SAYING GOOD-BYE TO COLOMBIA
The day finally arrived when it was time to say our goodbyes to the wonderful country of Colombia and be welcomed into Ecuador. During our month and a half stay in Colombia we grew a great fondness for the Colombian culture, its people, and of course its magnificent natural beauty. The hospitality of those we met was incredible. We will surely miss Colombia and it will forever maintain a very special place in our hearts. In fact, we plan to visit again during our return to the north. For now, however, we must continue our travels to Ecuador to see what this new country has in store for us.
MAKING ROOM IN RUMICHACHA
In the early morning of our departure day from Colombia, we hurriedly packed the rest of our belongings into our overstuffed maletas and went outside to meet our ride to the border town of Rumichaca. Our delightful host, William, had arranged for his friend Jorge, a local taxi driver, to pick us up at 8:00 am and drive us all the way to the border. William was not in Ipiales at the time but both his father and mother (Isabel) took the time to say goodbye, give us giant hugs, and make sure we had everything we needed to cross the border. Usually, the price of a taxi directly from your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb would run about 10,000 COP but Jorge went the extra mile and drove us right to the end of the immigration line. He even tried to speak with the officials to try and expedite our wait time. Unfortunately, he was unable to do anything to speed up our wait but for his effort, we gave him 15,000 COP.
There are other options travelers have to reach the border; taking a yellow taxi from the center of the city for around 8,000 – 10,000 COP or taking a colectivo (white shared taxis that wait for four passengers before taking off, not allowing much room for luggage) for 2,000 COP per person. Even though we paid a bit more for our ride, we were happy to do so as Jorge made it very easy for us to navigate the border crossing. This was a first for us and we were completely clueless as to what to expect. He made sure we knew what line to stand in, what to expect inside the building and where to go afterwards. As a note, when we stayed in William’s Airbnb, we met our neighbor, a nice Japanese woman who spoke no Spanish at all and little to no English. She left the home almost two hours before us to take both a taxi and a colectivo to the border. Because of William and Jorge’s help, we ended up being only four people behind her in the immigration line. Once again, the help offered by locals proved to invaluable for us on our journey.
After Jorge left us, we began our very long wait to exit Colombia. We had read on previous blogs that because of the economic crisis facing Venezuela, we would be sharing the line with many Venezuelan immigrants. Many of the blogs recommended arriving early to avoid the long lines. Apparently, everyone else had read the same blogs as the lines were anything but short. We later learned from a few Colombians that we met in Quito, Ecuador that the best time to cross the border was actually later in the evening, as by that time most of the people crossing had already passed through immigration offices (known as migraciones in Spanish). As for us, we were forced to wait for an hour and a half, slowly creeping closer and closer to the doors of the Colombian migraciones building to get our exit stamps.
Fortunately for us, we happen to be pretty friendly people, as were the Venezuelans, and Joe was happy to talk with the people we were next to in line. Getting to know our new friends made the wait seem not quite as long. Finally, after baking in the sun for what seemed like ages, we were allowed to enter the migraciones building and wait in yet another line to receive our exit stamps. Again, we lucked out and when we reached the front of the line, the customs agents let us go up together as Sally did not speak Spanish and the agent did not speak English. Joe answered the required questions, we got our stamps and we left the building for our walk across the border bridge into Ecuador.
By this time, it was getting hot and humid, the sun was shining relentlessly but our spirits were good so we crossed the border, admired the river separating the two countries from the bridge above and proceeded to the Ecuadorian migraciones office.
As we approached the building we noticed a line coming out of the front door and we realized that this was the line to receive our entrance stamps for Ecuador. We started to follow the line and we were flabbergasted as it wrapped around the building and seemed to keep going on and on forever. Finally we reached the back side of the building and the end of the line but were delighted to find that we were directly behind the same family we were behind in Colombia. This time there was no shade, the sun was directly above us, and the wait was going to be long. The family remarked at Sally’s pale skin and tried to offer her sunblock. She declined as she had already applied some and she had an umbrella, but still the family took a bit of delight in teasing her. We soon learned that they were a somewhat prominent family as the patriarch was a doctor, but because of the severe economic depression affecting Venezuela they were first forced into poverty and left with no other option but to flee the country. This was our first brush with the kindness of the Venezuelan people.
This was not the only delightful surprise that we had during our wait to enter Ecuador. After about the first half hour of waiting, a group of people from a local Catholic church arrived to offer us free sandwiches. As we were not prepared for the long wait and had no food with us, we were incredibly grateful for the nourishment, especially since we had no idea of when we would actually reach the front of the line.
After a full two and a half hours of waiting in the hot Ecuadorian sun, which was just ever so slightly stronger than the Colombian sun that we had gotten used to, we were within a few feet of the front door of the migraciones office. Here we noticed that there were bags and suitcases of all sizes scattered everywhere. We were a bit confused and our new friends could see as much so they explained. Large bags of any sort are not allowed into the migraciones office to prevent overcrowding in the small waiting room. Therefore we were obligated to leave our bags outside while we went inside to receive our entrance stamps. This seemed insane and highly risky to us but we were prepared for anything. Joe took our large bags and wheeled them to a large concrete pillar. There he took the bike cable locks that we had been lugging around and wound them around our bags and the pillar. The cable locks and our baggage locks gave us the security to feel safer leaving them unattended for a significant period of time while we were inside the building. After a short wait inside the cool office, we were called to the migraciones window.
They are much more strict in Ecuador and did not allow us to go to the window at the same time. Sally got lucky as her migraciones officer spoke a tiny bit of English and she was able to communicate the necessary information with little difficulty. They asked our occupations, our purpose of travel, and the duration of our stay in Ecuador. We received our entrance stamps without issue and we were free to continue on our journey.
SURVIVING TINY TULCÁN
After leaving the migraciones building we scrambled to grab our bags where Joe had secured them, were delighted to find that they were untouched, and hurried to find a taxi to our next stop, the bus terminal in Tulcán. We had forgotten to check to see what the price of a taxi should cost us prior to leaving Ipiales and the taxi we found charged us $5 USD. In hindsight and after a bit of research, this was a bit high as it should have costed no more than $3.50. Also, our driver was a bit of a maniac and the entire way to the bus terminal was more like a rally race rather than a relaxing taxi ride. The drive took around 15 minutes or so and our driver took us right into the terminal rather than dropping us off at the front where the tickets are sold. He even tried to stop a bus before we reached the terminal so that he could avoid going to the terminal all together. We felt very uncomfortable with this and declined, asking him to continue until we were actually at the terminal.
Once we arrived at the bus terminal we went inside and found that there was only one ticket window for all the different bus companies. The only option we were given was the next bus leaving, ran by Expreso Tulcán, for $3.50 per person. The wait for the bus to arrive was fairly quick, approximately 15 minutes, and we hopped aboard for the three hour ride to Otavalo. This was our first introduction to the buses of Ecuador, no bathroom (and no bathroom stops either), dozens of vendors jumping on and off at every stop, and random police checks that can take upwards of 45 minutes. This was a huge departure from what we had become accustomed to in Colombia. However, by this time we were exhausted, hungry, and more than ready to explore a new city and country. So we settled in for the three hour ride and daydreamed about what was to come.