How and How Much: Colombia to Ecuador Land Border Crossing

The hardest part of the land border crossing from Colombia to Ecuador is enduring some pretty windy roads. The border crossing itself was a breeze!

  
We wanted to avoid becoming the Colombia gurilleas’ next example so we did all of our bus travelling during the day. Given the gurilleas, the frighteningly fast Colombia drivers, and steep mountain cliffs, I would 100% recommend making this a day journey and not a night one!

The drive from Popayan to Ipiales is long(ish). We were told it’s about 8 hours by bus to the border. Then it would be another 5 hours from the border to Quito. I wasn’t up for that! I’m never up for sitting in buses — or anything –for that long. Plus, we wanted to see the most amazing gothic church that’s built into the side of a mountain!

So, we opted to break up the journey by spending a night in Pasto. 

Popayan to Pasto cost 25.000 COP each and took 5.5 hours (they say it takes 5). We took the bus at 10:30am and there was a stop for lunch at about 12. Lunch was extra and we didn’t eat it.

Pasto itself is nothing to write home about. It was, however, our first time this trip in noticeable altitude. The thin air made the pollution awful! I felt like I was sucking on a tail pipe the entire time we were there. 

In Pasto, we stayed in a little hotel 3 blocks away from the bus station. We wanted to be able to leave quickly in the morning. And leave quickly we did. 

From Pasto, you have to go to Ipiales to border cross. It cost 7.000 COP per person and took about 2 hours by bus. It was an easy peasy bus ride and the road was a little less scary than the first part of the trip. 

Once you’re at the bus terminal, you’ll take a collectivo to the border. It took 10ish minutes and cost so little that it was basically free (1.400 COP for both of us). And our driver nearly cried when we told him to keep the 600 COP change. I can still picture his deeply creased eyes when we told him it was for him to keep.

600 COP is 21 CENTS.

Pre-border crossing money tip: Ecuador uses the American dollar so change your pesos at the border. Give your small pesos to your taxi driver as a tip or spend them at the bus terminal. They’ll be worthless to you the second you stamp out of Colombia. Hold on to your peso notes though! There will be offical money changers (with rates so good — basically on par with xe.com — I have no idea how they make money to feed themselves) who will change your pesos to American dollars. Make sure you know the exchange rate, just in case. Feel free to haggle if you feel like you’re being low-balled.

Once your driver lets you out, and you change your pesos to dollars, it’s time to get your exit stamp. It costs nothing to leave Colombia.

Welcome to no man’s land!

It’s such a weird feeling being somewhere, but no where. Like, your feet are on the earth but you’re not in any country in particular! Okay, enough of that weirdness. 

Walk towards Ecuador.

  
Please, oh please do something that Matt and I didn’t do. Take a picture at 000km. The very freaking beginning of Ecuador! I deeply regret missing this opportunity because it’s obviously the ONLY place you can take the snap.

Entering Ecuador was a piece of cake. 

After we filed out our papers, we waited maybe 5 minutes in the shortest line ever.

The border agent who let me in even spoke great English. He asked me where I was coming from (to which I replied the wrong city, then corrected myself), how long I was staying in Ecuador (to which I told him 45 days since that’s what Matt and I agreed we’d say), and then he asked if I was travelling alone (I sort of get the feeling this wasn’t an offical question, but who knows).

Once we were welcomed to Ecuador with a big ol’ stamp in our passports, it was time to get a taxi to Tulcan, the nearest town so we could take a bus to Quito. The taxi cost us $3.50 and took about 20 minutes.

Upon arrival at the bus station in Tulcan, we were ushered onto a bus that was leaving immediately for Quito. It cost $6.00 USD each and took 5.5 hours.

After a run in with big men with bug guns, we finally made it to Quito – kind of! 

The bus takes you to the north bus station, which is years away from wherever your hostel/hotel is. 

