Oh, the rush of sitting in a bus stuck on a dark mountain road, being pelted by a torrent of rain, when suddenly part of the mountain comes crashing down, mud sliding beneath the idle bus, rocks and boulders bouncing around you like beach balls. The sound alone of the mountainside sliding down in the darkness is enough to make start wondering what will you do to escape being pushed over the edge of the cliff by the force of the moving earth or being buried alive. I and some 30 others was a sitting duck on this road trip to the border town of Ipiales, Colombia, and the mountain was shooting at us. When it rains this heavily, walls do tumble and fall. I’ve seen the aftermath of mudslides and hillsides giving away. In Colombia, the land is scarred with such after effects. I just never imagined I’d ever witness such a horrific force of nature, let alone be standing in its path. Before family and friends get to worrying, we escaped harm, with a truck ahead of us taking the brunt of of nature’s beating. But what a night it was.
I left Cali, Colombia, Friday evening. I was excited to see Quito, Ecuador, my destination on this leg of my journey. I’ve been to the Northern Hemisphere. I’ve been in the Southern Hemisphere. How cool would it be to stand at the Equator, the exact middle of Earth?
The bus left late – nothing unusual there – and it began to rain when we left Cali. Nothing unusual there, either. It is rainy season in Colombia, and it has been raining quite a bit. Before I arrived in February, I saw news reports of floods, of houses being washed away or falling off hillsides because of landslides. It seemed no part of the country was immune from the torrential rains. Not even the Tatacoa Desert near Neiva, which was unusually green in some parts because it got heavy amounts of rain.
So I came to Colombia during the rainy season, but I knew on this journey I would hit bad weather somewhere.
The road from Popayan to Pasto twists as it climbs and snakes even more at higher elevations between Pasto and Ipiales. I’m not sure which stretch of road we were on when we hit stalled traffic, but I overheard the bus driver tell an inquisitive passenger that this stretch of road scares him. He then shared a story about boulders the size of buses have rolled off the mountain and that landslides were fairly common. He didn’t have to remind anybody of that; road signs did that, but there was evidence of earlier rock falls.
I woke up when I felt the bus come to a complete stop. I was seated in the first row with a clear view out the large windshield. There was a truck in front of us, it’s orange warning lights flashing in the dark. Ahead of it, more vehicles, all standing still, their engines off. The only sound I heard was the rain pelting the bus and the thunder that followed lightning. It was eerie, so surreal, so scary for anyone out here alone.
The bus driver put a plastic shopping bag on his head, retried a flashlight and head out into the rain. He disappeared into the darkness as he headed up ahead to investigate what was the hold up. He returned, soaked, and told the passenger who asked that rocks, mostly small ones but a couple of large ones, were blocking the road. He said some truck drivers were trying to remove them. He added that there was no emergency work crews or police in these parts at this hour. It was shortly after 3 a.m. Luckily we still had communication, as the driver got on his cell phone to report the situation. And so we waited.
Then came that sound. It was a sound of something cracking. And before anyone could react to ask what it was, we knew what it was. Watery mud slid under the bus. And rocks fell, bouncing off the road, some breaking into pieces, others rolling between us and the truck ahead. The bus driver turned on the engine and a woman on the bus seated behind me freaked out. Those who were sleeping through this pause in the trip, awoke wondering aloud what was happening. The driver said we had to get out of this zone. But we couldn’t move. Cars and trucks stranded in both directions. The driver started to honk the horn, as if to send a signal that it was no longer safe to wait. “Vamonos!” he let out. “Let’s go!”
Then, as if by some miracle, I saw the headlights of an oncoming truck. Traffic in the opposite direction began to flow. The truck drivers were successful in opening the road ahead, if only partially. When it was our turn to go, the bus had to squeeze by some pretty hefty boulders partially blocking the road, and drive over rocks. We spent a good 10 to 20 miles performing this maneuver, sometimes coming close to the edge of the road and the mountainside or cliff, to get around the fallen rocks. Didn’t get much sleep on the bus that night.
When we reached Ipiales, sleepless, tired passengers emerged. A man approached and tried to sell me breakfast as I got my backpack. I declined. I had survived the trip on water and Oreo (with double stuff, of course) cookies. I needed a bathroom. I needed a bath.
I made my way to the bathroom – 600 pesos a woman at the door demanded – and I splash water on my face and felt like crap. I needed more sleep. But I had to push on. From Ipiales, I would need to take a minivan – they call them colectivos – to Rumichaca, the Colombi-Ecuador border post. About a 10 minute drive. Once I cleared customs on both sides of the border, another colectivo to the center of Tulcan, a border town in Ecuador. From there, I’d have to find the next bus out to Quito. Simple, right?
On both sides of the border you are accosted by dozens of men holding stacks of dollars – the money exchangers – aggressively asking if you want to exchange your Colombian pesos for U.S. dollars. If you don’t already know this, in Ecuador the national currency is the U.S. dollar. Facing a serious currency and financial crisis, Ecuador dumped its currency more than 10 years ago – the sucre – and adopted the dollar as its official currency.
