During the summer of 2017, I spent five weeks in Colombia and Ecuador. To be frank, I loved Colombia so much that I really debated whether I would go to Ecuador at all. Although I have a friend in northern Ecuador, flights from Bogota were not cheap. Also, I was in the Coffee Triangle and I didn’t particularly want to backtrack in order to head south. Therefore, the logical solution was to go overland by bus.
My trip originated in Salamina, Caldas in the heart of coffee country. In order to save time, I took a shared taxi to Manizales Bus Station, which cost around 20,000 Colombian pesos or about 6 euro. Travelling by taxi cut the trip to two hours. Taking a bus was cheaper, but would have added an extra hour at least. Leaving Salamina at 7:40 am, I arrived in Manizales that morning at 9:45.
Manizales to Pereira
Manizales Bus Station is large and modern. It is easy to find buses from there to Cali. However, it might be more complex on Colombian holidays. Therefore, make sure to check your calendar carefully before travelling ( there are a lot of holidays in Colombia). I quickly found a bus on to Cali that was departing at 10:15. This bus was with Flota Ospina and travelled via Pereira.
The cost of the trip was around 50,000 Colombian pesos or about 14 euro.
For those travelling from other destinations in Colombian Coffee Country, the journey to Pereira took an hour and quite a few vendors got on to sell food and drinks. The stop in Pereira lasted about fifteen minutes and we left soon after 11:30.
Pereira to Cali
Although the road between Manizales and Pereira is in good condition and happens to be quite scenic, this is not the case between Pereira and Cali. As before, many food vendors got on the bus, so there was no reason to go hungry or thirsty. However, much of the road was single carriageway and the scenery got flatter the further we travelled from Pereira. Also, there were no further breaks throughout the journey.
There was no air conditioning on this bus, unlike the Antarctic conditions on some buses, so the trip was hot and not exactly comfortable. We arrived in Cali at about 16:30. Once there, I went to the Bolivariano office and I bought a ticket for the 9 am bus on the following morning. This cost 58,000 Colombian pesos or about 17 euro.
Hostal Casa Cristales in Cali had the vibe of a quiet hotel, but I was happy to pay 90,000 pesos or 26 euro for a room with quick access to a swimming pool. After a long hot day, it was refreshing to take a dip in the pool.
Cali to Ipiales
The bus left soon after 9 am and they said that it would arrive in Ipiales at 19:00 or 19:30. The scenery became quite dramatic as we headed further south. Picture majestic green mountains and you have the idea in your head. In the beginning, each new mountain was breathtaking. However, after a few hours of this, it was ‘oh, another mountain’ and then ‘yet another mountain’. Due to the landscape, the road was almost entirely single carriageway and overtaking slower vehicles was difficult. Also, as this is the main road to Ecuador, there were a lot of slow trucks.
We hardly made any stops. In fact, we only briefly stopped in Popayan to let passengers on and off. Lunch was in a small town in the middle of nowhere and it lasted from 15:00 to 16:00. Note that the bus ticket did not include the price of the lunch.
Regular military checkpoints in the south further impeded our progress. As a result, we did not even reach Pasto until 20:00 (so much for arriving in Ipiales at 19:30). It was then another 90 minutes before we reached our destination. By the time we got there, we were totally exhausted. I had booked a room at Hotel Avanty. It was a comfortable but chilly end to a tiring day.
Crossing to Ecuador
I requested the hotel to book me a taxi to the border the next morning. Despite wanting to go to the famous sanctuary at Las Lajas, I was travelling on Colombian Independence Day, so I figured that the church would probably be extremely crowded. A taxi ride to the border cost 8,000 pesos (a little over 2 euro).
The border at Rumichaca was quite busy. A vendor on the Colombian side sold me an Ecuadorian sim card for my cell phone. However, this turned out to be a mistake because it never worked correctly and I had to have it changed in a store in Quito. Despite the long lines, formalities on the Colombian side were brief. They stamped me out, I walked to a gate at the back of the room, exited and walked over to the Ecuadorian border.