You’ll probably have to take a taxi from here. It cost us $10 but will differ depending on where your hostel is. Ask the driver to use the meter, or negotiate a price. In our experience, all of our taxi drivers have quoted the non-meter price to be within about 50 cents of the meter rate. We never felt like anyone was trying to rip us off.

— Cyn

Colombia-Ecuador Land Border Crossing Review

Total for 2 people: $48.00 USD (65.400 COP + $25.50) and 14 hours (spread over 2 days). Way cheaper than flying, if you’ve got the time — or want to see the Las Lajas Sanctuary!

Popayan to Pasto – BUS: 25.000 COP and 5.5 hours

Pasto to Ipiales – BUS: 7.000 COP and 2 hours

Ipiales to Colombia border – COLLECTIVO: 1.400 COP and 10 minutes

Ecuador border to Tulcan – TAXI: $3.50 USD and 20 minutes

Tulcan to Quito – BUS: $6.00 USD and 5.5 hours

North bus terminal to centro historic(ish) – TAXI: $10 and about 30 minutes

How to Get To Salento From Medellín

I absolutely loved Salento and hope you do, too!! It’s a small town with a lot of personality. And it’s from here that you can hike the Cocora Valley and hug the giant wax palm trees!

 

look closely and you can see me hugging the tree!
 
Getting to Salento from Medellín is pretty easy, though we couldn’t find too much information about it. So, here you go!

Step 1: Go to the South bus terminal in Medellín.

Step 2: Buy a ticket to Armenia.

Step 3: Tell the bus driver and conductor that you’re going to Salento and not Armenia. 

Step 4: The bus driver should stop at a cross junction on the highway (in farm country) to let you off. This is about 15 minutes outside of Armenia, and will save you the time of going into the city. If the driver doesn’t stop, you can change buses in Armenia (this was our original plan). This takes about 5-6 hours (bring water with you, we didn’t have enough and I thought I was going to die).

Step 5: Walk across the street (look both ways, people will try to run you over) to the bus stop.

Step 6: Hail any and every bus/mini-bus with “Salento” on it. One of them will stop for you.

 

Matt waiting for a Salento bus to pick us up
 
If you’re heading to Salento on the weekend, be prepared to get stuck in traffic going up the mountain and into the town centre. Salento gets really busy (but it’s fun!) on weekends. It took us ages to get up there. It’s pretty windy…and I barfed in the bus and very nearly did so on a mother and daughter but they jumped out of the way just in time. It was terrible. 

Despite that little barf mishap, getting to Salento from Medellín was easy. Sure, it might seem a bit out of the way but it’s amazing there!!

I can’t remember how much it cost, unfortunately, but it was too expensive since transportation in Colombia is pretty reasonable. 

Enjoy Salento, and make sure you do the Cocora Valley hike. It makes the wax palms seem that much more magical!

– Cyn

Salento, What’s To Love? [Video]

If Salento was a person, Salento would be a free-spirit bohemian cowgirl. Dirt under her fingernails, and flowers in her hair. She’d be playful and passionate and partly old-fashioned. As she milked the cows, and trained her horses, her whimsical water-coloured tattoo would peak out of her poncho. She’d smell of earth and rainbows and festivals. 

  
Salento is one of the most special places I’ve ever been to. And even though I actually barfed in the back of a cramped mini-bus while we were stuck in horrendous weekend traffic on the side of the mountain, it was so worth it.

On weekends, tiny Salento has a fantastically festive vibe. Tons of people from surrounding cities make their way to enjoy this bohemian cowgirl of a place. While I normally despise hordes of people in tiny places (or any place, actually), it was charming here. Really.

  
The energy was fun and relaxed. Old men and women pushed little kids around in circles on tot-sized Willys jeeps. Big Willys Jeeps shuttled people to and fro. People ate and drank and were merry. Even the street dogs were happily chowing down on giant scraps of food.

