together, talking along the way and once out there, exchanged cameras to take photos of each other. They wanted us in theirs so there was more than one swapping! We even became friends with another group who had been to Florida and loved it.
On the way back, it was obvious we were truly part of the group now. We saw the people we had met on the island in another boat and we waved and took pictures of each other like excited children as the two boats raced back to the dock. Once there, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways but we were glad for the experience. The lake was nice enough but this was one time where the people were more of the attraction than the nature, than the architecture, than the food.
We had certainly come across some very nice people though and we enjoyed doing things that normally would be almost too touristy for us when they were particularly Colombian touristy activities. We had enjoyed going to the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá, north of Bogota at the beginning of our trip and this was largely due to watching Colombians so obviously enamored with the place. It would have otherwise been a kind of corny place for us but Colombians do have a way an infectious way about them and their enjoyment became ours too.
That had been nearly two months ago at this point and we had not had such an experience since. Sure, we'd seen many Colombians along the way, enjoying their country in earnest especially in their national parks but not quite in the same way as the salt mine, where people were kind of corralled together for better or worse. With only a few more days left in this wonderful country, the opportunity to do a very touristy thing presented itself and we jumped on it. Laguna de la Cocha seemed to have all the elements. A beautiful setting with a very tourist-oriented gateway “town”and best yet, tour boats to explore the big lake. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
While the lake was very pretty and the cute little town that acted as its gateway over-the-top touristy in a charming way, it was the other people doing the boat tour with us that made going there really worthwhile.
Fondest memory: Colombians have a reputation for being amongst the most friendly of all South Americans and that latter group is known also as some of friendliest people in the world. This seems counter to the dangers of traveling in South America and in particular Colombia but understand this right now, the very real dangers of traveling in South America of which Colombia is a proud member are not related to the people at large. There are some bad apples as there are anywhere in the world and in places where poverty is often rampant, this can transpire to crime. But by and far, the average person in South America can't do enough to help you and that includes the very poorest who would likely give you the shirt off your back if you were cold.
Though we had met our share of nice Colombians while traveling around the country for two months, we had tended to shy away from too close contact. As much as we told ourselves that the country was safe and this was proven to us each day on one of the most glitch-free trips we'd ever done, we were still somehow wary. Nearly every interaction outside of one questionable incident on the second day after our arrival had been great but we kept everyone at an arm's length to a degree. We are a very close couple and to be honest we travel mostly to enjoy nature in its splendor, architecture in its element, and food as traditional as we can find. We enjoy meeting people but it's not something we seek out or focus on. Everyone travels for their own reasons, has their own intents. (continued below in Fondest Memory)