Border Crossing: Tulcan (Ecuador)/Ipiales (Colombia) – July 2019
After a lot of researching online to find a cheap flight from Quito to Colombia, it seemed rather difficult. We tried every city, every airline, every time of day but with nothing under US$400 per person, we eventually gave up. When you travel on a budget, sometimes you can’t always do things the easy way. We’d have to take a long bus ride and do the border crossing by land instead.
However, travelling across a border by bus is not always that simple, especially if you are organising it on your own. Thankfully, if you Google the crossing between Ecuador and Colombia, you’ll find plenty of articles from people who’ve done it before. That makes planning the crossing a lot easier.
From what we’d read on blogs written in 2018 and the start of 2019, the crossing from Ecuador to Colombia didn’t seem so bad. But with the recent wave of Venezuelan refugees (over 2 million of them) trying to cross into Ecuador and other South American countries, we were a little worried about what it would be like at the border. Some people mentioned long queues, some said it wasn’t so bad. We’d just have to get out there and see for ourselves.
We crossed the border at Rumichaca, which is the most common border crossing point and the only one that is relatively safe. I wouldn’t recommend trying anywhere else at this time.
We went from Quito to Pasto on Tuesday, July the 17th of 2019. This is, however, not the only way to do it.
Quito – Ipiales
This is the shortest bus ride you can take. It takes about 5 and a half hours plus the time at the border crossing. You can do this in one day but we would not recommend this option. Ipiales is a border town and as with many border towns, it is more expensive and not the safest place to stay. You are best to head further north.
Quito – Pasto
This journey takes 8 – 9 hours, plus the time at the border crossing. You can do this in a day, just leave very early from Quito. We took a 5.45 am bus and arrived in Pasto around 5 pm. If I did it again, I would not choose this option either. Why?
Well, we’d read that Pasto was safer than Ipiales. But when we made our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Popayan the next morning, our camera bag was snatched by a man on a motorbike while we were crossing the road.
If this is the option you choose, do not stay near the bus station and catch a taxi both ways between your hotel and the station. I would personally suggest continuing to Popayan. Popayan has a much nicer feel to it and is a very nice city that is well worth exploring. We spent three nights thereafter Pasto.
Quito – Popayan
This is a long ride but it’s probably the best option. It takes between 16-17 hours plus the time at the crossing, so it’s going to be a very long day! I would suggest leaving even earlier than we did in Quito (3 or 4 am) if you choose this option. Travelling at night between Pasto and Popayan is currently not recommended due to safety concerns. Also, the scenery along the way is incredible, so why miss out on it?!
Quito – Cali
This route only makes sense if you are very short on time because it’s a very, very long ride! The journey will take you around 22 hours, plus the time at the border crossing.
The road to Cali is the same as the one to Popayan, so I would again suggest avoiding travelling at night. However, we met people who chose to do it at night and had no issues at all. I would probably still err on the side of caution and do that stretch by day. That would mean doing the Quito to Tulcan leg overnight, to arrive in Tulcan early in the morning. That means you will also get to enjoy the incredible scenery along the way.
So how does the border crossing work?
There are a few steps to getting from Quito on into Colombia.
1- Bus ride from Quito to Tulcan
From the Quito Centro or Mariscal area, you will need to catch a taxi or an Uber to the Terminal Terrestre de Carcelén which is in the north of Quito. If you are staying in the south of Quito, you can also take a bus from the southern terminal but this will add an extra hour to your journey. I would not recommend it. You can also take the public bus if you like but I would not recommend that option either. Taxis are not that expensive in Quito.
We paid $10 for our taxi ride to the terminal. We organised it with our hotel (La Rosario, which was a great choice and close to the old town). Uber is another good option if you don’t want to, or can’t, organise a taxi through your hotel.
Once at the Terminal Terrestre de Carcelén, head to the ticket booths and check for the nearest bus to Tulcan. A few companies run buses there and they leave every 30 minutes or so. Everyone will try to sell you a ticket. Just make sure you get it from someone in a booth, rather than some random guy in the terminal. I’m not sure if there is a huge difference between bus companies but we just took the next bus available and it was fine.
As always in Ecuador, the toilets onboard were locked and you were not allowed to use them (I never understood why the onboard toilets in Ecuador seem to be for decoration purposes only!).
Our tickets with the bus company Pullman Carchi cost $7 each.
2- Getting to the Rumichaca border crossing from Tulcan station
Getting to the border from Tulcan station was very easy. Many taxis are waiting for buses to arrive. We were told to pay $3.50 for the ride and the driver did not even try to sell it to us for more. He offered to take us there for $3.50 and we accepted. Ten minutes later we were dropped off at the border. The driver even pointed out to us where to go at the border.
3- Getting out of Ecuador
Once we arrived at the Ecuadorian immigration office, things became a lot less smooth. There were lots of people everywhere, Red Cross tents, vaccination booths and many people just sitting around, some with young babies. It was obvious that there were a lot of refugees. We walked to the office door and were shown by the guard where to queue. It was a rather long queue and one which for the first 25 minutes did not move at all. We were starting to get a little worried. Eventually, it moved a little, then a little more.
There appeared to be two queues, one for Venezuelan nationals only and one for Ecuadorians, Colombians and other foreigners. After just over an hour, we finally made it to the front of the queue.