  
We especially enjoyed going into all the little shops, dreaming of the things we’d buy if we were here just on vacation. I swear, we’ll have to go back just so we can outfit ourselves and our home in all things Salento.

   
  

After the weekend, Salento was quiet. The festive energy was gone and it was purely natural. 

This place, and the nearby Cocora Valley — one of my favourite places on earth — are a dream.

The Cocora Valley is home to the sky high Quindio wax palms, a symbol of Colombia. These trees are pure magic. 

The more we hiked, the more it felt like we had stepped off earth and into the pages of a Dr. Suess book. Join us there for a moment, will you?

I’ll tell you more about how to get to Salento, the coffee tour we did there, and hiking around the Cocora Valley later. For now, I hope you’ll just sit back, watch the video, and then let your mind take you somewhere magical.

— Cyn

The Five Day Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) Trek [Video] – Colombia

I’m ashamed to say it. I didn’t know the Lost City in Colombia was a thing until we were in Nicaragua. I’d never heard of it until a couple of travellers told us…

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was worth it. You have to do the Lost City Trek!”

And so, Matt scribbled down “Lost City Trek” and we vowed to find the Lost City when we got to Colombia.

I can honestly say to you, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life!

Watch the video that Matt made and you’ll see exactly what we loved about it!

Day 1

  

We arrived at the Expotur office in Santa Marta at 9:00am. Some people left their big backpacks, others took the opportunity to use the toilet as many times as possible to avoid peeing on the hiking trail (me). Shortly after the bags were ditched and blatters were emptied, we all piled into the back of a 4×4 truck and set off on a bumpy 2.5 hour journey to the beginning of the trek in El Mamey (a town called Machete ha!).

But first: lunch! As we sat down to lunch, I noticed 2 things. One was a fellow hiker with a massively swollen and discoloured ankled. OMG – what had we signed up for? The other was a 4-legged animal that first looked like a horse, then looked like a donkey. Then a horse, then a donkey, then a horse, then a donkey. I was truly confused until a Swiss guy solved the mystery for me.

  
It was a mule (pronounced moo-lay in Spanish)! These poor animals drew the short stick in life. They were bred to carry heavy things (like the hardy donkey) for long periods of time (like the well-endured horse). So all along the 44ish kilometres of the Lost City Trek trail, you’ll see and hear mules carrying loads of heavy stuff and looking a little depressed about it. Only once did we see a woman riding a mule — and she looked a little more depressed about it then the mule.

After we met each other and our guide Luiz and interpreter Sergio, and the donkey/horse mystery was solved, it was time to set off on the trek! We’d only been walking about half an hour when we came up to our first of many swimming holes. Matt described it best when he said, “I feel like we don’t deserve this yet!”

No matter! Even with hardly a bead of sweat rolling down our backs, we quickly changed behind some decaying bamboo walls and flung ourselves off our first rock, into our first river.

It was freezing but awesome. Until I realized there were millions of fish – then it was time to get out! And get hiking again.

Look, I’ll be honest here. We hiked for hours straight uphill and I almost died. And so did Matt. There’s no shade at all at this part of the hike (the only part with zero shade). Between the sun beating down on my face and the intense uphill, my face was so hot I thought it was about to burst into flames. 

  
But it was worth it. When we got to the top of the hill/mountain, we were rewarded with the first of many stunning views.

  
After the uphill torture, we had a short rest and a snack of watermelon, and got on our merry way to our first camp. This is where I lost my Tiffany earring jumping off a cliff into a swimming hole. While super sad to lose my beloved earring, the cliff jump was way fun and dare I say, worth it!

Sleeping at this camp pretty much sucked giant sandbags. We all slept in bunkbeds and Matt and I made the newbie mistake of sleeping in the same tiny bed together. It was way too hot for that! Plus there was a drunk old man who was shouting and grumbling and keeping everyone up. Also, the beds are super old and saggy so I spent most of the night teetering on the edge, trying not to roll on top of Matt. Just sleep in your own bed…or better yet a hammock and you should be alright.

