How NOT To Cross Three Countries By Bus

One lost phone, one lost pair of thongs, a scam at the border, four buses, one flight and absolutely no headphones later I finally made it to Cartagena, Colombia and let me tell you I was so, SO happy to be there!

Let me rewind to three days earlier when I met up with my friend J in Mancora to begin our epic journey. J and I had met in La Paz where he was working behind the bar at the Wild Rover Hostel. We’d kept in contact since then and when he told me his plans to head north to Colombia to meet some friends I quickly jumped on board. After months in southern South America I was itching for some hot weather and nice beaches. I’d heard nothing but good things about Colombia and wanted to get there ASAP. The thought of having a travel buddy was enticing and before I knew it we were making plans on how to make the 4,000-ish kilometre journey to the Caribbean coastline.

Early Thursday morning J met me at the Loki Mancora and between my hangover and his altitude sickness we sure were a sight for sore eyes. After a quick kip, I finally checked out of Loki and we bought our bus tickets to Guayaquil in Ecuador. The bus was leaving in 10 minutes so we just made it on time for the minivan to meet us in the street and take us to Tumbes on the border of Peru and Ecuador. The ride took about two hours and was uneventful. J and I caught up on all our travel adventures since we last saw each other and laughed at our hopelessness and crazy decision to travel all this way.

We reached Tumbes and the minivan dropped us on the main street. We were quickly hounded by taxi drivers offering us rides when two men came up to us saying that they had to drive us to the next bus station because the one in Tumbes was closed.I hadn’t heard about any bus stations closing or that we would need to be driven anywhere but the men were wearing shirts bearing the ‘Chifa’ bus logo and they had business cards and a fancy looking car. It felt a tiny bit suspicious, but they assured us that they would take us to the right spot. So far since travelling I’ve had no issues or fell victim to any scams. In general, most people I’ve met in South America have been genuine and actually want to help. So Team Dumb & Dumber (aka J and I) got in the car and crossed our fingers.

As we drove out of Tumbes and onto the main highway I started to feel a little uneasy. I had assumed it would be a short drive but as the minutes ticked on, it felt like we were being taken on a ride. The men assured us that this was the right way to go and that the border was very dangerous so they were being our security. I had heard stories that the border was in fact a bit dodgy so went along with their charade and J and I hoped that our positive attitudes would lead to a positive outcome.

Unfortunately we were wrong.

We reached the town on Ecuador side of the border, which even now I still don’t know what it was called. Driving right through the border signs, the men drove us to a small side street and into an empty car park. It was here that my warning bells were ringing off the rails. I clutched my backpack containing all my valuables and waited to see what their next move was. Another man came up to the car and we were told that he would walk us to the bus station but we had to pay them $60USD for being our security before getting out of the car. J and I stared at us in disbelief. That much money was about quadruple the price of our bus tickets to Guayaquil, which the man in the passenger seat still had. We tried to argue but our poor Spanish just wouldn’t get the message across. After a lot of finger pointing and shaking our heads, we decided to just hand over the money and go. Luckily J had $60USD in his wallet so we threw it at the drivers and grabbed our bags quickly. The drivers demanded more money but we walked out of the car park and prayed they wouldn’t follow us. The man who had met us in the car park caught up to us and led us through the busy market to a bus station. When we reached it, he went to leave but we asked for our bus tickets back. He kept saying ‘No se, no se’, as in he didn’t know and turned and walked quickly off.

Fuming, we dropped our bags at the bus station and wiped the sweat off our foreheads. It was about 35 degrees and we were both melting. I looked around the bus station and realised this wasn’t even the Chifa bus station and that the little Ecuadorian man had just taken us to the closet one he could find.

Feeling defeated and annoyed we sat in the small bus station and pondered on what to do. At this point we were sitting in in Ecuador illegally, with no stamp in our passport, no bus ticket, no money and no idea. Too hot to think we decided to get on the next bus leaving to Guayaquil from this bus station and hope for the best. It was leaving in ten minutes and in my awful Spanish I tried to ask the bus driver if the bus would stop at immigration so we could get a stamp. J was sitting on the bus waiting and our bags were stowed underneath but something felt wrong. After asking a couple of people I finally someone who understood me and said that we had to catch a taxi to the Frontera to get our stamps before getting on the bus.

Quickly pulling our bags off the bus we watched as the bus pulled out and wondered where to go to next. I only had Peruvian soles on me and had to change them over before we could go anywhere so leaving J to rest in the shade, I persisted in the heat to find a money exchange. Three banks later I was still unsuccessful. Finally after walking through a forest of market stalls, I reached what appeared to be the border of Ecuador that we had driven past earlier with the dodgy men. Asking around I finally found a man changing money and got some US dollars in my hand. I asked the man about getting our passports stamped and he confirmed what I’d been told before, go to the Frontera by taxi to immigration.

