How to cross the border from Colombia to Ecuador in style 💁🏻♀️
I’m too cheap to get a flight to Quito. Tickets are $300! I’m not made of money but I need to cross the border… 💸 💸 💸
Fear not my friend, you can cross the border from Colombia to Ecuador by land.
Most travelers begin their journey to Ecuador from Cali, either traveling to Popayán first or taking a bus straight to Pasto or Ipiales (the border town to Ecuador). You can get a direct bus with Cruz del Sur from Bogotá or Cali to Quito (Ecuador’s capital… yes I am pointing this out because someone asked where it was… you know who you are 👀).
Hmmm is this the only way to get to Ecuador by land?
Some people also travel from Bogotá to Ecuador, via the Totoca desert. The Totoca desert is supposed to be beautiful but a – I’m off to the Atacama Desert in Chile (should all things go well) and b – I’d already bobbed around Bogotá so I took the Popayán route. This included a slight detour to San Agustin, because I absolutely love you guys and want you to find out about every nook and cranny in South America. But more because I love horses. San Agustin is THE place to ride a horse in Colombia! 🐴
Tell me about Popayán 🤗
Lonely Planet makes out Popayán to be an idyllic whitewashed village but it’s actually quite a big city!
Popayán is also known as La Ciudad Blanca as the centre (a UNESCO world heritage site) is full of grand white buildings. Apparently once a year (before Easter) the town is re-painted white for preservation. This sounds beautiful, until you learn that the original purpose of the white buildings was to fend off a skin bacteria previously an epidemic in Popayán. The disease attacked the legs and feet leaving locals with unsightly blisters and disfigured limbs. The locals managed to counteract this by painting all of the buildings using chalk. Hence the White City of Cauca was born!
Popayán bus station is walking distance from town, although we arrived late and took a cab for 5,000 Pesos.
I’d only spend 1 night here, 2 maximum. If you’re into national parks there is one just outside Popayán. However we were heading to Ecuador – the land of national parks. So I wasn’t so bothered.
Things to do in Popayán
#1 Popayan Walking Tour
It was actually super boring and ridiculously long. Our guide had okay English… until you wanted to ask questions that were beyond the parameters of his script. His dream was to move to Russia and teach the locals Spanish. I decided this was quite a strange dream (who wants to MOVE to Russia?!) so I quizzed him further on his thoughts regarding Vladamir Putin. He’d never heard of Putin. Better do a bit of research first before packing your bags, pet.
He insisted on following me on Instagram after the tour. He has become a guaranteed ‘like’ though now… 🤷🏻♀️.
The walking tour begins in the tourist office just off of the main square every day at 10am. It can be done in English or Spanish.
#2 Walk up El Morro de Tulcan
A short walk away from the main square is El Morro de Tulcan; basically a hill that overlooks the city. A statue of the city’s founder, Sebastian de Belalcazar, is seated on a horse overlooks the town. On a clear day you can see all across the Old Town, all the way through to the mountains that surround Popayán. It is also a great place to watch the sunset (if you’re into that thing) and have some beers (or in my case, crisps).
#3 Try some of the local delicacies
I’d actually use Popayán to explore with your taste buds – it is known as a foodie heaven for local Colombian food. Empanaditas can be found all over Popayán but word on the street is Cafeteria La Fresa do the best ones in town. They were very tasty and cost 2,000 Pesos for 10.
We also tried this lovely mora (blackberry) and guanábana concoction whilst on a break from the walking tour, known locally as salpicón payanese. This was far nicer than champú (corn, a local fruit called lulo and pineapple); I don’t mean to sound like the Peter Kay sketch but corn?! In a drink?! I’d rather drink ACTUAL champú. A drink named after shampoo will always be a bit foreboding in my opinion.
Where to stay in Popayán: Hostal Caracol – cheap, cheerful, clean and attached to a decent breakfast spot. It is also 10-minutes walk from the main plaza, 10-minutes from the mirador and around the corner from many decent (and vegetarian friendly) restaurants. Apparently the cake in the café is nice. Win win!
I did have a rather unfortunate incident with a German at Hostal Caracol whereby I accidentally set the personal (read: rape) alarm off my mother insisted I bring along with me into his face. Just as he was walking into the bathroom. I screamed, he screamed, it was all a bit embarrassing. Oops… 😳 🤦🏻♀️
Next we headed for San Agustin.
TIP: ensure you book a day ahead – despite this being a very popular route the Colombians insist on only having a small handful of mini buses a day, and they fill very quickly. My pal and I arrived at 10:30am for the 11:00am bus and ended up sitting in the (very boring) bus station for 4 hours until the final bus at 2:30pm. The bus timetables really vary and are only standard in the actual bus station… just go the night before to book, okay?
Another TIP: the bus is bumpy, 5 hours long (why lie and say 4 – looking at you Lonely Planet) and extremely cramped. It is AWFUL. Not for ladies with a weak bladder (sorry). I mean it was quite literally like being sat in one of those cheap massage chairs you find in Chinese nail salons – but for 5 hours. Take some anti-sickness pills and download a good playlist.
What is there to do in San Agustin?
