South America

Surviving the Bus from Colombia to Ecuador

A long trek across countries isn’t always torture. I’ve done plenty, and I will do more. However, multiple bus rides that last three days and total about 30 hours is pretty darn close. Nonetheless, Colombia to Ecuador can be done with relative ease if you keep your wits about you and exercise as much patience as is humanly possible on a trip that long.


I left Medellin to go two hours south to the small city of Santa Barbara to visit a friend’s family for a few days. I figured I was going in the direction of Ecuador so it would lighten my overall travel time when I left. Ummm, no. Since Santa Barbara is in the middle of the Colombian boonies, closer to Ecuador made no bloody difference; direct buses to Cali (my first stop) apparently don’t leave from Santa Barbara or any where nearby, for that matter. And so the fun began…


Day 1, therefore, meant Santa Barbara to La Pintada to La Pereira to Cali on a series of small Collectivo buses, which are not the big Greyhound-esque buses with bathrooms, comfortable seats, and air-conditioning, my friends. They are smaller 20-seaters that have a similar temperature to hell and make periodic stops to ensure the bus is packed with as many bodies as it will allow. Luckily, all of the transfers were fairly easy, the people along the way were friendly, and my backpack made it to each stop too, which was a huge sigh of relief after the Great El Salvadorian Bag Debacle.


It took a total of nine hours and I only had to take three Gravol so I wouldn’t lose my lunch on all of the winding roads that don’t end. I mean never end. I mean if there is a stretch of road where for more than one minute you haven’t shifted left to right to left to right, you assume the bus has stopped or is sailing straight over a cliff. Nevertheless, the first big stretch was over.

Day 2 was the day I thought I was going to lose my marbles. I was going from Cali to Ipiales, a small Colombian town that borders Ecuador. I had read it should take no more than 10 hours which would have been bad enough, but my trip took 14. Even though I had no transfers to make, the bus was like an oven and stopped, what felt like, every ten minutes to ensure it was packed to the gills, not to mention the blaring Spanish music and between the longer hauls, a few dubbed action movies that most definitely had Jason Statham or Sly Stallone in them.


Of course we were also held up by a couple of scary-looking accidents which Colombian roads are known for as well as a few military checkpoints. Apparently a few days earlier, there was some rebel activity in that part of the country which is a big FARC-ing deal in Colombia, hence the added presence of AK-40-somethings along the route and added time to my trip.

I think by hour eight or nine I wanted to poke my own eyes out and probably would have if it wasn’t for the times I opened them to look out the window. The magnificent views of mountains and valleys and green and desert and sky always provided a humbling reminder of why I am beyond fortunate to be in this part of the world and yes, even on that damn bus.


Although sitting on the airless hell on wheels felt like an eternity, there was periodic comic relief that I must mention. In every one-horse town there are the usual troupe of fruit, bread and snack sellers who board the buses to bombard you with their slogans repeated ad nauseum “helado, frutas, patatas fritas, caramelo, helado, heladooooo“, while walking up the aisle, holding various bags and pots and baskets of stuff. There are also the guys that come on and hand out candy or chocolate to all passengers and then actually explain to the whole bus why it’s the best and why you should buy it. And then they stare you down to buy what you’ve clearly got in your hand because hey…it’s practically yours already!

And if you’re really lucky you get the guys who come on with a little radio and belt out a few Spanish tunes and then make the rounds with their hands out looking for change. I usually try not to make eye contact and turn my iPod up but it’s kind of like the car accident scenario – you don’t want to look but you just can’t help yourself.


And I don’t mean any of this out of disrespect. Everyone’s just trying to make a living any way they can; I guess for me a 14-hour bus ride that feels like the Tilt-a-Whirl is a dish that’s best served cold, quiet and free of human contact especially if I have to pay for it. Which I invariably do.

But why did I go through six buses and two hotel stays over three days when I probably could have flown from Medellin to Quito for the same price?

A church. Yes, me…and yes, a church.


Despite being the anti-thesis of religion and everything it signifies, I absolutely love churches. The history, the architecture, the smell, the light, the effort – churches just do it for me. So when I began planning my trip about six months ago, I came across a picture of Las Lajas Sanctuary in Ipiales and was blown away by it. Hence, the wold’s longest bus ride that would lead me right to it.

By Day 3 though I was drained of all life. I was bitchy, emotional and frustrated. I had no clean clothes left, so I was wearing the same filthy outfit the whole time. I had been speaking only Spanish for days which made my brain hurt, and I barely ate anything except for a few munuellos (kind of like giant plain donuts), chips and warm water. I felt like I was in some horrible alternate universe. Screw the view, I thought. F the church.


However, I dragged myself to Las Lajas early in the morning and headed straight to the border afterwards, which was thankfully a sinch. I simply walked into the Colombian immigration office got a stamp and a smile then walked 50 metres across a bridge into Equador’s immigration office, got another stamp and another smile. I was in Ecuador!

The fun wasn’t over yet though. I had to cab it to the nearest town of Tulcan to catch a five-hour bus to Quito. So close, yet so far. Despite being in the home stretch, this hitch was just as hot, just as winding, just as tiring. Yes, it had another dubbed action movie. And yes, it was with Jason Stratham. I kid you not.

And just when I thought I was going to jump out of a window or my clothes were going to boycott being on my body so long….the bus chugged to its final halt. I was in Quito! Looking back now, it wasn’t so bad…okay yes, it was. However, it was safe; people along the way were amazing; I saw things I hadn’t before; I made it. And for me, that’s what it’s all about and prerequisites to do it again.


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