As we were about to get in, the security guard told us that we were not allowed to enter the office with our luggage. This was a pain. For obvious reasons, we did not want to leave our luggage unattended at a border crossing. So we had to enter one by one.
The guards only allowed about 20 people inside the office at a given time. Once inside, you joined another queue which was for both entry into and exit from Ecuador. This probably explains why it takes a while. Simon went in first and I looked after the luggage. The security guard was pretty understanding; he didn’t complain and we were not the only ones doing this.
When Simon returned, we swapped places. Thankfully the security guard let me go to the front of the queue which was nice of him. So after 5 minutes, I was out and it was goodbye to Ecuador.
The total time for this was 1h 15 mins. We arrived at the Ecuadorian side of the border just before 11 am.
4 – Crossing the Rumichaca bridge to Colombia
This was easy, a two-minute walk and you are in Colombia! No queuing, just smooth sailing.
5- Entering Colombia
Once you have your exit stamp from Ecuador you now need to get an entry stamp for Colombia. On the Colombian side, it was a similar situation in terms of refugees. There were many of them there and some more Red Cross tents. If I have to be honest, all of this was pretty confronting to see, especially the young children crying, not understanding what was going on.
When we arrived at the immigration office on the Colombian side, it was even more confusing. There appeared to be three queues but there were no signs to indicate which queue to join. Someone told us to join the queue at the far right. We naively believed him and spent 15 minutes there, only to be told by the security guard that we were in the wrong queue! It was very frustrating.
The queue in the middle was apparently for non-Colombians and non-Venezuelans but as there were no signs, many people were in the wrong queue. They really could do with some better organisation.
So after spending another 20 minutes queuing, we were let into the main building and then had to queue some more inside. On the Colombian side, it is totally fine to enter with all your luggage. Another 20 minutes later, we had our entry stamp and we were good to go.
The total time for the Colombian side was 55 mins, so slightly better than Ecuador.
6- Getting to Ipiales Station
As you exit the border, you have two options to get to Ipiales bus station, a taxi or the cheaper collectivos. We decided to take a taxi, which cost us $4. However, we heard some people getting it for $3.50 but to be honest we were too tired to argue over $0.50. The ride was smooth and only took another 10 minutes.
You may have noticed I’m talking in US dollars. That’s because the taxis and collectivo at the border accepted the US dollars on the Colombian side. Because we didn’t have any Pesos by that stage and were not keen on exchanging money with some random guy at the border, we decided to wait till we got to an ATM at the bus station.
There is only one ATM at Ipiales station. It charges about US$4 in fees but we figured that if we changed money at the border we would still lose money. Plus, with our ING debit card, we get reimbursed for any international ATM fees. Before this, we didn’t know what the Colombian Pesos looked like, so accepting money from a stranger at the border seemed like a bad idea.
You can, however, find multiple people willing to exchange money as you queue to get in. If you opt to do this, you need to know the exchange rate and how much you should be getting so that you don’t get ripped off too badly. Only exchange what you’ll need for your onward journey.
Side trip: If you arrive in Ipilaes with plenty of time, you can make a short side trip to the Las Lajas Sanctuary, a stunning church near Ipiales. You can drop your bags at the “Guardia de Equipaje” in the bus terminal. There are signs that point to it. The storage costs COP 2,000. Do not leave any of your valuables there.
Many collectivos go to Las Lajas for COP 2,000 or you can catch another taxi for $6,000. It’s about an hour side trip. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at Ipiales station, I had developed a small migraine, so we hopped on the next bus to Pasto instead.
7- Onwards to wherever in Colombia
From Ipiales you can buy a ticket to many onward destinations in Colombia. Depending on the time you arrive, you might want to make a quick judgement call.
We caught a bus to Pasto, another 3-hour bus ride with Trans Ipiales for the cost of COP 10,000 each.
The ride with Trans Ipiales to Popayan was COP 40,000 per person at the time.
If you are going onwards to Cali, there are different companies running trips there for around COP 45,000-50,000. As I said earlier, this will be a long ride.
Alternatives to doing the border crossing on your own
There is a direct VIP Shuttle Service from Quito to Ipiales if you think this might be too much for you. However, they don’t run every day and they cost a lot more. You may have to book it a week or so in advance as they have limited space. The current cost is US$88 each, as opposed to the $14.50 each that we paid in total to Ipiales. We considered it but decided against it. In the end, it was easy enough to cross the border on our own, once we were well informed about the process.
If you do choose to book this option though you can do it on the Andes Transit website here. https://andestransit.com
I’d like to stress that this was the situation at the border as of July 2019. The situation at this particular border changes a lot from day to day and week to week because of the refugee crisis.
The times given are just an indication of what it was like for us. It could change. You could be in and out in less than an hour, or it could take you more than three. You’ll have to count on there being some unknowns and allow extra time, just in case.
As with most border crossings, be very careful with your belongings. Avoid taking photos and flashing your expensive camera or phone. You will notice that there aren’t many photos on this post. Turns out I got my camera stolen anyway but it had nothing to do with the crossing.
I am a big worrier and I was a little stressed about the crossing. In hindsight, it was a lot smoother than I expected, you just have to be patient and open to dealing with any complications that come up. I hope this post will help you cross the border smoothly.
Feel free to comment below and ask any questions you may have. Feel free to comment about your own experiences at the border crossing. It’s always good to hear other people opinions and experiences.
Have a safe crossing chicos!