San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito

Pasto

Pasto Colombia

The overland trip from Colombia to Ecuador – San Agustín to Pitalito to Quito – was exciting and 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.

Adorable Carnival Girl

Pasto Carnival Girl

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 barons – 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!

Colombia Borders

Colombia’s Five Borders – Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador

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!

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Colombian 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.

Santuario de Las Lajas

Santuario de Las Lajas Basilica Church Ipiales Colombia

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.

Las Lajas Cathedral Ipiales

Las Lajas Cathedral Ipiales

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 magnificent cathedral.

Carnival Revelers

Carnival Revelers

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.

Tulcan

Tulcan Ecuador

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, 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.

Ipiales

Ipiales Colombia

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.

Pasto Colombia

Pasto Colombia

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!

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Las Lajas Angel

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. I tried to explain that my passport was renewed 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. With impeccable Spanish Christina explained the absence of a previous visa. The immigration officer accepted her explanation.

Our Lady of Las Lajas

Our Lady of Las Lajas

After our passports were stamped we walked about 700 meters (760 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….

San Agustín Colombia – Magic and Sacred

Finca el Cielo from Veranda

Finca el Cielo from Veranda

I fell off the grid for a few days in San Agustín. The area is isolated and has Internet challenges, so we had no WiFi at Finca el Cielo – the B&B where I stayed. It was fun escaping reality for a few days! The trip from Cali to San Agustín was interesting. It was a small, clean bus with 15 seats. The bus station was chaotic and teeming with activity but we left promptly at 6:00 a.m. with a full load of passengers.

None of the passengers spoke English. I went with the flow. The vibes were mellow and I sat next to a young brother and sister traveling together to Pitalito. Their mother brought them to the bus station and rushed inside to buy a loaf of fresh bread (pan in Spanish) for them to take along. We exchanged smiles and they slept toppled over each other for most of the trip. Passengers included adults, babies, children, and a curious puppy that smelled everyone’s feet at least twice.

My seat was a few rows behind the young driver who clearly had made the trip a few times before. His passing and tailgating tactics were horrifying! It was amazing that he didn’t slam into someone or go careening off the side of the treacherous Andean road. The smell of brake fluid flooded the bus a few times. I tried not to look forward as it was too terrifying – glad I had a light breakfast!

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Terrain – Cali to San Agustin

Parrot & B&B Guest

Parrot with Finca el Cielo Guest

During the first part of the route to Pitalito we climbed high into the Colombian Andes where the temperature dropped abruptly. I hugged a backpack in my lap to stay warm. Since it was so hot in Cali, I’d packed away warmer clothes.

The roads we traveled were some of the most crooked I’ve ever seen – reminiscent of the coastal road from San Francisco to Stinson Beach in Marin County, but longer and sharper with many more twists and turns! The higher we climbed the greener the terrain became as we passed by coffee, banana, and sugarcane plantations, thick untamed jungle vegetation, cows, and horse farms. It was beautiful!  A few hours into the 6+ hour ride we stopped at a checkpoint where government soldiers with machine guns reviewed the driver’s papers. The soldiers were very young and non-threatening.

As we passed different towns distinct odors permeated the bus. A few of the towns reeked of marijuana and some smelled like smoke from cooking and odors of unfamiliar herbs and plants. Colombian music played during the entire road trip – something that usually drives me crazy but it wasn’t too loud or obnoxious. To improve my Spanish, I tried focusing on the words being sung. In the past, the route we followed through the Andes was popular with Colombian FARC rebels.

We stopped for lunch at a small out-of-the-way roadside café. The family running the restaurant lived in part of the building and offered travelers a quick meal of chicken or fish, rice, and vegetables.

Overlooking Gorge

Overlooking a Gorge

Parts of the road to San Agustín weren’t paved and the driver had to maneuver loose gravel and large potholes. There was heavy traffic on the rough road – pedestrians, horses, motorcycles, buses, cattle, people, and cars. That part of the trip was extremely dusty, and the bumpy motion of the bus was how I imagined being inside a washing machine would feel!  There was no way to read, write, or take photos. The fact that some locals were sleeping was amazing. Sharp turns forced passengers to cling tightly to their chairs – no seat belts.

Magdalena River

Magdalena River

A few hours after the lunch stop the driver dropped those of us headed for San Agustín at a crossroad outside Pitalito. At that point we had already crossed the high Andean peaks and were now down in a valley where the temperature was considerably warmer. We waited a few minutes in the blazing sun and then an open-air shuttle bus picked us up and drove into San Agustín.

The owner of the B&B where I stayed was to meet me in San Agustín for the short drive to Finca el Cielo. Somehow I missed her. After looking around a few minutes I decided to take a taxi with two Colombian guys who were selling guided tours of the ruins. They were talking so fast – couldn’t decipher any of their Spanish. Of course they asked where I was from and we had a short basic conversation in Spanish.

Ernesto (Guide), Maria, Juan, Juan

Ernesto (Guide), Maria, Juan, Juan

Finca el Cielo is isolated outside San Agustín and absolutely gorgeous. It’s situated on rolling green hills with tropical flowers, horses, chickens, parrots, other exotic birds, and two friendly yellow Labradors. The buildings are made of bamboo. The owner is a Swiss woman – Dominique. Dominique has owned and managed the land for almost 20 years. She’s in Switzerland most of the time but plans to make San Agustín her permanent home soon. A lively Colombian family lives on the property, takes care of the animals, and manages the B&B while Dominique is in Switzerland.

Ruin

Ruin

With Finca el Cielo as my base, I spent several days touring the pre-Columbian archaeological sites around San Agustin and will describe that incredible experience in a separate blog post.

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Finca el Cielo Chicken

The first day at Finca el Cielo I met three friendly Colombians visiting San Agustín from Bogota – Juan, Juan, and Maria. They spoke excellent English and invited me to join in their exploration of the ruins. Their company was enjoyable and educational and it was fun getting to know them. The information they shared about Colombia and other countries in South America was valuable. Two countries they recommended were Suriname and Uruguay – both are on my list. After talking to them and others, I’ve decided to skip Venezuela as it sounds too dangerous.

San Agustin

San Agustin

After a long bus ride from San Agustín through Pitalito, Pasto, Ipiales, and Tulcán I arrived in Quito yesterday. Now it feels like the whole thing was a dream. The Internet here is strong, so I can get caught up on blog posts including the San Agustín to Quito adventure.

Ruin Statue

I was in Quito (on the equator) for a few days many years ago on the way to the Galápagos Islands. It’s changed tremendously and I’m re-learning how to get around, acclimatizing to the high altitude, and taking it slow for a few days. Wishing everyone a fantastic 2015! :o)