Updated: Apr 16
The Ecuadoran border wasn't too far away, so we headed for Ipiales, the last town in Colombia and the Cathedral at Las Lajas the next morning.
He was fascinated by the bike and thrilled to sit on it. Mama was shy and tried to hide behind the baby
Random Savant sighting
Tossing gear into the hotel and chilling out for little bit, we then grabbed a taxi for the short ride out of town. The gothic style Cathedral spans a river gorge and is quite the contrast. At the top of the long walkway down the mountain stood beautifully festooned llamas available for photos, cafés serving roasted guinea pig and endless shops selling religious souvenirs and candles amongst other plastic toys. It was crowded, being a Sunday afternoon, but despite the hordes of tourists and faithful it was an interesting spectacle.
There was a service going on in the main cathedral, while tourists and rappeling demonstrations went on outside.
Charlie and I went below the church into a smaller chapel, brightly illuminated by color-changing LED's while the priests sat in the confessional booths awaiting parishioners.
My favorite moment came when a daughter and son were helping their old mother down the stone castle stairway into the lower sanctuary. I was standing in the corner at the base of the steps when the old lady, being supported by the two, walked over to me and then slowly looked up to my smiling face. I'm not sure if she just didn't see me, or thought I was a statue, but her tan face turned cream colored and she didn't speak for a moment, then yelled out something of a surprise. Both her offspring burst out laughing, as did I, but she was a bit shaken.
After a bit of exploration and observation, the long steep walkway back to the taxi area took its toll in the thin mountain air.
San Juan of the Open Hand, patron saint of all the folks who simply walk up to you with an upturned palm for money
The Ecuadorian border at Rumichaca lay a scant 12 km from Ipiales the next morning, and I was excited to get out of Colombia and into Ecuador. Colombia is a beautiful country, rich in scenery and people, that requires a lot of time to explore!
Arriving at the border about 9, and nervous about the hassles from past experiences, checking the bike out required simply handing the TIP paper through a small glass window that took about 30 seconds, except for the return trip to my bike to grab a decal and slap on the DIAN window.
Checking out of immigration would take substantially longer. We parked the bikes between the buildings, immediately approached by 2 money changers who pointed out the buildings. A line that wrapped entirely around the Immigration building had quickly formed. We completely circled the building trying to find the exit stamp window, but came to the realization that we would have to stand in the line for everyone. I asked two security guards and an official and was told it was the only line. The moneychangers had agreed to watch our bikes, pointing to the GPS and gloves indicating to take them with us.
This line went about 100 yards encircling the building
As we stood with them, a fixer showed up, his breath reeking of alcohol already at 8:30 in the morning. He kept aggressively trying to indicate something, but having had enough of fixers we ignored him and stood in the line. The fixer kept showing 10,000 pesos to me and indicating to follow him. He seemed to be indicating that he could get us in the back door but I just didn't trust him. Charlie wanted no part of it. After moving only three or 4 feet in 15 minutes, I saw the fixer take two backpackers to the exit gate, and magically the security guard opened up the exit gate for them under the watchful eye of an immigration official.
I told Charlie we needed to pay the 10,000 COP to skip the line or we would be there the entire day. Charlie was uncomfortable but I told him I was going to do it. He decided to as well, the money was exchanged, and after a few minutes the gate was surreptitiously opened and we were inside. It was obviously an unofficial situation, as the security guards and official were in collusion and seemed a little nervous. There was a short line and a much longer line, all leading to a bank of windows served by one worker. It was insane that this one man had to deal with the hundreds already in line. I saw the previous two backpackers in the short line so I headed there. One of the security guards pointed Charlie to the long line. After a couple of minutes I decided to stand with Charlie, which we did but the line was not moving. The one official was trying to handle about 75 people and it simply wasn't happening. He was prioritizing the short line and the long line was not moving.
I finally had enough and went back to the short line, which was for the handicapped, aged, children, and pregnant women. Though I fit several of those categories, no one else in the line did. Charlie decided to stay in the long line but I went through in about 10 minutes with no problems or questions asked. It was obvious it was a Gringo Express Lane. It was also hard to believe that they didn't have one specific window for those just exiting the country. This situation was made worse by the fact that there was only one worker despite the 10 windows that were available. I ended up waiting outside by the bikes for over an hour for Charlie to get through, but changed the last of my Colombian pesos into USD and tipped the money changer for standing by the bikes.
Crossing over into Ecuador was exciting, the second country in South America. Per past experience and expecting the worst, the Ecuadorian border guards were shockingly friendly and indicated where to park. Walking into immigration led to a short line, friendly, English speaking attendants, and after only a couple of questions a stamped passport with a smile at no cost was back in my hands. Even better, no copies or BS. Outside to find the Aduana was only slightly more difficult as the door wasn't clearly marked, but as I wandered around a man in a small circular glass booth tapped on the window and waved for me to come inside. It was a tiny booth, but he was very friendly and trying to speak a little English. He looked at my passport and opened it to the stamped pages, saying "history?"
After all the BS at other borders and bad attitudes, I began trying to decipher the stamps to tell him the history of the countries I had come through, when he laughed and began tapping the image beneath the stamps. The background image of the paper was of Mount Rushmore and he began saying "Washington, Lincoln…" and wanted me to tell him the other two, Roosevelt and Jefferson. In Spanish he told me that they learned American history and English in school and counted from 1 to 10 with a few other words in English. I started laughing because the last thing I was expecting was a friendly person working in an Aduana. The process could not have been simpler or are more enjoyable and it was a great welcome to Ecuador. A simple, modern, efficient and friendly entry process, completely free of bullshit or fees!
Nicest border agent I've ever met
Charlie had had a similar experience somewhere else in the Aduana though I never saw him until we were both finished.
By the bikes again, a beat up KLR 650 pulled in carrying a rider from Turkey, Erol, who'd been traveling for 4 years. He was happy to hear Charlie knew another Turkish rider he knew and we exchanged information before heading on. I kept my paperwork handy expecting a checkpoint but was never stopped.
Erol from Turkey
The highway from the border was absolutely great, as well-made as any US highway and traveling through beautiful mountain landscapes. The terrain was a patchwork quilt of farmland on the mountainsides, the small villages and towns feeling very clean. Ecuador had a different feeling, no sense of concern or danger of any kind. Those feelings are tangible when you're on the road and Carlos Canuck felt it as well. Pulling over for a lunch break we had a great meal for about four dollars US. The gas stations were government regulated with regular gasoline being priced at $1.48, and premium at about $2.16.
It was apparent the US had some influence upon Ecuador, aside from the obvious currency, as the road signs and other indications showed. The town of Ibarra was the place to spend the night and we found a decent hotel downtown.