Driving From Medellín to CuencaOctober 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Colombia | Ecuador | The Places We've Been
We haven’t had a long-haul like this one for quite some time. Actually maybe never. We’ve driven longer distances in one go, but time-wise this one takes the cake (at least until next month). Moving through Mexico and Central America, we’d gotten quite used to single-day trips or a single night in a hotel before a short drive the second day. While we generally really enjoy travel days, thirty-five hours over three days didn’t exactly project to be an experience that would be kind on our bodies or sleep schedules. In actuality, it ended up going about as smooth as we could have hoped for, and included what we both think is probably our most eventful and favorite driving day ever (see Day Two below).
We left Medellín at 4:15 on Friday morning with the hopeful goal of making it to Pasto, Colombia for the night. A couple residents of our building were in the lobby, just coming in after a night out. The next hour and a half was an altogether harrowing experience; total darkness, windy mountain roads, sleepy truck drivers, and spitting rain. I have seldom been so happy to see the first glow of daylight light up the sky. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. The beautiful, lush green hills of the Colombia highlands rose and fell outside our windows. We felt spoiled by the scenery. Fairly intent on making it all the way to Pasto, we stopped only for gas or when we were dangerously close to wetting our pants, having grabbed food for the day the previous evening at the grocery store. As is often the case, our pace alternated between zooming and excruciatingly slow. As the morning wore on we contemplated our chances of making it all the way to Pasto. Google Maps had calculated it was 13.5 hours from Medellín, though we know to expect drive times to be quite a bit higher. The city of Popayán was a possible backup option, but it was a full five hours closer than Pasto, and we sure didn’t want to have to tack five more hours onto a different day. With not much in between in terms of sizable towns to find a decent hotel in, we talked about setting a cutoff time of 2:00PM; if we reached Popayán any later we could call it a day. After some discussion though, we both balked at the thought of that, and figured we could always pitch a tent if darkness or tiredness struck before we got to Pasto. It was a moot point anyway, as we made it there before 2:00PM (although we did lose a bit of time in town while trying to find an ATM — our card had been declined at a gas station so we had to use the remaining cash we thought would see us out of Colombia). By late afternoon the peaks around us grew taller and steeper, and we drove higher, through a pass before our descent into Pasto in the darkness of early evening, fifteen hours after leaving Medellín. By now we were both tired and working with slow brains. The next hour was a complete debacle, trying to find a hotel (seriously Pasto, why are there no hotels on the main highway that runs through town?), sitting in ridiculous traffic, and getting a bit lost. Finally, we found a main street with a couple hotels on it, and stayed in the first one we stopped at. After grabbing a bite to eat and some water from down the street, we were ready to crash. The bed was ludicrously comfortable and covered by a mountain of warm blankets — Pasto gets pretty chilly at night. You know those nights where you put your head down, fall asleep immediately, and seemingly a split-second later wake up and it is morning? This was one of those nights. I’m pretty sure I would have slept through a bomb or an earthquake.
On Day Two we were up at 4:55AM and out the door at 5:30, which unfortunately meant we missed the hotel breakfast. Our hope for the day was to make it to Riobamba, Ecuador, which would leave us with only four or so hours the next day. We had spied a tienda the night before with a huge “24 Horas” sign and stopped by to pick up some coffee or a Coke (I’m a monster in the morning). The lights were off and the door was padlocked. Really? An hour later we passed through a small mountain town that was just waking up. Several small shops lined the entrance to town and one of them appeared to be making a giant pot of coffee. Cue the brakes! After getting seriously price-gouged ($2 for what should probably have cost $0.50, but hey what can ya do) we set off again barreling toward the Colombian border town of Ipiales. Just short of town and a few miles off the highway is a famous cathedral called Las Lajas that is built into a ravine (more on this in a later post). At about 7:30AM we pulled into the parking lot in misty rain, and walked down into the gorge to check it out. An hour later we were lost in Ipiales, trying to find the way to the border itself. After a couple stops asking for directions we were back on course. The Colombia-Ecuador border crossing is the smoothest we have encountered since US-Canada. Friendly, smiling people, an efficient order of operations, and no pestering parade of hawkers or helpers, all things we had given up on even remotely hoping for through Central America. Before long we were spit out into Ecuador and making tracks. We stopped in the border town of Tulcán for Chinese food, checking out gas prices while we waited (set by the government at $1.48 per gallon countrywide). Through the afternoon we climbed in altitude, crossing amazing mountains and lush valleys, all inhabited by a significant number of locals in traditional garb.
Our directions had originally tried to take us through Quito, but knowing what we do about drive times through population centers, Brianna found us an alternate route that skipped the city entirely. There we were, just cruising along minding our own business when OH MY GAWD IT’S THE EQUATOR. Cue the brakes! We pulled off to a small parking lot, not entirely sure where the actual line was. First we found a tree that claimed to be nurtured by the peace and friendship of both hemispheres. Then, perhaps another hundred feet south, was a monument and a small stone plaza with a row of red bricks running down the middle of it. A group had gotten off a bus and was gathered around some sort of pedestal. While we waited for them to move so we could see what they were so excited about we joined hands, toed the equator, and hopped across. Hooray! A few moments later we realized the group was trying to balance an egg on the pedestal. Apparently you are supposed to be able to easily balance an egg on its end at the equator, and they were one by one giving it a go. Eventually, the ringleader called Brianna over to take a shot. Aaaaaaaannnnnnnndddddddd she nailed it. Everyone clapped and cheered and was genuinely happy. What a blast. Ten minutes or so after we stopped we were off again.
