Getting from Medellin to the Ecuadorian border is a bit of a mission and required a couple of solid days of bus travel. We had looked into internal flights but they are prohibitively expensive so buses it was! We started our journey with a long 10 hour day time bus ride from Medellin to Cali, which is situated in a massive valley full of sugar cane. We had been told not to take night buses through southern Colombia, but it was confusing as the first class bus only goes overnight so perhaps the situation has improved now. Still we decided to hedge our bets and be on the safe side anyway so we arrived at the station at 6.30am for a bus we had been told could only buy tickets on the day to then find it was all sold out. The guy from the day before who had told us this just shrugged his shoulders and directed us to another company. Grr we could have had more sleep! I'm glad we did decide to take the buses during the day as the scenery is spectacular. Lots of coffee, banana and sugar cane plantations along the roads and through the steep valleys. The bus wound its way up and down between the series of valleys and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the roads, just as we have been through most of Central America, Honduras excluded (their roads were awful!). We did see lots of army solders at various stations along the road giving us a reminder that the country is still fighting a war on narco-trafficking.
As usual we had lots of street food vendors coming through the bus but no one selling watermelon which was what I was really craving. although one guy did have some home made blackberry ice-cream which was delicious!
Cali is a pretty uninspiring city, famous for its salsa clubs and was gearing itself up for the world games which it is hosting next month. We passed a lot of cyclists with their support teams in tow on our way into the city; crazy fools obviously in training on the extremely steep terrain, presumably getting acclimatised. There is a lot of wealth in some areas of the city but a clear disparity in other areas. We spent the day wandering around and checked out a couple of the shopping malls. There are a few Gothic and Art Deco style old buildings which are pretty cool but aside from that Cali lacks the tourist infrastructure of Medellin and Cartegena. We had some overzealous air conditioning on our bus and Ty didn't have enough clothes on so he caught a cold which meant he was feeling pretty average so we didn't go out to experience the salsa nightlife that Cali has a reputation for but Ecuador was playing Colombia in the football so we got to listen to the Colombian cheers echoing around the streets.
The hostel in Cali was known as a bit of a motorcyclist hostel due to the owner being quite vocal in internet forums and we met 4 guys who had recently lost the bike vs truck battle and had plenty of war wounds to show for themselves. Scary!
Heading down to the local supermarket to pick up some breakfast supplies I was excited to find feijoas, one of my favourite fruits from home, that I haven't eaten in almost 4 years. I didn't realise they are actually from South America so it was a really nice surprise. We also found some of the giant passionfruit which Jesus (from Medellin) had told us about. Mmmm delicious!
At one point we came across a massive crash between a couple of passenger vans and a truck sobering us and leaving us hoping that our driver took heed from the sight. Because it didn't look like anyone was going to be moving any time soon everyone started to get off the bus, only for our driver to decide on a 3 point turn and attempt to get down a dirt road almost leaving a couple of people behind. Despite getting told off by the transport police half way along the side road we made it to the other side only to realise that we actually were missing one person. oops! The ticket conductor ran back to the accident site but reappeared by himself and off we went without the missing person. Another key lesson: don't expect transport to wait for you! We made friends on the bus with a lovely American girl called Asal who we ended up sharing a taxi with to our hostel in Pasto. Pasto is bigger than we thought it would be but again doesn't have a lot of tourist infrastructure and is only really used as a stopping point for those heading north or south across the border. The centre of town has a nice big plaza that the guy who owned the 'Koala Inn' Hostel said we were safe to walk around at night but the rest of the city is wiser to avoid in the evening. We were all stoked to find that the hostel had some of the most amazing hot water pressure we have had in a while and all hogged the showers making the most of it and probably using more than our fair share of water!
We got on an early morning bus to Ipiales and when we arrived left our bags at the left luggage facility at the station in order to head to a nearby town to visit Sanctuario Las Lajas, a really cool Gothic style church which is perched on the edge of a valley over a river. It looks so out of place in the South American countryside and like it has been transplanted from Europe! The church was built on the site as a result of a deaf-mute girl claiming to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary at the site in 1754. As a result the church has become a popular pilgrimage site. We have pretty much lost track of all days and dates on this trip and didn't realise were visiting on a Sunday, although it was quite cool seeing all the locals and pilgrims attending mass and exploring the site.
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Perched on the edge of the hill
We caught a taxi with a couple of others back to Ipiales and the driver offered to take us all to the border so we grabbed our bags and off we went. We had no problem getting through immigration and Ty got talking to a lovely Colombian couple behind us who warned us about the money exchangers at the border. It was a story we had come across before but I didnt realise it is actually possible to jimmy a calculator as when we tried to change our Colombian peso's for dollars we knew we should have been getting about $100 usd but when the guy showed me the calculation it seemed legit but the answer came out as $70. Don't think so mate! Unfortunately Ty's phone had died so we had no way of proving the calculation ourselves so we walked away with pesos in our pocket. Will have to try and find a casa de cambio somewhere else.
Next stop: Quito (Ecuador)