Jeez, I understand the concept of ‘cabin fever’ fully now. The coasts closing in on you. For a sustainable life you have to get off the place occasionally. Even my friend who lives on the far bigger/far more entertaining/easier to escape island of Ibiza says the same, the quiet winters just close in on you. Sure, you’re still somewhere amazing but after 6 months of the same coastline I’m ready for a change. Although I will admit that not being in constant sight of the sea will be a bit sad. But yes, being at an airport ready to escape feels gooooood.
Unfortunately 6 months of living somewhere has made me soft. Despite jettisoning a vast array of clothes and cosmetics my bag seemed a bit heavy. Airport scales confirmed it.. 16.5kg! This is completely unacceptable. Despite the addition of a very lightweight tent and rollmat it needs to be reduced. Preferably back to my insane Argentine travelling weight of about 12kg. I have become soft, I need to travel lighter. I need to smell worse, and not worry about such niceties as clean clothes every day. Some seedy small town guest house is due to be gifted some clothes I think. In particular I am greatly looking forward to ceremonially dumping my walking boots in Florida. After 15 months on the road they couldn’t be more shagged. I just need to get a few more hikes out of them!
But anyway, here we are, delayed. This happens really regularly as the weather conditions, namely howling wind, very often don’t play ball either here or in Quito. My last flight to the island with mum was terrifying as we got caught in some serious currents climbing out of Quito… The kind of wind where you’re not far off stall speed and seemingly just flapping about trying to get some lift.
I’m not sure which weather system has spat the dummy this morning but the practical upshot is that I’m stuck for a while. Significantly less than I would have been on my 10am flight due to my epic Latina-charming skills resulting in a free transfer to the direct 12.45 flight. So, I still have to wait 3hrs but I will get in 2hrs before the delayed 10am flight, if that makes sense.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have just booked the direct one in the first place. But I foresaw this exact eventuality and wanted to be in Quito as quickly as possible. Getting into Colombia this evening looks somewhat unlikely though. Meh, I love sketchy Ecuadorian border towns anyway.
As I write this, a finch keeps shitting on my from the rafters of the airport. Not horrible big seagull poos, but poo nonetheless. I’m taking this as a sign that Galapagos wants rid of me.
Quito, una vez mas. Vamos al Panamerica Norte…
We actually arrived ahead of time, therefore only 40mins after my earlier flight would have. And it’s a stroke of intense luck I got moved flights as from the info screens at Quito it had been cancelled!
No time to waste. A quick obligatory selfie at the sign, then onwards. I had planned to treat myself to some dirty Western food in the airport food court but when it came to it, and seeing the ominous rain clouds above (Rain! Rain? What is this nonsense?), I just decided to hop on a local bus.
Quito International Airport-Pifo $0.75, 20 minutes
Tentative research told me that if I got on the local bus to Pifo, a nearby town, there would be loads of buses running up the Panamerica Norte towards the border. This was correct. Catch the green bus right outside arrivals marked Rio Coca, and ask the driver for Pifo. 20 minutes later, you’re there, just cross the footbridge over the road and walk up the main shopping street for 3 blocks.
After a long time stuck in one corner of the country it was nice to see some different sights and sounds. Pifo seems a pretty decent place, standard Ecuadorian small town. After Galapagos prices it was a refreshing change to pop into a local restaurant for a bite to eat, and to receive a decent hamburger, chips and small coke for $1.85. Likewise, buses in Ecuador are extremely cheap, my ticket to Ibarra was $3.10. Happy days.
I’d not recommend doing this route if you arrive at Quito much after 8-9pm. If you do, just get a fixed fare airport cab ($10) to the Cita Express office in Pifo, although bear in mind the last bus is around 10pm. Both the footbridge and the couple of blocks to Cita could be a bit sketchy after hours.
Pifo-Ibarra 2.5hours $3.10
The trip to Ibarra was on a pretty decent Ecuadorian bus, not up to the standard of longer-distance Peruvian/Chilean/Argentinian buses but fine for a few hours. The only slight annoyance is the constant stopping for passengers, them’s the breaks of a cheap ride. I was already feeling a little short of breath in Quito and you could tell that we continued to climb through the mountainous region by the constant cornering…
Ibarra-Tulcan 2.5hours $3.00
Fittingly enough, our stop in Ibarra was right next to the sign, so I did at least know where we were. The bus drops you on the Panamerica just before a large roundabout. I managed to piss off the Creole equivalent of Viz’s The Fat Slags by accidentally tripping over one of their many bags of rubbish which they had left strategically by the bus door and was heckled for the next few minutes as I plotted my next move. The first genuine random arseholes I think I’ve encountered in Ecuador.
Tantalisingly, right by the bus stops there was a sign pointing towards Ibarra’s railway station. I knew that there weren’t any scheduled passenger services but was intrigued. As it was already 8pm I tossed over the idea of staying over and checking it out. Probably just as well I didn’t as the following tells you a bit about the service. Whilst interesting and probably worth $29 for a day out from Ibarra, it only runs Thurs-Sun! D’Oh.
