A quick Google search for information regarding crossing the border from Colombia to Ecuador throws up alot of information and blogs talking about the relative ease in which people have crossed it. One even described it as “the easiest border to navigate in South America”. The thing is it’s changed. It’s 2018 now and there is a massive economic crisis occurring in Venezuela that is affecting alot of South America, particularly this border. From the easiest border to quite possibly the most difficult I decided to write an account of our two day journey trying to cross it. Before you read it please be aware that the border was at this sticky situation in 2017/18, what the future holds we don’t know, so always do research before setting out.
Day 1 – Hope slides away
We began our journey to Ecuador from the tourist hotspot of San Agustin. Our plan was to catch a collectivo (really a shared taxi) from San Agustin to Pitalito (the nearest city to San Agustin), a bus from Pitalito to Pasto (via the “Trampoline of Death”) and then another collectivo to Ipiales on the border. We had talked to the host at Casa de Nelly in San Agustin and he told us that all of this would be possible in one day if we set off early. So we did.
At 6.30am the collectivo collected us and our Dutch friend Julian from Casa de Nelly and we set off on our journey. The only thing we had booked was the bus from Pitalito to Pasto at 7.30, but an hour would be plenty of time. Except that the collectivo driver wasn’t happy driving a half empty minivan to Pitalito. So we drove around in circles trying to pick people up to fill up the van. 10 minutes later and we had a full quota so we set off. We managed to navigate the windy roads in good time and arrived into the station in Pitalito at 7.25am. We saw a bus ready to go and a guy from the bus company greeted us off the van. He showed us into the station, sold us our tickets and told us to wait in the waiting room. After 15 minutes waiting and confused as to why we weren’t already on the bus I decided to ask the guy who sold us our tickets and he told us that the bus wasn’t leaving until 8.30am now! Not a good start to the day! After an annoying wait we finally took off at 8.30am heading south towards the town of Macoa before we could start the journey west to Pasto.
After about two hours we arrived in Macoa and the bus pulled to a stop. The driver got off along with the rest of the passengers and nothing else was said. I managed to find a guy who worked for the bus company (Transipiales) and I asked him what time the bus was leaving for Pasto, he said 12pm – about an hour’s time! We killed the time by walking around the bus and eating sweets, very nutritious! We also both agreed that we had made the right decision not staying in Macoa (which we had debated). The town seemed a little dodgy. Before taking off we were joined in the gringo group by an alternative Austrian couple (the guy was sporting knee length dreads and was in his 40’s).
Within an hour we had reached the infamous ‘Trampoline of Death’. We had read alot about this road, which would basically require passing over a mountain through windy crazy roads, and the name seemed to indicate that it would be quite bumpy. As we entered it we were surprised because the road was not paved, just gravel. The driver got out of the car and let some air out of the wheels in preparation. We started to get excited and Julian was taking some photos when all of a sudden the bus ground to a stop. There was massive mudslide in front of our eyes.
Mudslides are common in South America and affect alot of people’s travels, but this was the first time we had come across one. It had literally happened seconds before we arrived as the mud was still falling. We saw alot of debris falling when we got out of the bus. First the bus left late, then we had an impromptu break in Macoa, and now this. As more cars and buses joined us in looking at the mudslide it became clear that we would be waiting awhile to get out of here. Thankfully (and quite curiously considering we were in the middle of nowhere) there was a restaurant beside the mudslide and so we could have a more nutritious lunch than sweets.
We waited 6 hours but eventually the mudslide was cleared. Not with machinery but hands and two shovels. It was pretty impressive that it only took 6 hours. Despite being the first on the scene a truck blocked our path so we were one of the last to be able to leave. The other problem was that it was getting dark. And we are on the Trampoline of Death. Lovely. For the 30 extra minutes were there was some sort of light we could see why the road had that name. It was extremely narrow and windy and our driver was in a crazy mad rush to get to Pasto it seemed. Thankfully all the other cars were ahead of us which curtailed his speed because otherwise I’m not sure I would be able to write this story! There were also numerous waterfalls that ran through the road, making it even more dangerous. After an hour and a half we had finished with the Trampoline of Death and we were all relieved!