Day 2

At 5:30 in the morning, the fatherly Luiz woke us up by singing sweet nothings near our beds. I’m kidding, kind of. He did wake all of us up by softly but loudly sing-songy saying “Buenas Dias.” After we shoved our faces full of cereal, fruit, and yogurt, and coffee, it was time to tackle the longest day of our hike. 

  
It was an exciting and exhausting 16(ish) kilometre day. I was stoke for it — I’m addicted to endorphines and this was going to be a great kick!

From about 6-9:30am we hiked up and down hills and did our best to get out of the way when MULES (moo-lay-s) were coming down the trail. It was tiring, but we finished the first 8km before 10am.

  
Our lunch camp was so awesome. There were clothes lines IN THE SUN to hang our sweat-soaked clothing, and a beautiful, if not chilly, river to swim in. I took the opporunity to take my first shower and recharge my solar-powered self by laying in sunshine. Matt took the opportunity to catch a few zzz’s on a hammock after lunch. 

We needed all the recharging we could get because the second half of the hike was uphill. When we got to a flat area, we savored it and charged forward to another “short uphill” as Matt called it.

Well let me tell you about that small uphill that Matt saw from the blessedly flat area. It went ON and ON and ON forever until we reached the heavens. And the military.

Ha! What a suprise seeing those guys with their big ass guns in the middle of nowhere. Wowzers!

The Colombian military maintain a permanent presence at both The Lost City and at this rest stop. They’ve done so (I believe) ever since some tourists were kidnapped in the early 2000s. Honestly, the Colombian government does as much as it can to ensure the safety of tourists and the whole time we were in Colombia, we felt that political and public will.  

  
We ended the day at a camp 1km away from the actual Lost City and made friends with the sweetest 3-legged cat. 

Our feet were sore but our spirits were but soaring. We happily spent our last 10.000 pesos on 2 beers, cheered each other, and drank to hiking, not dying, and very nearly finding the Lost City.

Day 3

We woke up as early as possible — 5:00am — to Luiz’s sweet Buenas Dias sing-song and a slightly chillly morning. We inhaled breakfast and took off before anyone else so that we could get the Lost City all to ourselves. 

  
After a short (LOL) jaunt up 1,200 steps…

Honestly, it was oh-so-worth it. Breathtaking, postcard perfect views with no one in them!

  
The Rest of Day 3, 4, and 5

After we visited the Lost City, ate lots of Oreos, and a thing with cheese, it was time to head back to a civilization that isn’t extinct. I’m not going to lie, doing the entire trek in reverse kind of sucked. We were tired, dirty, out of beer and gatorade money, and just wanted to hop on a train or bus or mule and get back to Santa Marta already. 

  
The best thing to do at this point is pretend like you’re just starting the trek. 

Pretend like you haven’t walked up and down these mountains before. 

Prentend like you haven’t slept in the saggy bunkbeds before.

Pretend like you don’t know there’s going to be a pet pig around the corner. 

Pretend like you haven’t taken a million pictures of the incredibly beautiful surroundings. 

Pretend like you haven’t jumped off those cliffs and waded across these rivers. 

And while you’re pretending, you’ll be amazed at how good you feel, how quick your legs are going, and how freely the conversation is flowing.

  
Before you know it, you’ll be back in El Mamey (Machete), where you’ll happen upon your guide Luiz looking super cool in his aviators on his motorcycle. He’ll buy you a beer, introduce you to his family, and wish you goodbye. And you’ll wish you spoke just a little more Spanish so you could know the man who took you to the Lost City and back just a little more.

