When researching my South America route, one of the topics that kept cropping up was that of safety. There was one particular journey that I was dreading, and that was the public bus from Cali to Quito.
Some travel blogs and personal stories recounted horrific experiences of hijackings and mass robbery at gun point. Even more common was the disappearance of luggage.
CALI TO QUITO: MY EXPERIENCE
By far the most affordable option for budget travellers is to catch a bus from Cali to Quito. To up the odds of avoiding any trouble, I’d recommend doing the whole journey in daylight. Pasto is a decent stop off point for an overnight rest and since it’s not a big tourist destination in its own right you can find some reasonable rates on a room.
CALI TO QUITO: DAY ONE
I got up at 6 am to be in with the best chance of arriving in Pasto before dark. Unfortunately, upon arrival at the Cali bus terminal, I discovered that the first bus that morning wasn’t scheduled until 8 am. Cootranar was one of the companies I’d heard was ok and I handed over $30,000 COP for the ticket.
As I waited, a man came over to inform me that the bus would actually leave at 9 am. Not the best start!
Entertainment on the bus was a mix of salsa music and Denzel Washington movies. The 9-hour journey took 10 hours, with a 30 minute service station break at a picturesque stop overlooking arid mountains.
It was getting dark when we arrived into Pasto at around 7 pm so I jumped straight in a taxi ($4000) to the Koala Inn hostel in the centre of town. I’d hoped to meet other travellers there, but it was quite deserted. Still, a private room with double bed, TV, WiFi and a hot shower for $18,000 COP was a bargain.
Turning right from the main door, and then first right again, I found a couple of restaurants serving food until 9 pm. One served cheap almuerzo dishes, while the other had an extensive pizza menu.
CALI TO QUITO: DAY TWO
The next morning, I left at 6 am and caught a cab to the bus station from the corner by my hostel. There were plenty of shuttle buses to Ipiales, but waiting for them to fill up was a pain. SuperTaxis cost $7000. 30 minutes later, we were as crammed in as is possible, and pulling out of the station, we were met by a glorious sunrise.
The journey to Ipiales takes roughly 1 hour 30 minutes. 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.
I left my luggage in a ‘left luggage’ office, which had been recommended by my guidebook. The man in charge dumped my bag in a small room next to the open door and then walked with me to the taxi terminal. It didn’t seem like the most secure system, but sure enough it was still there when I returned.
LAS LAJAS CATHEDRAL
The collectivos that go to the cathedral are $2000 COP per person each way, but we’d been sitting there so long waiting for other passengers that 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.
IPIALES TO THE BORDER
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. 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 minutes. When they finally stamped me in, I double checked the number of days I was permitted to stay and then continued into Ecuador.
Yet another cab took me to Tulcan for about $3.50. If you ask around, you’re likely to find plenty of people to share the journey with.
THE BORDER TO QUITO
My bus to Quito left Tulcan pretty soon after I arrived there, at 12:30 pm. It cost $4.80 and took just over 5 hours. From the bus terminal, I just needed to catch one final cab to the city centre where my hostel was located.
I only just made it to my hostel before dark, which goes to show that the early morning on day two is very important. Read my post ‘Is Quito Safe?’ to find out how I got on there. Chances are, you won’t run into any problems, but it’s a city with a sketchy reputation and it’s a good idea to avoid being out on the streets alone after nightfall.
WHERE TO STAY IN QUITO
The two most popular places to stay in Quito are the new town and the old town. The new town’s Mariscal district contains many hostels, tourism agencies, and bars and clubs. The old town 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.