This car being in front of us saved our lives!
A waterfall on the road! (bluriness due to the speed at which the driver was driving)
We still had 2 hours before getting to Pasto and (bar an old lady getting continuously sick into a bag, with the smell nearly setting me off) it was unremarkable. We arrived into Pasto at 10.30pm and all 5 of the gringos on board decided to stay the night. The bus driver kindly took us to a cheap $10 hotel where we went straight to sleep after a long 16 hour travel day!
Day 2 – Bordering on insanity
We woke up, ate breakfast and hopped on a bus to Ipiales, all before 9.30am. The scenery on the way was amazing and there was even a little dog wearing a jumper sitting beside me! This made the 2 hour journey go pretty fast! When we got to Ipiales we decided that we should pay a visit to the famous Las Lajas Sanctuary nearby and see what all the fuss was about.
We took a taxi to Las Lajas and enjoyed walking around the area for about an hour. The church is amazing and the location is breathtaking. Nestled nicely in a valley it is definitely worth a visit when you are in the area.
The amazing Las Lajas Church
We managed to grab a shared taxi back to Ipiales and then hopped in another to the border. The driver told us that there was one queue for Venezuelans (who are crossing the border everyday in their thousands to escape the hardship and dictatorship in their country) and another for other people. I had never read this before and was quite surprised and impressed but this proved false as soon as we arrived. The queue went around a building and there was a Chilean couple in front of us who told that this was the queue. So we settled in and talked to our new friends before I decided to take a wander and check how long the line actually was. My heart sank when I saw quite possibly 3-4 thousand people in front of us in the queue. Aoife and I talked about heading back to Ipiales, booking a room and getting up during the night to cross, when it would hopefully be quieter. But we couldn’t make a decision and so our decision became that we were waiting. Eventually, after two hours, we got to the other side of the building where we had started and could see the start of the queue and the actual migration building.
The conditions at the border crossing were horrific. There was no working toilet anywhere, only inside restaurants and on the day we were there, there was no running water which meant their condition was criminal. All these Venezuelan people were crossing the border with all their possessions, entire family’s, from children to grandparents, fleeing for a better future. But there is hardly any mention of this in our news. This has been happening every single day for more than 6 months now, and who knows when it will stop!
We had one thing to be grateful for and that was that it hadn’t rained, and it wasn’t particularly sunny because we were out in the open, exposed to the elements. Eventually after about 5 hours we managed to get in under some cover, just as it began to get dark. At 7.30 pm, 6 and a half hours after joining the queue we made it into the Colombian migration office. After another 20 minutes we had our stamps out of Colombia. Aoife and Julian celebrated but I brought them down to earth when I reminded them that we still had to get our stamp into Ecuador. And all the Venezuelans we’re going to Ecuador too!
We crossed the bridge and saw that the queue was just as long on the Ecuador side, going round the immigration building. We stood there, cold but optimistic that the Ecuadorean government would be better prepared than the Colombian, which had two people working. Just as we got in line it started to rain, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the night.
With the rain pelting down and our rain covers not doing much to protect our bags I rain over to a hotel on the Colombian side to see how much it would cost. Clearly benefiting from the situation they quoted me a shocking $30 so I headed back to the queue to find that Aoife and Julian had made some progress. Finally we managed to find some cover from the rain but then we didn’t move for about an hour. We could see people crossing the bridge and heading straight into the migration building, clearly skipping the queue. Julian went to see what the situation was up there and when after 40 minutes he hadn’t returned we got suspicious. Aoife found him sneakily nestled in the queue near the top. We had enough at this stage and also skipped the queue, being let in by a group of young Venezuelans guys who had quite clearly taken some cocaine. After another 10 minutes waiting we had our stamps and we were finally finished! 10 and a half hours later we had managed to conquer the border. A quick taxi ride to Tulcan and we slept that night like we had never slept before!
Have you got any shocking stories from a border crossing? Let us know in the comments below!