My overland trip from Colombia to Ecuador – San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito – was exciting and challenging! Instead of backtracking through Popayán bumping along rough, potholed Andean roads, I decided to try a less-traveled route through Pasto. The plan was to ride a bus from San Agustín to Pasto, where I would spend the night, continue to Ipiales the next day, and then cross the border into Ecuador.
San Agustín to Pasto Colombia
For many years, people avoided the road from San Agustín to Pasto because it was a known hangout for rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia aka FARC Guerrillas, or maybe Colombian drug barons – I get the two confused. To fund operations, FARC angered the government by ambushing autos and buses, kidnapping passengers, stealing, and terrifying the people. Travelers steered clear of this infamous back road deep in the jungle!
Crossing the Andes
After repeated assurance from San Agustín locals that “actividad peligrosa” stopped long ago and there was “nada que temer” from the FARC, I took my life into my own hands and 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 jungle scenery deep in the lush, isolated Andes! By auto, it would have been a terrifying drive up and down steep terrain and around blind corners, but the bus ride was easy and it worked. The views were amazing!
I met Christina from Slovakia, another solo traveler, and we shared stories. Christina’s traveling companion was a classic guitar which she guarded carefully. She’d been on the road for several months passing through Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia and was on her way to Otavalo Ecuador to visit Otavalo Market famous for textiles and handicrafts. Christina lived in Spain for several years and in addition to Slovakian, spoke fluent English and Spanish.
Driving into Pasto, we encountered a chaotic atmosphere wild with an energetic Carnival celebration. There was loud music, dancing in the streets, and a boisterous Carnival parade with colorful floats. Enthusiastic revelers in costumes with painted faces sprayed carnival foam on each other. Our bus driver stopped to greet a driver going in the opposite direction and surprisingly got sprayed in the face with Carnival Foam.
I’ve never celebrated Carnival in South America. It’s observed by South American cities and countries at different times and can last for four or more days. It was wild! With so many people celebrating, the hotels in Pasto were fully 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 known as one of the most beautiful shrines in the world, and there are many myths and mysteries about the magnificent church. Steamy jungle mist mysteriously hides and then reveals the cathedral.
Ipiales Santuario de Las Lajas Basilica literally clings to the side of a sheer cliff above the Guaitara River overlooking two waterfalls flowing from the jungle!!
Ipiales was also celebrating Carnival, but we switched buses and headed there anyway, hoping for less carousing. We arrived to discover the same scene – raucous partying crowds, a commotion in the streets, and no hotel vacancies.
We spoke to someone at the bus station who advised us to go ahead and cross the border, spend the night in an Ecuadorian 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 day, Christina and I wondered if we would have to sit hungry in the bus station all night…
Before figuring out how to get to Tulcán, we bought our bus tickets to Otavalo and Quito, chilled, and looked for food in the bus station. It might have been fun in daylight, but we weren’t keen on wandering around Ipiales at night – it looked dangerous and there wasn’t a safe 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 intimidating – dangerous, isolated, dark, and like I imagined a concentration camp or prison yard. This was my second or third land border crossing in South America and it wasn’t getting easier.
Border Crossing Colombia to Ecuador
We completed the immigration paperwork and waited with passports in hand. During a land border crossing it’s important to keep your wits about you. 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’ll be approached by bold, insistent taxi drivers offering rides. Always 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 – much more so for solo women travelers. You must be firm and tell the drivers to back off and give you space while you recover from the experience and collect your thoughts. I lived to tell of some harrowing experiences as a solo 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 my way to the Galápagos Islands. She started looking through my passport and didn’t see another Ecuadorian visa. With borderline Spanish, I explained that I renewed my passport, so the previous visa was not stamped in the new one. She gave me a dirty look. While wilting from her unfriendly scowl and forgetting all the Spanish I ever knew, I motioned for Christina. She took over and with impeccable Spanish explained the absence of a previous visa. The immigration officer accepted her explanation – whew!
After our passports were stamped we walked about 700 meters (760 yards) in the dark across the border from Colombia into Ecuador. It was surreal – and looked like I imagined a dreary concentration camp or prison yard. I wondered if it was really happening and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I was unclear exactly why crossings between the two borders required a physical walk. We were relieved when it was over!
Currency exchange is another thing to prepare for before a land border crossing. The process is chaotic with people standing around yelling, waving cash, and carrying calculators trying to convince you they know the proper exchange rate. Some countries have designated money exchangers who are identified by bright-colored jackets – but anyone could get one of the jackets! The exchange rate may affect how long you plan to stay in a country, so it’s important to make sure you know the fair rate and how much money to exchange and receive back in local currency. You will suffer for mistakes.
On the other side in Ecuador we took a deep breath, hopped a taxi to Tulcán, and found a hotel. Exhausted, I slept like a baby. The next day buses were departing for Quito and Otavalo every ten minutes. Christina and I boarded our buses and waved goodbye. It was a five-hour ride from Tulcán to Quito. There were bumps along the way, but everything turned out fine….