Colombia! What a grand country with a rich history, gorgeous landscape, and cosmopolitan cities. We could not wait to get there to explore the Lost City, meet up with our friend Jeff Jung in Bogotá, relax in Cartagena, and visit the coffee region.
The first step was to cross the border, which took less than 20 minutes for both countries, including walking between immigration points. Piece of cake!
Second step was to find a cab to take us to Ipiales bus station with a side stop to the Santuario de las Lajas, which is a gorgeous cathedral built into the side of a gorge. Various miracles are said to have taken place here, and what was so fascinating to us were the hundreds of plaques on the wall leading down to the church giving thanks for miracles received.
We got to the bus station and bought our tickets for Pasto, which is not exactly a tourist town, but it is a good stopping point on a journey by bus that starts from Quito. Warren had corresponded with Jaime Lopez, the owner of Casa Lopez, via email and booked a room for 2 nights. Casa Lopez is a little bit outside the backpacker budget, but anyone who has traveled for any length of time knows that a little splurge now and then can make all the difference, especially when you’ve been traveling by bus a lot.
Jaime’s wife Amparo runs a high-end bakery in the hotel, and son Andrés helps his dad manage the hotel. It is really beautiful, with a large center courtyard and beautiful rooms with luxurious bathrooms and flat screen televisions. They are really the most generous, lovely people we have ever met, and when Mare the housekeeper came to put hot water bottles under the blankets to our bed, we both said we could get used to this.
Ahem. Pay attention. These words will come back to haunt us.
We saw some cool things in Pasto, like the guy who built a replica of NYC out of cardboard using only Google Maps and pictures from magazines. We happened upon his exhibit at a shopping center when he was there with his son, and we were surprised to learn he had never been to New York. We also enjoyed walking along the river and seeing our first movie in Spanish at a theater. Andrés even arranged for us to have a private yoga lesson at the hotel, which was a fabulous luxury after so much hiking and lugging around the heavy backpacks.
But really, Pasto is a business town, not a tourist town, and after two days we were ready to leave to our next destination, a beautiful colonial city named Popayán just a few hours north by bus. After that, we were going to Cali, the coffee region (Juan Valdez!), Christmas at the quaint Villa de Leyva, and then to Bogotá, where we would meet up with our friend Jeff and then dogsit for him while he enjoyed a holiday in Cartagena with his family.
We had a plan, and it was a good one.
Departure Attempt #1
We woke up early, said fond farewells to our Casa Lopez family, and even took some photos together. Andrés flagged down a cab, and we were off to the bus terminal by 8.
Once we got there, we couldn’t find anyone selling tickets to Popayán. Now, if you’ve ever been to a bus terminal in South America, you know they have “callers” who stand at the entryway shouting destinations, and you just follow these guys to the right terminal window to get your ticket. Getting a bus in South America at a bus station is ridiculously easy.
We started asking around in our Ecuadorian-speed Spanish, which is not quite fast enough in Colombia. We kept hearing the words “derrumbles” and “derrumbes,” which mean “landslide” and “collapse,” respectively. Uh-oh. The heavy rains from La Niña have been impacting the country for over a month now, but we thought things had gotten better. Not so. The banks of many roads were giving way, making it unsafe for travel, and the road to Popayán was closed to buses for at least 3 days.
There are still some areas where it is not quite safe to travel due to robberies and insurgent activity, so we decided to rethink our options.
And we’re back (#1)
We took a cab back to Casa Lopez, where the gracious Lopez family welcomed us back to our room. We decided to see what our options were, and even though it was a bit out of our budget, we booked a flight 2 days later to Cali. We were sad to be missing Popayán, but we told ourselves we could backtrack after the holidays when things cleared up. We spent 2 days working on the blog, cataloging pictures, and generally reading and relaxing in our comfy hotel room.
Departure Attempt #2
Our flight was set for 5:45 pm, but since the airport was 30 minutes away and we were struggling a bit with our communication, we left at 3. We were also told sometimes afternoon flights were canceled due to weather, and we wanted to be early in case there were other options available. Because we were traveling at Christmastime, there were no morning flights available.
