After three or four hours of questionable sleep we’re up at six to get to the bus station in Popayan. We’re dragging our asses and our brains aren’t firing on all cylinders and we repeatedly drop our bags and other possessions to the floor, almost certainly waking the rest of the hostel. A difficult-to-find taxi swings us down to the station and we’ve got about fifteen minutes to kill before the 7 a.m. bus to Ipiales, the border town with Ecuador.
Murphy and Drisdelle grab two seats side-by-side but I take my chances with a seat in the back, like a cool kid. Leaving the station it seems like the plan worked great – no one beside me – but after twenty or so minutes of driving we pull over and let more passengers in, and now the back bench seat is crammed. There’s a sketchy dude to my left side, the side of my cargo shorts that holds both my passport and wallet, and I’m trying not to nod off. Another dude is alternately singing or whistling to the salsa music blaring out of the speakers, occasionally yelling at the driver to turn it up. And oh shit – in our haste at the train station I forgot to replace my lost headphones. Going to be a long one.
It takes well over an hour to get out of Popayan because the bus driver keeps pulling over to allow snack vendors onto the bus. They work their way down the aisle yelling “Mango! Mango! Mango!” or whatever type of food they’re selling. If you make eye contact with them they immediately rush toward you, increasing the rate and pitch of the food’s name.
By the time we start making miles it’s almost nine, and at nine we pull over to a pig-themed BBQ joint called “Porky’s”. There are two choices for breakfast – beef ribs or pork ribs. Both are amazing, but we have to question the wisdom of including a heaping side plate of beans in the meals of a bus full of travelers immediately before they begin a long and bumpy ride through the Andes.
We load back onto the bus and a few travelers start disembarking in small towns and villages (in which the snack vendors are allowed back on as well). Once some space opens up the ride improves a lot, and the earplugs I pulled from my backpack during the stop at Porky’s help immensely. As we nod in and out of consciousness, our bellies full of ribs, we’re greeted with views of amazing ravines and canyons:
This scenery continues almost unabated for several hours until the mid-afternoon, when we reach Pasto and take a half-hour break at the bus station there. Most of the passengers unload and a new batch climb on, most notably a supercute girl and her mother – the mother sat at the front of the bus with their stuff while the girl sat next to me. After a few minutes on the road I asked her if she could speak English (not at all) so I ramped up my Spanish and we shot the shit in 100% Espanol for the next hour or so. She’s from Ipiales but lives in Pasto and (if I understood her correctly) she works as a graphic designer for the packaging of agricultural exports. Really sweet girl and very patient with my lousy communication skills, laughed and flashed me a great smile whenever I was totally stumped.
Mid-afternoon by this point so we figured we’d have plenty of time for a border crossing, especially because the Colombia-Ecuador crossing has a reputation for being a breeze. The bus drops us off in Ipiales, temperature has dropped dramatically, people have a more indigenous look to them. There’s this weird dude on the sidewalk watching us. He comes over and asks “Ropas?”. What? Is he asking if we need clothes. No we don’t need clothes. He looks us up and down with the “Yeah you do” eyes. Then, I’m pretty sure, he asks if we need a boyfriend. No! haha what?
We waved down a cab and asked what it would cost – 7 or 8 bucks – but he suggested we take a bus since it’s cheaper. Time was more important so I tried to explain that we didn’t care about a few bucks, let’s go. My new-found confidence in my Spanish abilities took a hit when he punched the gas and took off without us in the taxi. We wave down another cab and I watch my words a little more carefully. We jump in and jump out at the border ten minutes later.
At first we’re not sure it’s really the border. Where are the people running at us to “help”? Where are the beggars? Where are the stray dogs? Why are all of the buildings clearly labeled with signs like “Aduana” and “Migracion”? As we walk up to the Colombian check-out window there are clearly marked lines and multiple windows open. No one asks us for photocopies. Our minds are blown. We’re definitely not in Central America anymore. The immigration officials are polite and efficient and we’re finished with the Colombian side in a matter of minutes. Time to walk to Ecuador.
The Ecuadoran side is equally good, no one hassling us and no stray dogs to put the boots to. Inside the clearly-marked immigration office there’s a short line-up that no one is cutting ahead of and after a few minutes of waiting we’re up to a window where everything is simple, a small form to fill out about where we’re going. Stampy stampy and we’re done. So ridiculously easy. We walk out and easily find a bus heading to the border town of Tuclan. The in-bus entertainment was two little kids behind us making coyote impressions for 20 minutes – “Aooooooooo” – and we got in on that action a little bit too. “Aoooooooooo”.
We unload at the bus station in Tuclan and immediately some bus company employees are like “Quito? Quito?” “Si” “Cinco minutos! Cinco minutos!” Okay we’ll buy tickets! We’re rushing to the gate but it soon becomes apparent they were working a pressure sale, the bus doesn’t start loading for half an hour and once we’re on it takes another half hour before everyone’s ready to go. Some chick is in our seats with her stuff spread all over and she gets really crunchy about us wanting to sit there, when the driver tells her they’re ours she yells something along the lines of “Quiero esto!!” Alrighty then, we just sit wherever.
Beautiful scenery for the short time it’s light and then we’re entertained with a Jason Statham flick in which he kicks the shit out of James Franco, pretty badass. I was hoping to sleep but all that action got the juices going, was really hoping the second feature would be Rambo II. Unfortunately it was some piece of shit movie called Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent. The plot revolved around Captain Kirk and some Pirate of the Caribbean dancing with wolves all over Russia. The lead actor was no Harrison Ford (the real Jack Ryan) and although they tried to make him a Jason Bourne he wasn’t that either. What a piece of shit.
We keep going up up up into Quito – the place is ridiculously high, like 9000+ feet elevation – and the bus’ first stop is a station on the edge of town. Passengers assure us this isn’t where we want to be so we wait until the next one. The driver assures us we don’t want this one either. A few minutes later he pulls over and drops us off in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a highway running through the city. No hotels, no restaurants, no taxis. Not a bus station, just the side of the road. In the middle of the night. Okaaaay….
We run across a few lanes of traffic and flag down a cab. The guy is a total metal dude in a Cannibal Corpse tee, long hair, tatted up and playing Spanish-language versions of old rock hits. “Queremos un hotel poco bueno y poco economico” He drives us past a few that look okay without stopping until we check one he knows, but it’s full. We keep driving, passing drinkers and some people just hanging out on the street. I see what I think is a hooker and he catches me looking… “Ahhhhhhh! Transsexuaaal!!!” We all lose our shit laughing. We ask him if he knows Vibes Hostel, a place where two of Drisdelle’s Bogota buddies are crashing and he says he does, but then proceeds to drop us off in a total shithole that is neither Vibes nor a hostel. It’s a hotel with $12 a night single rooms, pretty greasy but we don’t care at this point. Totally beat from the entire day of riding the bus so we crash out in about five minutes.