I finally experienced long bus travel in South America – from Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. It had its highs and lows, and is not my favorite way of traveling by any means, but given the cost efficiency and frequency of bus options it will continue to be a means of transport for me. Hopefully though future trips will be a little more like the buses everyone raves about with smooth rides and luxury accommodations.
It started out nice enough. Jasmin and I got to the Terminal del Sur in Medellin about an hour early for the 2:30 bus. Then we found out that bus was full, and we had to get on the 5:30 one. Well shit. After a little wandering we settled into the waiting room around 2:25 to get comfortable for our three hour wait. We could see the 2:30 bus outside getting ready to go; I turned to Jasmin and said, “I keep holding out hope that they’ll have two empty seats and someone will come get us and tell us to get on the bus.” I kid you not, two minutes later that exact thing happened. What luck! The bus had two seats and the driver saw us waiting, so he checked our tickets and told us to just get on. Phew! A few minutes later we were on our way to Ipiales.
Ipiales, Colombia is on the border with Ecuador, which is a 20 hour bus ride from Medellin. The ride wasn’t as bad as it sounds really: the scenery alone is reason enough to travel by bus, it was beautiful; they showed movies (in Spanish, but I got what was going on); we stopped quickly for dinner/a bathroom break; the temperature was ok as long as you were prepared for it, it got a little cold overnight; and the seats reclined enough for a solid 11 hours of sleep (thanks to Melatonin and ear plugs). There was an unfortunate stretch in the middle of the night when we stopped in Popayan and the lights were on for a while, and then the road get incredibly bumpy, but I managed to sleep through most of it.
Around 11 am we arrived in Ipiales. We joined forces with three other travelers to get across the border. First we took a shared bus to immigration for our exit stamp. Then we walked down the road into Tulcan, Ecuador. As if taking a taxi to get into Colombia wasn’t strange enough, now I have literally walked out of one country and into a new one. Within minutes we said bye to Colombia and were at immigration getting our entry stamps for Ecuador.
We decided to change our money here with one of the very legitimate cambio vendors (sense the sarcasm). Ecuador uses US currency, except that their coins are a mixture of US coins and Ecuadorian versions of US coins. After being away from US dollars for 7 weeks it was strange to see them again, especially in a border town in Ecuador. Being the only American, it was my duty to make sure the bills we were given were real. They were, and after we haggled an exchange rate we took a 75 cent shared ride to the bus terminal to get on another bus to Quito.
It’s 5 hours from Tulcan to Quito, and it cost $5. I did not mistype that – it actually cost $5 to go 5 hours. The general rule of thumb with bus travel in Ecuador is $1 per 1 hour. We were all happy at our new-found wealthiness in Ecuador. Of course there is a reason for this; the buses left a lot to be desired, and they frequently stopped for basically an entire market to come on selling a variety of snacks and drinks. Still though, it wouldn’t have been too bad if it wasn’t for the traffic.
All we were told was that we had been diverted from the main highway into Quito and it would take an extra hour. That hour passed slowly with bumper to bumper traffic barely moving, and then when we thought we were finally almost there we were diverted again, making a U-turn to find a new way into the city. You can imagine everyone’s annoyance at this point. But then the driver turned on the radio for everyone to hear: there had been a 5.1 magnitude earthquake about an hour outside of Quito. 2 people had died in a mine and others in were critical condition.
We felt awful. Now we were concerned about the state of the city, if there would be aftershocks, had any new information on the injured been released. Suddenly we realized that the entire city was in a bad state and our prolonged bus ride was just a minor side issue.
We arrived in Quito around 8:30 at night in the South Terminal; coming from the north, we had driven around the entire city to enter at the south, the only place roads were open to get in. Starving and exhausted after 30 hours of travel, we took a cab to the first hostel listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook and luckily got a room. The receptionist said they were still expecting aftershocks but those never came. (Later addition: They did in fact come the next day, but nothing too major. After being in Quito everything was okay again, it was just the unfortunate news from the mines). They recommended a place for a quick dinner, where we gladly scarfed down a delicious calzone and a beer. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep that night.
My first bus experience was honestly not as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t a walk in the park either. I am looking into not leaving Ecuador by land but it will come down to timing and price. Honestly this portion of my trip is still pretty up in the air. I just know that at some point next week I’ll be on buses again in Peru and Bolivia.
But for now, I have made it to Ecuador! After the great experiences I had in Colombia and Brazil, I am curious to see if South America continues to deliver in this next country.