Feeling slightly better now that I had money and sort of idea what to do next I raced back to J and relayed the news to him. We pulled our bags on again and braced ourselves to emerge back into the heat to hail a taxi. The taxi ride was short and only cost us a small $3USD. Feeling better about our situation we waited in line at immigration and almost jumped for joy when they stamped us in! No more illegal backpacking in Ecuador!

Our moods turned brighter when we saw a bus pull up with a sign saying Guayaquil on it. We pounced on the bus driver and begged him to let us on. In our broken Spanglish we got the message across and he told us it would be $10 and to wait on the other side of the road until the rest of the passengers had been stamped through. Within twenty minutes we were on a bus to Guayaquil with stamps in our passports and money in the wallet. Team Dumb and Dumber were back on track!

After venting about the border incident we decided to just think positive and not think about what had happened for a few days until it would become a funny story. In retrospect we were super lucky, we still had all our belongings and were only $60USD and a bus ticket down – the situation could have been a lot more worse. Luckily J and I were both very easy-going people so once we’d had a little vent, we were just happy to finally be back on track with our journey.

The journey to Guayaquil was uneventful and we arrived into the Ecuadorian city at around 9pm. The bus station was the fanciest I’d seen since travelling. It was about four stories high and even late at night, it was buzzing with activity. There was even a Maccas in the food court! We booked a ticket to Quito which cost us all of $10 and left in 25 minutes. Good spirits were flying between us both despite our tiredness and we got some dinner before running to the bus.

We reached Quito early in the morning at 4:30am and delirious from lack of sleep we raced through the bus station and found a bus leaving in 10 minutes to the border of Ecuador and Colombia for a mere $7AUD! My shocked face said it all as we laughed about how our bad situation had done a total 360 turn, things were coming up Team Dumb and Dumber!

The bus was a local one which meant that it was a constant chaotic mess of loud noises, screaming children and crazy people coming on board trying to sell hand wash and pens. The six hour journey went slowly but together we managed to survive the ordeal. We reached the border at Tulcan and crossed without issue. Finally we were in Colombia!

One final 12 hour bus journey to go, we booked our ticket to Cali and grabbed some food for the next bus. A bit sick of sitting down, we decided to cheat a little and book a flight from Cali to Cartagena as it meant cutting out at least another 20 hours. With ten minutes to spare between buses we quickly booked seats on the next Viva Colombia flight before running to our final bus!

This bus ride was probably the worst. Leaving in the early afternoon we watched as the sky slowly turned darker and darker. The views however, were phenomenal! Huge mountains, deep valleys and windy roads made the long journey slightly easier. By this stage I’d had only about three hours sleep in total and was running pretty much on empty. The visions on a Colombian beach and a coconut cocktail was the only thing keeping me going!

We reached Cali around midnight and couldn’t be more happier to be off a bus. Our flight wasn’t until 10am so we had heaps of time to kill in between. The shuttle to the airport didn’t start running until 4:30am so we took advantage of the well set up bus station in Cali and settled in for a few hours. This bus station felt like the Holy Grail – there were SHOWERS! We both raced to the showers and washed away the past two days of travel. Feeling much fresher,we found some food and played cards until it was time to catch the airport shuttle.

Cali Airport was small and nondescript. Being 4:30am in the morning, not much was happening so we settled in on the hard concrete floor and tried to nap for a couple of hours. If you can picture two hopeless looking humans spread out in the middle of a food court in an airport, covered in sarongs and scarves then that was us. We looked ridiculous!

The hours ticked by slowly and I managed to finish my second book of the journey while J napped on the floor. Finally at around 8:30am we could check in and drop our backpacks off. Cartagena was so close I could almost feel the heat! We found breakfast and coffee and waited patiently until our flight was called. As we boarded our flight, I couldn’t believe we’d actually made it this far! This journey was definitely going to be a story for the ages.

The flight to Cartagena was super short (mainly because I fell asleep before take off) and once I opened my eyes, we were landing. Racing of the plane, J and I were ecstatic despite our tiredness. We were in Cartagena! We caught a cab to the Old Town and found our hostel, where we would be meeting J’s friends. I was stoked to be in Colombia, this country has been the one that every person I spoke to loved. I couldn’t wait to explore it!

I had no plans for the next part of my trip, only knowing that I wanted to squeeze as much of Colombia in as possible. Stay tuned to see how it turns out!

J. x

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