Make the Most of Your Trek To The Lost City WIth Our Tips

Choosing a Tour Company

There is no way to get to the Lost City without going on a tour. We went with Expotur – a company that both Matt and I would highly recommend. When choosing your company, be warned that there’s no flexiblity on the price. All of the tour agencies charge the same price for the Lost City Trek: 700.000 COP per person, regardless of the length of the tour. You can go for 4, 5, or 6 days. To make the trek a little more affordable for us, we chose the 5 day tour. Why not? We got an extra day of food and an extra night of accomodation!

When choosing a tour agency, consider:

  • The size of group
  • Whether they can offer an English-speaking guide or a translator (most can’t)
  • The company’s reputation for rushing 5 and 6 day tour people (if that’s important to you)

What We Loved About Expotur

  • They were really professional from the very beginning
  • Luiz, our guide, had lots of experience and was a great guide
  • They had an interpreter available and he (Sergio) was professional and friendly
  • Nobody was left behind on the trek, we were all sandwiched between Luiz and Sergio the whole time
  • Nobody was ever rushed
  • Luiz timed our hiking so that we had time to ourselves at each camp before big groups arrived
  • We never felt pressured to finish the hike in 4 day when we wanted to do 5
  • Our interpreter had a ton of knowledge about and respect for the indigenous people
  • We had tons of time to swim in the rivers along the way
  • Our group wasn’t really big (I believe the max is 12 people for any group, but we saw a massive group – 2 groups put together, yikes!)
  • Our group wans’t into partying – that was great for us because we’re old and married and can’t handle hangovers 😉

What We Didn’t Love

  • At the first (and last) camp we stayed at, there were drunk people who shouted and talked really loud late into the night. We told Heidi at Expotur about this and she seemed genuinely concerned and wanting to fix this.
  • The food was good, but there could have been more. There were 6-7 hours between meals with generally a slice of pineapple as a snack. Bring granola bars or something like that

Overall, we had an amazing experience with Expotur and would 100% recommend them. 

Stick to Your Guns if You Want to Do a 5 or 6 Day Tour

Because all of the tours cost the same amount, there’s every reason for the tour company/guides to rush and encourage you to finish in 4 days. There’s lots of complaints floating around online of that happeneing to people. We had a really great experience doing a 5 day tour with Expotur.

Neither our guide Luiz nor our interpreter Sergio rushed us to finish in 4 days. We were clear from the start that we were doing 5 days and that’s exactly what we did, even though the other four 5 day tour people ended up doing only 4 days. What was even better is that our guide Luiz stayed in town an extra night and met Matt and I at the finish line. He even bought us a beer and a bottle of water (we ran out of money)! Thanks Luiz!!

The Difference Between the 4 Day Tour and the 5 Day Tour

Our little group set off together on the first day at 9:00 am, and stayed together until the 4th day at 9:00 am. That’s when the 4 day tour people carried on and Matt and I stayed behind. So as you can imagine, mostly everything was the same. The only difference is that Matt and I only trekked 3 hours on the 4th and 5th day, while the 4 day group trekked 6 hours on the 4th day and didn’t have a 5th day.

Everything was so similar that Expotur didn’t even require us to know how many days we’d be trekking until the 3rd day. That’s when they had to order lunch for the 4th day. 

I thought the flexibilty that gave everyone was great! It meant that people could change their mind, and no one got pigeonholed into a tour. And actually, except for a few people who knew they were going to do a 4 day tour and Matt and I, everyone changed their mind!

I mentioned that our guide Luiz met us at the finish line. Don’t worry – we didn’t trek through the mountains alone on the 5th day! Our chef Marjorie (our guide’s daughter-in-law) stayed with us. We also met up and walked and swam with other 5 day trekkers from other companies. 

How Long Should You Go For?

Well, that’s up to you! After doing the 5 day trek, if we were to do it again and money wasn’t an issue, we would probably do the 4 day. It wasn’t that fun sitting around the last camp in the jungle from 9:00 am until the next day. But there’s pros and cons, as with aything. Besides the budget benefits, we got caught up on our sleep (many naps, and went to bed at 8pm) and gave our legs a chance to rest so we could continue on with our travels right away.

