Cali to Quito: is it Safe by Bus?

I’d done a lot of research on transport options before setting off on my trip to South America, and the bus journey from Cali to Quito was by far the one I was most dreading.

Almost every travel blogger I spoke to knew someone who’d had a bad experience on the route, be it a full-on bus hijacking and mass robbery at gun point, or the mysterious disappearance of a backpack from the storage compartment.

Cali to Quito - bus

Of course, flying is an option, but it’s stupidly expensive – even the short trip from Cali to Pasto is at least six times pricier than a flight with the same airline between Cartagena and Medellin.

So, what’s the best affordable option?

If you’re on a budget, the best piece of advice I can give you is to do this journey only during daylight hours. A good place to stop off is Pasto. There’s not much to do there, but you can bed down in a comfortable room and refresh for the next leg of the journey.

Day One

I left my least favourite place in Colombia (aka Cali, where I was mugged) at 9 am. This was despite having got up at 6. I wanted to travel with a company I’d heard of, but none was leaving until the evening, so I bought an 8 am ticket with the comfortable-looking Cootranar for $30,000 COP.

As I waited, a man came over to inform me that the bus would actually leave at 9. No apology or explanation was given. I cursed myself for getting up so early for no reason.

For most of the journey they played salsa music at a barely audible volume. I also saw the movie Safe House in Spanish for the second time. They sure LOVE Denzel Washington in Colombia.

The journey should have taken 9 hours. It took 10, but the service station we stopped at for 30 minutes was quite picturesque, with eagles and vultures soaring close by, and arid mountains as far as the eye could see.

Cali to Quito - service station view

We arrived at about 7 pm and I jumped straight in a taxi for $4000 to the Koala Inn hostel in central Pasto. I’d hoped to meet other travellers there, but it was quite deserted. I didn’t care. At $18,000 COP, with WiFi, a private room with double bed and TV, and a hot shower, this was a bargain. It was just a shame I had to get up so early again the next day.

If you do stay there and you need some dinner, turn right when you leave the hostel and take the first right to find a couple of restaurants serving food until 9 pm. One is cheap with local almuerzo dishes, and the other is a pizzeria with a massive menu.

Day Two

The next morning, I left at 6 am and caught a cab from the corner. At the bus terminal, there were plenty of shuttle buses to Ipiales. I chose SuperTaxis for $7000. You have to wait for the shuttle to fill up with passengers before it sets off, so I was sitting around for 30 minutes. Pulling out of the station, we were met by a glorious sunrise.

The journey to Ipiales takes roughly 1 hour 30 mins. I arrived at 8 am and decided I had enough time to detour to the nearby Las Lajas cathedral. It’s a stunning building that spans a massive gorge and it’s well worth stopping at for an hour or so if you have time.

Cali to Quito - Las Lajas

The left luggage office recommended by the guidebooks seemed a bit dodgy to me. A man dumped my bag in a small room by the door and proceeded to walk me to the taxi terminal without locking the bag room. I questioned how safe this strategy was, but he just told me it was ‘his problem’! It’s your judgement call whether or not you risk it, but I did retrieve all my belongings without hassle later.

The collectivos that go to the cathedral are $2000 COP per person each way, but we’d been sitting there so long without other passengers I told him I’d pay $5000 if we could leave immediately. It takes 15 minutes to the drop off point, from which you have to walk downhill through the town. Look out for the not so obvious signs on lamp posts that tell you which way to go and remember that trekking back up at altitude is tiring work! The best views are from the path on the other side of the gorge.

Cali to Quito - Cathedral arrows

I got back to Ipiales at 10 am and hopped in another cab to the border for $7000 COP. I was there by 10:30 am.

You have to get an exit stamp before walking across the bridge and then queueing to get your entry stamp for Ecuador. It would be easy to miss one or both because no one would actually check if you strolled straight over and got in a cab. Make sure you don’t have any food or drink with you. They didn’t check me, but it’s better to be safe than detained.

Cali to Quito - immigration

I was in the queue for 1 hour 30 mins. Keep a book or iPod handy. Check they stamp you in and that it has enough days for your planned trip, then hop in yet another cab to Tulcan for about $3.50. I shared with a bunch of Colombians who’d also just passed through immigration.

My bus to Quito left Tulcan just after I arrived there at 12:30. It cost $4.80 and took just over 5 hours. From the bus terminal, it’s one final cab to the city centre.

I wasn’t sure whether to stay in the new town, where the Mariscal district has many hostels, tourism agencies, and bars and clubs, or the old town, which is prettier and a better base for sightseeing. Having heard that robberies are quite common in the more touristy areas, I chose a sociable-looking hostel called Secret Garden in the old town. It has fantastic views of the city and they offer plenty of travel advice – both local and further afield. They also serve meals and drinks and have WiFi.

Cali to Quito - view of Quito

This is the view from the terrace. I chose well!