The queues here were much slower (mainly due to the presence of Venezuelan refugees trying to enter the country). It took a lot of time to enter the office where the border officials were stamping passports. In addition to this, they refused to allow travellers enter the room with their bags, which we had to leave unattended outside. Some Colombians were understandably furious at this. Eventually, I got to a border official who asked me some basic questions, stamped me in and welcomed me to Ecuador.
The whole process took almost two hours, including exiting Colombia and entering Ecuador.
Firstly, I wanted to change euros into dollars. However, nobody was able to do this for me, so I paid about 35 cents to take a bus into town. Some of the people on the bus told me that there was an ATM at the bus station, but that it might not work. As a result, I decided to look for a money changer in town. I got off near a park, walked up one of the main streets and went looking for an exchange bureau. There was one on a side street. However, it was closed when I finally got there. Having lost a lot of time on this adventure, I decided to take money out of a bank machine and then to take a taxi to the bus station.
Getting to Quito
Only one company sold tickets to Carcelen (Northern Bus Station), so there was not exactly a lot of choice. Also, they would not give me a ticket for storing my bag, so my backpack travelled with me on the bus. I later learned that this is not allowed by law, but I can argue quite strongly in Spanish, so I got away with it on this occasion. The ticket cost $5 (usually bus tickets there cost about $1 for every hour of travel).
My trip to Quito was memorable. The bus stopped regularly to allow vendors on and off. In fact, I can say that we were attacked by an army of vendors between Tulcan and Quito (about 80 of them at least). We finally arrived in Carcelen at around 17:30. There was an official taxi rank there and I took a taxi to my hotel in the Old Town. The taxi took forty-five minutes and cost me $8.
Getting Back to Colombia
Getting Back to Tulcan
After ten days, it was time to make my way back to Colombia. This was basically the journey that I described above in reverse, although my destination was Pasto, from where I had booked an onward flight to Medellin. I booked an early taxi (6:00 am) to Carcelen and I took the first bus to the border which left at 6:40. Note that it is necessary to pay a small service fee before passing through a security gate. Without the paper showing that you have paid the fee, you will not be allowed go through to the buses.
It was the same bus company that I had taken before. However, this time they were prepared to give me a ticket to store my luggage in the hold. Unlike the initial trip, there were few vendors given access to the bus. They showed DVDs throughout the journey (American movies dubbed in Spanish). The trip took about 5 hours again and we arrived at the Bus Station in Tulcan at 12:00 pm. From here I took a taxi to the border.
The Border Crossing
After the long delay getting into Ecuador, I was prepared for the worst. This time, on the other hand, leaving Ecuador took about 5 minutes. Entering Colombia was a more lengthy process. Again, there were entire families of Venezuelans and it was the same line whether people were entering or leaving the country. There are signs saying that border officials may ask you to provide evidence of Yellow Fever vaccinations. I had my vaccination booklet ready, but I was not asked to show anything.
The process took about ninety minutes. They did not ask for any proof of my Yellow Fever vaccination nor did I have to fill in any customs forms.
Getting From Ipiales to Pasto
I took a taxi to Ipiales Bus Station where I withdrew money in Colombian pesos and bought a ticket to Pasto. The scenery between Ipiales and Pasto was spectacular in places, so try to sit on the right-hand side of the bus.
Tips and Advice
- You can take a night bus from Cali to Ipiales or Pasto. Many travellers choose to break their journey in the latter city because there is more to see and do than in Ipiales.
- Make sure you know when Colombian national holidays (follow the link for 2017 and 2018 holidays) are occurring.
- Have either USD or Colombian pesos in Tulcan.
- Do not try to change other currencies unless you are in Quito or another large city.
- Be aware that the political situation in nearby Venezuela may have an impact on the amount of time you need to wait at the border.
- Leave early in the morning in order to minimise the impact of delays.
- Note that you could also follow a route through southern Colombia that would include travel highlights such as Desierto de la Tatacoa, Popayan and San Agustin.
- Budget about three days to get from either Medellin or Coffee Country to the border at Rumichaca.
- Note that there is another land border in Mocoa in southern Colombia. Despite official travel advisories warning not to use this border, I have met a few travellers who used this crossing without problems.
- Have layers of clothing. Depending on the level of air conditioning, a bus may be either boiling hot or freezing cold.