February 17, 2020
You wouldn't believe how many questions we get every day about crossing the Colombia Ecuador border, either getting from Bogota to Quito, or Quito to Cali, or Ipiales to Quito, etc. Lots!
Why? Is it that hard? Well, whatever the case, it obviously raises lots of anxiety and questions, so let's just deal with it head-on.
You see, when it comes to bus travel, borders are often a big bottleneck. Inside a country, buses and trains operate under the same regulations, there are less legal and administrative hassles, currencies don't need to be converted, etc.
But when a bus company — and you as a traveler — come to what is really an invisible line between one country and another, all kinds of obstacles and conditions are set upon you. So, transport providers just prefer not to bother with it, and you are more or less on your own.
Then, you may get preoccupied with thoughts about the safety of the Colombia-Ecuador Border, given in particular Colombia's history of conflicts. I assure you the concerns are exaggerated and out of touch with reality for over 99% of travelers. The border crossings recommended here are all officially staffed and internationally recognized, and the conflicts you heard about are old history and outside of travel thoroughfares.
However, I will explain here several crossings and options that I am sure will dispel any concerns you may have, and make you feel equipped with the power of choice.
(Really, it's not a big deal! Thousands of folks cross between Colombia and Ecuador every day.)
Keep in mind the options I discuss below don't deal with visa or passport requirements, but the resource I suggest as a good place to start with those questions is VisaHQ.
A few international bus companies provide all-inclusive services across the border between the larger cities of Bogota, Cali, and Quito. However, they suffer from far too many complaints and abrupt cancellations that we can no longer recommend them.
There is another bus service from Bogota that has higher standards, but it only departs once per week on Mondays; plus passengers have to commit going all the way to Lima, Peru, without any allowances for getting off the bus anywhere in Ecuador. If your destination is Lima, Peru, then this 2.5-day journey by bus from Bogotá is a good deal for under $200 with meals included. You can book a Bogota to Lima bus ticket by clicking here and then select any Monday in the calendar to make your reservation.
The best option by far is to click here to reserve a seat on an international charter shuttle (a tourist service minibus) from Ipiales, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador. It departs only on Thursday afternoons, but the service is ten times better than what a large bus company offers, you share the shuttle with just a few other travelers, you get personal assistance navigating through the crazy immigration procedures, and to top it off you are brought directly into the city near the hostels where you're likely to stay rather than the bus terminal.
If getting to Ipiales from Bogota or Cali is your challenge, we offer combo packages that put together a seat on a high-end domestic bus that will get you within a few steps walk to the shuttle in Ipiales. Departures for the combo packages are on Wednesdays so that you can arrive to Ipiales by Thursday in time to transfer to the shuttle.
Whether it's the bus or minibus, they wait for you to go through customs and get all your paperwork done saying goodbye to one country and hello to the other.
Admittedly, the key benefit of international buses or shuttles is psychological. You get the peace of mind knowing that the same company and same driver are going to be with you and your luggage on both sides of the border. They are also going to stay with you as you go through the immigration procedures at the border checkpoints, and deliver you all the way to your international destination. The majority of land-based tourists choose these options, but the downsides are price and inaccessibility to smaller and interesting towns, like Popayan and Armenia, or even Medellin on the Colombia side. International buses don't stop at these places.
Important: Due to COVID-19 restrictions, most bus companies offering services to the border are not operative. Check our dedicated tool to find out about restorted routes in both Colombia and Ecuador, or if you need a shuttle to perfom a specific trip not offered by these handful set of options, check here.
This is the most common option for locals, but a growing number of tourists who prefer authentic experiences and saving money are latching on to it as well.
Key caveats: You will not get an advance ticket with this option. You will only get a ticket directly at the bus station on the day you travel. The tickets are also not international, and therefore cannot be used for proof of onward travel.
From wherever you are within Colombia, just search andestransit.com for routes taking you to Ipiales, or from within Ecuador to Tulcán.
These two towns represent the end of the road for national buses. Getting to the actual border crossing, known as the Rumichaca bridge, is a well-organized process involving either taxis or shared micros that are easily accessible.
