Cab, Bus, Bus, Popayán, Bus, Ipiales, Cab, Ecuador!

We’re not looking forward to the next part of our journey. We have to cover a reasonably long distance, in a relatively short time and then leave beautiful Colombia (?). We’re heading from Salento down to Quito in Ecuador. It’s 920Km or approximately 572 miles in old money. We want to be in Ecuador by the 1st of February so we’ve got 4 days to do it. No biggy, right? So far we’ve been really lucky and not had any really long bus journeys. We want to keep it this way and so we decide to break the journey up a bit. This also means we get to squeeze in more Colombia, yay! We pick two stops on our route down, the first being Popayán, an unusual colonial town and then Ipiales, a boarder town with a big church. Great, phase one of planning done, now just to make the logistics work.

We’re both pretty sad to be leaving Salento, it’s such a beautiful little town. Once we’ve had our breakfast we jump in a cab down to the bus terminal. It’s just over a mile downhill but it’s too far when we’re carrying all our bags. As the cab pulls into the bus terminal (terminal is overselling it, big time, it’s an unpaved carpark with a little coffee shop) the bus to Armenia is just pulling out. Our cabbie jumps into true Colombian driver mode and starts frantically bibbing his horn, flashing his lights and waving his arms to try and get the bus to stop. We very much appreciated his efforts even if they did fail. It was only about 20 minutes or so before the next one came along. This was going to be the longest leg of the up and coming journeys. Approximately 7 hours on the road, not including transfers, according to our research. We leave Salento and head to Armenia where we have to transfer onto another bus to Popayán via Cali.

As we arrive at the Armenia terminal and we are greeted by some rather cheery Colombian Police. They even show off some of their English skills as they check our passports. We find the desk, buy our tickets to Popayán and head through to the bus. Now we’ve been unlucky with buses so far. We’ve read lots of ‘the buses are great, the seats recline, they have WiFi, they play a film, there’s a loo, there’s aircon’ but we have yet to be anywhere near one of these glorious sounding beasts. The best we’ve had so far is a minibus and the windows opened! Once again we’ve hit the jackpot, we’ve got another turd bus. In fact this time it’s a Mercedes Sprinter van. Can you even call that a bus? I’d call that false advertising, we have definitely been miss sold a service. Reluctantly we chucked our bags in and hop on. Great, no seats together. Now on most journeys you get allocated a seat number but these are very rarely adhered to. (On our last bus journey we made everyone move so we could have our allocated seats. It was full of other tourists so we didn’t feel too bad. Also the aircon was fully broken, despite this the driver refused to let anyone open a window because it was on). We’re the only tourists on this bus and it doesn’t look like we’ve been allocated any seats either. Dave squeezes in between two young women in the front row and I wander down the back following the pointing finger of a grubby looking man on the back row. There’s an older lady sitting in the aisle seat. She doesn’t move as I approached, I consider climbing over her but decided it’s probably poor form. I muster some courage and give it my best ‘Perdón’ and point at the seat. She doesn’t stand up but does shimmy, very slowly into the window seat. I send a ‘Gracias’ and a big grin her way. She turns away. Great, this will be a fun 6 hours. I get out my headphones and start picking something to entertain me. Next thing I know she’s chatting away to me. I take out my headphones and concentrate as hard as I can to hear her over the unnecessarily loud music. She is speaking very slowly and very deliberately in basic Spanish, I realise. She asked me where I am from, I tell her. She asks me where I am going, I tell her. She tells me I should go to Cali as it’s very nice there. This is where she is going. She asks if I am traveling alone, I tell her no and point to Dave up front. She asks if he’s my husband, I tell her no and manage to remember the Spanish word for boyfriend. She says in broken English ‘I understand’ and smiles. We chat a little more and I understand a fair bit of what she tells me but not all of it. I think she has some family in Canada and that’s why she knows some words in English. I also think she might have asked me if I like to eat. I hope I might have got that wrong though. A few people get off and the seat next to Dave becomes free. The lady nudges me and sends me off down the front of the van. The hours tick by in a haze of winds and bumps and we’re soon in Cali. The lady gets off, I say bye and we’re on the road again.

