At 7:10 AM, loaded with our big backpacks, we watched several sardine-packed trolleys go by before we decided to act like Ecuadorians and force our way on. Physically propelled off the bus at the stop for the bus terminal (Cumanda), we walked to the lower level and bought a $5.00 ticket for a bus to Tulcan. We believe the motto of this bus company was any warm-blooded creature pausing momentarily along the side of the road was a potential passenger and they must stop and honk/whistle at them. Needless to say, it was a very long ride. They also loved to pass slow moving trucks on a blind curve .We showed you a picture in an earlier story, now we captured a video.
Nearly 7 hours later we caught a $3 taxi ride from Tulcan to the “frontera” – well worth it considering it was pouring rain. Ecuadorian immigration would have been a breeze, if not for the computers going south when we were only 2 people away from the desk. Wait a minute … we had to wait an hour and a half at a South American border because the computer system went down? When did Bill Gates get here?
The rain let up and we finally crossed the bridge, passed the parking lot of white taxis, and breezed through Colombian “Migration”. Heading back to the taxis, we learned they’re more like collectivos: they’ll wait until they cram 4 passengers (a tight 3 in the back and one in the front) for the $1 per person fare to the Ipiales bus station. Cynthia, encouraged by the heavy sighs from the 3rd passenger (a hill-woman), finally yelled an impatient “Vamos! Vamos!” at the driver who’d been outside for 5 minutes trying to solicit one last fare.
From Ipiales bus station, we caught the next 5000 pesos pp, two hour bus ride to Pasto, Colombia – a decent town to break up the trip. We’ll remember Pasto for 1) Their trash truck that plays a tune like the ice cream man (they’re probably just as exited when they hear it, “The garbage man! The garbage man!”), and 2) Chorizo On A Stick – with the most tasteless bread patty on the planet that somehow compliments the sausage.
Cali, an industrial town further north, looked like a real pit hole, so we were glad we’d chosen to stay in Pasto. We stayed at a very nice hostel, “The Koala Inn” a short taxi ride to the center; the owner was very friendly and helpful. The next day, we booked the 10:30 AM Cooptranar bus to our first destination, Popayan. The bus was actually big, comfortable, had a bathroom and was cheaper than any others since the woman had told us 23 mil (23,000 pesos or $9) the day before and we caught her on it when she then quoted 25 mil the next day. Everything is negotiable here in South America
We were pleasantly surprised by the roads here in Colombia; the highway to Popayan is smooth and divided, there are call boxes along the shoulder, the median is nicely manicured and there are comprehensible road signs. They pay for it though. The Columbian peso symbol is the same as the U.S. dollar sign so a car toll for $5800 is not uncommon. We’ll never complain about New Jersey Turnpike tolls again. (OK, $5800 is really only a couple U.S. dollars, but it was still a jarring sight.)
Popayan is a very nice colonial city in southern Colombia, and we probably would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for 1) The entire central square being blocked off due to construction, and 2) Us both catching bad chest colds which the chokingly visible pollution was, shall we say, less than helpful. At least we stayed at a very clean and friendly Hosteltrail Guesthouse – even though a room facing a lighted intersection is, in any South American city, the noisiest room (when the light turns green every car, truck and motorcycle must beep their horn). We did discover a carnival in town – which looked like any other small town type carnival in the U.S. – except it was spoiled by the rock hard corn on a stick that Warren decided to try and then immediately discarded. With all the corn they grow here, you’d think they’d know how to grill it. Sheesh!
Melissa, our friend in Medellin, booked us a nice hotel in Armenia, in the middle of the coffee region. We were anxious to get out of the smog and noise of the city, so, in the middle of racking fits of coughing, we packed up and hiked to the bus station. We arrived at the station in Armenia and a guy with an ID badge around his neck, trained to spot the confused looking backpackers, came over to us and showed us to the local bus to Pueblo Taupo. For about 50 cents each, we were dropped at the door of Hosteria Mi Monaco. The hotel was beautiful, set in the country with a plethora of birds (from hummingbirds to turkeys), a pool, ping pong table, pool table, restaurant, etc. Although it was twice what we’d budgeted a night, it was the perfect place to recover from our colds.
The next day we got a taxi and went to the Ruenca Coffee plantation for a tour. It cost 13,000, but was one of the most comprehensive tours we have been on. Our guide, Jenyfer, spoke Spanish slowly and repeated things slowly and clearly so that we’d understand. It lasted over 2 hours and they showed us both traditional and modern methods of processing coffee, an informational trail that was very interesting, and introduced us to the wonderful taste of their coffee. We even got to harvest some beans. On the way back, our driver stopped at a fruit stand and selected for us a “piña oro” – gold pineapple – the area is known for them, they are small and deliciously sweet.
We’d been having a bit of bad luck and were beginning to feel like a rain cloud had been following us. Literally. As we walked the 2KM to Pueblo Taupo, we barely made it before the skies opened up. We watched a down pour (the likes of which we’d never seen before) flood the single street with several inches of rain in less than an hour. We waited out what we could, only to feel its fury again the morning of our departure. After standing for twenty minutes on the roadside with no shelter, barely able to see which collectivo we should flag down through the drops, we finally made it to the Armenian bus terminal and off to Medellin, on the comfortable 8 AM Flota Occidental bus, to visit Melissa and Juan. You can check out more pictures in our gallery.