From Tulcán, Ecuador to the Rumichaca bridge is five kilometers, and you can either take a taxi from the bus station for USD $5, or any of the micro shuttles in front of Parque Ayora in downtown Tulcán for 75 cents. The micros are obviously the better bargain, and they leave when the shuttle is full of people, so you might have to wait about 15 minutes max. The micros are also allowed to let you off on the Colombian side of the bridge, but you will need to walk back across the bridge (about two blocks distance) to the Ecuadorian side to get your exit stamp, then walk again across the bridge the Colombian side to stamp your way into Colombia. Then, again you can find taxis right there in front of the Colombian immigration office (DIAN) to drive you to the Ipiales bus terminal for similar prices you paid from Tulcán.
The distance from the bridge to Ipiales is only one kilometer, so unless you are on a tight schedule, I encourage you to see the amazing landmark shrine of Las Lajas that only requires a couple of hours of your time to get a good visit and return back to Ipiales. Check out more details on Las Lajas here.
Note: Ask the Colombian taxi driver first what he will charge to take you the very short distance into Ipiales. It should be no more than USD $5! If they want to charge more than that, just wait; in just a few minutes there will be another taxi to bargain with.
From Ipiales to the Rumichaca bridge: Dude: just read the above paragraph in reverse.
On the Colombian side of the Rumichaca bridge you need to go to the brown DIAN building next to the large parking lot, which is for immigration and customs processing. The line outside may be long, but the offices are open 24 hours, and inside there are several windows where you get your passport stamped. Then you're free to just walk across the little bridge to Ecuador.
On the Ecuadorian side, it's the same thing, just a bit more low-tech and time-consuming. The customs and immigration office is white and is hard to miss (on your left if you're leaving Ecuador, on your right left if you're leaving Colombia). There will also probably be a long line outside to make it clear.
Very important: Do not skip going through the process at BOTH offices. You may notice several people and cars bypassing the offices and going directly across the bridge from one country to the other. Do not be misled, these are citizens of either country who have special licenses and treaty agreements that allow them to visit the other country without immigration processing, and does not extend to non-citizens of these countries.
Look at the aerial view picture here to demonstrate how closely knit everything is. You can see how small the bridge is and you can see the migration offices are easy to locate on either side of the bridge.
The Ecuadorian migration office is also open 24 hours, after many years of being open only during the day!
CLOSURES OF THE BORDER: There are special occasions when the border is closed, which include days of national elections; occasions when there are protests blocking the highway such that transport cannot get through; and in a declaration of emergency when either country decides a weather-related event is severe enough or when some kind of humanitarian crisis is overwhelming the system (like the recent Venezuelan diaspora that has now gotten more under control).
In both Colombia and Ecuador, customs and immigration are separate "departments" requiring separate checks and documents. However, they are right next to each other and very well directed, and you may not even notice the separation if they are operating very smoothly that day. So, you may or may not be pointed around to different windows, depending on the process-of-the-day, but it's quite similar to going through different security stations at an airport.
Tulcán/Ipiales isn't your only option, but with these others that I will cover below, you need to be much more alert to your personal surroundings and be the type who doesn't mind risking a bit more danger. You may be more scrutinized by border control officials, but in exchange, you will take the road less traveled and gain some really cool adventure. So, to thine own self be true!
La Punta (Ecuador)/San Miguel (Colombia) is a bridge that crosses the Río San Miguel in the jungle. It might be to your liking if you are planning on visiting the famous Cuyabeno or Yasuní nature preserves in the Ecuadorean rainforest, and want the shortest path to getting to Colombia (or to those areas from Colombia).
Coming from Ecuador, you first have to stop in the city of Lago Agrio at the police station, as that's where you get your passport stamped and a slip of paper called a "T3". You'll find the police station on Avenida Quito, the main street of town. Next, go to downtown (el centro) near the Parque Central and ask for the bus to La Punta or el puente de la frontera. Only go during the day, as you'll have more companions doing the same thing. At night it is clearly dangerous. It's over an hour from Lago Agrio to La Punta, so this is why you want to make sure and get your passport stamped in Lago Agrio; otherwise, you have to go all the way back. At the La Punta bridge, you'll show the border guard your documents and walk over the bridge on foot. (Only certain licensed vehicles are allowed to cross the bridge).
On the Colombian side of the bridge, there are no buses, only several pickup trucks waiting there to take you either into San Miguel or a little farther to La Hormiga. Go all the way to La Hormiga! It is the slightly nicer town and you can pre-order advance bus tickets from La Hormiga to the regional city of Mocoa, and then separately you can order advance reservations from Mocoa to Bogotá.
