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…
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.
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.
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…