Overland from Colombia to Ecuador/Adventures in Travel!

The "Salsa" Bus to Popayan

The “Salsa” Bus to Popayan

Who needs to fly when you can just “take the bus?” And so we did! From Popayan to Otavalo, overland.

We knew it was going to take 12-14 hours to get to Otavalo from lovely Popayan by bus, and wisely decided to take it in two parts, broken by a brief overnight in the small city of Pasto, the last major town before the border with Ecuador. “Beautiful, dangerous, loud,” are just some of the adjectives that people had used to describe the route from Popayan to the border. And so we thought we were prepared…

A Greener Green

A Greener Green

There is a Road...

There is a Road…

If you look very carefully at the photo with the rushing river in the center, and then gaze up to the left, and the right, you can just see the road cut into the side of the mountain. Getting from one side to the other of the canyons required traveling to the end of each ravine, making a treacherous hairpin turn, driving to the end of the next ravine and doing the same again, and again. Dozens of times. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous, greens of every hue, waterfalls and rivers rushing downwards towards the amazon. It was enjoyable, if only I could stop thinking about the bus driver seeking every opportunity to pass other cars, trucks and buses…on a narrow two-lane road through the mountains, with vertiginous muddy cliffs on one side, an unprotected plunge into the river on the other, and the impossibility of seeing what might be coming the other way. Double-yellow no passing lines? Yep, but who cares? Thrilling!

Six hours of this, interrupted by a 30 minute bathroom/rest/restaurant stop and merciful break from the continuous high decibel salsa music. Salsa? Fun…when it occasionally stops. Torture when it renders earplugs useless and never ceases. About 2/3rds of the way to Pasto, we achieved a high plateau where there were beautiful homes; remnants of the Escobar era perhaps? I didn’t care, it was just a relief to have about 15” of simple, straight roadway!

We arrived in Pasto midafternoon, and took a taxi to the Hotel Koala. Yay, towels. No soap. After a bit of exploring (church around the corner, Plaza de Bolivar (another one!) a block or two away) we had dinner and went to bed, wondering about what the next part of the journey would bring.

The Bridge to Ecuador

The Bridge to Ecuador

By the end of the next day, it had brought the following modes of transportation: taxi, bus, taxi, walk over border bridge, taxi, bus, and finally a taxi, for a total of about 300 miles over 14 hours from Popayan to Otavalo. The Pasto bus dropped us at the terminal in Ipiales, Colombia. We then took a taxi 15” to the border station, where there was one disorganized line for both entering and departing the country – it was chaos. And just for fun, mixed in with backpackers, elder tourists, and locals transiting, was a drunken and/or drugged bus load of soccer fans returning to Ecuador. (An observation of the security guards.) The concept of “wait your turn in line” was incomprehensible to many of them, as they ignored the two hapless security guards asking them to go to the end of the line. So many things were simply wrong with the situation that we had to laugh – while we waited an hour or so in a queue that was more like a flashmob than a line.

After appropriate stamps in the passports, we hauled our bags down a flight of stairs, and then proceeded on foot, pulling the suitcases, across the hundred foot long bridge into Ecuador. A bit smoother passage at Ecuador immigration, mostly because the soccer fans still seemed to be on the other side of the bridge, and we were off in a taxi to Tulcan, to catch a bus to Otavalo.

Enough Food to Feed a Country!

Enough Food to Feed a Country!

The scenery changed dramatically from untamed mountains to rugged agricultural fields as we neared Otavalo, and our good mood lasted until it dawned on us that the bus was NOT going into the center of the city, and we either had to get off on the side of the highway, or continue on to Quito…

Off we trudged, the bus lumbered noisily on its way, and there on the side of the busy highway began our explorations of the country we hope will prove as appealing as we’ve thought at a distance!

For those of you traveling overland from Colombia to Ecuador…here are a few travel tips:

  • Bring earplugs
  • Don’t sit where you can see the turns/the road ahead
  • Be patient at the Colombia border
  • Don’t be surprised if your “Otavalo” ticket entitles you to a roadside dropoff
  • Enjoy the scenery!