Upon arriving, we checked in for our flight with no problem, and then we went to the passport check stand as required. The military guy looked at our printed boarding pass and asked us for our tickets.
“Estas son nuestra boletos.” (These are our tickets.)
He kept turning them over and sort of grunting until a younger officer came over to tell him they were printed from a computer. I guess they don’t get a lot of those in the Pasto airport. Finally, he wrote down our passport information and we were off to the gate.
We thought the agent told us gate 5 (cinco), but we could only find one gate. We got some water and a few goodies and headed through our second round of security (the first was at the entry to the airport). We went into the waiting area and sat down with dozens of other people. Just to be sure, we asked the man next to us if he was going to Cali and he said yes, so we felt pretty confident.
The flight was called at 5, and were surprised to learn we were leaving so early. We walked out to the plane and stood in line to board, and I was halfway up the stairs to the plane when the stewardess called me back down. “Este no es el avión.”
Whoops. We had boarded the wrong plane. This was going to Bogotá and then to Cali, and the security guards had made a mistake by letting us through security in the first place. It was probably those confusing printed boarding passes that threw everyone off.
We were a little embarrassed, but we walked back to the terminal and sat there waiting for our flight directly to Cali, which was due to leave in 45 minutes. The rest of the people were let through security, and we were pretty sure our flight would leave since this one had just taken off.
And we waited. And waited. Finally, an Avianca employee came in to tell us the flight was canceled, and he was instantly mobbed by the crowd with questions and demands that they get a flight out tonight. We were pretty stumped as to what to do now, so we just went back to the ticket counter with everyone else and waited.
And we’re back (#2)
After 2 hours, we decided there had to be a better way, so we got our bags, found the last remaining taxi, and headed back to Casa Lopez, where the gracious Lopez family welcomed us back to our room. In fact, they gave us a discount on our hotel room price because of our travel problems, which is another indicator of what generous, lovely people they are.
Warren went online and rebooked our flight, this time to leave in 2 days and go straight to Bogotá. After all, we were running out of time to get there for dog-sitting, and we could always backtrack after the holidays, right?
We got all our laundry done, which is always a highlight for long-term travelers, and did some more reading and writing.
Departure Attempt #3
Okay, this is getting ridiculous. We rebooked our flight going from Bogotá to Cali with the intention of just getting off in Bogotá, and we waited for another 2 days. We were worried because this flight was also in the afternoon, but with the heavy holiday traffic we really didn’t have any other options.
We did a little more walking around the city, read a lot, and watched way more television than we have in this entire trip. (Bonus trivia: You can watch 2-1/2 Men and The Simpsons almost every day in South America.)
Finally, we said our goodbyes to the family, hugged and kissed again, and set out for the airport.
This time we didn’t print out our tickets, and we were hoping to get our bags checked just to Bogotá. We were thrilled when we cleared this first hurdle (though it was weird getting handwritten tickets).
And when we went to passport control, we were pretty confident we’d have no problems. That is, until Warren’s passport was opened and the officer saw a 20,000 pesos bill tucked inside. (That’s about $10 – not a very good bribe if he was trying one). Warren laughed nervously, and we were worried about what he would say. After all, we aren’t the kind of people who bribe government officials* are we? (*yes we are, but not at this point)
He realized quickly that the money just got wadded up there in his pocket, and he made a great display of checking my passport for money, too. He entered us into the book and let us go with a smile. Whew!
We waited for our flight and were happy to see another one take off. The weather must be good! And all our bags were being loaded up outside. Another good sign!
And then…the same poor Avianca employee had to come in and tell us the flight was canceled due to “mal tiempo” (bad weather). We had been chatting with a Canadian traveler who was on his way to Cartagena for Christmas, and we explained what had happend to us a few days earlier. He was not happy at the cancelation, but we wished him luck and set out to get our bags and leave.
And we’re back (#3)
We got in our taxi cab and headed back to our temporary home, Casa Lopez, where we were welcomed back like family. We told them of our decision to just head back to Ecuador the next morning very early and attempt Colombia at another time. It was just too hard to travel with the rains, and our budget would not allow flights between every destination.