What to Pack

Let it be known that we went in dry season and were incredibly lucky with the weather. It rained only once for a short period of time and our clothes even had the opportunity to dry (mostly). 

This Lost City packing list doesn’t really take rain into account but it does take weight into account!

Clothes:

  • Daypack with rain cover (just in case) – try to get one with hip straps to take the weight off your shouldes
  • 1 Bathing suit 
  • 4-5 pairs of underware (unless you’re good with wearing one pair multiple times)
  • 3-4 pairs of socks (quick dry is ideal)
  • 1 pair sturdy running shoes/hiking boots (I wore running shoes and was fine. I would not recommend waterproof shoes because your feet will be so incredibly hot.)
  • flip- flops for camp/showers/river crossings
  • 2 pairs of shorts (one to look clean/nice in your Lost City pictures — or for sleeping –and one for every other day)
  • 2-3 shirts (no point in having one for each day, you’ll never be dry anyway)
  • 1 pair lightweight pants for sleeping/chilly night/mosquitos
  • 1 light long sleeve (for mosquitos and camp 2 because it’s a little cold at night)
  • 1 sarong/quick dry towel for river dips and after showers

Other:

  • 1 – 2 litre bottle of water (there’s lots of places to refill with purified water)
  • money – more than you think so you can buy gatorade, beer, freshly squeezed organe juice, an things
  • mini toiletries (soap, shampoo/conditioner, toothpaste) – you don’t want to be lugging big bottles around
  • mini sunscreen
  • 2 bottles of bug sppray with deet (seriously!)
  • toothbrush
  • wet wipes to use as toilet paper, for your hands (instead of hand sanitizer) and face, and all kinds of things
  • granola bars/snacks for in between meals or you will be STARVING

Optional:

  • favoured drink crystals if you don’t like the taste of purified water
  • first aid kit if you like that kind of thing (like Matt does)

And obviously bring your phone, camera, and chargers! There’s power at the first camp so you can recharge.

Have an amazing time if you’re planning to go — and don’t forget to watch our video to show your love!

– Cyn and Matt

The Splendidly Spectacular Las Lajas Sanctuary – Ipiales, Colombia

Honestly. This church was breathtaking. We’d seen a picture of it on Discover South America’s Instagram feed and decided that yes! We’re going there.

So instead of flying to Ecuador from Colombia, we spent about a billion hours on buses over a few days so we could go to Las Lajas Sanctuary before we crossed into Ecuador.

And man oh man, was it worth it.

It’s simply stunning.  

I’m not even religious but I wish that everyone could go see this church at least once in their lifetime.

  
I don’t know if you can tell in the picture above, but the altar is actually the canyon’s rock. The church is literally built into it. 

 
To get to El Santuario de Las Lajas, you need to get yourself to Ipiales, Colombia. From the Terminal (bus station), hop in a collectivo for about 2.500 COP per person (we paid 8.000 COP for two to go right away) and the driver will take you to where you begin a descent to the church. You can leave you bags at terminal for a small fee. 

  
The walk down was interesting, what with all the vendors selling trinkets and plastic containers (why…we have no idea) and pretty plaques along the wall. 

  
And it was endearing. We received many big beautiful smiles and holas from locals. Plus I couldn’t get enough of the garbage cans. They were the cutest things I’ve ever seen!

the garbage can has buttons!
 
There was a museum there as well but we didn’t go. We were overwhelmed by the church itself!

To any tourist who complains that “there are too many locals”, give your head a shake! I’m so sick of reading those kinds of arrogant comments on Trip Advisor. You’re a jerk and a visitor and this was not built for your amusement. This church has been a pilgrimage destination since the 18th century.

I’d really like to tell you all about the church’s history, but all I know is what I just read on Wikipedia. I suggest you mosey on over and check it out! It’s history includes miracles – obviously. 
— Cyn