Colombia – the road to Popayan

Popayan is located in Cauca, considered one of the most dangerous departments in Colombia as of 2011

So we are done with Ecuador, two brilliant months. Loads to do and see. Excluding the Amazon, it’s not as untouched as parts of Peru or Bolivia but well worth the trip. There seems to be a steady stream of foreign money coming into Ecuador, especially from ex-pat Americans. At present it’s still nice and cheap, the food’s  great (still moaning about the bland food down in Argentina and Brazil) and everybody is very friendly. Next it’s Colombia.

We’ve been told to forget the horror stories, now is the time to travel Colombia. Only two years ago it was the murder capital of the world. Now, we are promised, the roads (and bars and beaches) are open to gringos. Advice is to steer clear of the unrest in the south west and unless you have deep pockets the Pacific beaches will be out of reach. Our plan is to head across the border overland, hopefully making the trip from Quito in Ecuador to Tulcan, the border town, across into Ipiales in Colombia and up to Popayan in a day. There are direct buses to Bogota taking around 35 hours, but they are expensive and departures are erratic, you usually end up sitting around waiting for a phone call when they fill the bus.

Starting a 6:30am in Quito, we grab a local bus to the border. Taking buses in Ecuador is a breeze. It’s $1 an hour and there seems to be buses going everywhere every hour! From Tulcan we catch a cab in the pouring rain to the Colombian border. An exit stamp each in our passports and a short walk across no-man’s land (a bridge) to Ipiales and we receive our Colombian visas. Totally uneventful and a little disappointing. I was expecting some heavy security, a bag search or at least some menacing glances from guards. Nada.

Crossing the border into Colombia

We messed the next bit up a bit. I’d read others’ travel blogs and could not work out why so many people were staying in Ipiales before continuing their journey into central Colombia. Our guide book let us down a bit as well, it’s a digital version from about 2008. In Colombia things change fast.  When travelling in Colombia today the one thing that foreigners are told never to attempt is a night journey on the road from Pasto to Popayan. The road cuts through the most active guerrilla territory, attacks on military and police are frequent, and car bombs have been popping off this summer.  To top it off, the FARC leader was caught and assassinated here just a few days ago. Adding to the fun the road is popular with bandits, at night they hijack buses and cars and relieve people of their valuables.

This is the current travel advice on the region.

Popayan is located in Cauca, considered one of the most dangerous departments in Colombia as of 2011. In 2011 several car bombs have rocked central Popayan, with the authorities blaming local armed and mafia groups for the actions. Stay alert for information regarding drug traffickers, guerrillas and paramilitaries, as this city and its surroundings sees the presence of countless armed groups.

So, we’re on the bus from Pasto to Popayan around 7pm, we stop off at a small restaurant and have some great buffalo ribs and continue on our journey.  The bus was stopped by police a few hours later and we discover there is some bandit and/or guerrilla activity reported on the road ahead so we wait until there are four more vehicles and continue with a police escort. The locals seem to know what is going on, scramble to hide mobile phones and wallets in seat covers and other crevices around the bus. We arrived in Popayan around 11:30 all well. Next time we tell ourselves to do some better research in future, being on the road for almost a year now it’s easy to become a little complacent with security.

Popayan

Popayan was a nice enough city, locals are incredibly friendly; most buildings here are whitewashed colonial type stuff. There are police everywhere; round every corner we find riot vans and herds of military, the FARC leader’s body is still in town here so I guess they are a little tense.

Colombia guard

Only one night here and we book ourselves an overnight bus to Bogota. As it turns out we will only have around three weeks in Colombia, we are on boat to Panama on the 26th November. It’s a few days in Bogota, then up to the Caribbean coast, we’ve both been looking forward to a bit of heat and some beach!