Salento to Cali
Sadly our time in Colombia was coming to an end, and with an impending start date for volunteer work in La Paz, we had a lot of ground to make up to get that far south. Direct air travel was out of the question as any flights from Colombia or Ecuador to Bolivia were as pricey as our flight to South America from Europe had been. Having weighed up our options we decided on a combination of bus and air travel, with a few days in Ecuador and Peru en route.
First and foremost we had to get from Salento to Cali, the home of Salsa dancing and more importantly the southernmost major city in Colombia. We again headed back to the delightful Armenia bus station, acquiring a minibus to Cali easily enough, and the total journey only cost 25000 COP per person. The bus was like a portable sauna so the only option was to sleep or disrobe entirely, but with the entire journey a little over 5 hours it was bearable enough. We had booked one night at El Viajero in advance having been satisfied by the sister hostel in Cartagena, and owing to a glowing testimonial from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.
With such a fleeting visit to the hostel and to Cali itself, my opinion of the place would be purely based on first impressions, and unfortunately they weren’t great. Aesthetically the hostel was not dissimilar to the Cartagena equivalent, and actually had a decent looking pool. However, the 8 bed dorm felt crowded and was somewhat lacking in Feng Shui, with minimal floor space for any of the occupants. The dorm also seemed to be home to longer term backpackers who regarded the space as their own, one of whom was a Scottish guy (bloody Scotsman!) utilising the space to snort cocaine in full view of everyone. It appeared that he had procured the substance from a very shifty American guy in the room who had earlier assured me that I didn’t need to lock up my belongings in the provided safe as ‘nobody locks stuff in this room’.
After double checking that the code I had elected for the safe was impenetrable to drug dealing Americans, we went to explore the hostel. Despite Aisling’s persistence I declined to participate in the free Salsa lesson that the hostel provided. I couldn’t really get much better at dancing so it was pointless in my eyes. We did get a brief glimpse into the room whilst the lessons were under-way and they looked well ran and quite fun, to the hostels credit. However, to further consolidate our underwhelmed impression of the hostel, the first guy we seen at the bar seemed to have been involved in a bar fight with the entire city of Cali, sporting a severely bruised face and visible skull and brains. In fairness to him he was not detracted from drinking at the bar and enjoying himself, but it added to a macabre impression in judgemental people such as myself. At this stage we were grateful that we would have an early bus in the morning as it gave us an excuse to go to bed pretty sharpish. Aside from one of our new room-mates, the rest seemed to have gone to the Mark Chandler School of how-to-get-in-at-5am-and-make-as-much-noise-as-humanly-possible-and-leave-all-light-and-sound-sources-blaring.
After breakfast the next day we got an early bus to the border town of Ipiales, at a cost of 50 000 COP each for a 10 hour journey. It must be said that our decision to complete the border crossing by bus was made so much easier by the excellent blog http://fivepointfive.org/how-to-get-a-bus-from-cali-to-quito/
With very scarce literature on the internet regarding the overland border option, which used to be considered highly dangerous, this blog proved to be of great assistance and we followed their route almost to a tee. Travelling with Trans Ipiales Company, the journey was comfortable and provided enough time for me to finally complete my TEFL course. Some of the scenery on the journey is again remarkable, and showed yet another side to Colombia’s hugely divergent terrain.
Arriving in Ipiales at around 10pm we were excited to check out the Metropol Hotel, quoted in the aforementioned blog as the cheapest room they had encountered in some time, and we were not disappointed, checking into a double room with en suite for 25000 COP total – the same price we each paid for an 8 bed dorm in Cali. It was fairly basic as expected but absolutely perfect for our one night layover.
Before heading for the border in the morning we again took advantage of the recommendation to visit Santuario de Las Lajas, and were extremely glad to have heeded the indirect advice. Around 20 minutes in a taxi, and costing 10 000 COP (cheaper if you get a shared taxi as we did on the way back) Las Lajas is a Church that has been impressively constructed between a canyon over a river. It was yet another aesthetic pleasure which we had not expected of Colombia, even more surprising as we would never have heard of it had we not followed the specific overland border route.
With the clock working against us we didn’t spend as much time as would have liked at the incredible spot, and headed back to Ipiales from which we took a shared taxi to Rumichaca, the border town, for a mere 3000 COP. The driver dropped us right at the immigration office and offered us some rapid Spanish advice which we didn’t quite grasp. We were in and out of the Colombian immigration office in minutes and headed for the three minute walk to the Ecuador side, avoiding the many touts with huge wads of questionable looking U.S. Dollars. After taking the obligatory border photos we were in the Ecuador office and got our passports stamped and a booklet on how to keep safe in Ecuador which was a nice (and as it turned out necessary) touch.
We took a taxi to Tulcan, the town from which we would be able to get a bus to Quito. Upon arrival at the bus station we found that the ATM at the bus station was out of service, so politely asked the woman selling bus tickets in impeccable Spanish if there was another ATM in the town. Evidently she was as useful as a pair of sunglasses on a bloke with one ear, simply answering ‘yes’. Unsure whether this was a game where I had to tease the directions out of her, it became obvious she wanted me to look for myself. With a 50/50 chance of going the right or wrong way, I went the wrong way. Returning to the bus station 20 minutes later with significantly less patience than I had departed with, Aisling tried to buy our bus tickets from the very same woman with a $100 note we had. Being that Dollars are the national currency of Ecuador, and this was the only money we had without access to an ATM, there was some hope that she would accept the note. However, she acted as if we had tried to pay in gold chocolate coins. Again I asked of any other ‘Cajero Automatico’ to which this time she decided on the answer that there was no other ATM. In the unique situation of having too much money and also too little money at the same time, we were in a bit of a quandary. As a final option before living the rest of our days in Tulcan, I again persisted with the option of asking Ecuador’s friendliest cashier where the other ATM was. This time she obviously drew another answer from her internal game-show, and responded that there was one, and even offered directions. Third time lucky.
I stocked up on some infamous Tulcan chicken, Aisling on her favourite vegetarian dish of cheesey Doritos, and we finally boarded the bus and were able to relax at long last. Before the bus set off I managed to wave through the gap in the seat at a baby that I thought was looking at me. As it turned out it was actually looking at the nipple it was feeding from…. The journey to Quito was only due to be 5 ½ hours so we settled into our seats and made a quick prayer that the rest of our time in Ecuador would go more smoothly than the first two hours had.
Accommodation Verdict – El Viajero, Cali. 25000 COP per person for an 8 bed dorm – In terms of the standard amenities the hostel looked decent enough, including a free breakfast and a swimming pool we didn’t get to swim in due to arriving at night. The dorm room we were in was too small for 8 beds. We both got a bad vibe whilst in the hostel but that was mainly owing to events in our room and I guess that is just the luck of the draw rather than the hostel being like that permanently. I can’t make any comment on Cali as a city as we were there less than 24 hours and we only experienced the hostel and a nearby pizza place.
Metropol Hotel, Ipiales. 25000 COP for double room with en-suite – If following the overland border route through Ipiales, then stay here, it is an absolute no-brainer. It is located just over the road from the bus station.
Route Verdict – Aside from a difficult cashier and a feeding baby, we didn’t encounter any problems at all on this overland route. The financial saving compared with flying, as well as the opportunity to visit the astounding Santuario de Las Lajas,make this a great alternative if time is on your side. Even if flying was the same price I would still choose this option as you get to see a lot more. The prices quoted are accurate as of February 2015.