From Ipiales to Otavalo: Crossing to Ecuador

For some reason I was dreading the process of getting from Popayan to Ecuador. I felt like procrastinating, and taking too much time by spending the night in the border town of Ipiales. But I persevered, and I was right, it was a righteous thrash.

The first bus took me from Popayan to Pasto in 6 hours, more or less. A short taxi ride to my hotel and a rather poor night’s sleep due to noisy neighbors, and I was ready to push on to Ipiales. That leg took a couple of hours in the morning, and I was I Ipiales, the border town, by about 10:30 AM. I had to store my luggage for a couple of hours to go to the Sanctuario las Lajas, the must see, and only, attraction of Ipiales.

After getting off the bus, I found, quite to my amazement, a big sign pointing me to the luggage storage area, a couple of flights down from the street, but there was a ramp. Was it too much to hope for? Well, yes, it turned out. I wheeled my bags down the several flights of ramp and found no luggage storage. Just an empty hall with doors that had no signs and were firmly locked.

I went to a few of the ticket counters and tried to ask for luggage storage and was greeted by unfriendly blank stares. Finally one ticket agent pointed me back up to the top of the ramp. I went as he said. Nothing, nada. I asked in a little restaurant and was pointed back downstairs. I looked rather skeptical, I guess, because a young man took me back down, and then to a little tiny store. There was no sign or any indication whatsoever that this was a luggage storage place. After quizzing the young man who worked there, I was only mildly assured that he had taken on the storage duties while the regular facility was under repair. I knew it was a bit of a roll of the dice, but the people there looked okay, especially the abuela (grandmother). I took the risk.

There was a $6 dollar taxi round trip to the Sanctuario, or wait for a $2 shared ride. I splurged. It was a short ride, a stop at an overlook, and then the march down to the actually church, and, of course, back up. Damn, on a bad night’s sleep and an exhausting morning, it was a long ways down and up again. But I made it!

(Traveler’s hint for the less ambitiously inclined: There are 1000 photos online of the Sanctuario Las Lajas. No one but yourself will know if you don’t actually take the 2 hour side trip from Ipiales and the mandatory march up and down the chasm. I was sorely tempted, but instead I was just sore.)

I got back to the terminal in serious need of some coffee, but not ready for what the little cafe’s had to offer (bad coffee should be a crime in Colombia.) so I bought a coke to stave off a caffeine headache and went in search of the collectivo to the border. However, instead of asking for “frontera”, I grabbed a collectivo for Las Lajas! Idiot! (I am traveling alone, so I have the task of chastising myself). I took another round trip to Las Lajas, with luggage in tow (yes, the place was legit) and returned to the terminal to start again. I got a van collectivo  and headed to the border. It was well into the afternoon.

The border at Colombia was easy, except it was, inexplicably up two flights of stairs, over unused space. I guess the bad guys would be dissuaded by the steps? I dragged my bags up the stairs, got my stamp, and then back down. (There is a small part of me that wishes someone would actually help themselves to one of the bags, the one with cheap clothes that could be replaced).

There is a short hike to the other side to Ecuador immigration, which also was easy. I caught a cab to the border town, got overcharged, but to the bus station. I took the next bus to Otavalo, which is meant to be a 3.5 hour ride. It is easy here to determine the length of ride by the fare or vice versa in Ecuador, as the fare is about $1.00 US per hour. In theory. In Colombia the bus stops for everyone, and the driver has to let on every food peddler along the way. And there are police and military stops, and stops for no discernible reason. about 4.5 hours later I was rather unceremoniously dropped off on a street on the outskirts of Otovalo with a couple of other backpackers..

After one of those hellish days of traveling, things ended rather splendidly, though. The backpackers had no reservations and said there was nothing on line. I did have a reservation, so the two of them came with me to check and see if there was anything available where I was staying. We arrived in a taxi to a place that looked closed. After buzzing at the door a few times, eventually a couple of young men arrived and turned on a couple of lights. I’m telling you, the hundreds-year-old building made Bates Motels cross my mind (the tenor of the day was with me). We were led upstairs to the most lovely, but seemingly deserted, hostel. There is a library room with tons of videos and books but in the darkness, that added to the eeriness of the place. Upstairs from that, rooms on balconies with splendid views of the city, the cathedral, and six huge volcanoes! At the top there is as big kitchen which opens on to the volcano view. The rooms are small but clean and sweet, and maybe haunted. For a very old building it is in good nick, with great wood windows and ancient worn embedded floors. $15 a night.

I wondered as I crossed the border if Ecuador could be that different than Colombia, and in what ways would it differ. It does feel different, more Andean, more indigenous. The food doesn’t seem to have improved much, but I don’t have a lot to go on yet. It is a bit less cheap, but there are markets and grocers and a good kitchen, so that solves the food problem. Black beans and rice, fresh guacamole and a glass of wine in the kitchen of the hostal was a great dinner.

I’ll be going to Quito after this, and then on to a tiny​ town in a cloud forest, Mindo. The place sounds rather idyllic-with a huge variety of birds and butterflys, orchids, a zipline, a river and a chocolate factory that produces chocolate from its own trees grown on the grounds.
This traveling stuff is hard work, but pretty amazing. I’m mostly glad I am doing it alone and I have time, as I can stop and take a week or so here and there if I choose, and I have been so choosing. But it gets lonely and a bit disorienting. Sometimes I feel like I am completely disconnected from the world, and sometimes that is amazingly liberating, but other times I feel I am some sort of alien. Which, I guess I am.
Las Lajas (Yes! My photo!)


The plaques are installed by people who feel their prayers have been answered. I know mine was when I made it back to the top of the hill!
The church looks like carbon gingerbread held together with sugar frosting.
Very welcome sight
Night view from my room in Otavalos
Volcano by day. Otavalo is at 3000 meters.
The town is mostly indigenous

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