As I generally do before entering a new country, I spend some time getting acquainted with all of the formalities, requirements and stories of travelers past to prepare for my own journey. After determining that there were no administrative requirements for me, I focused on researching what the experience is like. When are the best times to go? Is it going to be an unavoidably burdensome experience? My conclusion on the Ecuador-Colombia border crossing after reading several accounts and experiencing it first hand is that, in general, there’s nothing to be concerned about, but it’s the luck of the draw for whether or not it will be a logistical headache. Here’s how my crossing went…
Otavalo to Tulcan
When it comes to any land border crossing, my go to strategy is always: get there as early as possible to avoid long lines and provide a time cushion in case something goes awry. Part of my plan in stopping in Otavalo was breaking up the trip from Quito to the border so I could leave and arrive earlier. This didn’t work however as I discovered that the only buses going to Tulcan originated from Quito, not from Otavalo. This meant that I would have to wait until 8:00 at the earliest to leave for Tulcan, not 6:00 like I had hoped. So I boarded a bus to Tulcan at 8:20 for $3.00 and three hours later, I was at the bus terminal in Tulcan.
Once in Tulcan you have the option of getting to the border crossing, Rumichaca, by way of taxi for $3.50 or colectivo for $0.75. The taxi is obviously the most unencumbered method, but I went for the challenge of taking a colectivo because I was told it was equally easy. This is not so true. First the colectivos are not at the terminal, but located next to one of the main parks. I asked someone what the name was and after a half hour of Internet search I still can’t remember or find it. I got there first by taking a city bus across the street from the terminal and telling the conductor I wanted to go to Rumichaca. He then tells me to get off after a few minutes and tells me to go to the park. I assumed I was already close enough to the border crossing so after I got off the bus I started asking people how I get to the border. This led to mass confusion as some people, police included, told me it was really far and to walk for a half hour in one direction while other people were telling to walk in the opposite direction. After walking in a few circles, I found the park with the colectivos and hopped in.
Border Crossing Shenanigans
When I got to the Ecuador Immigration Office, I stepped in a semi-long line of people waiting outside, just in time to hear the announcement that the computer system is down for everyone to please be patient. Two hours later, Gringo frustration sets in and I join forces with the only Gringo in line who happens to be right in front of me to commiserate our grievances. This actually turned out to be my saving grace. Rick, a former truck driver from Texas who looks a lot like a Ginger Jesus, had been traveling through South America for two years and was one of the best conversationalists I’ve come across so far. The next hour passed by much more quickly and after a simple Q&A with the immigration officers in Ecuador we were both walking across the bridge into Colombia.
Once in Colombia, the border control was a snap. I waited in line for five minutes, answered some easy questions and the immigration officer stamped my passport with 90 days. I was especially please about the 90 day bit because I had heard and read that the standard for Colombia was 60 days and you had to beg if you wanted 90. I didn’t even intend to use 60, but it still felt like a victory. After getting checked in, I split a taxi to the bus terminal in Ipiales, Colombia’s main border town, with my new friend for 7,000 pesos.
After the immigration business, your next concern as a traveler is getting your hands on some Colombian pesos if you don’t already have them. There are two methods of which I’m aware. First, you can go to the street dealers standing at the border who will give you the best rates. This is tricky though because they’re said to have rigged calculators and/or counterfeit bills. For the rigged calculator obstacle, they say it’s best to ask for the rate, let them calculate the exchange, and then whip out your own calculator to prove them wrong. However, you still risk getting counterfeit bills. The second option is to get a lower rate, I got 1707 pesos to the dollar instead of 1775 (not much of a bank breaker), with the official money exchange place in a building across the street from immigration. I was happy enough going here since I was only exchanging enough to get me to the terminal where I would withdraw more money at a better rate at an ATM.
Onward to Colombia
After you make it to the bus terminal in Ipiales, Colombia is your oyster. A bus all the way up to Calí is about 10-12 hours, though it’s not recommended to go by bus at night because of unrest in the rural areas. The next closest point is Popayán which is still about 8 hours. If you finally arrive to Ipiales later in the day, say 16:00, as we did, it might be best to catch a hotel there for the night and head out in the morning, or head to nearby Pasto, a slightly nicer alternative, which is a more manageable two hour bus ride. We headed to Pasto and stayed at Hotel Paola which is nearby the bus terminal.
One thing I regret not going to see while I was in Ipiales was the Santuario de Las Lajas, a magnificient cathedral built into a canyon. I believe it’s a short ride from the bus terminal in Ipiales and will definitely be on my list of to-dos should I return to Colombia.
In summary, my border crossing experience was very easy and uneventful, but waiting in line for three hours in Ecuador, just so I could legally leave the country really didn’t do all that much to help me keep things in perspective.