It’s really busy heading out of Cali. We sit in traffic jam, after traffic jam. Then we pull over. Other buses and lorries are tooting at us. This is standard practice here. Turning, bib, going straight, bib, stoping, bib, not stopping, bib. They bloody love using their horns here. It does mean that any tooting could mean absolutely anything though. Turns out this tooting means we have some sort of tyre issue. The driver jumps out and gives the wheel a kick. This doesn’t seem to solve the problem and his mate comes over to give him a hand. His buddy isn’t a, kick the tyre for solutions kind of guy. He’s got tools and is on the floor getting something done. Then a big lorry in the traffic jam next to us, is lending a hand with his air compressor. We’re back sitting in the main stream of traffic in no time. Good work guys, not you van driver, your input was rubbish. The traffic starts to ease but the toots around us are becoming regular again. The driver is looking down all the side streets. Then he stops again and turns down a side road. There’s a big tyre place on the left hand side. Great he’s getting the problem fixed. He turns in and then immediately starts to reverse out. What’s he doing? He drives back towards the road we have just come in on. He pulls out into the traffic and then begins reversing up the road he’s just pulled out of. He’s now reversing down the wrong side of the road and seems to be trying to park opposite the entrance to the big tyre place. Next thing I know he’s jumped out. He’s talking to some dirty people standing by the road under a parasol. I get out and one of the dirty people is under the bus getting a jack set up. Ha! These guys have set up a little street shop right outside of their competition.

I take the opportunity to have myself a little smoke and watch the dirties in action. Ones doing the jack while the driver speaks to another one. I guess he’s telling him ‘I gave it a swift kicking but it didn’t fix it’. Another one gets the tyre off. It’s clear they don’t have an MOT equivalent here. This tyre has got some history on it and has seen its best days a long time ago. Good job it’s getting changed. The guy with the wheel suddenly starts running off down the road with it. I say running off with it, he’s rolling a van tyre up the road at an admirable pace. The driver looks confused, I catch his eye and he pulls a face that says ‘I have no idea what is happening’. The guy with the tyre stops by a lamp post. There’s some sort of contraption rigged up on it. He uses it to remove the tyre from the rim. It’s super impressive. He carries it back over and then they seem to be trying to reseal it. Guess that tyre has got a bit more life in by Colombian standards then. Probably best not to think about that too much for the rest of the journey. They seal it all back up, get the pressures right, using what looks like a stick and it’s back on the van.

We load back in and we’re on the road again. It’s been almost 10 hours since we left Salento when we finally arrive in Popayán. It’s getting dusky and it’s starting to drizzle. The cab rank has no cabs in it and there are a few people waiting. We join the bundle to wait for some taxis to arrive. A couple pull up and the people before us jump in. Then another arrives and we are too slow and someone pinches it. This happens again so we move further down to the start of the rank. A cab pulls up, Dave shows him the address and he simply replies ‘no’. Hmm, I hope we haven’t booked a dodgy area, the reviews were all good. We try another one who has just pulled up and he seems happy to take us. We have to sit and wait for the guy who wouldn’t take us to get a fair because he’s blocking the exit.

We finally arrive at the hotel and check in. Yay! They have free coffee. The guy at the desk is very helpful and gives us a map of the area and recommends some things to do. By the time we get in the room my head is throbbing. We haven’t had enough to drink today and could do with having some food. Dave, my hero, heads out to find some supplies. He returns with a supermarket bag and something which looks really greasy. He’s got himself some gross looking street sausages and some sort of bread thing. He’s also picked up some normal bread, cheese, apples and yogurts. We have some cheese sandwiches and an apple and realise there are no spoons for the yogurts. The street sausages were bad apparently, you’d never have guessed it to look at them!!!

The next day we get up, have breakfast at the hotel and then go into town for a walking tour Dave found. It was really interesting and Popayán is a really lovely place.

It has a really nice small town feel. Popayán is not too dissimilar to other small Colombian towns apart from one thing. Popayán old town is all white. All the buildings are painted white. Every other place in Colombia has brightly coloured houses and buildings. Rows and rows of all the colours you can think of. This is why Popayán is know as the White City.

There is a historical reason for this. Back in the day people used to walk around the cobbled streets with no shoes on. There were some parasites living in the cobbles which made the people’s feet go well grim. Turns out they somehow found out a type of white paint killed the parasites. So they painted all the buildings white so peps could wipe their rank feet on them and get rid of the nasty feet flees. The people of Popayán are also called duck people because of the way they walked with their mangled up feet.

A Popayán boast is that they are a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. This is for particular drinks using some traditionally Colombian fruits. Once we finish the walking tour we decide to visit a traditional restaurant and try the drinks. We have a cheeky side of empanaditas too.

The empanaditas are good, spicy but good. The drinks are ok, they are a bit like slushies without all the sugar and colourings. Mine is quite bitter and refreshing but I wouldn’t choose to have it again. Dave buys some biscuits on the way out. The empanaditas were good but they haven’t quite hit the spot. We find a restaurant to have a light lunch.

We decide to walk off our lunch and head to the big mound on the edge of the old town. We follow the desire lines and not the official route. It’s steep but it’s quicker.