San Lorenzo (Ecuador) / Monte Alto-Tumaco (Colombia), after a brief time of being closed down due to regional conflict, is easily the most complicated but most adventurous crossing on the Pacific coast side of the two countries. The majority of the trip is all by sea and river, but there are portions where you'll use makeshift land transport.
From Ecuador, even though you'll be departing on a boat from San Lorenzo, you will first need to get your passport exit stamped a few hours away in either Esmeraldas (on the coast) or Ibarra (in the mountains). Then make your way from the bus station in either of those two cities to San Lorenzo, in the northwest corner of the country.
Once in San Lorenzo, go to the town pier where you will find boats who are going to Palmareal (one departs in the morning and another in the afternoon). Palmareal is an island, the northern tip of which is the actual border. There you transfer into another rustic boat and go over the river delta separating the two countries and beach on the Colombian side at a road that goes inland to the town of Monte Alto.
At Monte Alto, you board pickup trucks going to Puerto Palmas, and from Puerto Palmas you take taxis or more pickup trucks to get you the rest of the distance to Tumaco.
Whew! Are you tired yet? This is a full-day trip, so I highly recommend getting the morning departure from San Lorenzo so you can get into Tumaco before sunset. The whole trip will cost you in the neighborhood of USD $20, no more.
2019 Update: We had previously advised that the San Lorenzo crossing was to be avoided due to a dissident group from the Colombia Peace Accord that was causing havoc in that remote area. This concern has since been resolved by Colombian and Ecuadorean militaries and thus is no longer as much a concern to us. Still, if you are considering the San Lorenzo crossing, go in a group and check with local hotels and police for their latest advice before you go.
That's right, I'm a bus guy. I promote land travel because it's more ecological and economical, among other reasons. I think airlines and airports are possessed by Satan.
Still, even I fly on some occasions. And getting across an international border is one reason I sympathize with the attractions to planes over buses. If you keep the distances short, like from Cali, Colombia, to Quito, Ecuador, the price of the international flight can be a very competitive bargain compared to the price of a higher-end bus trip. Plus, you can deal with all the immigration/emigration paperwork within the confines of the two airports. You also won't be in the air for long (maybe one hour), and they will probably still serve you a sandwich and coffee.
If you want to save even more money by making national flights, and just crossing the actual border by taxi, you can fly to Ipiales, Colombia served by SATENA airlines, and from Tulcán, Ecuador, you can fly the rest of the way to Quito aboard TAME airlines.
I'm not crazy at all. The physical reality of the main border crossing between Colombia and Ecuador is a bridge called Rumichaca, and on either side of it are developed businesses and government institutions, and places to eat. It's not a no-man's land in the slightest bit, so don't fear. For someone who doesn't feel safe in a cab or wants to truly unplug from the traffic congestion and stress and take their damn time, I totally recommend just walkin' it!
On one side of the bridge, you can take your time getting the immigration stamp without having to be on a schedule, go through the gate and walk on the foot passenger lane across the bridge to the other side where you go into the other country's immigration office, get your passport stamped again, and then stop and rest for a soda.
Walking the rest of the way to Ipiales or to Tulcán isn't unheard of, especially if you are accustomed to hiking. Ipiales is only a four-kilometer walk, and in fact, the bridge is nothing more than a neighborhood of Ipiales.
Tulcán is a slightly farther walk at seven kilometers and is more of a country walk that increasingly gets populated as you come into town. If you get tired, remember there are lots of taxis and minivans passing by all the time, so getting a ride is easy as long as they've got a spot.
Oh, and did you know? Tulcán has the most amazing cemetery that people come from all over the world to see, so why miss it?! It was lovingly adopted by a local gardener and artist with a particular passion for topiary, the craft of shaping bushes and hedges into works of art. His children still carry on the tradition, maintaining the many works of natural art spread across the cemetery. For more information, click here to get hours and more background on this wonderful local treasure.
The point of walking is not being pushed by someone else's agenda than your own. You have the maximum freedom to choose your own pace of when and how fast you want to get through the paperwork.
Kali Kucera is President of AndesTransit and also known as "the bus guy" for his adventures across South America by bus. He is co-author of "South America Borders" and "365 Days of South American Festivals."
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