A cab was parked next to me so I resorted to the time-honoured trick of asking the driver. It’s an acknowledged fact that cabbies know everything. Sure enough, he knew that the train didn’t really go anywhere (Although having checked out the website, it still looks like a cracking trip), and also that the Tulcan-bound buses didn’t stop where I was hopefully waiting, I needed to cross the road. Gracias a usted.
After about 5 minutes waiting, sure enough a Tulcan-bound bus pulled up. As I was boarding a young lad who’d been hanging around with some street vendors also got on. He gave the bus a sad story which I couldn’t fully hear or understand. I gave him a couple of bucks, it’s very tempting to assume that every story is a lie but having watched him outside the bus suffering from a hacking cough and generally looking like he was in a very bad place I’d wager his story was true. Not giving him money isn’t going to solve his problems, regardless of what it goes on.
I’ll repeat the advice for anyone who’s magically missed it from every travel book and guide, but in Ecuador you really do need to be careful with your small backpack/bag. Never, ever ever put it on the overhead rack and never by/under your feet/seat. Keep it on your lap and hook a strap to yourself if you fancy a nap. Ecuadorian buses are definitely not dodgy however the frequent stopping and vendors on board give the space for opportunistic thefts to occur. Watch the locals, they all do this too. It’s not just a tourist thing.
After 2.5hrs we pulled up at Tulcan’s bus station. I was really crossing my fingers hard for some easy accommodation as it was now 11pm and there was no way I was crossing that border at night! Thankfully I was rewarded with 2 hotels side by side directly across the road from the bus station. One of those strange “friendly competition” things where they’re probably exactly the same inside. The guy from Hotel Acacias approached me as I crossed the road. “$12…” which sounded ok. Until, that is, I just told him I was going to have a look at his neighbour, at which he cried “$10, no menos!”. There was clearly rich ground for a bit of bartering here but $10 for a private room sounded fine so I stuck with Acacias.
Slight smell of damp/death but it was clean enough, the Wifi worked and I’d been promised hot water so nothing to grumble about. Sure enough after a few hours sleep the water was actually steaming hot. It did what it said on the tin. Thanks Hotel Acacias. I can’t vouch for the relative merits of the place next door however everyone was thoroughly friendly.
Time for breakfast, and departure. Sure enough, the Desauyuno Completo at the hotel was indeed, completo. Not bad for $2.75 including juice and coffee. Part of me thinks the other people there paid $2, but 75 cents seems an awfully random amount for a Gringo tax.
Tulcan, Ecuador to Ipiales, Colombia: $1.50 and 1600 Colombian Pesos, 1 hr including border fluffing
The lady at the hotel kindly pointed me in the direction of the border transport options. Somewhere around $1.50 for a combined bus and colectivo combo, departing from somewhere nearby, and then a taxi for $3.50. I was still in ‘pain is gain’ hardened traveller mindset but when I saw the packed buses and simultaneously realised that I had no idea which one I needed, nor would I recognise the park from which the colectivos depart so I knocked it on the head and returned in defeat to the hotel, where the taxis were waiting outside.
As luck would have it, a couple of Ecuadorian women were en route to the border too, so agreed to share a taxi. They were going over to take advantage of Colombia’s much lower prices on clothes and shoes.
This border is a casual affair, and both Ecuadorians and Colombians, if going to Ipiales or Tulcan (The border towns) don’t need to check out/check in. Hence, we passed the signs saying “Goodbye from Ecuador” and hopped out. It was not until I was about to jump into a Colombian taxi with them that I realised I had managed to cross the border without waving my passport at anyone. Oops.
So, I returned to the Ecuadorian side and checked out, quickly followed after a walk over the no man’s land bridge by border formalities in Colombia. Sorted. Hopped into a colectivo van and rocked up at Ipiales’ bus station about 20 mins later.
La Santuaria de Las Lajas
Whilst it sounds unkind this really is Ipiales’ sole attraction. But, a pretty spectacular one it is. A cathedral built into the rocks of the gorge. Free to get into, although there’s a museum with an admission fee near the confession boxes in the crypts.
It’s easy to get to, dump your luggage in the bus terminal’s luggage store (2000COP for the whole day) and then find the shared taxis marked for “Lajas”. The fare is 8800COP for the car, so individual fares obviously depend on how many pasajeros you have. Luck was not entirely on my side but after 10 minutes a guy turned up and agreed to split the fare, so off we went.
30 minutes later along a somewhat exciting road you arrive at the parking lot. During the week this place is pretty empty although I gather weekends are crazy. I virtually had the cathedral to myself.
The cathedral really is a special place, some was under renovation so I didn’t get to visit all of the crypts, nor the museum which the lady was closing up as I arrived. The setting in the gorge just makes it more special, towering over the rushing waters beneath. And indeed the hydroelectric plant. Nothing like a bit of fundraising!
