Colombia's Smallest National Park Is a Mystical Island

From spells and curses to Paddington Bear.

La Concha lake in Colombia seems pretty innocent at first glance. You’d never guess that this unassuming body of water is home to the country’s smallest national park or the legendary lore swimming beneath the surface. Which is more fascinating, we’ll leave up to you.

But indeed, this is the place where, according to local myth, a cursed Indigenous princess ran off with a dancer she met at a festival celebrating the sun, who spilled a cup of water that magically caused the entire valley to flood and swallow up seven cities. Whoopsie. To make matters worse, a horsefly bit the lovers right before the flood—it’s all very complicated and dramatic, but far more plot-heavy than that other, more-scientific explanation that the 96,000 acres of Laguna La Concha was formed from a volcanic crater fed from 26 streams.

Either way, it’s the second-largest inland body of water in the nation. And, as mentioned, it has the tiniest of national parks sitting on the small island of La Corota, the only dot on a sea of deep blue. Isla de la Corota was designated as protected land and opened up to the public in 1977, though it’s long been considered a source of energy to the Indigenous people in Colombia, and traditional doctors from Putumayo used the plants and botanics here as medicine. Accessible only by boat, the uninhabited island is home to around 35 acres of densely packed totora reeds, trails winding through mossy trees, a single stone-and-wood chapel, and the real-life Paddington Bear, a cute, fuzzy animal that inspired the cartoon.

It’s a windy road that will get you to La Corota on La Concha. Driving along Highway 10 from the city of Pasto, the path curves in bumpy switchbacks around a mountain before opening up to views of the lake and the colorful boats that will ferry you to the island. And with the charming town of El Encano right on the shores of the lake, this southern part of Colombia is like a secret, magical dream. Here’s everything to know about planning a trip there.

How to get to La Corota

The city of San Juan de Pasto (known simply as “Pasto”) has the closest airport, which has direct flights from Bogota. From downtown Pasto, you can take a 25-minute taxi (around $3 USD) or a 45-minute bus (around $2 USD) to the village of El Encano, the gateway to the island, which in itself is worth a stop. Hire one of the colorful wooden “lancha” boats that line up in town to bring you to the island past fishing cabins on stilts. You can arrange for the captain to wait or come back later to pick you up, and it should cost around $20,000 COP ($4 USD).

Admission to La Corota is $11,500 COP (around $2 USD) for foreigners to access the park’s trails, but free to visit the chapel. No food or drinks are allowed on the trails and pets cannot be brought onto the island. In order to maintain this important ecosystem, stay on the maintained trails and bring any trash with you when you leave.

La Concha
Flickr/David Alejandro Cabrera Ortiz

When to go to La Corota

In terms of weather, the island is in what’s called a “humid forest with a cold thermal floor,” so you’ll want to be prepared for cooler temperatures year-round. Expect rain from May to September and more favorable conditions the rest of the year.

Since the island is, as mentioned, so small, you might have a harder time accessing La Corota during holidays. During the Feast of the Virgin of Lourdes in February, for example, an estimated 9,000 visitors flock to the island. Other national holidays include Colombian Independence Day on July 20, All Saints' Day the first week of November, and Holy Week in April.

Spectacled bear
Juan Carlos Vindas/Moment/Getty Images

Search for the spectacled bear

One of the reasons why many want to venture to La Corota is the abundance of endangered and significant species of plants and animals. The mammals that call it home include the spectacled bear, which was the inspiration for Paddington Bear and is the only bear species found in South America. Whether or not you manage to spot the creature IRL, you’ll see its image on much of the park’s signage. Keep an eye out for the fuzzy animal with a patch of fur on its face that looks like a pair of glasses.

The Northern pudu (a type of deer) and tapir also live here, though these larger mammals can be harder to spot thanks to trail barricades—much needed to help protect their habitats. It’s not uncommon to see birds, which attract bird lovers. Visitors often spot grebes or golden peck ducks, along with endemic hummingbirds.

La Corota
Flickr/tacowitte

Go on short but refreshing hikes

The trails on La Corota provide the opportunity to see the island’s 300-plus plant species, including bromeliads and orchids. The two hiking trails wind through moss-covered oak trees, with railings and planks to keep the path maintained and protect the animals. There are also signs along the way that provide added details about plant life in Spanish.

Sendero El Quiche is a short trail (less than 0.5 mile) of medium difficulty that runs from north to south of the island through the dense forest. The trees create a lush curtain with small patches of light coming through the leaves. The terrain is uneven, with tree roots popping up from the ground, so step carefully. Sendero La Totora is another quick (0.1 miles) but easy trail that has a viewpoint overlooking the lake, which is visible from the dock where boats arrive.

Encano
VW Pics/Contributor/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Visit the enchanting gateway town of El Encano

Most visitors to La Corota base themselves out of El Encano. This charming town along the water is lined with A-frame buildings draped in flowers and colorful wooden boats. Popular with weekenders from Pasto and beyond, it’s the best way to disconnect and soak up #lakelife vibes.

Here you can pick up alpaca wool sweaters to keep you warm on the island and dine in the family-run restaurants, which serve traditional Colombian fare like the omnipresent ajiaco soup (a chicken and potato stew) as well as the local specialty, trout straight from the lake, served with plantains and rice. Cafe Camino del Viento is the best spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and buy bags from the Nariño region to bring home.

Pasto
Flickr/Carlos Gonzalez Hidalgo

Spend time in the regional capital of Pasto

Pasto (where the closest airport is located) is the biggest city in the region. The historic dwelling is surrounded by lush nature and is full of artisanal trinkets. The city played a role during the War of Independence, when Simon Bolivar won the area and helped lead the country to victory.

Stroll around the city’s beautiful historic churches, like the colorful Iglesia Santiago Apostol and Temple of Cristo Rey. Or visit the Museo del Carnaval for a fun and colorful look into the city’s culture. There you’ll get up close with colorful floats depicting guinea pigs and other figures. You’ll also learn about the annual Carnaval de Negros y Blancos celebration, reminiscent of Mardi Gras, which kicks off at the end of December and run for six days through the New Year.

Santuario de las Lajas
Photo by Diego Delso/CC BY SA 4.0

Lastly, it’s slightly further off (about a two-hour drive), but another place associated with Pasto is Santuario Las Lajas. This absolute knock-out cathedral is built like a bridge connecting two sides of a verdant valley. If you were looking for magic, this castle-like view says it all.

La Concha hotel
Hotel Sindamanoy

Where to stay nearby

Unlike national parks you may have experienced in other parts of the world, there aren’t campsites at La Corota or any accommodations at all. Instead, base yourself in El Encano, which has many hospedajes, hotels, and rental cabins.

Hotel Sindamanoy Laguna de La Cocha sits atop a hill overlooking La Corota and is as close as it comes to a “national park lodge,” with its chalet-style design and abundant rooms. Or settle into the fireplace-heated rooms of Waira, a couple-friendly hotel with its own private nature reserve nearby.

Hotel V1501 in Pasto is an artsy, 87-room boutique hotel named for the nearby La Galera volcano, with a bustling restaurant and art inspired by the spectacled bear. Guest rooms feature wallpaper based on vintage travel posters and local artwork. Request a room with a view of the volcano for the full experience.

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Caroline Eubanks is an award-winning writer and author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States. You can find her work at carolineeubanks.com.