To be honest I’d only really go to San Agustin if you’re on a slow trip around Colombia and 1 – have a keen interest in Archaeological tombs (which I do not) or 2 – love horse riding as it is one of the cheapest places to hire a decent horse. Otherwise skip through and head straight to Pasto from Popayán, which is 8 hours by bus and costs 40,000 Pesos. You also avoid the Trampoline of Death and go via a normal road.
#1 Visit the San Agustin Archaeological Park
The San Agustin Archaeological Park is basically a big outdoors museum exhibit thingy. The park is what puts it into Lonely Planet as a ‘must-see’ – now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is one of Colombia’s most important archaeological sites with remnants of a pre-500BC civilization that remains a mystery even today. The burial sites span all over San Agustin, but most of them are pretty crap. No really – I’m talking riding by horse or jeep out of town to see 4 random tombs with no explanation behind them.
#2 Take a Horseback riding tour (or a Jeep tour if you hate horses… although if you hate horses GTFO my blog)
Best done in groups of 3 or more – but don’t let that stop you if you’re alone. The best thing about horseback riding in a Colombia is the lack of health and safety involved. Never ridden a horse before? Cool! No helmets available? Who cares! Until it all goes tits up of course.
Horses Mariposa and Lupe responded to our toothless guides whistling and grunting of “vamos!” – the other horse, Mantequilla, had other ideas and bobbled off ahead at her own speed, stopping occasionally to eat some grass. We even cantered which was such fun. The countryside in San Agustin really is beautiful.
Officially the horseback tour is a way to discover three of the archaeological sites outside of the main park. I’m not going to lie – the archaeological sites were 😴 and I only wanted to do this tour to ride through the San Agustin countryside by horse.
We arranged our guide and horses at the main tourist office next to the bus station, haggling (in my broken Spanish) with a man only known as Horse Tour Man. The price goes down with more people attending the tour – we paid 30,000 Pesos per person but this did not include an English-speaking guide. Apparently the cost with an English-speaking guide is much more.
The other girls had to make-do with my terrible Spanish translations i.e. “erm… Horse Tour Man has said something about red paint on the tombs, possibly the red paint is from the tree bark… oh look he is showing us… I think?”
#3 Try the Menu Del Dia at El Tomate 🌱
This small vegetarian café is actually a to-do in many guide books. We were also recommended it by a fabulous Australian couple we met in Popayán. I hate to be one of those vegetarians who ropes people into eating at places favorable just for me buttttttttt…. 😇
Apparently El Tomate is German owned, but there is no sauerkraut here. For 8,000 Pesos (at time of writing) you get a starter of soup, a freshly squeezed juice and a main course. This is really good value for 💵 – especially for us veggies.
Most places charge 8,000 – 10,000 Pesos for a menu del dia anyway, but for us poor veggies/vegans (worlds smallest violin out 🎻) it is normally exactly the same as what the meat eaters get just minus the meat (i.e. less food) but for still the same price.
TIP: arrive early if you want full run of the menu – we went at 1 pm after the Archaeological Park they had run out of falafel! As the menu changes daily you could go every day pending random South American opening times (which don’t always correspond with Google… or their own door sign…)
Where to stay in San Agustin: Masaya hostel was so modern (the beds had blinds – BLINDS) it was akin to staying in a hotel.
They had a hot tub – a bit chilly and rather aggressive but a fab novelty all the same. They also had a large outdoor hammock with incredible views across the valley. Definitely worth sitting on at sunrise if you’re an early riser (which I am not).
The main issue for me was the cold showers and lack of mirrors (which meant a fright at my eyebrows in a bathroom at Ipiales). A French intern working at Masaya took quite a shining to me and tried to use the cold showers as a way to get me to his bedroom at 11pm. Sadly the latest season of Orange Is The New Black trumped his offer. I also appeared in his latest promotional video and he took some suspicious photos of me playing Monopoly.
Ok I’m ready to leave Colombia now.
You wouldn’t be saying that if you knew how downhill the crisp situation goes after Colombia. I’m writing this in Peru and I’d actually die for Colombia’s crisp selection.
Amber, enough about flaming crisps. How do I get to the border?
Ok ok keep you’re hair on. Here is my 3 step process on how to reach (and successfully cross) the border of Ecuador.
Step #1: Get from San Agustin to Macoa (via Pitalito)
San Agustin has no official bus station – something Nicola and I discovered when our mini bus dropped us off right outside our hostel. The night before we were due to leave we wondered around the small square asking random locals “How do we get to Pitalito? What’s the price? When should we leave?”
So apparently you get a local bus to Pititalo from outside the main tourist office (as with most bus times in South America, I’d post ‘em here to be helpful but they’ll likely change with the weather or the mood of the mayor), which takes 30 minutes. From Pitalito you can buy a ticket all the way to Ipiales or Pasto – at time of writing Ipiales cost 70,000 Pesos. There will first be a bus to Macoa but the transportation will change to a jeep for the Trampoline of Death.
TIP: as the roads are extremely windy, take some anti sickness pills. BUT wait until you’ve already embarked on the bus to Macoa because the side effects are disorientation, nausea and fatigue.