Coming along the road to the cathedral, I’d already spotted the Teleferico masts and really fancied a go. COP10000 isn’t a bad tax for a panoramic view of the gorge and surrounding lush countryside. Up we go. In general it felt pretty safe, with a plaque declaring its construction in 2013 by a German company. And the Germans know a little about efficiency and safety. However, halfway up at a station under construction the supervisor wanted to let a couple of workmen onto the cars. The preferred method of causing it to stop was to hit one of the fail safe switches with a broom handle. Ah, you can’t legislate for South Americanisms.
On the way up I chatted to two Colombian guys in my cabin, who were travelling from Cali to Tulcan in Ecuador to visit a cemetery. And to sample some grub on the way. Well, maybe. They seemed nice enough but it sounded a tall story. In any case, they agreed to share a colectivo from the end of the Teleferico line.
Whilst walking to the taxi I heard them talking to the driver about eating cuy. God dammit, here was my chance. I hadn’t managed to try this Andean delicacy in Peru, but now was the time. Now or never, in fact. Nariño province is the only one in Colombia where you find it. And I was due to leave Nariño province the next day! So, a polite enquiry with the guys as to whether I’d be alright to join them, and the taxi driver dropped us at his preferred place in El Charco area.
We then set about ordering. I decided that half would do me, and the 2 amigos thought likewise. Since they ordered a whole one, they were also rewarded with the head. Emilio kindly ‘dressed’ it with a potato for my photo.
Despite appearances, and sorry to any veggies here, but Cuy is sublime. Kind of reminiscent of duck, with an incredibly crispy skin and tender meat. I really enjoyed it, I’d been led to believe that it was a bit dry but this place obviously knew their stuff. There wasn’t any great degree of ceremony to the presentation, you just got it with large boiled potatoes, some hot sauce and, er, rice. I haven’t quite escaped the gravitational pull of Ecuadorian cuisine yet. QUIT WITH THE CARBS, GUYS!
Ipiales to Pasto, 8000COP, 2 hours
Suitably full, uncomfortably so in fact, I hopped on a local bus back to the terminal, grabbed my bag and grabbed a bus. Buses to Pasto are incredibly plentiful and just leave when full, or nearly full. During this spectacular journey I learnt more about two things: The incredible friendliness of Colombians and the incredibly suicidal driving of Colombians.
I’ve really noticed the former, as a striking contrast to the often slightly surly reserve of Ecuadorians. Quite literally everyone I’ve interacted with has gone out of their way to help and welcome me.
When I got on the bus, I asked the driver which was the best side for views, since I’m sure I had heard it was the right. (I checked Lonely Planet after, and it was right!). The driver didn’t have a bloody clue what I was talking about but a lady on the bus said “Either side, they are panoramic”. So, I left my seat on the right in favour of one with an opening window on the left.
About 20 minutes into the journey, it became clear she had mis-informed me- She called me and offered to swap seats! What a lovely woman. And this is far from a random occurrence. I’m getting to like Colombia.
But yeah, the driving. Jeez.
Arriving at Pasto’s modern bus station, I’d formulated a plan based on Lonely Planet’s recommendation of Koala Inn, seemingly the only hostel in town. I do like to mix it up when travelling, sometimes it’s nice to just go local and find a random B+B (It’s great having the Spanish to do this confidently) but occasionally it’s nice to meet other travellers too. So there I went.
Naturally, I didn’t want to take the first modern taxi on the rank. Proper atmospheric travelling requires the most grizzled older Colombian guy driving the most 80’s British saloon. So here we are.
Koala Inn was lovely. A big old colonial house right in the centre of town presided over by a truly lovely husband and wife combo who couldn’t have been more welcoming. An absolute steal for 25,000COP for this room:
I then set out to explore Pasto. It’s fair to say that I was somewhat hangry by this point. And indeed in desperate need of sleep after a 5.30am start from Santa Cruz yesterday and not a massive amount of sleep in Tulcan. But I was thoroughly ‘meh’ about this town. Some nice bits, but overall uninspiring. And by the evening when I was trying to order food and the woman simply wasn’t understanding me “Spanish, motherf***er. DO YOU SPEAK IT?” I was hacked off with the town.
But, after going to bed at 8pm and enjoying 11 solid hours of virtually uninterrupted sleep, my eyes were slightly kinder to Pasto. It’s alright, really. Just a bit commercial and, er, dull for travellers.
Spirits revived by an utterly historic Huevos Rancheros, coffee and the Colombian addition of an arepa (Maize disc with cheese, nicer than it sounds) overlooking the slightly-more-scenic-in-the-sunshine Plaza Nariño and I was good to go. To hit the road again in fact.
I’m determined to rough it a bit on these travels, and not to pay for taxis etc when there’s an easy alternative. My hosts pointed me in the way of the local bus stop so I thought I’d give it a go. After all, all roads lead to the bus terminal (If you’re a bus, obvio). Sure enough, I found the right bus and the entire population of the bus pledged to get me to the right stop. The guitar playing busker even got off the bus with me and walked me to the station.
You can’t manufacture this shit. People in Colombia are just decent.
Onwards. Stay tuned for the next episode. Braving El Trampolín De La Muerte to the incredible Putumayo department.