Check out more of my articles about Colombia here.


  1. says

    Enjoy Ecuador! But stay safe in the buses and always keep your backpack with you now (hope all got well afterwards…). Climb up the viewpoint with the cable car, it’s worth the view! And hike Cotopaxi volcano if you get the chance, it’s fabulous (but go with other people so you can share a vehicule, as local buses only stop a few miles OUT of the entrance and a good miles away from the volcano).
    Cheers and happy adventuring!
    Les Petits Pas de Juls recently posted..Weekly Photo Challenge : URBANMy Profile

    • says

      Thanks for the tips. I’ve already done the viewpoint. Met a nice guy from Hong Kong who bought me a hot chocolate. Really want to climb Cotopaxi too, but whether or not I can share a vehicle is down to luck I guess. Hope there are some other eager hikers in my hostel!

  2. says

    I heard epic horror stories about this border crossing while in Colombia! I didn’t have any trouble either, but the day before I left this guy told me his bus was stopped by the police and the driver took off down a ravine to get away (I have a feeling he was full of it, but it was still scary to hear about). Glad everything went well for you, and hope you have a great time in Ecuador!
    Callie recently posted..THE SCARIEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO MEMy Profile

    • says

      Oh my! I’m glad that didn’t happen to me. Ecuador is really cool, although I just took a night bus and arrived at 5am in the dark. Waiting till 10 to see if they even have room. Not so good!

  3. says

    I am always too late knowing where you are. I did this border crossing 3 times by bus.

    The trick is that you should not cross at night, in fact you should never be on the bus at night in Southern Colombia. You can get from Cali to Popayan, there is a great hostel there. Then if you take the first bus in the morning you can get to the border pretty quickly and get to Quito before nightfall.
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      • says

        I stayed in Pasto, not Popayan, and the name of the hostel I stayed in was the Koala Inn hostel. It was in a good location and I had a decent-sized room to myself, with a double bed, TV and en suite. I’m afraid I can’t remember how much it cost, but it would have been reasonable.

  4. says

    I’m heading to Colombia in a few weeks and recently realized I need proof of onward travel to enter Colombia. I don’t have a return flight as I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying so I was considering just purchasing a bus ticket to Quito from Cali in advance as my onward travel. Do you happen to know if that suffices for my Colombia Visa? Any other suggestions?
    Britany recently posted..‘Round the World Wrap-up, 12/4My Profile

    • says

      I was in the same situation. I’m pretty sure a bus ticket is sufficient as proof of onward travel, but it’s annoying having to decide a date to leave the country and risking losing money if you don’t end up catching that bus. Another option, which a lot of people do, but sounds quite dodgy, is to pretend you have a flight out of the country. If you go through the booking process with Copa Airlines (ie, book a flight from Bogota to Quito), you get sent a confirmation email before you’ve paid. You can then edit the email in Photoshop so it no longer says you still have to pay. This way, if they ask for proof and they check the flight number you can be sure it exists and you should be ok. They didn’t check any proof when I flew there from the UK via the US. I don’t think they enforce it as strongly as a lot of countries, but it’s good to have a backup plan. Good luck!

      • says

        Hi there!
        Me and a friend flew to Colombia a week ago. We knew about the return ticket you need, but just because we were bothered by the fact that we need to decide when we leave, we just didn’t buy any ticket. No one even asked about it at entry…so maybe id you’re lucky. :)

        Good luck!
        Adriana Stan recently posted..Story of our life: “we’re closed”My Profile

        • says

          Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble usually. I’ve had the same issue a few times now. Last time, I reserved a ticket I had no intention of buying, which generated an email, and that was enough. Recently, when I flew into Thailand, I actually had proof of onward travel and they didn’t ask for it! Typical! My plan is usually to arrive really early to the airport having researched cheap flights in advance in case I have to get one at the last minute. It’s such a stupid rule!

  5. Adrian V says

    Two weeks ago, I flew into Quito for a couple of days to visit my wife’s family. Was there for two days and both were spent in bed with a headache that felt like my head was going to explode! Oh, and a nauseated stomach. Two days later, flew into Guayaquil and felt much better as soon as we landed. Next time I travel to Quito, I will need 2 – 3 days to aclimate before getting around the city.

    • says

      Hi Leonie! You’re putting my memory to the test now, as this was almost three years ago! I don’t recall an ATM. I think I changed my remaining Colombian money with an unofficial guy at the border, which is very common at most land border crossings in Latin America. It’s good to have in your mind a good sense of the exchange rate and how much you can expect to get, or else you could get ripped off. I usually carry US dollars with me as a back up wherever I travel and, in fact, as this is the currency of Ecuador, it really would be a good idea to have some on you when you start your trip. I usually take around US$80 and keep it in different bags/pockets of my bags for emergencies. Good luck and enjoy South America!

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