Monday, June 11, 2012

My One-Day Trip To Columbia

Last Tuesday I went to Columbia.  I've been wanting to go somewhere new and interesting so off I went.  It was definitely an adventure--not a scary one or anything like that but a different experience than I was expecting.

It started in the morning when I was waiting for the bus at the park just down the street from me.  There was a little parade that closed off the street for a while so I just stayed there and took pictures.  It turns out it didn't matter whether I stayed and took the photos or went off in search of a bus.

I ended up leaving Cotacachi closer to 10:30 than 9:30.  It only takes about half an hour to get to Ibarra so I was there before 11:00.  I had been told the bus to Tulcan (the border town on the Ecuadorian side of the border) runs every hour on the half hour.  That's true--they didn't say it started at 12:30.  So, there I sat at the Ibarra bus terminal for almost two hours.  It wasn't a total waste of time, though.  I got a ton of photos and that's half the fun for me.

The little guy above was fascinated by that painted white strip.  He would stamp his little foot on it and then look to see if anything had happened.  I don't know what he expected but whatever it was never occurred.

I missed the shot of the woman balancing a box on her head that was twice the size of this one, and she didn't balance it with one hand.  In fact, while it was balanced up there she squatted down to pick up her bag.  It was a sight to behold but, alas, my camera was still in its case when she passed by.

Nuns still travel in pairs here and wear habits.  In fact, these habits are quite a bit more abbreviated than the ones I've seen before.

Well, it's not a big box but it's still rather impressive to me.

I don't think I'd want to ride all the way to Buenes Aires on one of these buses, although the longer range ones may be more comfortable than the shorter rides.  I sure hope so for the people who are going that far.

While I was getting my ticket inside the terminal I stopped to get a bite of lunch since I obviously wasn't going to be in Columbia in time to do that.  Perhaps one of these days I'll remember to take more photos (as if you don't already have enough to look at) of things like the terminal and the fun lunch I had.  It was a miniature hot dog (no more than an ounce, if that) and a reasonable-size pile of french fries, all slathered with watered down ketchup and watered down mayo, along with a small scoop of watered down creamy cole slaw, all served in a small plastic bag with a very tiny double-tined fork of sorts.  It was actually amazingly good and only 75 cents.

Then, there was my bus.  I was pleased I had purchased a ticket rather than just getting on the bus and paying there because I had an assigned seat up front and that was lovely.  It wasn't the front seat, which would have been nice, but it was the next row back and I had it all to myself for almost half of the trip.

It didn't take long before we were climbing into more of a high desert setting.  You can see a huge prickly pear cactus in the left of this photo and the dead grasses in very sandy soil.  Of course there is a lot more green in the background but I'm not sure if that's irrigated.  I know there's a river back there somewhere but I don't know if that would be enough to keep that much land that green.

All these photos were taken from a moving bus so some of them aren't all that great but they should give you a feel for the countryside.  This is an informal restaurant of sorts that is just sitting there on the side of the highway with no evidence of any kind of town or village anywhere nearby.

The fruit seller is right next to the restaurant above.

There are shrines all over the place here but this is the first one I saw that was enclosed like this.

Potty stop anyone?  The bus stop to the far right of the photo (like the one below) is out in the middle of nowhere.  I have no idea where the people come from but there they are.  We also stopped for anyone who was standing by the side of the road with their hand raised indicating they wanted the bus to stop for them.  Again, truly out in the middle of nowhere.

If there hadn't been a restaurant sign on this building I might have thought it was an auto repair shop.  In addition to the tires out front, there were even more of them off to one side and a couple of broken down vehicles to go with them.

I have absolutely no idea what this guy was doing here but there he was, lying on a bench under this--whatever it is, taking a nap.

We finally arrived in Tulcan at around 3:00.  I grabbed a cab and he took me the rest of the way to the Immigration office to leave Ecuador.  The line in the office was quite interesting.  There were no numbers and people were sitting in chairs but as soon as the person at one of the windows would leave, the next person "in line" in the chairs would get up and move to the window while everyone else stood and advanced one chair closer.  This wasn't just one row of chairs--it was four rows of them.  When I got there, only two rows were full.  By the time I left all four rows were full and people were standing in line behind them.

When I got to the window the agent took my passport and looked it and me over several times and then said, "Momentito," or, just a minute, and pointed for me to go wait away from the window.  I obediently went over to a chair to wait and an hour later he came out to tell me, "Momentito," and then go back to his window.  An hour after that, I let him know I was going to the bathroom so he wouldn't think I'd left.  A half hour after that (perhaps more like 45 minutes), I finally went up to the window and said, with just a wee bit of disbelief mixed with sarcasm, "Momentito?"  He instantly picked up my passport that had apparently been sitting next to him for that whole time, punched a few keystrokes into the computer, put a page of my passport into a machine that looked a bit like an old timecard machine and out came my neatly stamped passport.  All done.

