Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Colombia - Ecuador border crossing

We were really excited about our first border crossing by land. The Colombia - Ecuador border is basically a bridge that spans a river, with Colombia on one side and Ecuador on the order. La Frontera or Rumichacha, as its called is a bustling place. In fact, earlier in the day when we took a taxi to a nearby church in Colombia, the taxi driver dropped us off at the frontera instead of the church, past the Colombian immigration! I had a few stress filled moments there while we took the taxi back into Colombia!

Anyway, people are free to cross the border and though there is a lot of police activity, the onus is on you to get stamped in and out. So we first went to the Colombian immigration building, stood in a long line, got our exit stamp and then walked across the bridge.

The border bridge, a beehive of activity:

Entering Ecuadorian immigration, the building on the other side of the road:

A jubilant Swami after getting our Ecuador visa.

Ecuador - no visa needed for Indian citizens

Citizens of any nationality do not need a visa to enter Ecuador for tourism or business up to 90 days. Knowing this, we confidently walked across the border, even though I wasn't expecting it to be a smooth crossing. We were not disappointed. Our Indian passports caused quite a bit of confusion amongst the immigration officials. It was waved around, pointed at and conferred upon for about 45 minutes. Clearly, they have never seen one before.

I was getting a little tense, but when the border officer told me that I need a tourist visa for entering, I wasn't about to give up so easily. I mustered up my most confident and firm tone and told him that  I spoke to my embassy and was told we do not need a visa. This led to more conferencing - at one point, ALL the immigration officials left their counters to go to a back room to talk about our case. I actually found this a bit comical. I should have been stressed, but I had come prepared with the Indian embassy's phone number and was going to call them if it came to that. Swami was waiting as his officer decided to whatever was being done to my passport, so he was trying to use the 3G on our Kindle to get some solid proof about no-visa-policy.

At one point, our passport was literally bandied about between two immigration officers - they simply didn't want to take on the hassle. They caught me looking at them doing this and gave me what I can only call a sheepish grin. I grinned back at them and felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders then. I just knew that they wouldn't leave us in the lurch at that moment. In fact, my immigration guy (that's what I'll call him) was a really patient fellow. He made so many phone calls to find out what he should do. He told me a couple of times that I need a visa, but I never backed down. Eventually he must have gotten the green signal, so he stamped us immediately without asking a single question.

Its a pity that word of the new legislation about visa free travel did not reach these guys at all. I can only hope that we have paved the way for the next Indian traveler who comes this way. Don't disappoint me friends! (Ecuador and Colombia are amazing places to travel, by the way).

We were thrilled to bits to when we got stamped in. Giggling like idiots, we took pictures with our passports outside the building. Getting into Otovalo from there was a piece of cake. 

Crossing the Colombia - Ecuador border

  • From the lovely colonial city of Popayan, get to the town of Ipiales. The bus journey takes 6-8 hours. Stay at Hotel Metropol, which is right across from the bus terminal.
  • Ask the restaurant in Hotel Metropol if they have "lenteja" - if you're lucky, you can get rice, lentil stew and juice and salad (for the vegetarians).
  • Stay at the Hotel Metropol for COP25000 per night.
  • Next morning, get breakfast in one of the many restaurants nearby and take a collectivo to the border - La Frontera or Rumichaca. COP1500.
  • Cross the border - get exit stamp in Colombia without fail. Get stamped into Ecuador.
  • Get a collectivo from the Ecuadorian side to the city of Tulcan. [Tulcan has a Govinda's, if you're so inclined].
  • From Tulcan, buses to Otavalo cost $4 pp. There are many of them. Snacks and water are readily available everywhere.
  • Buses to Otavalo will drop you off on the Panamericana, from there a 10 minute walk will get you to the center of the town.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cali - giving the big city a quick glance

We originally planned to spend christmas in Cali and attend the salsa festival there. However, as I mentioned in the previous post, we ended up spending it in Salento. Cali was also supposed to host a famous salsa festival and we were excited to attend it. However, we underestimated how big a city Cali is. We traveled from Salento to Cali with Ben and ended up staying in together in the same hostel. Predictably, the size of Cali put us off and we ended up giving it a wide berth by leaving next day for Popayan. So nothing much to report from Cali, except for the really tasty veggie lunch we had at a Hare Krishna restaurant.

From Cali, we made the decision to quickly depart to Popayan and then head to the border from there. Ecuador was beckoning!

