My first border crossing in South America was a delightful experience, minus the fact that it ultimately amounted to leaving my beloved Colombia behind me (for now), with that sweet and sad desire to be able to go back and do it all over again.
If you are coming from Cali or anywhere east, it’s going to take you a couple of days to make this crossing. My advice is NOT to spend the night in Ipiales, the town from which you will cross the border, like many people do. There is a much more interesting way to do this.
From Cali, take a three and a half hour bus ride to Popayan and either spend the night there or the day before heading to Pasto to sleep at night. While it may not hold one’s interest for more than a day, I was surprised and amused to find that the small colonial town of Popayan is actually well worth a visit. The whitewashed houses stirred up nostalgia in me for my beloved Andalucia and it’s Pueblos Blancos. For anyone who has been there, there’s no doubting that the settlement of Popayan was some Spanish handiwork.
A hike up to El Morro, the statue atop a hill with beautiful views and a very cool perspective of the whitewashed city, takes about an hour round trip and should definitely be included in your visit.
Next stop: Pasto. Now we are only 2 hours from Ecuador and 8 miles from one of Colombia’s’ most active volcanoes, the first in a string of many that extends into Ecuador. Pasto is well worth a stop just to check out the gorgeous Laguna de la Cocha and the surrounding mountain village. You can get a “collectivo” or shared ride up to the lake from Pasto, it takes about 45 minutes and costs a little over a dollar.
Laguna de la Cocha is not on the tourist trail at all and, as it is also their winter right now, we were literally the only foreigners up there. As you can see the village itself is stunning, decorated sweetly with a cute and colorful alpine feel. Plan on having lunch here and taking a ride around the lake in one of these beautiful boats, which will cost you about ten dollars. The island in the middle of the lake is a national park with many bird species that can only be found in this area. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go hike around the island and view them because we needed to cross the border and get to Quito that night and were in a bit of a time crunch. I strongly suggest leaving enough time to do this hike, it was sad to have to skip it!
I heard upon arriving to Pasto that they have a local specialty called Cuy, which was described to me as a kind of rabbit. Never the one to miss out on a local specialty, I made sure to leave time to track down this Cuy before leaving town. It turns out this was the first of many Cuys I was going to be exposed to, as it is also a popular delicacy in Ecuador. It also turns out that it is not a rabbit, in fact, but a guinea pig. Well, I had to try it once. And it does taste like chicken. But the experience of seeing all of it’s little body parts as I ate it was quite off-putting and I could barely finish mine. Needless to say I won’t be trying any more Cuy in South America.
Now it’s time to get down to business: Border Crossing. Warning: Make sure you plan to do this part during the day. It MUST be done in daylight to be safe. You cross the border from Ipiales but there’s nothing to see or do there so take the hour and a half bus ride straight from Pasto which will leave you at the bus terminal of Ipiales. BUT there is still one more important thing to see before you leave Colombia: Santuario de Las Lajas, an odd and amazing spectacle en route that cannot be missed. You can’t take a bus straight across the border anyways so it is worth you while to do the following:
Grab a taxi from the front of the bus terminal. Tell the driver you want to go to the border but make a stop at Las Lajas. The price of the cab shouldn’t be more than 25,000 pesos- just under 10 dollars. He will drive you to the sanctuary and wait for a half of an hour while you walk down and see it, before taking you to the border crossing. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this:
Spend a half hour marveling at this and then your ready to cross! The taxi driver will drop you off at Colombian immigration, where you have to get your exit stamp. You may feel a sadness and the tears welling up when you realize that you are leaving dear Colombia and the best part of your trip behind you, but try to be strong, stay positive and look forward to what awaits you in Ecuador….
After you get your exit stamp for Colombia you will literally walk across the border with all of your stuff to Ecuadorian immigration, where you will be asked to leave your bags outside (another reason why you want to do this during the day, while security is around) and go inside to wait in line and get stamped. The process was way faster and more straightforward than I anticipated. No one even scanned my bags, it was literally just waiting in line to get the stamp and then you’re good to go.
And that’s that! Easy peasy… once you walk out of immigration there are taxis waiting to take you to Tulcan, the closest border city in Ecuador from which you can get the bus to Quito and beyond. It should cost you about $2.50 (we’re in a new currency now, remember, and it just happens to be one I am familiar with… Ecuador uses American dollars!) Get ready for a whole new experience because Ecuador is certainly different from it’s neighbor, but we like to give every new place a fair chance- or so I keep telling myself when I’m missing Colombia. Stay tuned for new Ecuadorian adventures to follow!