There were many high/low points, but the best (worst!)? Definitely, being left on the side of the Pan American highway, in the descending evening light, in Otavalo, without a clue where we were and why we weren’t at the Otavalo bus terminal as we thought we’d purchased with our tickets.   We hefted our small backpacks and dragged our combination backpack/wheeled bags across the highway, and reconnoitered for a few minutes. Just as we’d decided that CW would head for the next corner to look for a taxi, we spotted one coming our direction, and the cheerful cabbie took us to our lovely stay at Hotel Riviera Sucre. Ecuador, at last…

Canine Welcoming Committee

Canine Welcoming Committee

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Bogota, Medillin, Cali…A City is a City is a ? Part 1 of 2

#blogguilt? Yep, six fascinating, challenging weeks exploring Colombia and we’re already across the border in Ecuador (more on that “interesting” experience in Part 2!).

We spent a lot of time in Colombia’s large cities, learning that as beautiful as the surrounding mountains might be, the cities themselves leave a bit to be desired. To be fair, Bogota (8mil), Medillin (4mil), & Cali (4mil) are just rougher versions of many other million plus population cities around the world – traffic is horrendous and diesel/gas fumes reek – walking is not a lot of fun. Until we get city transit issues sorted out and move away from private cars to public, shared & more environmentally sustainable transportation, the world’s largest cities will continue to be increasingly difficult places to live as they grow. (And that’s my quasi-political/social statement for this blog.)

But Colombia’s big cities offer a good look at the country’s history, its art (fantastic), and a peek at how a tourist industry (while not quite in its infancy – hello, Cuba?) is developing. If you’re planning a visit to Colombia and want to do it without a glossy tour company, be aware -you’ll need the following:

Patience – you’ll be taking buses much of the time, and there are generally not set hours for departure. You will go the terminal, search for a suitable bus line (vendors stand about calling destinations), and either find yourself among the first or last to board…and then, only when the bus is FULL will it depart! Along the route, the bus will stop to let passengers off any old place…despite having told you the bus is “direct” (this does NOT mean “non-stop”.) As seats are emptied, the bus will stop along the route to allow others to board, including vendors who offer drinks, fruits, banana chips…and yes, these impromptu snacks can be delicious.

Earplugs – ah, those buses again. Usually, the music will be turned on, loudly, immediately, and constantly throughout the trip, whether 1 hour or 6. Be prepared.

Toilet paper – if you like more than a couple of squares, you’ll be happier if you put a packet of tissues in your pocket before you venture out. You’ll usually pay for the use of the toilet at bus terminals. And, if you’re female, be prepared for lidless toilets…great for the thigh muscles as you attempt to pee without touching the ceramic.

Ok, tips on how to “journeywise” out of the way.

We loved visiting the main plazas in Colombia’s cities – many are named for Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator.” Statues varied from a soldierly and solemn Bolivar to a “Bolivar as Condor” in Manizales, and naked Bolivar on a horse in Pereira…along with your run-of-the-mill busts. The gentleman was everywhere doing good deeds, until he ran into political and financial difficulties and ended his life in exile.

Bolivar Nude - Pereira

Bolivar Nude – Pereira

Museums and outdoor art were also a complete pleasure. From Botero sculptures to murals and graffiti, Colombia (whether on purpose or not) has encouraged a public sharing of exuberant art – it’s everywhere, splashing color along highways, streets, alleys and parks. While most is “art” for art’s sake, there is also plenty of politically motivated art relating to both indigenous peoples and the FARC guerrilla movement. More photos are available on Instagram @tojourneywise and commentary about traveling, organic agriculture and random thoughts on the journey on Twitter @tojourneywise. Enjoy!

Botero Sculpture

Botero Sculpture

Wall Mural Medillin

Wall Mural Medillin

Part 2 coming soon, more on Colombia’s big cities next time…then on to Ecuador!

Chiva Bus - Colombia

Chiva Bus – Colombia