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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the view from the terrace. I chose well!
Check out more of my articles about Colombia here.