They promised to be up for our early departure to say goodbye, though we told them it was not necessary. Mare brought us treats before bed, and we relished our last night in the comfy warm bed .
Pasto in the Rearview Mirror
Early the next morning Jaime called us to let us know breakfast was cooking. He and Ampara had gotten up early and made us a good meal to start our journey, and were happy to enjoy another delicious recipe from their kitchen. We talked around the table for an hour before we got up to say our final goodbyes, something we had a lot of practice doing!
Amparo made us a sack lunch for the bus of the most delicious empanadas we’ve ever had, and we finally set off by cab to the bus station for a long day of travel.
Oh, did I mention the date? December 24.
We made it to the bus station and caught the first collectivo (a minivan bus that leaves when it is full instead of on a schedule) to Ipiales. From there, we took a cab to the border. It took only a minute to go through immigration at Colombia.
So far, so good.
Then we changed the last of our Colombian money for dollars, walked the short distance to the Ecuadorian immigration office, and stopped in our tracks.
There were about 100 people in line outside the building. Ugh.
We stood in line and waited, and after a while started asking around as to why the line wasn’t moving. Apparently the computers were down, and they were processing everyone manually. This we could handle if we had seen any movement at all, but there was none. And the officers kept coming outside, answering questions, and taking cigarette breaks. After 2 hours, we were at our wits’ end, and Warren was on the verge of hissy fit.
We kept thinking there had to be a better way, but everyone kept telling us this was the only way to get through the border. In the meantime, our Canadian traveler friend the airport the day before walked up, and we told him the bad news. Warren finally found a soldier who told him he could get a taxi cab and go through the border that way, so we took our new friend with us and grabbed a cab.
The Express Fee to enter Ecuador (aka, “the bribe”)
The cabbie at first didn’t understand what we needed and proceeded to drive us directly into Tulcan without a stamp on our passports, which would have resulted in a pretty hefty fine when we eventually left the country. We finally made him understand what we needed, and he just smiled. He drove us back to the immigration office, though he parked on the other side of the building from the line.
He told me to wait in the cab and took Warren and our Canadian friend with him. While they were gone, he told them he needed $20 and the 3 passports and he would take care of it for us. Warren figured that we were in his cab so he couldn’t really do much with our passports, so he gave him the money. Warren and the Canadian (yes, after all this bonding we never exchanged names!) came back to the cab to wait with me, and we watched the cabbie walking around the perimeter of the building.
Finally he sprinted to the door and came back with our 2 passports. He said these things take time and I thought we were going to have to pay more for the Canadian’s passport, but he really did just mean it would take time. About 10 minutes later he came out with the final passport, and we headed into Tulcan to the bus station.
(Side note: we also discovered that the 90-day visa for Ecuador is the max for an entire year, and since we only had a few days left on our visa we had to make it through Ecuador and into Peru in just over a week.)
Vamos a Ecuador!
We headed south from Tulcan on a direct bus to Quito’s south bus terminal, which took about 6 hours. We planned on leaving early the next morning for Riobamba to continue our trek south, so we didn’t need anything fancy.
Which is a good thing, since we stayed at the worst place we’ve been on our entire trip (a “matrimonial” room with bath for only $12). We should have had a clue when they pulled the iron grating over the entrance after we checked in.
On Christmas morning we woke early, avoided the totally gross shower, and headed out to find a cab to the bus station. In the cold light of day, the neighborhood looked like a war zone, and I saw a couple of guys passed out drunk in doorways. But luckily we were totally inconspicuous as the only upright people out that morning with our giant backpacks that screamed “rob me!”
We finally found a cab and made it to the bus station, which was buzzing with people. We got our tickets to Riobamba, settled in on the bus, and finally made it to our destination.
What did we learn?
- Travel problems always have some sort of silver lining, even if it is just bragging rights to tell your story later.
- You will meet people during your experience that can make it better or worse. In the same respect, you are that potential person for another person. Don’t be a jerk.
- Things don’t always go according to plan, and if you are really set on that you will often be disappointed. Being able to adjust and telling yourself you can always go back later will keep you sane.