The overland trip from Colombia to Ecuador – San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito – was challenging! Instead of backtracking several hours through Popayán via rough, pot-holed Andean roads, I decided to try a less-traveled route through Pasto. The plan was to take a bus from San Agustín to Pasto, spend the night, and the next day travel to Ipiales where I would cross the border into Ecuador.
For many years, the road from San Agustín to Pasto was avoided because it was a hangout for rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, aka FARC Guerrillas), or maybe it was Colombian drug lords – I get the two confused. To fund their operations, FARC guerrillas ambushed autos and buses, stole from or kidnapped passengers, terrified the people, and angered the Colombian government. Travelers steered clear of this infamous back road deep in the dense Colombian jungle at all cost!
After repeated assurance from San Agustín locals that “actividad peligrosa” stopped long ago and there was nothing to fear from the FARC, I decided to try it. The nine-hour ride was uneventful. It was a magical delight for the eyes as we passed through exotic, breathtakingly spectacular scenery deep in the lush, isolated Andes!
I met Christina from Slovakia – also a solo traveler – and we shared travel stories. Christina’s traveling companion was a classic guitar which she guarded carefully. She had been on the road for two months passing through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia and was on her way to Otavalo Ecuador to visit Otavalo Market famous for its textiles and handicrafts. Christina lived in Spain for several years and in addition to Slovakian, spoke fluent English and Spanish.
Driving into Pasto, we discovered the town was chaotic and wild with an energetic Carnival celebration. There was loud music, dancing in the streets, and a large boisterous Carnival parade with colorful floats. Enthusiastic revelers wore costumes, painted their faces, and sprayed carnival foam on each other. Our Colombian bus driver stopped to greet another driver going in the opposite direction and surprisingly got sprayed in the face with Carnival Foam.
I’d never been to Carnival in South America but understand it’s celebrated by cities and countries at different times during the year and typically lasts for 4 or more days. It was wild! With so many people celebrating Carnival, the hotels in Pasto were completely booked and people were traveling to nearby Ipiales to find lodging.
Ipiales is known for Santuario de Las Lajas Basilica Church a remarkable neo-Gothic cathedral in a canyon between two mountains. Las Lajas is one of the most beautiful shrines in the world and there are many myths and mysteries about the church. It literally clings to the side of a sheer cliff above the Guaitara River overlooking two waterfalls flowing from the jungle! Steamy jungle mist mysteriously hides and then reveals the cathedral.
Ipiales was also celebrating Carnival, but we switched buses and headed there anyway hoping fewer people would be partying. When we arrived it was the same situation – large crowds, a commotion in the streets, and no hotel vacancies.
We spoke to someone at the bus station who said we should go ahead and cross the border, spend the night in an Ecuadorian border town called Tulcán, and continue our trip the next day. At this point it was late and we were tired and hungry but couldn’t find a place to buy food. Already exhausted from the long ride, we wondered if we would have to sit hungry in the bus station all night – an unappealing thought.
Before figuring out how to get to Tulcán, we decided to buy our bus tickets to Quito and Otavalo, chill out, and see if food was available in the bus station. Although it might have been fun in daylight, we weren’t keen on wandering around Ipiales at night. It looked dangerous and we had no place to store our luggage. Luckily we found a quiet little café in the bus station and ate so-so rice and beans.
Bellies full, we hopped a taxi to cross the border at Ipiales. It was an intimidating experience – isolated, dangerous, dark, and like I would imagine a concentration camp or prison yard. This was my second or third land border crossing in South America and it wasn’t getting easier.
We completed the immigration paperwork and waited with passports in hand. It’s important to keep your wits about you during a land border crossing. Things happen fast and sometimes there isn’t much time to prepare. It’s a good idea to know how far it is to the other side and where you can pick up transportation – a taxi or bus.
At customs you’re likely to be approached by insistent taxi drivers offering you a ride. Ask them for identification and take your time deciding which one to hire. Even with valid identification accept that going with them in their vehicle is potentially dangerous – especially for solo travelers. You may have to be firm and tell the drivers to back off until you recover from the experience and collect your thoughts. I’ve had several frightening experiences as a solo woman traveler in South America!
The immigration official asked if I had been to Ecuador before. I answered yes, as years ago I visited Quito on the way to the Galápagos Islands. She started looking through my passport and didn’t see another Ecuadorian visa. Tried to explain I’d had my passport renewed so the previous visa was not stamped in the new passport. She gave me a dirty look and while wilting from her unfriendly scowl and forgetting all the Spanish I ever knew, I motioned for Christina’s help. With impeccable Spanish Christina explained the absence of a previous visa. The immigration officer accepted her explanation.
After our passports were stamped we walked about 700 meters (750 yards) across the border from Colombia into Ecuador. It was pitch dark and surreal. I wondered if it was really happening and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I was unclear to me exactly why crossings between the two borders required a physical walk. I was relieved when it was over!
Another thing to prepare for before a land border crossing is currency exchange. The process can be informal and chaotic with people standing around waving cash and carrying calculators trying to convince you they know the proper exchange rate. Some countries have designated money exchangers who wear jackets to identify themselves – but really anyone could get one of the jackets! It’s important to make sure you know the fair exchange rate and how much money to exchange and receive in local currency. This depends on how much you like the exchange rate and how long you plan to stay in the country.
On the other side in Ecuador we took a deep breath, hopped a taxi to Tulcán, and found a hotel near the bus station. Exhausted, I slept like a baby. The next day buses were departing for Quito and Otavalo every ten minutes and Christina and I waved goodbye to each other as we boarded our buses at 9:00 a.m. It was a five-hour ride from Tulcán to Quito. There were bumps along the way but in the end everything was fine….