After another stunning section of drive through a highland plateau surrounded by mountains and volcanic cones, a snow-capped peak appeared from behind the clouds. One of the highest active volcanoes in the world, Cotapaxi, was staring us in the face. As it moved from directly in front of us to the left-hand side and eventually fading behind us it was hard to not keep looking over my shoulder to catch another glimpse of its majesty. The next highlight came at the town of Salcedo, as the sun was beginning to set. Salcedo is apparently famous for a particular kind of ice cream. Really, when are we going to be back in Salcedo, Ecuador? We felt compelled to try some and stopped off at one of the dozens of ice cream shops lining the road through town. Their ice cream is very cold and fairly hard, served on a wooden stick. Nom nom nom. After a brief incident in which the last bites of my treat fell apart and I tried to throw a bite out Brianna’s window, but missed slightly and threw it directly into the glass, we were moving again and in Riobamba looking for a hotel ninety minutes later. After the previous night’s debacle trying to find a hotel, we just went with the first one we found on the highway into town. It turned out to be quite nice, with hot water, secure parking, and breakfast included. We didn’t even realize until we’d been in our room for some time that we had a balcony overlooking the town. It also turned out there was a quinceañera in the banquet room downstairs. Everyone was dressed to the nines and having a great time. We were the objects of great interest to a handful of the children; the contrast between them all done up perfectly surrounding the two of us looking like we’d been traveling for fifteen hours must have been a sight. At one point they cornered Brianna in the parking lot and asked her question after question about us while I watched silently from our balcony. Finally she shed them, came upstairs, and much like the night before I might have been fast asleep before my head even hit the pillow.
Day Three was uneventful and calm. Breakfast in the hotel was eggs, toast, butter, jam, a mora licuado, and coffee. The drive was a short one by our standards, four and half hours of driving through foggy mountains and small villages lined with residents largely in traditional dress. We found our place in Cuenca pretty easily, and someone was waiting in the street to let us in. After the grand tour (of our one-room apartment) I had accessed the WiFi and was watching the Chiefs by 12:40. We can only hope that next month goes quite as swimmingly.
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Seeing Cotopaxi was one of my highlights of my time in Ecuador… were the guenacos out in full force? I think that drive has to be one of the prettiest ones I’ve been on. I later learned that because it’s so close to the equator, it measures as the world’s highest mountain, but then again, you likely already know that! Many fond memories of that area… I also remember the drive getting pretty harried and was in a car with a driver who had no fear… Speed limits, caution, defensive driving… all merely suggestions…
Don’t know if Quito is on your travel list, but it’s a big city… there are charming areas, but again… a big city… I wasn’t all that enamored with it…
Keep posting! I’m enjoying South America vicariously through you two! Laurie
Didn’t see any guanacos, but then again we only saw her from the highway. Indeed a beautiful drive the whole way through. We swung around Quito in order to miss big city traffic, and I doubt we’ll be headed back that way. Cuenca seems to have enough to keep us busy anyway!
Nice job, Ian. I love to get my cup of coffee and sit down to read your latest blog in the morning. What a trip you must have had. I’m feeling old, as Gary and I drove to Topeka yesterday (50 miles) and back home at the end of the day, and were worn out.
The countryside looks beautiful down there. So nice you had good scenery. Loved the story about the egg. You took good pictures too.
Thanks again for the updates and you kids be careful. Love, Judy
As always thanks for reading. Our main motivations for writing are so that people we care about can see what we are doing.
If you missed it the first time through, be sure to check out the little girl’s face looking at Brianna in the picture where everyone is clapping about the egg. She was not quite sure what to think!
Great site. Found it by accident, looking into places to eat in Panama. The wife and I were in Ecuador in 8/2012. We are going to Panama in January. Was there last year, also. Liked your restaurant list. Went to a few of them last year. Quick question. How often do you get lost driving? Do you have a world wide GPS? I drove from Quito to the coast and back. on the way, following the coast, No Problemo! on the way back…what a nightmare! Got lost in Portoviejo, and got a cabbie(and wife & daughter) to be my passenger(s) all the way back to Quito! I love the Ecuadorians!
It is wonderful…what you are doing! Bless you in your travels, and keep up with the blog!
Thanks for reading!
We have a GPS, but didn’t bother to buy Central or South America maps for it. The only time we pull it out is when we want to check our elevation or direction for some reason. They are available, but we can’t vouch for how accurate they are. For each leg of our travels, Brianna pulls detailed directions (and screenshots) from Google Maps, and we just pull the computer out and check them as we need to. Signage isn’t necessarily great in a lot of places, so we usually end up checking quite often. We’ve made a few wrong turns here and there, but for the most part are able to figure it out on the fly.
I definitely agree that Ecuador and Ecuadorians were most pleasant. Happy travels!