I didn’t wait and behaved as if I was having a stroke in Pititalo bus terminal. Not good when you’re the one who speaks the best Spanish – the other girls were waving at me going, “Amber, what do you think?” and all I could do was nod and dribble.
Step #2: Get from Macoa to Pasto – The Trampoline of Death
At Macoa you’ll likely have to switch transport – probably to a jeep or something more suitable for off road travel. This is because you’ll spend 4 hours on The Trampoline of Death.
The Trampoline of Death (also known as the Devil’s Trampoline, the Most Dangerous Road in Colombia, and Adios Mi Vida) has apparently taken hundreds of lives. It was built in the 1930’s to transport Colombia’s troops through the mountains; now it remains a narrow dirt road (mostly single lane) with blind corners and hairpin turns rendered more perilous by a descending fog and periodic flooding.
Some areas were completely flooded by the many waterfalls that tumble onto the road with yellow tape pinned in areas where erosion was particularly bad. I’m sorry but what is yellow tape going to do if my driver tumbles off of the side? Or should the road collapse?
There were also numerous roadside shrines marking spots where loved ones lost their lives. ☠️
My hyper vigilant I-can’t-sleep-the-night-before-travelling-anxiety was in overdrive before embarking on The Trampoline Of Death. This is wasn’t helped by me staying up late googling road safety statistics in Colombia. 🙃
The two girls I was traveling with were shoved in the back, only covered by tarpaulin to keep them from being cold. It didn’t work and they were freezing. They later told me they felt like two illegal immigrants being smuggled to Ipiales. My situation was mildly better; the driver took a shining to me and insisted I sat next to him. However there was already a lady in the passenger seat – as you’ll know, generally the front of a car has two seats. I was sat between the driver and the passenger seat, on top of the gear stick. Whenever the driver had to change gears, well you can guess where his hand went…
I was quite glad to be near him in some ways, because I didn’t really trust his driving. I know this sounds insane – I live in London, I am always on public transport and I never, EVER drive. This bloke probably drives up and down The Trampoline of Death all the time. But I still felt like I had the authority to make him honk at blind corners and keep to the 20 KpH speed limit.
In the end I just distracted myself worrying about falling to my death, and by eating lemon crisps. Praise the Lord for the lemon crisps. 💕
I didn’t die though (hence why I’m writing this blog). The views on The Trampoline of Death were spectacular! It also temporarily alleviated my fears about Death Road in Bolivia (this all changed after a horrific bike ride in Baños. Please stay tuned).
Step #3: Get from Pasto to Ipiales
Many backpackers stay one night in Pasto to go and admire some big lake, but we decided we wanted to cross the border as early as possible the following day. If you choose to stop in Pasto, the bus from Pasto to Ipiales should cost 8,000 Pesos (at time of writing) and take 90 minutes.
TIP: Once you’ve arrived in Ipiales you may as well visit the Gothic Church. I’m not into churches at all, and to be honest I learnt absolutely nothing whilst there (the museum is in Spanish and costs 3,000 Pesos to enter – the other backpackers I was with didn’t fancy it and I wasn’t in the mood to play translator) but even I have to admit it was a pretty cool church.
Step #4: Head for the border! Get to Rumichaca.
Was it easy crossing the border into Ecuador?
Technically? Yes – which I will describe below. Mentally? No – other than the usual frustrations, Venezuelan refugees desperate to get out of the country surrounded us. It was exceptionally sad.
Firstly head to the same bus station you arrived into from Pasto and flag a collectivo to migración – you can wait a little longer to pick up other passangers, but as there were three of us we splashed out an extra 500 Pesos each to go straight away. Ipiales to migración takes around 10-20 minutes and should cost 2000 – 2,500 Pesos per person.
The Colombian border can be a bit overwhelming. At time of writing there were two queues – one for those seeking asylum from Venezuela, and one for those simply exiting/entering Colombia. Leaving Colombia is free – question anyone who tries to charge you a ‘fee’. I’ve heard of this happening!
Once you leave the Colombian migration building, just mosey on across the bridge and make your way to Ecuadorian migration.
Again the Ecuadorian migration office is a bit of a circus. There were two queues – one to enter Ecuador and one to leave. It wasn’t overly clear which queue was which. I speak relatively good Spanish and it took me at least 3 goes to get a coherent answer. Irritatingly you’ll need to leave your rucksack outside; the security guards don’t let you into the building with them. If you’re traveling with a group my advice is have someone outside watching the bags, and have someone else hold your place in the line. Again, entering Ecuador is free!
FYI: Ecuador has a problem with fake taxis and you’re supposed to be handed a safety guide at the border. It basically just detailed which taxis are false and which are the real McCoy. Taxis at an official rank and ones booked over the phone should be kosher, but should you flag a taxi look out for orange number plates, panic buttons inside and two strategically placed cameras near the windscreen and driver.
Tulcán is the Ecuadorian equivalent of Ipiales in Colombia, and to get there from the border, either take a taxi for a couple of dollars or get into another minivan. It’s only 15 minutes away!
See my latest posts ✌🏼