My overland trip from Colombia to Ecuador – San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito – was exciting and challenging! Instead of backtracking for hours 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.
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 (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, aka FARC Guerrillas), or maybe Colombian drug barons – I get the two confused. To fund their operations, FARC guerrillas angered the Colombian government by ambushing autos and buses, kidnapping passengers, stealing, and terrifying the people. Travelers steered clear of this infamous back road deep in the dense Colombian jungle!
After repeated assurance from San Agustín locals that “actividad peligrosa” stopped long ago and there was absolutely “nada que temer” from the FARC, I took my life into my own hands and decided to try it. Luckily 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! 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. Views were amazing!
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 the 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 a chaotic atmosphere wild with an energetic Carnival celebration. There was loud music, dancing in the streets, and a spirited, 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. It’s celebrated by South American 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, 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 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 fewer people would be carousing. We arrived to discover the same scene – large 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 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 day, Christina and I wondered if we would have to sit hungry in the bus station all night – an unpleasant thought.
Before figuring out how to get to Tulcán, we decided to buy our bus tickets to Quito and Otavalo, chill, 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 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 – isolated, dangerous, 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.
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 a ride. 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 – more so for solo travelers. You must be firm and tell the drivers to back off and give you some space while you recover from the experience and collected your thoughts. I lived to tell about 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 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 had renewed my passport, so the previous visa was not stamped in the new one. 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. Christina 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. 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. Christina and I 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 identified by wearing 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 and Christina and I boarded our buses and waved goodbye to each other. It was a five-hour ride from Tulcán to Quito. There were bumps along the way, but everything turned out fine….