The mound it’s self is unremarkable, which is a shame because it’s an old indigenous religious site. I’m surprised the Spanish didn’t stick a church on top of it. That’s what they did every where else in Popayán. We admire the view for a bit and then head down to a park below.

We find some old tyres (most in better nick than the one from the bus) and sit down to eat some biscuits.

We’ve got an early start tomorrow as we’re heading to Ipiales. We’ve read it can be a bit of an iffy journey and so I am dreading it. Unfortunately iffy in Colombia does sometimes mean that buses get held up on the road. The next leg of the journey has been know to be a little bit bandity. We’ve done as much research as we can and found a recommended bus company to use. All the buses we’ve been on have stopped and picked up passengers on the side of the road. From what we’ve read the bandits sometimes pose as passengers, get on and then wave some guns about until they have all your stuff. The bus company we’ve found don’t pick up other passengers, they travel directly to Ipiales. Also everything we’ve read says not to travel this route at night.

We get up early, go to the bus terminal and the bus with the bus company we want is full. The next one leaves in 2 and a half hours. Or there is another company leaving in 15 minutes. It’s an 8 and a half hour journey. If we leave in 2 and a half hours it’ll be starting to get dark. If we leave in 15 minutes we might pick up some bandits. We to and fro for almost the whole 15 minutes, neither of us know which option is best. We decide to risk it with the other bus company. As we get on the bus none of the other passengers look like bandits. They are all locals, locals with too much luggage. They need to introduce a baggage allowance on Colombian buses. Our bags are the last to go in the back but there’s more people and luggage to get on the bus. Everyone takes a seat and then they start filling the small aisle with bags and sacks and boxes. We’re soon penned firmly into the back seats. On the plus side though there is no room to fit anymore people or things on this bus. I’m pleased we should have a bandit free journey.

Well I was wrong on one thing. Apparently there was room to fit more people. One spot for a small Colombian person to fit was between Dave’s legs. He had 2 different people there during this journey. At least none of them were bandits.

To be fair to the bus company we didn’t pick but used anyway. They got us there safely and in reasonably good time.

We arrived, very relieved, at Ipiales well before dark. We checked into our hotel and took a cab to the big church Ipiales is famous for. It’s quite an impressive sight. The church is built on a bridge, across a river, in valley. We wanted to try and see the church during day light and at night because in typical Colombian fashion, at night the church looks a little different.

Unfortunately we were a little late and the nighttime spectacle had already started at dusk.

We spent a few hours at Santuario de las Lajas and took pictures from every angle we could get to.

We spoke to a guy from Bogota, who was there visiting friends. He told us the story of the church. A lady was walking here in the 18th century with her blind and deaf daughter. The lady saw the virgin Mary at the sight where the church is built. After that her daughter could see and hear.

The walls down to the church are covered in plaques. All different shapes and sizes. These are all from people who have prayed at the church and their prayers have come true.

We head back to the hotel and wonder what fun tomorrow may hold.

It’s time to cross the boarder into Ecuador. I’ve never crossed a land boarder by foot before and really don’t know what to expect. We get a taxi from the hotel to the boarder and headed to immigration. It’s all very clearly signposted. ‘Exit Colombia’ ‘Enter Colombia’ with a heavy heart we line up under the ‘Exit Colombia’ sign. I don’t want to go. Colombia is brilliant and lovely. I could spend 6 months here. The guard let’s us through and tells us to queue up at window 5. I get to the window and the man is very polite and efficient. Within seconds I’ve got my exit stamp. It feels weird. I can’t go back to Colombia now but I’m not allowed into Ecuador yet. I’m fully in no man’s land. Once we’re both stamped we head out the side door, back into the street we were dropped off at. What now? We wander towards the Ecuador side. We have to walk over an actual bridge to get into Ecuador. Now it feels like we are really leaving Colombia.

It’s messy over here. Where are all the signs? Where are we supposed to go? There’s a section set up for all the Venezuelans, there was one on the Colombia side too. This one doesn’t seem to be as well organised. There are people everywhere. Where is immigration? Eventually we ask someone and he points though the tents and the Venezuelan people. We weave our way through and finally see a sign and the queue. We join it and when we get to the front the police officer asks us if we have any papers. We don’t have papers. He wanders off with our passports. He re-appears and let’s us through to the next queue. No more mention of any papers. That’s all clear then! We get to the desk, the guy asks us where we are going. Dave being the smart one says Quito, me being an imbecile said Ecuador. Well done brains! Lucky he still let us through. Well that’s it, we’re in Ecuador. That was easy. Next step: taxi to Tulcan so we can get a 5 hour bus to Quito.

? Bye Colombia.

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