There are two trains of thought here from various friends.  One is that he was waiting for me to offer him $20 to help speed things along and the other is that he was just messing with me because he could.  I'm sure there's a third or fourth or fifth possibility but I can't think of them.  I actually did think to ask if a little money might be in order but since his window was directly next to the six-foot-high sign that said that bribery was against the law and you better not even think about doing it or you'd go to prison, I decided I wasn't going to attempt something like that.  Whatever the reason, I finally got through customs at almost 5:30.  By this time it's getting close to getting dark but I was determined to get to Columbia so off I went, across the bridge over a pretty little river and got stamped into Columbia in less than five minutes.

So, here I am in Columbia.  Woo Hoo!  It was too late for me to even want to go into the city and look around, so this is really is all the further I got before I turned around and came back to Ecuador, but I can say I've been to Columbia, right? 

When I got back to the parking lot just past the customs office I decided I really needed to have a little something to eat before I headed back to Cotacachi.  There were several little food stands at the edge of the lot and I decided to have the Columbian version of a Polish dog on a stick.  It was definitely more than a quarter pound and cooked over a charcoal fire, served with a small portion of french fries (they serve a lot of french fries here, along with just every other kind of potato you can think of).  It was pretty fabulous at that point and the price tag of $1 was equally attractive.

I found a bench to sit on to eat my grilled dog when I looked down and discovered a non-grilled dog gazing intently at me.   He sat there very patiently waiting for me to decide he needed to share my food with him and, sure enough, he was absolutely right.  I realized just before I got to the end of the Polish dog and before I'd started the fries that I was full so this little guy did his duty and scarfed everything down in five seconds or less.  He was so very cute.

On my way back across the bridge to Ecuador I decided I needed a couple of pictures of the lovely river below me.  Pictures of running water just don't turn out the way I want them to.  Something gets lost in the translation between the real water and the image but here it is anyway.

Both the upper and lower parts of the river.  Just above the upper portion, the foliage meets above the river and encloses it in a tunnel under the greenery.

There's an official welcome sign behind this one touting all the great things about Ecuador but this is what you see when you get off the bridge on the Ecuador side.

I took a cab back to the bus terminal and was lucky enough to have a bus sitting right there waiting for me.  I got on and collapsed in the first empty seat I came to and settled in for my 2+ hour ride back to Ibarra where I could take the 30 minute ride to Cotacachi.

Oh, one of the things I forgot to mention earlier is the entertainment on the bus.  They show a movie on rides this long.  On the way up it was a very, very bad Kung Fu movie very poorly dubbed in Spanish.  On the way back it was a Kurt Russell movie called Black Dog 2, also poorly dubbed in Spanish but the conductor on the bus set it to show English sub-titles.  I'm not sure if it was just the way it was set up or if he did it for me.  I kind like to think he did it for me.  It was a pretty bad movie but watching it was far less harrowing than looking out the window to discover the driver pulling around a semi, in a no passing zone, approaching a sharp curve in the highway.

The other thing I wanted to share is the vendors on the bus.  At many of the stops along the way, one or more people would get on the bus selling candy, beverages, chicken, pizza, gloves and jackets, or just about anything else you can imagine.  You never have to want for something to eat or drink when you're on a bus here.

When the conductor started calling out that we were in Ibarra and the bus stopped and he looked pointedly at me and said, "Ibarra," I looked outside and just saw another street corner.  I told him I wanted to go to the terminal and he told me it was closed.  Closed?  What do you mean closed?  How am I supposed to get home?  Of course I didn't say any of that, I just sat there looking dumb.  He asked where I was going and when I said Cotacachi he said they would drop me off in Otavalo where I could take a taxi to Cotacachi.

I had managed to get back to my little corner of Ecuador after the buses to Cotacachi had stopped running.  Well, true to his word, the bus stopped right across the street from half a dozen taxis and the conductor helped me out of the bus (by then my ankles were so swollen that walking was a challenge" and had the man who got off there with me take me across the street and make sure I got into a taxi that would take me where I wanted to go.  They were both so very sweet.

I was still about a 20 minute ride from Cotacachi.  You can imagine what that cab ride would cost in the States, or probably most other countries in the world.  I was thinking about the fact that when I asked the cab company in Minneapolis what it would cost to take the bus to the closes grocery store to me, they said it would be about $9.  This ride cost $6 and it would have been $5 if it had been during the day (I'm not sure if the extra dollar is hazard pay or what). 

On the way back to Cotacachi I happened to look up and there was a bonus.  There was a big, beautiful full moon to light the way home.

I arrived home right around 10:00 and while I was totally exhausted, I was happy to have had such a lovely adventure so close to home.  One of these days I may go back up there and go into town and look around a little before coming back home but, then again, there are so many other wonderful places to visit here that I may not get around to that for quite a while.


  1. Very interesting blog post Cynthia and I applaud your patience at immigration, etc. One thing I have to work on assuming we move to Ecuador is patience; here in the States we seem to move things much faster. Glad you at least can say you got into Columbia, even just for a short stop!

  2. Cynthia:

    Will going out and coming back from/into Ecuador through the Tulcan/Colombia border extend your tourist visa for another 90 days?
    Thank you,

  3. This is my favorite story of yours so far, Cynthia. Very entertaining, but I am glad to be reading about it and not experiencing it! I wonder if it would be any different now in 2017? Probably not.