Popayan - Colombia's white city

Popayan is a lovely colonial city in the Southern part of Colombia. Its about 8 hours from the Ecuador border and was a lovely stopover for us.

Popayan's central plaza at night is superbly lit and is a pleasure to walk around in:

The city is mostly painted in white, but what it lacks in color, it makes up for in its liveliness. People are buzzing about in the evening here:

Our room overlooking the plaza at hostel Park Life, highly recommended:

Potato empanadas and aji de mani (peanut-chili sauce). I ate so many and am so craving it now:

One of my other favorite finds, bocadillo is a sweet made with guava paste and sugar (or panela). Lightly dusted with sugar, this was the best boacadillo I had, in a shop in the town of Silva.

We took a day trip to Silva, famous for its tuesday market. But we went on a Wednesday and wouldnt recommend this day trip. I would have much rather spent my time eating potato empanadas and aji de mani!

Popayan is a great place to stop for a day or two if you're heading to and from Ecuador. Its very relaxing, has great food, hostels and a lovely central plaza. Its only 4 hours from Cali by bus and buses are really frequent. 

We were struggling to find directions from the bus stop to the hostel when a friendly cop actually insisted on walking with us all the way to the hostel. It was a good 15 minute walk and he was so cool about it. Colombia's people are just lovely. :)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Salento - Lush and Lovely in Colombia's coffee zone

I had heard so much about Colombia's beautiful coffee zone - zona cafetera that I admit its one of those things about Colombia that made me want to travel to this country. The zona cafetera is the area south of Medellin, where the eye is met with various shades of lush green as far as the I can see. The region is incredibly mountainous and studded with small towns and villages and a few big cities as well.

The travel grapevine in all our previous stops led us to the town of Salento, a little village thats quite hard to find on google maps. Its not the most straight forward to get to as well, but once you do make the effort, you'll want to stay, just as we did. We had originally planned this to be a 2 to 3 day trip and Christmas in Cali (wanted to have a reservation for Christmas), but ended up staying here until Christmas due to all the awesome people we met.

We had checked into the lovely hostel La Serrana, which is basically a farm with a hostel building in it. Its a good 15 minute walk on a country road from the center of the town to this hostel, which we'd often end up doing in groups, sharing travel stories along the way. Imagine our surprise and joy when we ran into Neal (the traveler we met in San Gil, Colombia and had fun times with. Check out his neat Colombia travel video here). And then we met other travelers from so many places here - Alaska, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, Tennessee just to name a few.

At some point I noticed that the hostel was hosting a Christmas dinner. They had the menu and a sign up sheet listed at the front desk. We'd look at it every time and think 'how cool', but never really made the jump to stay back for Christmas. I guess not celebrating Christmas at home makes us think differently than  others. Over the next couple of days, I saw every single person and couple add their name to the list. They were all staying on for Christmas! Now the pang set in for us. "Ah, Swami! shouldn't we stay here too? Sounds like so much fun. And look at that menu!! Even for a vegetarian, it was an impressive menu. We'll adjust a couple of days down south", I'd tell Swami. Extending our stay was difficult as they were totally booked out, but we moved into a dorm and stayed back for Christmas - thanks to a lot of effort from the staff and owner of the hostel.

Here is a snapshot of our stay in Salento. If you are ever in Colombia, visit Salento.

Near the central plaza a road filled with artisan shops will lead to a series of stairs (about 300 steps). If you climb up there, you'll be treated to fantastic views and a swing set. Get on the swing set to gaze down at the city:

The panorama view from the top of the hill:

Another view from the hostel:

Goofing around the bonfire lit by Ben (he did it nearly every day he was staying there - he is the guy who is making the smiley in the photo).

 On our hike to the sacha mama eco tour:

Pedro leads us to his house on the hike to Sacha Mama (the name of his property):

This cow totally digged the attention. She stood their enjoying everyone's ministrations.

Eating lunch with Pedro and his lovely family at Sacha Mama. A pasta lunch never tasted this good. 

Enjoying a Kenyan dinner at the hostel. One of the volunteers was from Kenya, so she cooked a Kenyan meal for dinner night once.

A superb coffee shop in Salento - Jesus Martin.

Christmas dinner with fellow travelers. Hunkering down to celebrate amidst peregrinations.

And last but not the least, the incredibly beautiful Valle De Cocora. (I'll have a seperate post about this and Sacha Mama later).