So these money exchangers literally surround you, and of course you need to exchange money. Supposedly, you get a better rate in Colombia than in Ecuador. Some merchants on the Ecuador side of the border- including the colectivos – will accept Colombian pesos, but their preference is for the U.S. dollar. Others say you can keep your pesos, thank you.
For those thinking about crossing the Colombia-Ecuador border, let me say this loudly and clearly: EVERY PERSON EXCHANGING MONEY ON THE BORDER IS OUT TO CHEAT YOU. THERE IS NOT A SAINT AMONG THEM. That’s how they make their living. They don’t charge an exchange fee, so how else do you think they turn a profit?
These men are more often than not successful in taking your money, with some fast finger work on a calculator. They are like magicians. So here I go again with the caps: BRING YOUR OWN CALCULATOR TO THE BORDER AND USE IT! Your calculator will produce a more favorable return on your exchange than their calculator. Trust me on this.
The guy I chose to convert my pesos into dollars pulled out his calculator and told me the rate he was offering. It was 1,990 pesos = 1 dollar – which to me sounded like a very good rate. So I said okay. But when he input the amount of money I wanted to exchange divided by the 1,990 rate, his calculator showed $325, the amount in dollars I would be getting for my pesos. Since I had read about these kinds of trickery at the border (thank you Google), waited until he did his computing before I produced my own calculator. I would beat him at his own game: He gives me what sounds like an excellent rate, does the math on his calculator, then shows it to me. If I were to show him I had a calculator before he started his shenanigans, he would likely offer a lower rate or maybe just walk away to steal from some other sucker.
So I reached into my pocket and pulled out my iPod Touch, which has a calculator. After I did the math on my calculator, the amount came out almost $100 higher. The man, as his two partners in crime talked nonsense as a diversion and distraction tactic – “hey, where you from?” “that’s a really cool shirt” “You’re gonna love Ecuador, you should check out…” – was clearly disappointed that I had a calculator and did my own math. He was busted. He gave me the higher amount I had come up with plus an extra dollar because I owed him a dollar in the exchange and I did not have change. So in the end, he ended up the loser – by a dollar – on the deal. No sweat, he said, and moved on to rip off someone else.
At the border I met some other foreign travelers and told them what happened. They had all exchanged money, too. Concerned, they asked me to do their exchange on my calculator. Every single one of them had been cheated out of anywhere from $10 to hundreds of dollars. What could they do? They were already on the Ecuador side of the border. You have to be smart about your money, and you might think a calculator doesn’t lie, well in the hands of crooks and thieves it does.
I made my way on foot across the bridge that spans the border between Colombia and Ecuador and went directly to customs. I got in line but it was not moving, and growing longer instead. The customs office doors were also locked, though there were customs agents inside. Soon word came that the computer system had crashed and they had been working for at least two hours to fix it. Then as hundreds of people waited patiently in line, a stampede toward a nearby copy center was set off by a customs agent who announced the system was still down and to move ahead with the processing we’d have to provide a copy of our passport. People dashed off to the copy center and started a line there. But patience waned when customs again created confusion by telling people inside the office only those who were seated would be attended, so everybody should take a seat and they would be called by row in the order they were seated. Some people at the end of the line managed to snag seats in front. Not fair, a woman screamed. Others openly protested, screaming at the customs agent who threatened to have then tossed back across the border.
After some more impatient pushing and shoving that erupted outside, misinformation by Ecuador customs agents, rushing about and forming other lines to make requested copies of my passport, I was officially allowed into Ecuador 5 hours later, a process that would normally take minutes.
One bright spot: on the van to the Tulcan bus station, where there are buses to Quito, a man who looked to be at least 80 years old and could barely walk without his cane, serenaded us on the bus with his guitar and a beautiful folk song. He had a raspy voice, and coughed a bit between the lyrics, but the music was soothing – a pleasant way to enter Ecuador after the customs debacle. By the way, when you’re hanging around a border crossing for any length of time you meet the most interesting people. I spent most of my time there with a trio of travelers – a guy from Bolivia, his French girlfriend and their Argentine friend. They were traveling across South America, broke – no money – and working odd jobs here and there to keep traveling. They joked they only had 80 cents among them and that would likely only get them to the next town. I gave them some Oreo cookies. They told me lots of funny stories about their travels. They were penniless, but happy.
On the bus to Quito I tried to get some sleep but the bus made frequent local stops and at every stop vendors entered trying to sell everything from food to pirated movies, some more aggressive with their sales pitch than others. One woman placed a bag of marshmallows on my lap as I was seeking music on my iPod. She said I didn’t have to buy, that I could at least have a look.
And so went to journey from Cali to Quito. But I must say during daylight, the landscape to Quito is very scenic, with breathtaking mountains, deep canyons and rushing rapids. Then, a break through the clouds – the Andes!
Quito, you may be cold and wet and dreary and way up in the clouds, much like Bogota, but you are all panoramic splendor and natural wonder. And now I am at the center of the world, glad to be here and ready to explore.