Ciudad de las nubes verdes: the city of the green clouds
Our first experience and welcome in Colombia, as exciting as it sounds to visit another country, even though this is just for a tiny place (for now). Nevertheless, after coming here, whenever we plan a proper trip in Colombia it will save us lots of time and days in not having to come all this way far south in the country to get here and instead spare it for the so many beautiful cities and villages elsewhere through the country. From our base in Quito to Ipiales is 250 kilometres, which might sound not too much but believe me, it will be a lengthily journey, through 3 mountain passes and then both border immigration controls.
Getting this far south in Colombia, to the very last village before Ecuador (or first village after Ecuador depending how you look at it) might sound odd when you think on first instance, keeping you wondering why. However, once you do some research and get to see the major landmark that is the Santuario de las Lajas, you will immediately realise and recall it. It’s highly likely you’ve seen it in pictures, movies, travel brochures or somewhere, especially if you are a heavy traveller as we are. If you are on a trip through Colombia, then it is almost guaranteed you have this place in your tour, although will only make sense if you are continuing farther south into Ecuador, otherwise yes, it is really in the middle of nowhere. In the other hand, if you are touring Ecuador, it can be more realistic to do such a tour in a day trip from Quito; as it was in our experience.
Bear in mind that reaching Ipiales and visiting Las Lajas will take you an entire day, most of it will be sitting on a bus. In the plus side, the journey along the Panamericana is part of the excitement. Passing through countless volcanoes, mountain passes and lush forests; if you are lucky enough to have a clear day it is simply impressive to see. The beautiful and quiet countryside at the foothills of the Andes, with Ipiales itself at a height above sea level of 2900 meters, one of the highest cities in the world.
For more information about Ipiales check this Wikipedia site, and this for the Sanctuary of las Lajas. Colombia’s currency is the Peso (COP). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do
- Sanctuario de las Lajas Built inside the canyon on a bridge over the Guáitara River between 1916 to 1949 in Gothic revival style. It was built on the site where popular belief claims the Virgin Mary appeared to a woman and her deaf-mute daughter in 1754. From Ipiales downtown get a small bus (colectivo) from the bus terminal just 2 blocks east of the Cathedral for COP 2200. It’s only 15 minutes journey.
- Ipiales Not much here to see however a decent small border town with plenty of good restaurant options serving traditional Colombian food. The Cathedral is located in the Parque Central square, with all the streets leading here in the usual orthogonal grid.
- Tulcan Not in Colombia but across the border, the last town of Ecuador. Same as for Ipiales, a decent border town with a good sight: its monumental garden cemetery full of elaborately trimmed cypress bushes in the form of pre-Columbian figures.
How to get there from Quito
There is unfortunately no direct bus connection from Quito to Ipiales, however, there are long distance buses from Quito to farther beyond cities in Colombia, not stopping in Ipiales (which it’s silly I know). Anyway, your only option is to take any of the very frequent buses from the north bus station in Quito, Carcelen, to Tulcan, the last city in northern Ecuador before the border. There is a bunch of companies doing this route, all of which taking approximately the same time for the same cost of $6.20 single way. A great website showing you all the departures and prices is Andeantransit, but you cannot pre-book your tickets, in Ecuador it is only possible at the main bus terminals or the bus companies offices.
Once in Tulcan bus station, if you want to find the cheapest option to the border, then you’ll need to go to the central square from where to get on a minivan for $0.75. In the other hand, and saving you lots of time, get instead a taxi from the bus station to the border (frontera), it costs $3.50. It’s a matter of 10 minutes maximum. Once in the border, you walk through both exit immigration from Ecuador, across the bridge and into the Colombian immigration. As a walking person this is much faster than on a car or people on international buses. But please, be careful on the border crossing processes, it’s a bit confusing to be honest. If coming from the Ecuadorian side, make sure the taxi drops you out in the Ecuadorian side (and not across the bridge which it is already Colombian land!). For South Americans, this is not a problem as they use their Cedula card to cross the border, no need for them to use a passport hence why they can be dropped off at the other side already.
Get your exit stamp from Ecuador in your passport, then walk through the bridge and into the Colombian side. Get the entry stamp, and you are free to continue. Again, 2 options here. The cheapest, grab a minivan (colectivo) for COP1700 to the bus terminal of Ipiales, and from there for the last leg of the trip right to Las Lajas Sanctuary, another colectivo. These depart once full, but are small enough for a few minutes’ wait. And as the second, and best option to be honest when heading to Las Lajas, is getting a taxi from the border directly there. They do have a fixed fare, COP18000.
Getting back into Quito is the very same but on the opposite order. In this case, you can easily get on a colectivo from Las Lajas to Ipiales bus station (COP2500 per person) where you can take a taxi or colectivo to the border (COP2000 per person). Here, extremely important once again, MAKE SURE you get off the taxi in the Colombian side, before crossing the bridge. You MUST HAVE an exit stamp from Colombia before arriving to Ecuadorian land, or you can get into trouble as we almost did. The taxi went all the way across the border and we were asked out in a random check, without exit stamp from Colombia, so the Ecuadorian agents were suspicious, we were checked of any of our possessions and even told we could get a fine for being “illegally” in Ecuador. We told and explained what happened, and gladly let go to sort the process.
From the Ecuadorian border to Tulcan, get a taxi once again for $3.50. It’s the fastest and safest way without hesitation; and then onto the first bus back to Quito. Buses run 24 hours a day, however the return journey takes forever. We were back in Quito’s Carcelen bus terminal after 1.00am following day.
As we came here on a day return trip from Quito I cannot comment anything on hotels or places to stay overnight. While Ipiales is a bigger village and has some hotels, this is anyway an off the beaten path place mostly visited by anyone travelling on a tour from Colombia towards Ecuador or vice-versa. While northern Ecuador/Southern Colombia are border areas known to be unsafe, both Ipiales the last city in Colombia or Tulcan, the last city in Ecuador are perfectly safe to stay overnight, but not advisable to go out in the night. If staying neared to the border the be very cautious. I would strongly recommend you against this.
A good way to have some research is as usual by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. And in case you would like to know more about where we stayed in Quito, you can find a very descriptive travel guide here.